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Can government be reduced without limiting hours of Labor?

January 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Is it possible to get rid of government, either by abolishing it outright or gradually reducing it, without, at the same time, ridding society of Labor? This is a question posed by libertarians and marxists who declare their opposition to abolishing one or the other.

First, let’s define what I mean by Labor. As I am using the word, Labor is not work; I define work as any form of productive activity during which we create some useful object by mixing our human effort with natural objects. It is the metabolism of life: the exchange between nature and humans which is essential to life itself. Labor, on the other hand, does the above as well, but the aim of the activity is to create value — a commodity with a price.

Among Marxists, one would think this question had already been settled by the experience of the Soviet Union. There, despite Marxist expectations that the State would whither away once wage slavery was thought to be abolished, the State never even shrank. It continued to expand up until the point it collapsed entirely. Even if we accept the idea that the Soviet Union was confronted by an implacable enemy, it is hard to accept this as an explanation for the Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe, its massive accumulation of troop and military power, and the willingness of Moscow to sacrifice basic material standards of living of the country, when the United States is presently bogged down and slowly being defeated by isolated bands of mostly illiterate guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan — much as the USSR was previously. How, under any reasonable scenario, was the US supposed to occupy and pacify a population of freely associated, well-educated, highly skilled persons, spread over one sixth of the planet’s surface and eleven time zones?

But, marxists seem unable to absorb this lesson of history. Among libertarians, I am often in conversation with, and reading the posts of, those who are quite seriously opposed to the State, but fierce opponents of any limitation on hours of Labor.

In all honesty, folks, how is this supposed to work?

Total federal, state, and local government employment (not including the military) in 2008 stood at 22.46 million persons according to the Census Bureau (pdf). At the same time, total employment in the US stood at 145.36 million persons (pdf). Government provided approximately 15 percent of all direct employment — and this does not even begin to take into account those persons who owed their jobs directly or indirectly to government expenditures: those employed as a result of contracts with various agencies of federal, state, and local bodies — Blackwater, GE, Raytheon, and the entire Fortune 500 come to mind — and those whose jobs are at least in part the result of demand generated by various transfer programs, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, school lunch programs, etc.

If we could remove all of these expenditures overnight by means of a magic wand, what would happen to the economy and the tens of millions of other jobs only indirectly affected by this? Where would all of the goods produced for this massive body of entirely superfluous laborers be sold? Even if we did not remove it entirely, but only limited it by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and preventing the expenditure of some 3 trillion additional dollars by Washington over the next two years, what now fills that void?

If libertarians and others who are seriously determined to get rid of the State have no answer to these questions, what answer will your congressperson have when Obama and Boehner grab them by the lapel and show them, in very graphic terms, exactly what their vote against raising the debt ceiling will do to employment?

The argument can be made that any limitation on hours of labor requires State coercion and limitations on the individual’s right to enjoy her property — every wage contract is a voluntary agreement between two property-owners, even if one of the parties has no choice but to make the agreement. However, thirty, forty, or fifty percent unemployment is also the coercive application of market competition. If some make the argument that capitalist coercion is somehow more “natural” than State coercion, I need only remind them that the State, having been around for thousands of years longer than Capital, is clearly far more “natural” than the latter.

I am not for coercion in any form — political or economic. I am not trying to abolish State coercion in order to allow the mechanisms of economic coercion room to expand, further intensifying the already Hobbesian environment of Civil Society. The vast majority of the population of the United States is dependent on selling their Labor Power — even those who are self-employed. The idea that they will come to see Washington as a greater threat to their well-being than the Koch brothers, WalMart, or BP is laughably naive. Start abolishing regulations, reducing the minimum wage, breaking pension plans, and slashing Social Security, and you will see how little love folks have for a stateless society that leaves them at the mercies of the owners of capital.

This really doesn’t require a doctorate in economics: those who are really serious about a stateless society, and not simply using it as a screen to advance their own agenda, will understand that State coercion cannot be abolished without also abolishing the coercion of the market in Labor Power.

Update: Courtesy of Zero Hedge, a list of Russell Index companies that generate 50 to 100 percent of their revenue from the federal government.

Update 2: Someone asked me a good question: Am I suggesting there should be no reduction in the size of government until hours of work can be reduced? Absolutely not. It would be a mistake not to do the two together, but the biggest mistake would be to do nothing until both can be done together. If the debt ceiling increase can be voted down today, it should be voted down; in time it will be obvious that hours of work must also be reduced.

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“It must be broken”: Rethinking Marx, Liberty, the Individual and the State

January 26, 2011 2 comments

Afghanistan's War Wounded Come To Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar

We can now restate Marx’s theory in a way which will make it easily digestible by those who stand full square for a completely stateless society, as well as the various and sundry people who seem intent on getting him completely wrong in every possible variation — including the imbeciles who count themselves among his followers:

Marx came to the conclusion that capital was abolishing the need for labor and this abolition had profound, far-reaching, implications for the whole of society, and the social relations within which individuals carried on their activity.

Moishe Postone writes:

Until this historical stage of capitalism, according to Marx’s analysis, socially necessary labor time in its two determinations [necessary labor time and surplus labor time] defined and filled the time of the laboring masses, allowing nonlabor time for the few. With advanced industrial capitalist production, the productive potential developed becomes so enormous that a new historical category of “extra” time for the many emerges, allowing for a drastic reduction in both aspects of socially necessary labor time, and a transformation of the structure of labor and the relation of work to other aspects of social life. But this extra time emerges only as potential: as structured by the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution, it exists in the form of “superfluous” labor time. The term reflects the contradiction: as determined by the old relations of production it remains labor time; as judged in terms of the potential of the new forces of production it is, in its old determination, superfluous.

By concentrating property into fewer and fewer hands; ripping the mass of society out of its long historical practice of carrying on its activities in relative isolation employing crude instruments of production for a meager material standard of living that just barely ensured their survival; and, converting the mass of society into directly social laborers, capital was making it possible to apply the latest technological breakthroughs, advancing scientific knowledge, and economies of scale to the task of producing a basic minimal standard of living with as little labor as possible given the level of development of the productive capacities of the laborers themselves and the tools they employed.

No aspect of this process was being consciously undertaken by any member of society, any group of its members, nor even by the members of society as a whole. No one consciously declared their intention to abolish labor. Each person in society was only engaged in self-interested activity in pursuit of private ends: the proletarian, for whom the sale of her labor power was a matter of simple survival — a matter of life and death, the capitalist, for whom continuation as owner of property required the ever increasing surplus producing capacity of the capital under his control. No where in society was the abolition of labor the expressed aim of anyone engaged in this mean, brutal process.

Indeed, as mankind actually crosses the threshold, the event horizon, where it is no longer possible for the demand for productive labor to increase, despite the increasing social demand for new,  previously unimaginable, forms of material consumption, the members of society actually experience this incredible historical event as a loss — a terrifying regression to an earlier period of starvation and want — against which the whole of society blindly struggles, employing for this purpose all the instruments at its disposal, including the State, for the purpose of increasing the demand for labor where no productive employment of this additional labor exists, or can exist.

The human and material capacities of entire continents are laid to waste in an unceasing series of ever more barbaric wars; entire industries spring up overnight not for the creation of new means of production and consumption, but solely to destroy existing means; ever more terrible engines of self-extinction appear, and with them, a mass of proletarians whose sole purpose is to devise and create ever newer versions of these insane commodities. Alongside these industries, and essential to their existence, rises an entire industry of financial engineers, a class of public and private debtors, and the cancerous growth of fictitious capital and financial instruments.

Organizing, expanding and directing this obscenity, the State: that wholly superfluous organ of society, whose long bloody history of aggression, repression, and conquest, stands alone as the single greatest, longest running, continuing conspiracy against the rest of mankind, as well as its chief tormentor, torturer, and parasite in every age and in every epoch — a vile, filthy, parasitic collection of drones whose sole purpose in life has, always and everywhere, been to suck the life from society for its own enlargement — becomes, in the Orwellian world of Hobbesian chaos, the very instrument by which the members of society seek to stave off the results of their own activity.

In tandem with the ever diminishing material demand for productive labor, the social demand for labor in any and every form emerges as the rallying cry from every part of the society. In tandem as the State increases its invasive penetration into, and totalitarian control over, hitherto private and common activities, the Hobbesian chaos reigning within society intensifies, gains a more pervasive character, and further reduces each member of society more completely to an anonymous set of abstract data points which can be identified, sifted and measured by the high priests of economic policy — converted into the raw material of policy recommendations for potential State action over a shorter or longer period of time. The parameters of this potential State policy action itself becomes the focus of the mass of the members of society and subjected to the Hobbesian chaos of society as interests line up on each side of the debate and seek to gain control of the lever of State power. In turn, as this body of parasitic drones master the control of society and gains knowledge of how it can maximize the expansion of purely superfluous labor, its policy parameters narrow — not employment, but the “non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment”; not free trade, but “free trade agreements”; not economic growth, but “low-inflation economic growth”. In this way, State economic policy is gradually converted into those policies which maximize not the expansion of superfluous labor in general, but the expansion of the State itself as a completely superfluous, cancerous growth on society.

It is precisely this State which, Marx argues, cannot on any account serve as the foundation of the new society. It cannot be salvaged, it cannot be reformed, it cannot be utilized to emancipate society in any fashion. It must be broken: discarded by society; and, with it, Labor itself, and all the remnants of the existing order. The abolition of Labor, and the age-old division of labor that has for so long chained humanity to a set of alien, inhuman relations, increasingly becomes bound up with the question of the abolition of the State, and the abolition of the State is increasingly dependent on the abolition of superfluous labor in every form.

The Value of Nothing: Rethinking Marx, Liberty, the Individual and the State

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

In the first part of this series () I argued that Karl Marx’s Individual is the same Individual who appears in the writings of 18th and 19th Century thinkers. Moreover, Marx’s assumptions imply an environment of Hobbes’ war of all against all and an increasingly illiberal, repressive and aggressive, parasitic State.

In the second part of this series () I argued that Marx never believed that there would need to be a period of state socialism to achieve a stateless society. His model of a revolutionary reconstitution of society rested on the idea of a free voluntary cooperative association, which emerges directly out of capitalist society and, which would be the only form of social organization in this stateless community. Marx’s model of the emergence of this voluntary association assumed it occurred empirically, i.e., as an act of commonsense necessity to everyone.

In the third part of this series () I argued that Marx did far more than merely uncover the secret of the worker’s exploitation. Marx’s theory is not a theory of labor’s exploitation under the capitalist system but a theory of social decomposition and transformation of labor activity: ripping the producers from their property; casting them into the ranks of the Proletarians; molding their activity through centuries of despotic capitalist rule into directly social cooperative laborers employing means of production that could only be put into motion by their combined cooperative effort. The transformative process comes to an end when it is no longer profitable to employ labor power under any circumstances — an event which compels the proletarians to take control of their own productive capacities as individuals and organize their activity in free voluntary association.

In this part I will show why Brad is wrong when he states that Marx’s theory requires an unusually altruistic individual to realize the voluntary association. Marx’s theory does not in any way involve a society of unusually altruistic individuals, because it rests on the assumption that scarcity itself has been abolished.

Brad, in his post, “Marxism And Libertarian Exploitation Theory”, argues:

[Marx’s] analysis does not take into account individual goals, which is a very human desire to maximize gains for one’s self and one’s own. Humans are cooperative, but we are cooperative individuals. Cooperation can be sustained in a system of mutual benefit, but humans typically have a difficult time sacrificing for the collective over the long haul. Anarcho-socialism relies on such mutual cooperation (and sacrifice) in the absence of a coercive entity, and thus relies on human nature to be compatible with such a system.

Is this assumption actually correct? Does Marx’s theory assume that the individual sacrifice for the collective over the long haul? Let’s begin by returning to Marx’s sketch of the circumstances surrounding the birth of a society founded directly on voluntary association.

In Marx’s model of the State, this parasitic entity appears to hover over society. This separation of the State from Civil Society is in some sense real and in another sense only apparent: as Brad Warbiany demonstrates, the best writers of the time saw in many State actions of the 18th and 19th Century the expression of some definite interest of specific groups in society — a trail of evidence that could probably be traced to the actual motives of specific individuals, as some have argued in the case of our own War on Terror. However, even with these observations it is far from correct to view the State as a mere instrument of any given interest within Civil Society — that it always expresses, for instance, the will of the capitalist class against the working class in some vulgar fashion. It is closer to the truth to understand that the State is the expression of the interests of Capital — a social relationship between and within the two classes, which is not, nor can it be, identical with the interests of either class, nor any particular faction of either class.

If some particular State action can be traced to the interests of one or the other class, and to one or another faction or groups of individuals within either class, it is necessary to point out that it represents those interests within the limits imposed on it by Capital itself. It is possible, therefore, for the State to both express the general interest of all social classes within the limits of capitalist relations, and, simultaneously, appear indifferent, hostile, and an increasingly intolerable burden to the whole of society. Thus, while bourgeois writers after Marx increasingly explain the actions of the State by reference to the interests of one or another faction of society — for the Nazis, it was Jews and communists; in our own time it has been black helicopter conspiracies, the Illuminati, or some other such nonsense — Marx’s theory explains those actions by referencing the general conditions prevalent under capitalist social relations.

I believe the above picture of the relation between the State and Civil Society has implications not only for the politics of capitalist society, it has implications for the manner in which the category Value expresses itself as well. Moishe Postone, in his painstaking reconstruction of Marx’s thinking on Labor as a Value creating activity, “Time, Labor, and Social Domination”, showed that Value — which Marx defined as the socially necessary labor time required to produce labor-power — was not only the basis for the exploitation of the worker in the form of surplus labor time — which, in his model, is the source of profit, interest and rent — but also the basis for a peculiar form of labor activity: superfluous labor time; the period of labor activity which is entirely superfluous to the productive employment of labor power either for the production of wage goods or capital goods.

Where does this superfluous labor time come from?

With the increasing productivity of social labor, an increasing share of the existing labor-power can no longer be profitably employed, i.e., employed by capitals for the purpose of creating surplus value. Capital begins to exhibit symptoms of relative breakdown: an entirely superfluous mass of proletarians who cannot find employment, a mass of machinery which can no longer be put to use by these proletarians, a mass of money-capital which cannot find profitable investment opportunities, and a mass of commodities which cannot be sold.

On the one hand, this so-called deficit in “aggregate demand”, Marx declares, is nothing more than the necessity for a general reduction in hours of work expressed in the form of the law of Value prevailing in capitalist society. On the other hand, since, the purchase and sale of labor power remains essential to Capital itself, and the basis for both the subsistence of the proletarians and the extraction of surplus value by capitals, the necessity for a general reduction in hours of work takes its opposite form: A general social demand from the two great classes in capitalist society for intervention by the State to increase “aggregate demand” by various measures — in other words, for action by the State for active economic policy intervention designed to ensure that the essential condition of Capital — the purchase and sale of labor-power — can continue uninterrupted.

This intervention, which is essentially fascistic, accompanies the rise of the Fascist State, and rests on the interests of both great classes in capitalist society insofar as they are considered only as poles of the relation, Capital, explains the astonishing growth of the State in the 20th Century, which expands from an estimated mere 3 percent of United States Gross Domestic Product to approximately 43 percent in 2010, with an accumulated debt that is greater than the total annual output of the United States’ economy — and currently increasing at the unprecedented rate of more than ten percent per year.

It is precisely in this unprecedentedly enlarged cancer on society that what Michael O. Powell, in his post, “Rethinking Marx”, calls the “high degree of capital to fund” voluntary association is already present in its latent form, as an constantly increasing mass of productive capacity being expended in the wholly unproductive — and from the standpoint of a voluntary association, wholly unnecessary — form of State expenditures. The conversion of the relative breakdown of Capital into its absolute form, which implies the collapse of active State intervention in the economy, frees the entirety of the productive capacity of society from both the dependence on profit as the motive force of productive activity, and the overwhelming mass of this capacity from its wasteful and superfluous employment by the State.

The members of society, who are by this collapse, compelled to create a voluntary cooperative association, find themselves awash in an abundance of productive capacity exceeding, by far, any measurable need for it. With the abolition of the State, the need for Labor itself disappears, taking with it the epoch of scarcity,the Law of Value, Class society, and all the ugly muck of ages.

Badiou’s “Communist Hypothesis” Considered (Draft version)

December 5, 2010 3 comments

(This is only a draft version. I am looking for comments.)

We must confess to being completely unaware of Alain Badiou until recently discovering his work through word of mouth on the internet. As we tend to work in isolation, we are not surprised to find, here and there, one or another voice critical of the existing order with which we are completely unfamiliar. Yet, having discovered Alain, we were eager to see what he had to say, since, among a number of circles, his work is being eagerly digested and reviewed.

That said, after reading his piece in the New Left Review from 2009, The Communist Hypothesis, we walked away from it very confused by the clamor. Halfway through a first reading, we found his “sequence” history of communism quite suspect. We are skeptical that anything like a history of communism as a series of “sequences” exists. These alleged “sequences” leave out much of the rich history of communism; and, what is included is less critically examined than simply dismissed. This, of course, was only a first impression. The more we actually delved into his ideas, the less we were convinced that there was anything of substance being offered to those whose hunger for the critical examination of capitalism has been whetted by the present crisis.

However, leaving our conclusions to the end, we report on our investigation of Alain Badiou’s ideas, and confine ourselves to his ideas as laid out in the article.

A quick recap of Badiou’s history of the communist hypothesis:

What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.

This communist hypothesis has, according to Alain, passed through two “sequences” since the outbreak of the French Revolution. The first, from 1792 (The French Revolution) to 1872 (The fall of the Paris Commune) saw the hypothesis posed as a historical task on mankind’s agenda. The second sequence– which Badiou dates from The Russian Revolution in 1917 to the end of the Cultural Revolution in China in 1976 — consisted of many attempts to realize this agenda. Between the two sequences is a period of some forty years, during which, Badiou alleges, “the communist hypothesis was declared to be untenable…”

We note, briefly, that it is clear from this timeline Badiou is subtly revealing the emphasis of his presentation: we expected a discussion of communism as what Marx called, “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”; instead, we get a history of communism as the history of a particular trend within this movement. It is precisely during the period of what Badiou labels, “an interval dominated by the enemy, when new experiments are tightly circumscribed,” that many working class parties were in fact emerging, and the pivotal struggle for the eight hour day was born. All of this rich history is dismissed by Badiou and relegated to a mere interval between his sequences. Badiou, thus, never subjects this entire period to any critical examination.

In particular, Alain directs our attention to the “second sequence”:

It was dominated by the question: how to win? How to hold out—unlike the Paris Commune—against the armed reaction of the possessing classes; how to organize the new power so as to protect it against the onslaught of its enemies? It was no longer a question of formulating and testing the communist hypothesis, but of realizing it: what the 19th century had dreamt, the 20th would accomplish. The obsession with victory, centred around questions of organization, found its principal expression in the ‘iron discipline’ of the communist party—the characteristic construction of the second sequenceof the hypothesis.

The second sequence of communism succeeded where the Paris Commune failed, establishing several beachheads in the face of stiff reaction. But, these successes carried from birth the defect of their origins:

The party had been an appropriate tool for the overthrow of weakened reactionary regimes, but it proved ill-adapted for the construction of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in the sense that Marx had intended—that is, a temporary state, organizing the transition to the non-state: its dialectical ‘withering away’. Instead, the party-state developed into a new form of authoritarianism. Some of these regimes made real strides in education, public health, the valorization of labour, and so on; and they provided an international constraint on the arrogance of the imperialist powers. However, the statist principle in itself proved corrupt and, in the long run, ineffective. Police coercion could not save the ‘socialist’ state from internal bureaucratic inertia; and within fifty years it was clear that it would never prevail in the ferocious competition imposed by its capitalist adversaries. The last great convulsions of the “second sequence”—the Cultural Revolution and May 68, in its broadest sense—can be understood as attempts to deal with the inadequacy of the party.

The alleged defect of this second sequence of the communist hypothesis – the party-state — is acknowledged by Alain, but never explained by him. We are left to wonder why, at this point in his essay, he doesn’t evaluate 20th Century Communism from the standpoint of the criteria he drew from the Communist Manifesto; i.e., from the agenda set forth during the first sequence. Instead, Alain offers us only the conclusion that we cannot go back to the methods of the second sequence:

Since the second sequence came to an end in the 1970s we have been in another such interval, with the adversary in the ascendant once more. What is at stake in these circumstances is the eventual opening of a new sequence of the communist hypothesis. But it is clear that this will not be—cannot be—the continuation of the second one. Marxism, the workers’ movement, mass democracy, Leninism, the party of the proletariat, the socialist state—all the inventions of the 20th century—are not really useful to us any more. At the theoretical level they certainly deserve further study and consideration; but at the level of practical politics they have become unworkable. The second sequence is over and it is pointless to try to restore it.

So, not only is the “interlude” between Badiou’s first and second sequence dismissed uncritically, the entire so-called “second sequence” is likewise ignored – reduced to the authoritarianism, bureaucratic inertia, and corruption of the party-state. At this point, we have sufficient gronds not only to challenge Badiou’s critique of the so-called “interlude” between the first and second sequence, but to call into question his characterization of the first sequence itself, and, with it, his entire critique. Indeed, since the failure of the second sequence is his departure point for a revival of the communist hypothesis, what are we to make of his characterization of our present circumstances – i.e., the entire period since the death of Mao?

Alain, however, quickly moves on: calling on us to bring the communist hypothesis into existence in another mode. A task he acknowledges is complex:

We must focus on its conditions of existence, rather than just improving its methods. We need to re-install the communist hypothesis—the proposition that the subordination of labour to the dominant class is not inevitable—within the ideological sphere.

What lessons can be drawn from the “second sequence”?

Alain leaves us with little to go on regarding what lessons, if any, we might be able to salvage from the failed second sequence of the communist hypothesis. In this sense, we stand in somewhat of an inferior position to the men and women of the second sequence, since they at least had Marx and Engels to draw some lessons from the first sequence. Among the most widely acknowledged of these lessons, of course, was the conclusion, arrived at by the Commune, that it was not possible to merely lay hold the existing state machinery — it had to be broken.

Drawing on Alain’s restatement of the communist hypothesis, we can offer a tentative outline of four lessons from the so-called second sequence:

  1. “…the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome.” 20th Century communism demonstrated that it is not only the subordination of labor to capital, but also the subordination of the members of society to labor itself that poses the crux of the matter.
  2. “…a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour.” While indeed, the inequality of wealth was eliminated, in its absence a universal poverty was established, leaving the division of labor more firmly entrenched than it had ever been.
  3. “The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear.” Private appropriation and inheritance indeed disappeared, but this was replaced by a far more implacable opponent: public property — a form of property whose defect was that it could be totally indifferent to inheritance since, unlike individuals, it had a potentially unlimited lifetime.
  4. “The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.In 20th Century communism the division of the coercive state and civil society was eliminated, but the elimination took the form of the absorption of civil society into the state, which state, having become a totalitarian organism, resisted every attempt by society to realize an association independent of it.

To sum up: the abolition of private property proved not to be identical with the abolition of property. Nor was the abolition of wage labor the same as the abolition of the subordination of society to labor and the division of labor. Finally, the abolition of the cleavage between society and the state proved not to be the same as the voluntary association of its members.

Insofar as the communism is considered, the replacement of private property by public property and its management according to plan, and the replacement of wage labor by the principle “to each according to his work” was only the beginningthe initial phase — of communism. While the second sequence was a clear advance against private property and wage labor, in that it achieved this minimum, it failed to go beyond it: to replace property, labor, and the state with the voluntary association of the members of society.

We argue that, despite their signal victories, the communisms of the 20th Century were based on isolation and scarcity. As such, impressive though they may have been, they were merely “local events”, enforced by the isolation from, rather than a connection to, the universal intercourse created by the world market. True, unlike their forebears, the Utopian experiments of the 19th Century, these communes assumed control of entire nation-states; but, for all of this they remained local events threatened by every advance of the world market.

We offer the above tentative observations because we think they might help us to understand why Marx arrived at the following conclusion when he examined the rationale underlying attempts to create communist associations during the early- and mid-19th Century:

This “alienation” (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an “intolerable” power, i.e. a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity “propertyless,” and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the “propertyless” mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones. Without this, (1) communism could only exist as a local event; (2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence intolerable powers: they would have remained home-bred conditions surrounded by superstition; and (3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers – the utterly precarious position of labour – power on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life – presupposes the world market through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a “world-historical” existence. World-historical existence of individuals means existence of individuals which is directly linked up with world history.

In this passage, Marx seems to be saying for a voluntary association to emerge naturally out of the activity of the members of society, the development of the world market already would have placed them in such a situation that no other possibility existed for any other form of state. Marx follows this up by emphatically distancing himself from any attempt to substitute Utopian plans for this process:

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 conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.

Badiou’s Proposal for a Third Sequence

The inadequacy of Badiou’s critique of the second sequence finds its expression in his sketch of a potential starting point for a “third sequence” of the communist hypothesis. Badiou proposes that we counter the globalistic logic of capital with our own ‘universal truth’:

What might this involve? Experimentally, we might conceive of finding a point that would stand outside the temporality of the dominant order and what Lacan once called ‘the service of wealth’. Any point, so long as it is in formal opposition to such service, and offers the discipline of a universal truth. One such might be the declaration: ‘There is only one world’. What would this imply? Contemporary capitalism boasts, of course, that it has created a global order; its opponents too speak of ‘alter-globalization’. Essentially, they propose a definition of politics as a practical means of moving from the world as it is to the world as we would wish it to be. But does a single world of human subjects exist? The ‘one world’ of globalization is solely one of things—objects for sale—and monetary signs: the world market as foreseen by Marx. The overwhelming majority of the population have at best restricted access to this world. They are locked out, often literally so.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was supposed to signal the advent of the single world of freedom and democracy. Twenty years later, it is clear that the world’s wall has simply shifted: instead of separating East and West it now divides the rich capitalist North from the poor and devastated South. New walls are being constructed all over the world: between Palestinians and Israelis, between Mexico and the United States, between Africa and the Spanish enclaves, between the pleasures of wealth and the desires of the poor, whether they be peasants in villages or urban dwellers in favelas, banlieues, estates, hostels, squats and shantytowns. The price of the supposedly unified world of capital is the brutal division of human existence into regions separated by police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval patrols, barbed wire and expulsions. The ‘problem of immigration’ is, in reality, the fact that the conditions faced by workers from other countries provide living proof that—in human terms—the ‘unified world’ of globalization is a sham.

Indeed, far from creating a unified world, globalization is simply the perfection of universal competition between all members of all nations within the world market. However, it is important to recognize that “the brutal division of human existence” consists not only, or even primarily in the division “into regions separated by police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval patrols, barbed wire and expulsions”, but, more important, in the division of the conditions of existence generally. As Marx described it:

First the productive forces appear as a world for themselves, quite independent of and divorced from the individuals, alongside the individuals: the reason for this is that the individuals, whose forces they are, exist split up and in opposition to one another, whilst, on the other hand, these forces are only real forces in the intercourse and association of these individuals. Thus, on the one hand, we have a totality of productive forces, which have, as it were, taken on a material form and are for the individuals no longer the forces of the individuals but of private property, and hence of the individuals only insofar as they are owners of private property themselves. Never, in any earlier period, have the productive forces taken on a form so indifferent to the intercourse of individuals as individuals, because their intercourse itself was formerly a restricted one. On the other hand, standing over against these productive forces, we have the majority of the individuals from whom these forces have been wrested away, and who, robbed thus of all real life-content, have become abstract individuals, but who are, however, only by this fact put into a position to enter into relation with one another as individuals.

The only connection which still links them with the productive forces and with their own existence — labour — has lost all semblance of self-activity and only sustains their life by stunting it. While in the earlier periods self-activity and the production of material life were separated, in that they devolved on different persons, and while, on account of the narrowness of the individuals themselves, the production of material life was considered as a subordinate mode of self-activity, they now diverge to such an extent that altogether material life appears as the end, and what produces this material life, labour (which is now the only possible but, as we see, negative form of self-activity), as the means.

The lesson of the second sequence is that it is not possible for society simply to lay hold of these productive forces and end the indifference to individuals as individuals. These productive forces are themselves nothing more than the productive capacities of the men and women who compose society. Simply laying hold of these forces and managing them reduces communism to a planning board (or, a central bank) and the increasingly totalitarian administration of social life by the State. The administration of these productive forces can only be the work of a voluntary association of members of society, and the rest reduced to the mere management of things.

It is fairly clear from our reading of Marx that an association of individuals must replace labor, property and the State. And here Marx offers a clue: labor is the only remaining connection between individuals and their own independently existing productive forces. This labor is the negative form of the self-activity we hope to achieve. To achieve this self-activity requires that we sever this labor connection between ourselves and our own productive capacities and existence.

Marx’s commentary on communism

Thus things have now come to such a pass”, says Marx“that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence.” And, he outlines how the inherent logic of our present circumstances compels us to act:

This appropriation is first determined by the object to be appropriated, the productive forces, which have been developed to a totality and which only exist within a universal intercourse. From this aspect alone, therefore, this appropriation must have a universal character corresponding to the productive forces and the intercourse.

The appropriation of these forces is itself nothing more than the development of the individual capacities corresponding to the material instruments of production. The appropriation of a totality of instruments of production is, for this very reason, the development of a totality of capacities in the individuals themselves.

This appropriation is further determined by the persons appropriating. Only the proletarians of the present day, who are completely shut off from all self-activity, are in a position to achieve a complete and no longer restricted self-activity, which consists in the appropriation of a totality of productive forces and in the thus postulated development of a totality of capacities. All earlier revolutionary appropriations were restricted; individuals, whose self-activity was restricted by a crude instrument of production and a limited intercourse, appropriated this crude instrument of production, and hence merely achieved a new state of limitation. Their instrument of production became their property, but they themselves remained subordinate to the division of labour and their own instrument of production. In all expropriations up to now, a mass of individuals remained subservient to a single instrument of production; in the appropriation by the proletarians, a mass of instruments of production must be made subject to each individual, and property to all. Modern universal intercourse can be controlled by individuals, therefore, only when controlled by all.

This appropriation is further determined by the manner in which it must be effected. It can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution, in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organisation is overthrown, and, on the other hand, there develops the universal character and the energy of the proletariat, without which the revolution cannot be accomplished; and in which, further, the proletariat rids itself of everything that still clings to it from its previous position in society.

Labor has to be transformed into self-activity, and this transformation can only be accomplished by the same act as that which abolishes property, and, in which the State is replaced by a voluntary association of individuals, i.e., by the abolition of labor itself. Marx argues:

In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity always remained unscathed and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society.

We wonder why Alain neglected this extensive commentary by Marx on the nature of communism. It is particularly disturbing since he himself identifies the need to “stand outside the temporality of the dominant order and what Lacan once called ‘the service of wealth’.” And, what could be further outside the service of wealth than abolishing labor itself. Indeed, in Capital Marx calls the mere limitation on hours of labor the “modest Magna Charta” of the working class, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.”

Most if not almost all of those who consider themselves in some way inheritors of Marx’s critique of capitalist society — and here we include such faint variants as European Social-Democracy and progressive thought in the United States — do not recognize the role labor plays in his critique of capitalist society, nor the conclusion that labor itself is not salvageable, but must, of necessity, be replaced by voluntary association. While the findings of certain writers, such as, Moishe Postone, attempt to recapture Marx’s critique of labor, this attempt has gone almost unnoticed by the vast majority of even the most extreme critics of the current social order.

According to Postone, under capitalism, labor does not simply refer to the act of production nor simply to the interchange between mankind and nature, without which our existence is impossible. Labor does these things, but it also actually constitutes (creates, determines and brings into being) the very social fabric of capitalist society itself. Says Postone,

To sum up: In Marx’s mature works, the notion that labor is at the core of social life does not simply refer to the fact that material production is always a precondition of social life. Nor does it imply that production is the historically specific determining sphere of capitalist civilization—if production is understood only as the production of goods. In general, the sphere of production in capitalism should not be understood only in terms of the material interactions of humans with nature. While it is obviously true that the “metabolic” interaction with nature effected by labor is a precondition of existence in any society, what determines a society is also the nature of its social relations. Capitalism, according to Marx, is characterized by the fact that its fundamental social relations are constituted by labor. Labor in capitalism objectifies itself not only in material products—which is the case in all social formations—but in objectified social relations as well. By virtue of its double character, it constitutes as a totality an objective, quasi-natural societal sphere that cannot be reduced to the sum of direct social relations and, as we shall see, stands opposed to the aggregate of individuals and groups as an abstract Other. In other words, the double character of commodity-determined labor is such that the sphere of labor in capitalism mediates relations that, in other formations, exist as a sphere of overt social interaction. It thereby constitutes a quasi-objective social sphere. Its double character signifies that labor in capitalism has a socially synthetic character, which labor in other formations does not possess. Labor as such does not constitute society per se; labor in capitalism, however, does constitute that society.

Essentially, Postone’s argument must lead us to the conclusion that both Property and the State are constituted by Labor itself, and not the other way around. In this sense, for instance, the ‘full employment’ mandate of European and American governments which arises from the universal competition pitting workers of every nation within the world market against each other, and which drive anti-immigrant demagogues, are themselves social relations constituted by labor itself. To propose this deeply embedded determination can be countered with a ‘universal truth’ is, frankly, unrealistic.

What Postone’s ingenious insight into Marx’s analysis of labor allows us to understand is that labor itself is reproducing the divorce between the members of society and their own productive capacities, spitting up these productive capacities, setting them into opposition with each other, and leaving the members of society under a universal existential threat. Labor itself, directly as the negative form of self-activity, and, as the negative activity mediating both the existing state and property relations, has become an intolerable power against which the members of society must struggle on pain of catastrophe.

It follows that any effort to create a new society must begin with the universal demand for the abolition of labor through voluntary association. It is entirely of this demand that communism consists.

Can labor be abolished today?

The demand for the abolition of labor, of course, would be only an idle dream were the actual state of material development of society insufficient to realize it. As Marx suggested in the conclusion we previously cited, such an abolition presumes a very high level of development of the productive forces, a mass of the population in all countries who have been rendered propertyless over the course of this development, a high degree of intercourse within the world market, as well as a high concentration of wealth. Given these conditions, there is reason to debate whether society has arrived at the point where the abolition of labor can be transformed from a mere slogan to an actual program undertaken by society.

Again, Moishe Postone, in his analysis of Marx’s work, offers us a possibility that labor may, itself, be concealing significant hidden potential that make its abolition more possible than is apparent at first consideration. Postone finds this in his examination of Marx’s concept of superfluous laborlabor which, in a bizarre twist, serves only the function of creating demand for labor.

Says Postone:

Until this historical stage of capitalism, according to Marx’s analysis, socially necessary labor time in its two determinations [necessary labor time and surplus labor time] defined and filled the time of the laboring masses, allowing nonlabor time for the few. With advanced industrial capitalist production, the productive potential developed becomes so enormous that a new historical category of “extra” time for the many emerges, allowing for a drastic reduction in both aspects of socially necessary labor time, and a transformation of the structure of labor and the relation of work to other aspects of social life. But this extra time emerges only as potential: as structured by the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution, it exists in the form of “superfluous” labor time. The term reflects the contradiction: as determined by the old relations of production it remains labor time; as judged in terms of the potential of the new forces of production it is, in its old determination, superfluous.

Postone makes clear, that, in his use of the term superfluous, he is not here making a moral judgment of, for instance, the relative merits of war expenditures versus universal education, nor any other such simplistic notions echoing the nonsense spewing from progressives or Tea Partiers, but of an economic category.

It should be clear that “superfluous” is not an unhistorical category of judgment developed from a position purportedly outside of society. It is, rather, an immanent critical category that is rooted in the growing contradiction between the potential of the developed forces of production and their existent social form. From this point of view, one can distinguish labor time necessary for capitalism from that which would be necessary for society were it not for capitalism. As my discussion of Marx’s analysis has indicated, this distinction refers not only to the quantity of socially necessary labor but also to the nature of social necessity itself. That is, it points not only toward a possible large reduction in total labor time but also toward the possible overcoming of the abstract forms of social compulsion constituted by the value form of social mediation. Understood in these terms, “superfluous” is the historically generated, immediate opposite of “necessary,” a category of contradiction that expresses the growing historical possibility of distinguishing society from its capitalist form, and, hence, of separating out their previous necessary connection. The basic contradiction of capitalism, in its unfolding, allows for the judgment of the older form and the imagination of a newer one.

Finally, Postone shows the purely negative character of Marx’s concept of labor superfluity — that as a category of political-economy, it cannot, of itself, provide us with an answer to “what comes next”, but merely point to itself as unnecessary, and, hence, to the possibility that capital itself is no longer the necessary form of mankind’s development:

My analysis of the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution has shown that, according to Marx, historical necessity cannot, in and of itself, give rise to freedom. The nature of capitalist development, however, is such that it can and does give rise to its immediate opposite—historical nonnecessity—which, in turn, allows for the determinate historical negation of capitalism. This possibility can only be realized, according to Marx, if people appropriate what had been constituted historically as capital.

The historic nonnecessity constituted historically as capital is, of course, nothing more than the unnecessary labor time of billions made necessary through the fiscal and monetary policies of every national government in the world market. These unnecessary hours of labor generally observes no iron law; and are subject always to conflict between capital and the working class. Even if the abolition outright of labor is not possible, that portion of labor time which is superfluous to socially necessary labor time — in its double sense, as outlined by Postone — can and must become the focus of a mass movement to limit hours of work.

From Marx:

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. [emp.] Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.

In particular, Marx showed that the struggle over the duration of labor and the imposition of limits on the working day is not only essential to limiting the brutality of existing social relations, it gives working people, in the words of Engels, “a moral energy which is directing them to the eventual possession of political power”.  The reduction of hours of work is, at the same time, the expansion of “Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilling of social functions and for social intercourse, for the free-play of his bodily and mental activity…” — that is, of time for precisely the opportunities for the voluntary association which must replace the existing state.

Conclusion

In comparison to Marx’s rich description of communism, its premises, and the nature of labor — and the efforts of researchers like Moishe Postone, who have done a great service by reconstructing and rehabilitating Marx’s work — Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis has all the content of a soft drink commercial — a banal construct of ideas assembled halfheartedly — to what end?

Badiou’s piece is historically suspicious, superficial, uncritical, and appears for all the world to be a marketing ploy for his book of the same name. It would one thing to arrive at the opinion that Alain got it wrong on substance, but here there is too little of substance to even make the argument. It is, in our opinion, quite shocking that this article received the rush of excitement and acclaim among those interested in the pressing problem of creating a world beyond capital, in the midst of its most profound crisis in history. As an answer to the question, “What is to be done?”, it offers nothing of value — even by negative example — for those with an interest in communism.

If this is what remains of Marxism, as a distinct tendency among communism, Badiou gives confirmation that it is not only dead, but rotting.