Archive for the ‘Occupy the Marxist Academy’ Category

Clever Monkey versus the Accelerationists (2)

May 9, 2013 1 comment


Part Two: (Nick) Land, Capital and Labor (Theory)

Clever Monkey’s argument against the accelerationists seems to rest on a precise formulaic incantation repeated over and over: the only accelerationism possible is Nick Land’s accelerationism. Thus accelerationism itself is merely a virulent subform of neoliberalist ideology that advocates commodification of all human relations. Which is to say all talk of accelerationism must lead us to embrace anarcho-capitalism, the Thought of Murray Rothbard, and the good folks at the Mises Institute.

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Clever Monkey versus the Accelerationists (1)

May 8, 2013 3 comments


Part One: The Grammar of Left Fascism

Twice in the past couple of weeks I Have been accused of being infected with an ideology known as accelerationism. To be honest, I had no idea what accelerationism was and never heard of it until the accusation was made. Nevertheless, I do accept the argument that ignorance of an ideology is no proof of innocence — at least insofar as people will make the accusation based on their criteria, not mine.

It turns out accelerationism is the idea that capitalist development can be sped up and the entire epoch brought to a close more rapidly than it would otherwise by pursuing measures designed to the end. Intrigued by this idea, I spent a few days trying to understand the concept, poring over the criticisms of those who oppose it, and thinking about the relation of this ideology to anything remotely suggested by labor theory.

What follows is my first take on the notion of accelerationism through the argument of one of its fiercest critics, Benjamin Noys, an editor at the venal academic paywall, Historical Materialism.

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Change the World Without Taking Power: A decade later John Holloway’s challenge still unmet (Final)

March 8, 2013 1 comment


Part 4: History as a continuous process

One of the real difficulties Holloway’s thesis on the crisis of capitalism poses to a critical analysis is that his very incisive critique of the failings of post-war Marxism is buried under his own terribly flawed grasp of labor theory. For instance, Holloway rightly criticizes the dominant Marxist view of capitalist crises as a potential trigger for a political revolution:

The orthodox understanding of crisis is to see crisis as an expression of the objective contradictions of capitalism: we are not alone because the objective contradictions are on our side, because the forces of production are on our side, because history is on our side. In this view, our struggle finds its support in the objective development of the contradictions of the capitalist economy. A crisis precipitated by these contradictions opens a door of opportunity for struggle, an opportunity to turn economic crisis into social crisis and a basis for the revolutionary seizure of power. The problem with this approach is that it tends to deify the economy (or history or the forces of production), to create a force outside human agency that will be our saviour. Moreover, this idea of the crisis as the expression of the objective contradictions of capitalism is the complement of a conception that sees revolution as the seizure of power instead of seeing in both crisis and revolution a disintegration of the relations of power.

The core of Holloways argument here is correct: post-war Marxists still expect the capitalist crisis to trigger a seizure of state power by the working class. This seizure of state power will then lay the basis for the construction of a communist society by the working class — a wholly fantastic delusion, with little realistic basis whatsoever in labor theory. However, Holloway then replaces this silly erroneous view with his own even more silly erroneous take on labor theory and crises:

The other way of understanding the ‘we are not alone’ is to see crisis as the expression of the strength of our opposition to capital. There are no ‘objective contradictions’: we and we alone are the contradiction of capitalism. History is not the history of the development of the laws of capitalist development but the history of class struggle (that is, the struggle to classify and against being classified). There are no gods of any sort, neither money nor capital, nor forces of production, nor history: we are the only creators, we are the only possible saviours, we are the only guilty ones. Crisis, then, is not to be understood as an opportunity presented to us by the objective development of the contradictions of capitalism but as the expression of our own strength, and this makes it possible to conceive of revolution not as the seizure of power but as the development of the anti-power which already exists as the substance of crisis.

To overcome the post-war Marxist model of capitalism as an objective, autonomist process that continues (only interrupted by the occasional crisis) until it is superseded by an outside force (the proletarian revolution) Holloway argues not that capitalism’s demise is premised on the process of accumulation itself (rather than a political revolution) but that there is no objective process! In contrast to post-war Marxism, Holloway denies there is an objective process underway in the capitalist mode of production, and he doubles down on this stupidity by agreeing with post-war Marxism that there are no forces at work within capitalism that must lead inevitably to its collapse.

In place of post-war Marxism’s assumption that the political revolution will be triggered by a capitalist crisis, Holloway imports the class struggle into capital and proposes, “we and we alone are the contradiction of capitalism”, “we are the crisis of capitalism”. The glaring defect of Holloway’s attempt to resolve the theoretical impasse of post-war Marxism model of social revolution can best be demonstrated by a single chart (below).

Labor Disputes involving 1000 or more workers 1970s-Present (United States)

Labor Disputes involving 1000 or more workers 1970s-present (United States)

The chart is from ThinkProgress, and the writer, Pat Garofalo, states:

“According to an analysis of Current Population Survey data by Matt Bruenig, the number of workers exercising their right to strike has plummeted since the 1970s:

Forty years ago, ‘an average of 289 major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers occurred annually in the United States. By the 1990s, that had fallen to about 35 per year. And in 2009, there were no more than five.’ Declining unionization certainly plays a role in this drop, but as Chris Rhomberg, associate professor of sociology at Fordham University, wrote, so too does labor law that gives employers all the advantages. ‘We have essentially gone back to a pre-New Deal era of workplace governance,’ he wrote.”

If the statement, “we are the crisis of capitalism” is taken to mean the workers’ class struggle produces capitalist crises, there is in fact no crisis at all according to the data supplied by the census department. Holloway needs to explain where he finds the “irruption of the insubordination of labour into the very definition of subordination” in this data. Frankly, when Matt Bruenig actually took the time to leave his progressive friends on Fantasy Island and do the research all he found was the very real and material subordination of the working class to the rule of the bourgeoisie — a class no longer even capable of fighting for its direct economic interests.

The so-called Great Moderation of the 1980s and 1990s was not just, nor even primarily, period of moderating inflation, but a cessation of the class struggle altogether. The collapse of the class struggle experienced over the last three decades, as shown empirically by Bruenig’s data, suggests that insofar as the demise of capitalism results from a subjective cause, it is not likely to happen. When Holloway argues against the classical view of capital as an objective process, he is actually arguing against the idea that the material requirements of the working class (the law of value) are an objective reality that must impose itself on the operation of the capitalist mode of production despite what takes place in the streets. He is arguing these material requirements can only make themselves felt through the class conscious (political) activity of the class. Without this political activity, therefore, a crisis of capitalism cannot be expressed. It becomes inexplicable then why the period of lowest rate of labor discontent is also the period of an incredible financial catastrophe and the collapse of fascist state management of capitalism.

Although the working class has followed the orders of capital to “‘Kneel, kneel, kneel!'”, the result is the collapse of the financial system along with the fascist state economic policy mechanism. The empirical data suggest the crisis that erupted in 2007-2008 resulted from an objective process that is in no way dependent on the political struggle of the working class — i.e., in no way dependent on the class struggle between wage labor and capital.

Wage laborers and labor

As I stated in the previous part of this series, what makes Holloway’s argument worth the time it takes to extract it from his flawed and wholly indefensible presentation of labor theory is that he does not simply import the class struggle into the definition of capital, and redefine the law of value as the “irruption of the insubordination of labour into the very definition of subordination” — both of which ideas are preposterous — Holloway inverts the class struggle so that it is now redefined not as a struggle of wage labor against capital, but as the struggle of wage labor against labor itself.

This inversion might seem like a theoretical ploy to overcome the impasse post-war Marxism encounters because it assumes capitalism will just endlessly loop through crisis after crisis until it is put out of its misery by a proletarian revolution — and to a large extent it is just this. But the real usefulness of Holloway’s theoretical gymnastics is that he can then re-conceive the social revolution in an entirely new way — as an anti-class struggle, a struggle that is both anti-political and anti-economic.

To say this another way, let’s suppose all the material requirements of communism already exist within the existing world market, what would we expect to see? As capitalism drew closer to its ultimate demise, and the working class approached its “final constitution” (Marx’s words to Bakunin), all the fetish forms of bourgeois society — politics, classes, democracy, the nation state, money, commodity, and capital itself — would appear to the working class precisely as that: meaningless fetishes lacking any substance whatsoever — as misery of a growing mass of unemployed workers, rampant speculation produced by a growing mass of superfluous capital, cronyism, empty political promises, accumulating debt, money that depreciates in your wallet, wages whose purchasing power declines from one day to the next and, most of all, labor that produces nothing of any value whatsoever. This would be expressed in a conscious antipathy not just toward this or that facet of present society, but a revulsion with social relations generally, and with the political relation founded on these social relations — a scream.

Holloway is, in effect, not describing an increasingly class conscious working class, but a mass of individuals bearing an emergent directly communist consciousness: a consciousness described in the German Ideology as requiring certain definite material preconditions and which emanates, not from bourgeois relations of production, but directly from the working class itself:

“In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class.”

Proletarians and Communist consciousness

By inverting the class struggle and showing that this struggle must become a struggle not against capital, but against labor itself, Holloway maintains the working class cannot fight as a class, it can only fight against being a class. Essential to understanding why this is true we have to understand that every time the working class tries to fight as a class politically or economically, it is going to get its ass kicked as a class — it is going to lose. Over time, the response to this constant ass-kicking at the hands of the bourgeois class, naturally enough, is that the class stops fighting as a class, because it has more sense than fucking Marxists. Why would you continue to beat your head bloody against the same fucking wall time and again when you know you are going to lose?

By arguing the class struggle is the core of capital, Holloway does not throw light on capital as the penetration of insubordination into subordination as he believes; rather he shows why the absolute subordination of the working class must penetrate class (political) relations generally. This conclusion is certainly chilling, but simultaneously relieves us of the notions associated with post-war Marxism that some coming economic crisis will trigger a political revolution of the working class — a political confrontation between the classes that leads to socialism. Once we grasp this fact, the data of the last four decades makes sense; we now need not follow the failed post-war Marxist formula that Holloway so effectively critiques.

In addition to decades of empirical evidence the post-war Marxist formula does not work, we now have a theoretical proof derived not just from an argument against it, but an argument that also tries to introduce class struggle into the very definition of capitalist relations. Holloway carries the post-war Marxist argument to its extreme, most absurd, limits by trying to locate the class conflict at the core of capital. But the class struggle is, first and foremost, a political struggle, a struggle between wage labor and capital, bourgeois and proletarians.  Holloway suggests there is no distinction to be made between political and economic relations: therefore, the class struggle must rest on the absolute subordination of the proletarians and it must reflect this subordination.

But this is only the beginning: Holloway’s argument also suggests there is no distinction to be made between capital and labor, reform and revolution, the old society and the new one, the revolution and everyday life, leaders and the masses, what exists and what is denied. To overcome these separations, Holloway argues, “actions must point-beyond in some way, assert alternative ways of doing:”

“The problem of struggle is to move on to a different dimension from capital, not to engage with capital on capital’s own terms, but to move forward in modes in [which] capital cannot even exist: to break identity, break the homogenisation of time. “

Holloway says this means the entire concept of revolution has to be rethought.

Reconceiving social emancipation

In chapter 11 — the final chapter of his book — Holloway must show how we get from a social process where the outcome is not determined by an objective process, to one that intensifies the disintegration of capitalism. Holloway thinks he has already pointed to a solution by redefining the social process “as being itself class struggle”. The crisis is the point at which “the mutual repulsion of capital and anti-labour (humanity) obliges capital to restructure its command or lose control.” The resolution of the crisis can either come through a restructuring of capital’s subordination of labor or a struggle to intensify the crisis.

On one side of this conflict is capital, trying to emancipate itself from labor, to literally make money from money itself through a growing mass of fictitious capital and insane speculative activity. On the other side is labor (or “anti-labor”, or “humanity” — or “what-the-fuck-ever”) whose drive is the refusal of dominance, the scream. Capital has to subordinate the working class once again to the production of surplus value, and this in turn depends on the fact the workers are propertyless. The enclosures of primitive accumulation is extended in entirely new areas (intellectual property), and in new regions (globalization)

Holloway argues the flight of labor (or “anti-labor”, or “humanity”, or “what-the-fuck-ever”) is hopeless until it becomes more than flight from capital, it must become “a reaffirmation of doing, an emancipation of power-to.” Okay, so how do we reaffirm our doing? One would think after ten chapters of criticism of Marxism Holloway would have some new ideas. One would be wrong, however. In the end all Holloway can come up with is this:

“But the recuperation of power-to or the reaffirmation of doing is still limited by capital’s monopoly of the means of doing. The means of doing must be re-appropriated.”

In English, Holloway is stating the proletarians must seize the means of production — put an end to property — that they must bring the forces of production under their control. It seems like pretty standard Marxist boilerplate — and it is — until Holloway says we must rethink this concept as well, a rethinking he then begins in what at first appears to be random thread of mindless gibberish:

“The problem is not that the means of production are the property of capitalists; or rather, to say that the means of production are the property of the capitalists is merely a euphemism which conceals the fact that capital actively breaks our doing every day, takes our done from us, breaks the social flow of doing which is the pre-condition of our doing. Our struggle, then, is not the struggle to make ours the property of the means of production, but to dissolve both property and means of production: to recover or, better, create the conscious and confident sociality of the flow of doing. Capital rules by fetishising, by alienating the done from the doing and the doer and saying ‘this done is a thing and it is mine’. Expropriating the expropriator cannot then be seen as a re-seizure of a thing, but rather as the dissolution of the thing-ness of the done, its (re)integration into the social flow of doing.”

The same is true of our conception of revolution itself: Holloway argues we must get rid of the idea that the social revolution is a means to an end:

“The orthodox Marxist tradition, most clearly the Leninist tradition, conceives of revolution instrumentally, as a means to an end. … Instrumentalism means engaging with capital on capital’s own terms, accepting that our own world can come into being only after the revolution. But capital’s terms are not simply a given, they are an active process of separating. It is absurd, for example, to think that the struggle against the separating of doing can lie through the state, since the very existence of the state as a form of social relations is an active separating of doing. To struggle through the state is to become involved in the active process of defeating yourself.”

Finally, Holloway argues we must rethink what capitalism and communism are all about:

“Capital is the denial of the social flow of doing, communism is the social movement of doing against its own denial. Under capitalism, doing exists in the mode of being denied. Doing exists as things done, as established forms of social relations, as capital, money, state, the nightmarish perversions of past doing. Dead labour rules over living doing and perverts it into the grotesque form of living labour. This is an explosive contradiction in terms: living implies openness, creativity, while labour implies closure, pre-definition. Communism is the movement of this contradiction, the movement of living against labour. Communism is the movement of that which exists in the mode of being denied.”

Holloway reconsidered

It probably is not too much to say, Holloway has no real idea how these three statements hang together as a roadmap for what must come next. And this is because, despite his attempt to break with post-war Marxism, he remains entirely under the thrall of its assumption of a political revolution. Since he has already rejected the idea of capitalism as an objective process whose operation is determined by the law of value, and replaced this objective process with the class struggle, Holloway is at a loss to explain the significance of his insights — he ends the book at the same impasse that can be found in any orthodox post-war Marxist treatment:

“How then do we change the world without taking power? At the end of the book, as at the beginning, we do not know. The Leninists know, or used to know. We do not. Revolutionary change is more desperately urgent than ever, but we do not know any more what revolution means. Asked, we tend to cough and splutter and try to change the subject. In part, our not-knowing is the not-knowing of those who are historically lost: the knowing of the revolutionaries of the last century has been defeated. But it is more than that: our not-knowing is also the not knowing of those who understand that not-knowing is part of the revolutionary process. We have lost all certainty, but the openness of uncertainty is central to revolution. ‘Asking we walk’, say the zapatistas. We ask not only because we do not know the way (we do not), but also because asking the way is part of the revolutionary process itself.”

If the revolution is not the means to an end, it must be the end itself, a permanent feature of society. This leads us back to Holloways concept of communism as “the movement of that which exists in the mode of being denied.” This is an interesting idea, since it suggests communism is already present within existing society as labor theory indicates. Communism, therefore, is not something constructed “after the revolution”, but the actual mode of present society that is denied by capital.

The instrumentalism of post-war Marxism fails precisely because it does not recognize the existence of an already existing communism within present society. This essential blindness of post-war Marxism can be seen when Andrew Kliman stupidly criticized David Graeber for suggesting Occupy act as if the future society already existed. I wrote at the time: “Professor Kliman prefers to “foreshadow” the non-existent, and derides Graeber for asserting the thing foreshadowed in action already exists in embryo.” As a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist, Graeber was actually the real Marxist in the debate, since he acted as if (in Marx’s and Engels’ own words) the premises of communism are already in existence.

If, following Holloway, we act as if communism is already the present mode of society whose existence is being denied by capitalist relations, labor must be the active forms of this denial. Labor itself is activity that denies the existence of an already existing communism. This suggests our focus must be on labor itself, not the state, on putting an end to the active denial of communism. All of this shit is already present in Holloway’s argument. Why it never emerges in his book is completely fucking beyond me.

I think the core of Holloway’s critical argument then can be boiled down to three points:

  1. “To think in terms of property is, however, still to pose the problem in fetishised terms”;
  2. “Expropriating the expropriator cannot then be seen as a re-seizure of a thing, but rather as the dissolution of the thing-ness of the done, its (re)integration into the social flow of doing”; and,
  3. “What is important is the knitting or re-knitting or patch-working of the sociality of doing and the creation of social forms of articulating that doing.”

It is obvious the sociality of doing can only be established by the abolition of wage labor. Wage labor is precisely what alienates the directly social activity of the producers from them and establishes this social activity as a thing independent of them. And putting an end to wage labor puts and end both to the “thingness” of productive activity (commodity production) and the fetish of property (labor power). Everything, in other words, points toward the abolition of wage labor itself, to the end of the working class as a class. By making consumption dependent on wage labor, the actual abundance already present in society appears as scarcity. This scarcity is wholly an artifact of the limited quantity of dollars in your wallet; it is not real.

This is demonstrated by the growing unemployment, an ever increasing mass of speculative capital, and, above all, an ever increasing mass of debt being accumulated in every country at present. Debt cannot buy what doesn’t exist — it presupposes massive quantity of material abundance. In short the formula implied by debt is this: massive debt = massive abundance. The dependence of so-called “economic growth” on the constant accumulation of debt, in other words, implies that all the conditions for communism already exist, save one: abolition of wage labor.

The material conditions for a direct supercession of capitalism by communism already exists empirically in the form of growing unemployment, rampant speculative capital and an ever accumulating pile of public and private debt. The question for us is this: will this communism be imposed on society in a final and complete collapse capitalist relation, bringing capitalist production to a standstill and triggering a catastrophe. Or, will it be realized through the determined fight to progressively reduce hours of labor?

We don’t really have any other choices.

Change the World Without Taking Power: A decade later John Holloway’s challenge still unmet (2)

February 22, 2013 2 comments


Part 2: Throwing Marx and Engels under the bus

In the first part of this series, I noted that one of the peculiar difficulties of Holloway encounters in his main thesis is that almost all of the criticisms he directs at post-war Marxism seem to equally apply to Marx’s and Engels’ own advice to the working class to fight for and within bourgeois democracy. In his attempt to show why Marxism has failed, Holloway throws Marx and Engels under the bus as well.

What I meant by this is two-fold:

First, the advice directly contradicts Marx’s and Engels’ own outline of the communist movement of society in that this movement is explicitly presented by them as an empirical event, not a political one. In the argument Marx and Engels made in the German Ideology, there is no mention of a political revolution. Moreover, Marx and Engels implicitly argue the proletariat is incapable of political action because it has no class interest to assert against the ruling (bourgeois) class. Without a class interest to assert, the real interests of individuals composing this class cannot have a political expression. Finally, this class is not an alien class within bourgeois society, it is a direct product of bourgeois social relation themselves. Thus, as far as this class  is concerned, the politics of bourgeois society — the clash of property interests — does not exist.

Second, their advice appears to contradict their own analysis of both capital and the state. It is just as true of Marx’s and Engels’ advice as it is of post-war Marxist praxis that each abstract, “the state from the social relations of which it is part.” This is necessarily true given the above. Thus Marx’s and Engels’ advice appears to conceptually cut the state out from the clutter of social relations that surround it and make it stand up with all the appearance of being an autonomous actor, not because labor theory describes it this way, but because it can only appear this way to the proletariat. This is a risk we run any time we go from merely critiquing existing society to actually engaging that society through revolutionary activity: politics necessarily appear as something distinct from capitalist relations themselves.

Why didn’t Holloway’s critics defend Engels?

These assumptions form the core of labor theory analysis of capitalism and should come as no surprise to anyone reading Holloway’s book. Which is why I find it really fucking interesting that not a single fucking one of Holloway’s critics raises this objection to his argument. If Holloway’s criticism regarding post-war Marxism is correct, this criticism must also appear to apply to Marx and Engels since they advise the working class to fight for and within bourgeois democracy — a fetish form. In fact, Holloway makes this very charge against Engels directly and against Marx more or less indirectly. In chapter 7 of his book, Holloway ascribes this defect to Engels in particular and labor theory in general:

“For Marx, science is negative. The truth of science is the negation of the untruth of false appearances. In the post-Marx Marxist tradition, however, the concept of science is turned from a negative into a positive concept. The category of fetishism, so central for Marx, is almost entirely forgotten by the mainstream Marxist tradition. From being the struggle against the untruth of fetishism, science comes to be understood as knowledge of reality. With the positivisation of science, power-over penetrates into revolutionary theory and undermines it far more effectively than any government undercover agents infiltrating a revolutionary organisation.”

Holloway is basically stating that after the death of Marx, Engels hijacked the revolution and crippled it. He states further that Engels’ crime was aided and abetted by instance of inconsistency within Marx’s own works. Although his argument is pretty much idiotic, it does contain an element of truth as I explained above. Marx’s and Engels’ advice does contradict their fundamental assumptions found in the German Ideology. The assumption in the German Ideology are that the communist movement of society results from an empirical event. Much of the work Marx and Engels actually engaged in after the German Ideology focused on a non-empirical, political, event. The assumption in the German Ideology was that the proletariat was incapable of political action because it lacked a class interest. Much of the work Marx and Engels pursued after the German Ideology was concerned with the spread of a theoretical understanding of society to fill in for this lack of a class interest. In other words, much of Marx’s and Engels’ life work stood in direct contradiction to the fundamental assumptions of the German Ideology.

So what of it?

Holloway’s objection to this rests on the argument that this effort, which composed Marx’s and Engels’ lifelong pursuit, turned labor theory from a negative critique of existing society into a positive one that reinforced a false consciousness of capitalist stability. He also blames it for setting in motion the gradual emergence of a view that turned theory into a necessary precondition for practical critical revolutionary activity. As a result of the mistakes of Marx and Engels, we end up with gulags and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. (This, of course, is a needlessly provocative way of putting Holloway’s argument, but I can’t help myself. I am an asshole and Holloway ends up doing to Marx and Engels exactly what the bourgeois apologists do: blaming them for the failures of 20th century Marxism.)

Is a political revolution necessary?

What Holloway is really stating is this: Capitalism will not collapse by anything other than a political revolution. Since the working class has no class interest it must rely on comprehension of its objective situation (theory) to assert itself in a political form. Since capitalism will not collapse on its own, it requires this political form — a political revolution. The ability of the working class to bring about an end to capitalism would seem to rest on the consciousness of the proletariat.

Holloway has essentially outlined the post-war Marxist argument in its present form. And he tries to show why this post-war Marxist argument is fundamentally flawed and counterproductive. However, Holloway assumes, like post-war Marxists generally, that capitalism can fall by no other means than a political revolution. He must therefore assume a condition that fundamentally violates labor theory: the working class has a political (class) consciousness. On the assumption that the working class has this consciousness, the attempt by a vanguard to impose its leadership on the working class is actually a suppression of the working class’ own spontaneous class consciousness and therefore counterproductive.

The argument Holloway develops here makes perfect sense, except, as I explained, the working class has no class consciousness. It is not a political class and is incapable of acting politically, i.e., as a class. Marx and Engels are very clear about this in the German Ideology: It is as individuals that these individuals act. All other classes in society act as a class, but not the working class — they act as individuals and in conscious association. If their association is not conscious, they cannot act together. The precondition, therefore, for acting together is their conscious apprehension of that necessity and of their objective position in society.

So Holloway must run into a brick wall at this point in his argument because there is no way he can get around the need for a vanguard so long as he assumes capitalism will not fall on its own. This vanguard, it should be noted, does not have to exist in the form of a separate organization: it can simply be other workers who have a more advanced theoretical understanding of the long view of things. Marx and Engels were extremely hostile to communists setting themselves up in separate organizations precisely because of what Holloway notes is the common practice of sects like the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. These people, Marx wrote, want to subordinate the workers’ own movement to their sectarian interests. So Marx and Engels were fully aware, based on one irritating experience after another, of the dangers posed by sects. This is just another example of how the criticism Holloway directs at post-war Marxism appears applicable to Marx and Engels themselves.

This is a lot of shit to blame on Marx and Engels and should cause us to ask why they knowingly placed Marxists on the path that ultimately leads to Stalin and the other failed attempts of the 20th century. And they do it knowing the risks, because they clearly did not believe the communist movement of society was a political movement. They said it right out of their fucking mouths:

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

The communist movement of society is an empirical event that must already have in place certain definite material preconditions, not one of of these conditions include the theoretical consciousness of the working class.

So if this is true, why do Marx and Engels devote their lives to the notion of a political revolution? Holloway never addresses this question because he only senses vaguely that theory is unnecessary in the social revolution. He can get no further than the idea that a theoretical vanguard is unnecessary — that theory cannot be a precondition for emancipation. But since in his argument capitalism only falls because of a political revolution, he must somehow import the class struggle into the capitalist relationship. Rather than the core of the capitalist relation being the absolute subservience of labor to capital, Holloway wants to substitute “class struggle”. Says Holloway,

“The separation of class struggle from the laws of motion of capitalism leads to a separation between revolution and the reproduction of capitalist society.”

The class struggle does not bring about the demise of capitalism

What Holloway is doing here is trying to combine two separate and distinct things into one — the reproduction of capital and the class struggle. However there cannot be a class struggle internal to capital, because the working class is a product of bourgeois relations of production and has no interest to assert against bourgeois rule. Since there is no class struggle in Marx’s and Engels’ communist movement of society, the reproduction of capitalist relations of production must itself account for the demise of capital, not the class struggle — this is a point I will return to later.

Instead of attacking the notion of an endlessly reproducing capitalism, Holloway accepts this notion and tries to fix the problem by inserting class struggle into the capitalist relation. It is a very good attempt on his part, because it at least cuts out the necessity for all these useless fucking sects running around claiming to ‘represent the interest of the working class’. Social emancipation is reconceived at least so far as it no longer includes the necessity of annoying vanguardist groupuscles. The effort and energy of young activists is no longer necessarily subordinated to motherfuckers who tell them to get on their knees and orally express their submission to the authority of the central committee.

But it still does not address the main question: Why the fuck did Marx and Engels, knowing the class struggle would not bring down capitalism, devote their lives to advancing this class struggle? The reason, I think, is simple: the capital relation is itself a revolutionary relation involving two (not one, as is generally assumed) revolutionary classes. The level of antagonism between the two classes influences the revolutionary antagonism of the relation against existing relations. I think autonomism captures this idea in the discussion of capital’s attempt to escape labor. Which of the two is determinant — the class struggle or the relation itself — is determined not by the visibility of one versus the other. Clearly the class struggle is the more visible manifestation of the two.

What is important to note is that no matter how often the class struggle ends in the defeat of the working class, the result is always the same: the proletariat increases in mass, and the number of capitalists is reduced. In other words, the more the proletariat struggles against capitalist oppression and exploitation, the more its numbers increase and the wider this relation spreads within the world market — no matter how the conflict ends. The class struggle can accelerate the reproduction of the capitalist relation and thus accelerate the very forces that drive capitalism toward its own demise.

The mediating role of the class struggle

The class struggle no more brings down capitalism than does the falling rate of profit, but, like the latter, it drives capitalism toward its demise. The rising organic composition of capital is mediated not just by competition between capitalists but also by competition between the capitalist class as a whole and the working class. And this latter class struggle is determined by the degree of competition within the class of proletarians. The defect of Holloway’s book is that he mentions competition between capitals but never once mentions competition among the working class. Since the working class has no ‘native’ class consciousness and only act as individuals, it can only acquire an understanding of the necessity for union as a matter of its conscious self-development. And since these individuals act only as individuals (not as a class) they must each acquire this consciousness. Their association is, therefore, necessarily both conscious and freely entered into.

It cannot be otherwise — no party or sect can realize this necessity on their behalf and impose it on them. This, as can be imagined, is very difficult and cannot happen apart from the real life experiences of each individual proletarian. Holloway is looking for a relationship between objective and subjective forces in labor theory but completely ignores the relation between the class struggle, which can only involve a conscious apprehension by the working class of its own position in society, and the capitalist relation itself. He wants to import this class struggle as a category into the capitalist relation itself, because he assumes, along with post-war Marxism, that it is the class struggle (not labor’s complete subordination to capital) that brings about the demise of capital. He is, therefore, hostile to the idea essential to labor theory that the capitalist relation itself involves the absolute subordination of labor to capital.

I personally think the attempt by Holloway is impressive since he is trying to escape the false idea that the revolution depends on the theoretical development of the working class and, therefore, on a vanguard party. Within the limits of 20th century Marxism some way has to be found to bridge the gap between what is assumed to be an autonomous endlessly self-reproducing capitalist relation and the class struggle of the working class — the object and the subject. Holloway tries to resolve this by assuming the class struggle is internal to the capitalist relation.

The problem with this solution, however, presents itself immediately when the question turns from laying out his theoretical proposition to actually employing this proposition as a means of telling us what comes next. Theory, Marxists hold, is a guide to action, but, as we shall see next, Holloway’s theory provides no guide at all, because he is looking in wrong place for the cause of capitalism’s demise.

Change the World Without Taking Power: A decade later John Holloway’s challenge still unmet

February 20, 2013 1 comment

«Kapitalismus aufbrechen!»

A decades ago John Holloway shook up the Marxist academy with the publication of his book, Change The World Without Taking Power”. Holloway’s argument was that the Marxist preoccupation with taking power was not only obsolete, it was counterproductive, serving only to divert energy and time to a quixotic effort that leaves Marxists banging their heads bloody against the brick wall of capitalist relations of production. Said Holloway:

The world cannot be changed through the state. Both theoretical reflection and a whole century of bad experience tell us so. ‘We told you so’, say the satisfied ones, ‘We said so all along. We said it was absurd. We told you that you couldn’t go against human nature. Give up the dream, give up!’

A decade after it was published, I think it an examination is called for, the purpose of which is to see how Holloway’s critique of post-war Marxism stands up to time.

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Panitch on the lack of ambition and self-confidence of the Left

January 24, 2013 3 comments

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 2011, Leo Panitch wrote a piece, The Left’s Crisis, examining the Left’s response to the present crisis. He noted the Left’s response could be broken into two types: “irresponsible” and “fundamentally misleading”. In the irresponsible group, he puts those who called on Washington to let the banks fail, which, he asserted, gave no thought to the consequences of such an event. In the fundamentally misleading group he put those who called for tighter regulation of banks, which he asserted are already the most regulated in the world market.

The Left’s “lack of ambition” in the crisis, says Panitch, was indicated by the fact that there were far more calls for salary limits on top mamagers of Wall Street investment firms, than calls for turning the banks into public utilities. This was true, Panitch notes, despite the fact that turning banks into publicly owned utilities is a long-standing communist measure dating back to the Communist Manifesto. The fact that even some bourgeois writers were calling for just such a measure while the Left was not shows its lack of ambition and self-confidence.

Panitch states, fundamental change can only happen through a class struggle that would involve a massive transformation of the state itself. Getting reforms like converting banks into utilities is not going to happen by bringing a bunch of lawyers into a room. Even something as mundane as better regulation cannot be won without a mobilization of the working class:

“[We] ought to be trying to educate people on how capitalist finance really works, why it doesn’t for them and why what we need instead is a publicly owned banking system that is part of a system of democratic economic planning, in which what’s invested and where it’s invested and how it’s invested is democratically decided.”

The banking nationalization that is now occurring in the wake of the financial crisis by the government all over the world only involved socializing financial losses, while leaving the structures that lead to these losses in place:

“…this really represented “not the nationalisation of the banks, but the privatisation of the Treasury as a new kind of fund manager.”

Panitch argues the most important reason to nationalize the banks is to cripple finance capital and change the balance of forces. Additionally, according to Panitch, the socialist argument for nationalizing the banks would be to put credit to work for socially useful ends. Despite the disastrous collapse of the Soviet Union, socialists can’t avoid the need for planning, says Panitch, and credit is the core of any planned alteration of industry. Controlling credit provides for democratic control of investment. However, Panitch notes, people are not motivated by democratic control of investment, which, even if it does not fall prey to the errors of the Soviet Union, will not deliver benefits for decades.

“People need to be mobilized by immediate demands, as they were by the demands for trade union rights, a reduced workweek, a public educational system a welfare state, etc”

The solution is to combine a long term vision of democratic investment with immediate benefits that sustain it and make it possible. A case for this might be made for a massive public housing program, universal public pensions, free public transit, etc. These efforts would be aimed at decommodifying basic needs as far as this is possible within capitalist society. People like these things, but you very quickly face the problem of where the money for such programs will come from. This question can be addressed by bringing credit under the control of the state.

The Left on defense

The Left, Panitch argues, has been very defensive in its thinking:

“We need to try to see this moment of crisis from the perspective of what openings it could create. The limitations of a purely defensive response to the crisis lie in not taking advantage of the opportunity that the crisis creates. Despite the ‘Another World Is Possible’ rhetoric, the left has been more oriented to attempting to hold on to things than to taking things in a new direction.”

This is the defect of the view that says you can change things without taking power: we are left preventing the state from doing things, but do not advance our goals. You don’t engage on the terrain of the state or transform the structures of the state. While Panitch understand the current streak of anti-statism, he argues, “we need to go beyond protest, or we will be trapped forever in organizing the next demo.”

The state will transfer the crisis down to regional and local levels, and hopes thereby to impose limits on the response to the crisis. We must learn how to link up local struggles and turn them into a struggle for state power, otherwise we will be trapped by local limits.

I don’t think Panitch’s argument can just be dismissed. Unlike a lot of the shit I read, this guy appears to have decades of practical work and an encyclopedic knowledge of organizing history covering many countries. I was just floored by the breadth and depth of his argument here and here for instance. Moreover, there are two things about his argument that I find fascinating. First, he admits his ideas have gone nowhere practically — this admission is very fucking refreshing on the Left. Second, his argument that the Left has no ambition or self-confidence is frighteningly on fucking target.

On the basis of just those two statements alone, this guy deserves everyone’s attention, I think. He has given a lot of thought to the problem and invested a lot of effort figuring out a solution and clearly he cannot be accused of thinking on the margins. Moreover, I don’t think it is enough to say his conceptions of change are fundamentally flawed, since they are evidently no more flawed than any other ideas among, for instance, parties like SYRIZA, etc.

SYRIZA is rushing headlong into a crisis right now for ideas not much different than the ones for which Panitch argues. The only difference here is that the crisis for SYRIZA results from actually winning political power, not by a failure to win it. But failing to win political power and winning it makes all the difference in the world no matter how flawed our conceptions.

See, for instance, the Paris Commune, when the communards were faced with the necessity of breaking the state power, not reforming it. There is no hint of this necessity to be found in the Communist Manifesto — it was imposed on the Communards by the reality of implementing their program. All the measures indicated in the Communist Manifesto program had to take the back seat to the necessity, first of all, to break the state. When Panitch refers to this program — “Marx made – among his list of ten reforms – for the centralization of credit in the hands of the state” — he completely overlooks that these demands were superseded by breaking the state, not simply “transforming the structures of the state”.

Is breaking the state as valid as public banking?

Was this lesson from the Commune valid? By the time of the Great War there were clearly two opinions on this. Some Marxists held the state had to be broken, others argued the existing state did not have to be broken. The Bolsheviks, who argued for the former, upon taking power changed their view and actually proposed to employ the existing state to build socialism. By the end of World War II, this debate over the state was further distorted into whether there had to be a violent revolution or not. So the question hinged, it seems, on whether this state would be “seized” or simply won by “peaceful means” in an election.

In Panitch’s opinion, the distinction is now between “change the world without taking power” and “engaging on the terrain of the state”. But, there is a fallacy in Panitch’s argument regarding the need to engage on the terrain of the state: simply stated society at large is the terrain of the state. By supposedly engaging on the terrain of the state, Panitch clearly means engaging within the machinery of state itself, as distinct from society. Which is to say, Panitch is suggesting we attempt to transform society by means of the state machinery. This is pretty much the gist of what he means when he says,  “a system of democratic economic planning, in which what’s invested and where it’s invested and how it’s invested is democratically decided.”

However, if these decisions are not already being democratically decided, they must be despotically imposed by the state. The leads us to another problem with Panitch’s argument: if the decisions of the democratic state are being despotically imposed on society despite democracy, it seems to me this would be easier to explain this to people than it would to explain, “how capitalist finance really works, why it doesn’t for them and why what we need instead is a publicly owned banking system that is part of a system of democratic economic planning.” It should, in other words, be easier to explain why democracy itself is a farce and must be replaced by an association of producers. This is particularly true since it is widely felt that Washington is just not at all responsive to the control of voters.

It seems Panitch is ready to accept the then innovative ideas of mid-19th century communists when it comes to such standard present day bourgeois practices as a progressive income tax, credit socialization, land use regulation, free education, public roads and infrastructure, etc., but he is not willing to accept the addition of the lesson, hard won at the cost of the lives of many communards, that the state must be broken to this list. I am not sure why this is, and can find no reason for this except that it is the one item not accepted by the fascists. Almost every measure in the Communist Manifesto is standard practice by the fascist states in every country except the replacement of the state itself by association.

A further objection can be made to Panitch’s argument: As he states,

“But you do have to be a Marxist to understand that [reform] is not going to happen by bringing some lawyers into a room and signing a few documents. … fundamental change can only really happen through a massive class struggle, which would involve a massive transformation of the state itself.”

If even a simple reform recommended by bourgeois writers, and proposed by communists 150 years ago, like making banks public utilities, requires a massive class struggle involving a massive transformation of the state, why not simply aim at the outset to replace the state by association — thus ending the false distinction between changing the world without taking power and engaging on the terrain of the state. The only argument for not aiming at the outset to replace the state by association is that simple reforms like public banking is easier than wholesale reorganization of society. Panitch’s argument is that this is not true: even such a modest and self-evident reform of banks, recommended by a bourgeois writer, requires a massive class struggle.

Changing the world without taking power over others

tahrir-square_1166216I think Panitch definitely falls for a phony and entirely meaningless distinction between “changing the world without taking power” and “engaging on the terrain of the state”, i.e., within society itself. Both can be accomplished by changing the world without taking power over others, i.e., by replacing the state by association. If, as Panitch argues, even simple reforms require massive class struggle, the working class cannnot afford to dispense with its own organization. The aim of mobilization cannot be to turn this power over to the state, as was done in Egypt, but to become the new conditions of society.

In Tahrir Square all were equal and no one was able to dictate the views of others, this short-lived association, however, soon gave way to talk of constitutions and ministries. The association that had brought down the Mubarak regime was deemed unfit to manage its own affairs. Although for three decades no political party was able to do what the association did in 18 days, “commonsense” ruled this association too inept to manage society. In other words, “commonsense” decided that the working class should only serve as cannon fodder. The working class should be “mobilized” whenever some faction or another wishes to marginally change the existing state with some piecemeal reform and then rapidly demobilized once success has been secured.

I am not suggesting this is what Panitch is trying to do, but he has to see events like Egypt in this light as well as the danger hidden beneath SYRIZA’s growing popularity and likely victory. If upon winning the coming election, SYRIZA does not immediately begin replacing the state with association it must fail.

T.I.N.A.: There is no alternative to the fascist state?

Panitch’s essay led me to contemplate what he called the lack of ambition and self-confidence of the Left. People have completely accepted T.I.N.A. The Left is now incapable of articulating an alternative that does not go through the existing state. The healthy section of the Left now no longer even tries — it has given up entirely — while the unhealthy section is mired in opportunism.

I think this is a good thing.

Fascism has completely broken the Left down: appropriated its symbols and converted its highest ideals into election Newspeak. Fascism has made it impossible for the Left to formulate its argument in a political form by immediately expropriating every instance.

Just look how Tahrir Square turned into the FSA — T.I.N.A writ large.

Every time the Left looks for a political exit from this crisis it must fall into the lap of fascism — T.I.N.A. Fascism thrives on politics, since it is an entirely political mode of production — the production of surplus value in the form of the state. If the Left are having a problem articulating their aims in a political form is it not just possible “political aims” are the problem? It is not a problem of finding the correct political aim, but of realizing politics itself is a dead end.

For you mainstream Marxists out there, that means there is no longer any possibility of a so-called “minimum program” for the working class. Another way to put it: the first act of the Commune was to break the state. This is no longer possible without breaking capitalism entirely. When the state is the capitalist, the first cannot be separated from the second. Breaking the state was always the “minimum program” of communism — you just forgot this. Everything else proposed to be undertaken in the Communist Manifesto — which is still the only common program adopted by all communists  alike, irrespective of whether they call themselves Marxist or anarchist — depended on immediately breaking the state. It is the development of the capitalist mode of production itself that has altered this and made it impossible to do one without the other. So the task hasn’t changed in 150 years, the implications of breaking the state has: it must immediately lead to breaking capitalism itself.

So let’s assume there is a need for a so-called “minimum program” as proposed by mainstream Marxism. This means a set of measures communists propose must be accomplished by the working class upon assuming power. This is based on some assessment of the current situation and the difficulties the class will face once in power. This fucking minimum program itself rests on the assumption the working class will replace the state with its association. It is not as if replacing the state is a long term goal; it is the precondition of an assumption of power, the form this assumption takes. Before embarking on any sweeping changes to society, in other words, as Marx argued against Bakunin, “the whole thing begins with the self-government of the commune.”

I mean, how much clearer could Marx have been on this, Marxists? Did he mumble? So before you can even articulate a minimum program, you have to explain how the existing state must be replaced by association. In other words, you can’t articulate political aims but aims that are entirely anti-political. You begin with the notion that, in any case, the existing state will be leveled in its entirety and replaced by association — no fucking minimum wage, no fucking social security, no fucking EPA, no fucking defense department — only association. If you can’t get on-board with this — which is ONLY the precondition for a minimum program — stop calling yourself a Marxist, please. Call yourself a progressive, or better yet, a fucking fascist, which you are.

Do we need a state to care for the elderly?

Yes, the environment, the disabled, the elderly, the unemployed etc. have to be cared for — but it is the association that does this! The task is not left to a bunch of elite managers who move back and forth from Wall Street to federal agencies. The association of producers decides EVERYTHING. This is already a more audacious program than conceived in any party program produced by a Marxist party today. And I think I can say this without reservation: Marxist programs do not even come up to this minimum requirement for a minimum program.

The point is not how much of the social product is devoted to education of children, but who decides this. Is this decided by bureaucrats in the Department of Education or by an association of producers?

T.I.N.A. is not about where social resources go or how they are employed, it is about where these decisions are being made. Once the association of producers has taken command of the social resources, these resources no longer exist as forms of capital. They are transformed into mere use value — objects of utility for the mass of society and subordinated to their needs alone. Marxists and the Left in general focus on how the social product will be divided, when the real question is who is making this decision.

Folks, the capitalist class is trapped. It is utterly dependent on the state and has no options in this regard. It cannot go back to an earlier mode of accumulation, which is why as a class it is desperate and violent in the extreme. There is not one country today where the capitalist class can survive the replacement of the state by an association of producers. And, as Egypt proved, there is not one country today where the working class can “take power” without replacing the state with its association.

Marxists and the Left in general keep trying to avoid this brutal fact, by articulating a set of demands aimed at less than association. It will not work: as Tahrir Square shows, anything less than association will be co-opted by the fascist state.

The strange case of the missing “Revolutionary Subject”

January 13, 2013 4 comments


In his dissertation, “Marx’s concept of the transcendence of value production” Peter Hudis levels an interesting criticism at Moishe Postone:

“Since Postone thinks that capital is the subject of modern society, and not the workers or other forces of liberation, he is led to argue that the alternative to capital will ultimately emerge not from the development of human agents like the proletariat but rather from capital itself.”

The criticism is based on Postone’s interpretation of Marx’s argument, in the words of Hudis, that

“Capital takes on a life of its own because the subjectivity of workers is subsumed by abstract labor.”

The problem of “The Revolutionary Subject” is a big one for Marxists academics because they just can’t figure out who the fuck is actually making this damn social revolution. And without being able to identify a subject, it is rather difficult to figure out to whom communists should be speaking.

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