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Guglielmo Carchedi’s bad advice for activists

December 16, 2012 Leave a comment

kelley

Keynesian economic policies don’t work, but fighting for these policies will?

Guglielmo Carchedi’s essay on the so-called Marxist multiplier has me bugging. He is handing out bad advice to activists in the social movements and telling them this bad advice is based on Marx’s labor theory of value. The bad advice can be summed up concisely: Keynesian policies do not work and cannot work, but the fight for these policies (as opposed to neoliberal policies) can help end capitalism:

From the Marxist perspective, the struggle for the improvement of labour’s lot and the sedimentation and accumulation of labour’s antagonistic consciousness and power through this struggle should be two sides of the same coin. This is their real importance. They cannot end the slump but they can surely improve labour’s conditions and, given the proper perspective, foster the end of capitalism.

Frankly, Carchedi’s advice is the Marxist academy’s equivalent of medical malpractice. (For the record, Michael Robert’s has his own take on the discussion raised by Carchedi’s essay.)

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Value and the Demise of Capitalism: Reconciling Postone and Kurz

September 20, 2012 3 comments

Posted on the blog, principiadialectica, is a question to Robert Kurz about his differences with Postone on value and the current crisis that is bugging the hell out of me. In an interview conducted in 2010, Kurz is asked to explain his differences with Postone regarding the impact improvement in the productive power of labor has on value:

“For you, with the gains of productivity, capital loses its substance (abstract work) and, with the third industrial revolution, it loses it absolutely. For Moishe Postone, on the contrary, the gains of productivity increase value, but provisionally. According to him, as soon as the gain of productivity has generalized itself, the growth of value is cancelled, the basic unity of abstract work (the hour of work) having been brought back to its initial level. Thus, for you, value is collapsing, whilst, for Postone, value is growing continually then comes back to its starting point. Hence the question: doesn’t that break down the plausibility of the critique of value? Or should we see in this a point undecided at the moment?”

In Kurz’s argument, the gains of productivity gradually result in capital losing its value content; while, for Postone, the gains in productivity result in the expansion of prospective value until the social relation reaches its endpoint. Although both writers end up at the same point — capital is abolished by its internal laws — the description of the process differs in the perspective of the two writers.

The question posed in the interview is which of these two theoretical approaches is valid for the period leading to the demise of capitalism.

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Social emancipation cannot be founded on labor

September 14, 2012 9 comments


Disconnection from the current relations of production is easier said than done in Kurz’s opinion. It is not a matter of simply seizing a single factory, a retail outlet, an office or a school, nor even of seizing all the factories, retail outlets, offices and schools altogether in a simultaneous uprising in all countries at once. These institutions evolved within the context of commodity production and exchange and are fit only to function within this mode of production. It is not simply a matter of laying hold to them on the day after “the revolution” and employing them for the cause of social emancipation. Says Kurz,

The difficulty consists in the fact that the capitalist form of the functional division of society, as in the case of the capitalist structure of use value, cannot be assimilated, without alterations, into an emancipatory reproduction.

If this argument sounds familiar to you, it should; it is precisely the difficulty the Communards faced in Paris when they took control of the old machinery of the state. They were compelled to dump that entire structure and create a new one on the fly to suit their specific needs. Marx concluded from that experience that the working class could not simply lay hold of the existing machinery of state and wield it for its purposes — that machinery had to be broken. Kurz is extending Marx’s argument well beyond the state to encompass the entire economic mechanism bound up with the capitalist mode of production. And he gives several pretty convincing reason for his conclusion:

First, if a group of workers could seize their own factory, office or school, this institution could not be pulled out of the commodity production system, because the workers don’t produce anything they directly consume. This is already obvious in an office or a school since nothing material is produced in those institutions at all — they only serve as moments in the overall system of commodity production. But, it is also true for workers in an auto factory, a packing plant, or an industrial farm.

Second, even if we assumed a global movement of factory, office and school expropriations that succeeded throughout the world market, we would still be presented with a very great difficulty. Many of these firms engage in business that are absurd outside of commodity relations — like a human resources firm, a private security firm, or contractors supplying the needs of the fascist state military for “commodities” like trident nuclear subs or predator drones. Others pose an ongoing hazard to the public, like GMO producers, pesticides manufacture, or firms constructing and operating nuclear power plants.

Third, Kurz argues there is a grotesque ignorance on the part of capitalist society and its members concerning how the current system as a whole actually functions. Most firms know little about the larger material requirement of their own activity beyond their own suppliers and clients. Frankly, what keeps capitalism working is not the conscious action of the individuals within it, but blindly acting forces operating behind the backs of the members of society. The relations between billions of daily separate acts of production only become visible in the form of innumerable transactions and capital flows.

Fourth, these billions of separate individual acts of production could only be mediated by money relations or, in the best possible outcome, by a new political structure of planning and control, which would have to intervene in social production and would, because of this, bring in its trail the danger of a new managerial elite always ready to usurp control on its own behalf. Moreover, planning, in old Marxist theories of transition, does not overcome the problem of commodity production, but merely mediates it. It simply replaces the role of prices in commodity production with the plan itself as regulator of billions of acts of production. And the plan itself is as much subject to the law of value as are the fluctuations of prices in unplanned social production. By definition, “The Plan” must be the plan of “society” as a whole, in direct opposition to the free conscious self-activity of society’s billions of individual members.

Kurz concludes from this that social emancipation cannot begin, as traditional Marxism holds, with seizing this machinery of production, but only where the act of production bound up with capitalist relations ends:

“An embryonic form such as that of a “microelectronic natural economy”, which supersedes private property in the means of production, cannot be represented at isolated points within the structure of reproduction (which at the beginning only exist in a capitalist form), but only at its end-points—where production becomes consumption. Only at these points is the constitution of a social space of cooperation possible whose activities do not lead back to the market, but are preferentially consumed, in their results, by the members themselves.”

Which is to say, this new form of organization of society must be a self-contained, autonomous, space situating entirely outside capitalist structures. Unfortunately, Kurz fails to actually come up with a model, I think, because he neglects a simple logical implication of his own analysis. In this passage, Kurz treats the material side of capitalist production and consumption as the production and consumption of material objects that can, somehow, be removed from the process of capitalist production as a whole, when it is actually inextricably connected to the production and consumption of values in the process of capitalist reproduction.

This is a common enough mistake — we all make it — but in this case it damages Kurz overall magnificent analysis. Insofar as capitalist production and consumption is conceived, it must be conceived simultaneously as the production and consumption of values, and of material objects. Thus, with regards to this capitalist act, social emancipation should be conceived as having nothing to do either with production or consumption in any form, nor as beginning with consumption, nor with regards to the nexus between the two. This must include both the production and consumption of values and also the material objects in which these values are embedded.

My argument on this point requires us to expose the mystified form on which the entire notion of value rests. Value is not a substance embedded in the commodity itself, as Marx explains in volume 1 of Capital; it is nothing more than the amount of labor time required for the production of the commodity. It, therefore, cannot be separated from the existence of the commodity itself. A society governed by value is nothing more than a society governed by the labor time required for the production of its material needs. It is silly to keep discussing value in its mystified form, as a quality of commodities, once Marx demonstrated this fact. Ninety-nine percent of the stupidities passing the lips of a Marxist consists of treating value as some ethereal substance that permeates the atmosphere of capitalist society.

As a result of this mystification of value most Marxist theories of social emancipation consists of various schemes to set labor on a new foundation when the point of the fucking exercise is to abolish labor entirely. social emancipation is not, and cannot exist, as a new foundation for labor — communist society is not a fucking society of labor. Social emancipation begins and can only begin where the socially necessary labor time of society ends — and this is the whole meaning of the present crisis.

The labor time of society has been pushed well beyond its necessary limit and this has resulted in the formation of a mass of superfluous workers and capital — as many writers like Kurz have demonstrated. The argument of bourgeois thinkers (and in this sense we must include both Marxist and alternative theorists) consists in their refusal to recognize any limits to capitalist accumulation. A society whose thinking is conditioned by the value fetish is a society whose thinking is conditioned by labor — simply put, it is a society conditioned by inescapable material want.

The true perversity of this material want is not that it exists beside actual and real wealth, but that it cannot conceive of wealth in any other fashion than universal want. It, therefore, takes the absence of want as the premise of a social catastrophe that threatens the existence of civilization itself. On all accounts, this universal want, which is the only conceivable form of wealth in a society regulated according to the law of value, must be imposed with all the means available to society.

It is only on this premise that the insane logic of fascist state economic policy can appear rational by a society drowning in unemployment, overproduction and the filth created by its own productive capacities. Marx explains this in the Grundrisse, where he writes that capitalism creates, for the first time in human history, the possibility of free disposable time for the mass of society, but only in the form of surplus labor time by this mass:

“The creation of a large quantity of disposable time apart from necessary labour time for society generally and each of its members (i.e. room for the development of the individuals’ full productive forces, hence those of society also), this creation of [non-labour] time appears in the stage of capital, as of all earlier ones, as [non-labour time], free time, for a few. What capital adds is that it increases the surplus labour time of the mass by all the means of art and science, because its wealth consists directly in the appropriation of surplus labour time; since value [is] directly its purpose, not use value. It is thus, despite itself, instrumental in creating the means of social disposable time, in order to reduce labour time for the whole society to a diminishing minimum, and thus to free everyone’s time for their own development. But its tendency always, on the one side, [is] to create disposable time, on the other, to convert it into surplus labour. If it succeeds too well at the first, then it suffers from surplus production, and then necessary labour is interrupted, because no surplus labour can be realized by capital. The more this contradiction develops, the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien labour, but that the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour. Once they have done so – and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence – then, on one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time. Labour time as the measure of value posits wealth itself as founded on poverty, and disposable time as existing in and because of the antithesis to surplus labour time; or, the positing of an individual’s entire time as labour time, and his degradation therefore to mere worker, subsumption under labour. The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools.>”

Social emancipation consists in no more than the mass of society’s members wresting this free disposable time back from capital. This is not time spent in capitalist production (which, as Kurz explains, must be understood as both production and consumption bound up with capitalism, or commodity production generally) but in non-labor for the mass of society, freeing them to develop their own capacities apart from labor.

This self-development has no aim other than that given to it by the individual herself. It is, therefore, no longer “productive” in any sense of that term — neither materially or value-producing — but only the free individual unstructured activity of the members of society. As can be now seen, by resting the premise of the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism on the productive forces created by the digital revolution, and the resulting mass of superfluous workers and capital, Kurz also rendered his argument for a positive program of social emancipation unnecessary. The material for the supercession of capitalism by social emancipation is already given in the form of a mass of superfluous labor and capital produced by the material impact of the digital technology itself. To realize this new stage of society, we need only reduce hours of labor within the logic of value production and realize the result as free, disposable time of each individual.

This is why bourgeois economists, like Paul Krugman, condemn every suggestion that unemployment can be ended by a reduction of hours of labor. This proposal is routinely disparaged by the advocates of fascist state fiscal and monetary policy, who call it a proposal based on the “lump of labor fallacy” that there can be an end to the need for labor. For the apologists of the capitalist mode of production any suggestion hours of labor can be reduced is tantamount to a suggestion there is a limit to capitalist accumulation. And it is why even academic Marxists like Michael Heinrich must denounce Kurz’s analysis and posit in its place (as the blog principia dialectica delightfully put it) a theory of “the eternal return of capitalism”. As Kurz argued, no less than bourgeois economists, “historical materialism “pisses its pants”, so to speak, as soon as it is called upon to define the so-called socialist revolution.” And this is because it is incapable of conceiving human activity outside the fetishistic structures of value production.

The Marxism of the 20th Century is dead and its foul rotting corpse is stinking up the very air we breathe. All the categories of traditional Marxist analysis, having reached the theoretical limits of the expansion of human activity under the value form, can offer no help in defining social emancipation insofar is this emancipation actually crosses the threshold of communist society itself. A completely new discourse is necessary formulated in the concept of freely associated individuals, for whom activity serves as forms of self-development of each individual; and of the further development of society within these forms. This discourse, contrary to most Marxist assertions to the contrary, is littered throughout Marx’s own argument and is the premise of his own critique of social emancipation (i.e., Utopian Socialism) from the start of his career to its end.

Kurz’s argument is not quite yet that discourse, but must be considered the moment when such a discourse became necessary for the further advance of social emancipation. Our job is to elaborate this discourse, showing that it rests on the very premises of existing society – a mass of unemployed labor and a mass of superfluous capital, the premise of wealth that rests on, and cannot be conceived apart from, universal want and privation — that makes possible the unfettered self-development of each individual within society.

When we say that social emancipation is the solution to capitalist crisis, we only mean free disposable individual time away from labor is the solution to the horrors of capitalist austerity, unemployment, poverty and want.

Social emancipation is incompatible with every form of property

September 11, 2012 1 comment


In the first section of his essay, Kurz examined the limitations of 20th Century Marxism that, he argued, was incapable of theoretically superseding capitalism except by means of a proposed future event, the proletarian political revolution, which, would solve all of capitalism’s ills and manage society in some undisclosed fashion. To address this theoretical failure, in section two of his essay, Kurz returns to the basic schema of Marx, the link between the forces and relations of production. Kurz proposes the technologies associated with the digital revolution renders living, value producing, labor increasingly superfluous to production. Kurz concludes the significance of the new technology is not to be found in its production, but in its utilization by society. This technology cannot be employed to mobilize the massive labor armies of the Fordist era.

I argue, following Kurz, the impact of the digital revolution on the ‘economy’ appears to us in its phenomenal or perceptible form as a growing potential for social collapse and regression to a primitive state of simple survival. This survivalist fear is simply the result of the conditioning of our consciousness by commodity production itself — since we have been conditioned by bourgeois society to take its relations as the “natural” form of society, we experience capitalism’s potential for collapse as the potential for the collapse of civilization itself, when it is actually otherwise. In fact, as Kurz seems to argue, the potential inherent in this technology for the collapse of commodity production must actually be the premise of our conceptions of social emancipation; because this technology makes possible a decentralized organization of society without the necessary fulcrum of the state and commodity fetishism generally.

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The “nightmare scenario” of capitalist collapse

September 9, 2012 Leave a comment


The nightmare scenario typically presented by bourgeois thinkers to the possibility of the collapse of capitalism can pretty much be summed up in six words:

“Buy guns, gold and beans! Now!”

In this view, the passing of capitalism is equated with the complete breakdown of civilization and a regression to some primitive state. Without market forces and the centralized control of the fascist state, we are warned, society must splinter into roving gangs of murderous, zombie-like, scavengers.

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Kurz and the dead end of Statist Marxism

September 5, 2012 1 comment

I am reading Robert Kurz’s “Anti-economics and anti-politics: on the reformulation of social emancipation after the end of ‘Marxism'”.

It appears to me, at first glance, that this 1997 piece is a continuation of his 1995 prediction of a devaluation shock that would  bring an end to capitalism. As I stated in my reading of that work, I found it inexplicable that Kurz did not take his analysis to its logical conclusion. That analysis pointed to hours of labor as the central problem of our time and the only real solution to the capitalist crisis. However, Kurz did not go there in his 1995 work, but made an attempt to nail down how to “supersede” capital in this 1997 piece.

I am going to take on section 1 of Part One today, which focuses on the failures of mainstream Marxist praxis at the turn of the century.

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Worthless money as a rational absurdity

June 5, 2012 3 comments

INTRODUCTION

For a while now, I have been trying to come to grips with the neoclassical theory of money, which states anything can serve as money and that money doesn’t have to be a commodity. The theory is patently theoretically absurd, contradictory and internally inconsistent as John weeks explains in the paper I discuss in my post. Despite these defects, however, neoclassical money theory not only maintains its dominance in economics, its alternative, commodity money theory, is ridiculed and marginalized even among Marxist theorists.

While reading the John Weeks paper, it began to dawn on me why this is true. I had been spending my effort trying to argue for the superiority of commodity money theory, when I should have been trying to understand the circumstances under which neoclassical money theory made sense. Weeks, in his paper, explains two assumptions which are necessary for neoclassical money theory: 1. the economy has to produce only one composite commodity; and 2. the state must be able to control the money supply.

Weeks thinks both of these conditions make neoclassical money theory wrong, but now I believe he is wrong on this. In the capitalist mode of production, the only true commodity is labor power — the single composite commodity required by neoclassical theory. Moreover, contrary to Weeks’ assertion, the state can control the money supply, if we a speaking of classical commodity money. It need only declare commodity money is not money and replace this money in circulation with its own token, i.e., impose an inconvertible currency in place of gold. This was done in the 1930s in the US and Europe. The state can control the money supply, if by “control” that term includes also setting that supply to zero.

The result was a bit of an epiphany for me, since Weeks is describing how Washington directly manages the US economy as a single giant corporation, despite the economy appearing superficially as numerous separate capitals.

The article was rushed and is in need of serious editing, but I welcome criticism and challenges to this idea.

*****

I want to recommend everyone read John Weeks’ paper, “The theoretical and empirical credibility of commodity money“, because he presents a key to the analysis of neoclassical economic theory that unlocks its inner logic. I missed the juicy goodness of his argument in my first read because I have an aversion to mixing math with social criticism. However, in his math Weeks uncover why money is not a commodity-money in neoclassical theory, and why it cannot be a commodity-money.

Weeks tries to make sense of a troubling rejection by neoclassical economic theory to admit to the obvious internal consistency of Marx’s commodity-money theory:

Th[e] theoretical superiority of commodity-based monetary theory has had little practical impact because of a perceived empirical absurdity of the commodity money hypothesis.

I came to my understanding of fascist state issued fiat money based on one closely held idea that neoclassical economics is not irrational, capitalism is. Yes, capitalism is as irrational as it has been declared by Marxists to be, however no one but an idiot would buy into the neoclassical argument unless it made sense in the context of fascist state economic policy. Since capitalism itself is irrational, a rational person looks like an idiot when he buys into its propositions; on the other hand, accepting the irrationality of capitalist relations of production as the basis for formulating fascist state economic policy is rational.

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Review: Marx’s Economics for Anarchists, by Wayne Price

November 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Wayne Price

Wayne Price’s “Marx’s Economics for Anarchists” makes the fatal error of treating Marx’s Capital as a description of how the economy works. This mistake Price makes is on the order of treating Einstein’s Theory as a description of how H-Bombs work. I suppose, in some limited fashion, Marx does give something approaching a description of “how capitalism works.” But, this was neither his project, nor even the most significant aspect of his life works. Even from the point of view of an anarchist like Price and his audience, what Marx explains in Capital of economic interest is insignificant.

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A critical examination of Kevin Carson’s Mutualism (Final Part)

June 29, 2011 3 comments

“Well, what point of view would you expect to come out of this?” Noam Chomsky

In his mutualist economic work, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Carson asks us to consider two questions:

“1) if the “historical process” of primitive accumulation involved the use of force, how essential was force to that process; and if force was essential to the process, does it not follow that past force, as reflected in the present distribution of property, underlies the illusion of “free contract”; 2) how is it possible for employers to consistently pay a price for labor-power less than its product, if labor is free to bargain for the best possible deal? (Recourse to vague ideas of “social power” or “market power,” without an explicit examination of their nature, is not a satisfactory explanation.)”

With these questions, Kevin is actually throwing dust in our eyes to blind us; this is clearly some kind of literacy test for dumb Marxists:

Taking the second question first, in Marx’s actual theory the worker is never paid “less than her product”, since the only “product” in her possession is her labor power. There is no reason to explain how she is compelled to receive less than the value of this commodity; there is no need to appeal to vague nonsense phrases like “social power” or “market power” to explain profit — but then again, at no point in Marx’s theory does Maurice Dobbs or Benjamin Tucker make an appearance inform the parties how the law of value is supposed to function. In Marx’ model, competition between and among the capitalists and workers does not give rise to the value of labor power — this competition plays no role whatsoever in deciding how labor power will be priced. Rather, only after labor power becomes a commodity, and, thereby, acquires a value, does the universal competition between and among capitalist and workers arise. Competition does not explain wages, wages explain competition.

As is normal for a free market, the worker is entirely free to shop her labor power for the best deal; so, she always receives the full value for it. And, as Carson should already realize, there is not one act in this process but two as in any such exchange — an exchange of money for a commodity and its actual use — neither of which is, in any fashion, given by the other.

First, we have the exchange of wages for the labor power — an act, as Carson informs us, that is entirely innocent of all exploitative features, and not in any fashion to be regarded as threatening. As in any other commodity exchange we have to assume the capitalist and worker agree on a set price for this commodity, each with an eye to maximizing their gain by the transaction. The worker has to consider all the elements that go into the value of her labor power directly and indirectly — food, clothing, shelter, medical care, a Facebook page of her own, etc.; the capitalist approaches the transaction as he would any other business investment, with an eye to a return on his investment in the particular commodity negotiating the terms of its own purchase across the table from him. The question is: How much is the capitalist willing to offer for this labor power?  While Carson has no difficulty understanding how a plot of virgin land containing a seam of coal might acquire a value in the market, with labor power, how it comes to acquire a value quite different than what it can produce seems altogether a mystery to him. However, as in the case of coal and land, the capitalist values this object as he does any other: by what he might gain by employing it as capital.

Carson argues, but never demonstrates, why this labor power should have its price determined by anything other than the same laws that determined the prices of any object. Yes, as Carson states, unlike the worker, coal does not require coaxing to give up its heat; but, by the same token, coal cannot be coaxed to pull itself out of the ground by flights of fancy of a better life in a furnace. A Mexican peasant, however, might be encouraged by such visions to leave her small plot of land to pick lettuce in one of the many agricultural factories in the United States. Even if we assume this job is unpleasant and avoided by Americans, we can easily imagine that purely economic interest might encourage the Mexican peasant to uproot herself from her small plot and make a remarkably dangerous journey to the United States in search of better economic opportunities. All we have to assume in this case is that the peasant obtains a material advantage over her present circumstances as a small-holder in Mexico by voluntarily selling herself into wage slavery in America. As Engels argued against Duhring, no force is necessary for this purely economic transaction; yet, the peasant voluntarily abandons her independent means of labor to become a wage slave precisely because she can improve her economic circumstances by doing so. Having separated herself from her independent means of labor to cross into the United States, the worker finds her labor power is now entirely useless to her, and, for this reason, is without any value at all unless she can find a buyer who has a use for it. But, it is useful to the capitalist only insofar as he can employ it as capital and produce a profit over the wage he has paid for it.

What is significant about this transaction, however, is this: until the transaction actually takes place, the labor power has not produced anything — it is merely a potential investment by the capitalist who hopes to employ it afterward to create a profit. For the moment, this is only a hope on the part of the capitalist. Whether this hope is realized is of no concern to the worker, who wants only to be paid the full value of her labor power in its present pristine form, unsoiled by the act of labor. So, when Benjamin Tucker sticks his nose into this private transaction to warn both sides that labor power is entitled to its full product, both sides tell him to go to hell, since, they agree, the labor power has not produced anything, and is itself the “product” being discussed. Asking Mr. Tucker to leave the room so they can finalize their agreement, they proceed to agree on a price. The first act of the transaction is complete — the labor power was purchased at it value, and all parties are satisfied with the deal. At no point was it necessary for either party to call in the State to sign onto the agreement “in letters of blood and fire.”

Only now do we get to the second act: the exploitation of this labor power by the capitalist. Carson wants the worker to be paid the full value produced by the actual consumption of the labor power; but, as we can now see, when the labor power is actually being exploited, it is no longer the property of the worker — it belongs to the capitalist who purchased it. The exchange of money for the commodity was only the first step and has been completed. It is now the property of the capitalist — although it still physically stands before him in the body of the worker. The labor power is not put to work until the capitalist has closed the deal to the satisfaction of both parties. Carson is entirely correct to say that the value of the labor power is its product, but this value is determined by the use to which its owner will now put it. Carson wants to skip over this observation, or treat it as inconsequential to the discussion; but it is, in fact, the heart of the matter. When the laborer puts her own labor power to use as an individual producer, its usefulness for her is directly realized in the product her labor can produce. If we could speak of value (wage) in this context (which, of course, would be silly) the “natural wage” of this labor would indeed be its product. This does not change one iota if we now assume the labor power is employed, not by the direct producer, but by the capitalist: the same condition holds: the usefulness of the labor power for the capitalist is directly realized in the product it produces.

Is there anything in this latter act of exploitation that requires State intervention? Is there anything in the latter act that requires unequal exchange in the former? Is there any reason why just this sort of exchange cannot happen completely as described in the absence of the State? Carson should answer these questions carefully, because he has made the argument that just such a transaction is benign, and is entirely consistent with his vision of a petty bourgeois market socialism. As a libertarian, he also believes a property owner has the right to employ his property as he sees fit without State interference or subsidy. The only difference between Carson and Marx in this above described scenario is that Marx states this is all that is required for exploitation, while Carson swears it to be the basis for market socialism.

***

Turning to the first question, an answer to which Carson demanded, we can now understand how Engels could argue that, in theory, the entirety of the premises of capitalism could arise by purely economic means without any appeal to the process of primitive accumulation Marx graphically describes in both the German Ideology and Capital. Indeed, in the very text cited by Carson with regard to Marx description of primitive accumulation, Marx himself refers to it as an artificial (i.e., not natural) means of abbreviating the transition from feudal to capitalist relations of production:

The system of protection was an artificial means of manufacturing manufacturers, of expropriating independent labourers, of capitalizing the national means of production and subsistence, of forcibly abbreviating the transition from the mediaeval to the modern mode of production.

Moreover, Marx in describing primitive accumulation notes that, side by side with primitive accumulation, the disintegration of the old society is already preceding apace:

The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former.

The immediate producer, the labourer, could only dispose of his own person after he had ceased to be attached to the soil and ceased to be the slave, serf, or bondsman of another. To become a free seller of labour power, who carries his commodity wherever he finds a market, he must further have escaped from the regime of the guilds, their rules for apprentices and journeymen, and the impediments of their labour regulations. Hence, the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.

The industrial capitalists, these new potentates, had on their part not only to displace the guild masters of handicrafts, but also the feudal lords, the possessors of the sources of wealth. In this respect, their conquest of social power appears as the fruit of a victorious struggle both against feudal lordship and its revolting prerogatives, and against the guilds and the fetters they laid on the free development of production and the free exploitation of man by man. The chevaliers d’industrie, however, only succeeded in supplanting the chevaliers of the sword by making use of events of which they themselves were wholly innocent. They have risen by means as vile as those by which the Roman freedman once on a time made himself the master of his patronus.

There is, Marx notes, a two-sided process taking place — not simply the primitive accumulation occurring under the influence of emerging capitalist relations, but also a disintegration of the old feudal relations of production which sets the elements of these new forces free. Carson makes the argument that employment of these artificial means, even if they were limited only to that ugly period of human history, nevertheless taints the relations of productions down to the present day:

As for the fact that the pre-existing economic means must have been gotten by someone’s labor, once again, so what? Who said that force created production? One might as well say that the pre-existence of a host organism negates the principle of parasitism. And Engels himself admitted that the economic means might be in the hands of the ruling class as a result of past force. If the means of production under their control may indeed be the result of forcible robbery, what becomes of Engels assertion of these pre-existing means as a telling point against the force theory? In any case, it is quite consistent to posit a process in a series of stages, in which the progressive accumulation of capital, and the increasing exploitation of labor, are a mutually reinforcing synergistic trend, with force as still the primary cause of exploitation. In every case, the accumulated economic means that make heightened exploitation possible are the result of past robbery. As the Hindu theologian said of turtles, it’s force all the way down.

Carson makes a powerful argument here that an event precipitating a historical process expresses itself in the relations established long after the event has passed into history. Capitalist relations of production, even if they were not today influenced by continuous State intervention to maintain the system of exploitation, owe their existence to the ugly use of violence at the earliest moments of its emergence. However, as we have seen in this chicken-versus-egg farce of an argument, Capital is only the final stage of an historical process whereby the direct laborer is separated from the objective means of production — a separation that in no way begins with force, but with the material gain of the ancient family group when it replaced communal ownership with individual property relations under the encouragement of the earliest instances of commodity exchange between neighboring family groups. Rather than force all the way down, it has been just as Engels stated: material gain all the way down.

***

Thus, Marx provides us with the critical key to understanding what neither the Anarcho-Capitalist and Marxist critics of the Fascist State can explain, nor can be explained by the liberal and conservative apologists of Capital: not the use of force in exploitation, but consent within the democratic republic founded on universal suffrage to this exploitation, and particularly the role this universal suffrage plays in emergence of the Fascist State. Anyone trying to understand the argument of Marx and Engels by reading Maurice Dobbs or Paul Sweezy has already led himself into a theoretical cul-de-sac. Marx and Engels never assume the laborer is paid less than her product; rather, they assume precisely the opposite: the worker gains materially by entering into wage slavery with an utterly rapacious, vile, detestable parasite on the body human. This material gain need only be just significantly better than that which could be realized if the Mexican migrant instead remained on her small-holding.

What really has to be explained by any theory of historical development is why the numerically vastly superior mass of laborers, despite this Fascist State role, and despite the obvious consequences of this role, nevertheless voluntarily reproduce the relationship through their suffrage. To use one of Carson’s own analogies as the basis for furthering my argument:

Engels still did not show that exploitation was inherent in a given level of productive forces, without the use of coercion. He needed to show, not that parasitism depends on the preexistence of a host organism (duh!), but that it cannot be carried out without force. Every increase in economic productivity has created opportunities for robbery through a statist class system; but the same productive technology was always usable in non-exploitative ways. The fact that a given kind of class parasitism presupposes a certain form of productive technology, does not alter the fact that that form of technology has potentially both libertarian and exploitative applications, depending on the nature of the society which adopts it.

Carson employs the case of a parasite to argue against an alleged fallacy beneath Engels’ position that force presupposes material relations of production and does not create them. Carson explains that the existence of the host body does not, of itself, presuppose the parasitic infection. This is a good analogy since medicine has for the last 80 years actually introduced deadly live organisms into the human body under controlled circumstances precisely to inoculate humans from illnesses spread by these organisms. While the existence of the human body does not imply the existence of a parasite, the mere existence of the parasite in the human body does not imply an illness. In the case of inoculation it actually implies resistance to the illness caused by the parasite. You cannot argue that one condition necessarily implies the other — that coexistence of the use of force with exploitation implies the latter is dependent on the former, or vice versa. The two occur side by side throughout history, and, moreover, both influence and reinforce each other, and, at other times, altogether appear at loggerheads. Indeed history is replete with the use of force precisely aimed to overthrow existing modes of exploitation, and against the states that enforced these modes — our own Paris Commune is just one such instance.

The logical insufficiency of Carson’s force argument in this case is revealed when we inquire into how the most democratic of all republics — the United States — nevertheless appears most completely in the grip of monopoly interests. The State, in Carson’s argument, is constantly intervening in the market to enforce conditions of unequal exchange. Carson argues the intent of this intervention is to produce a material gain for monopoly:

Of course the use of force is aimed at the benefit of the user–who ever denied it? Who in his right mind would claim that exploitation is motivated by pure E-vill, rather than material gain? And since, by definition, means are always subordinate to ends, the ends are always more fundamental.

This reasoning appears to present no difficulty in certain previous incarnations of the State — the slave, for instance, did not enjoy universal suffrage — but, it’s actual practical failure as an explanation is revealed when it comes to explaining the democratic republic as the very instrument for enforcing the ruthless exploitation of the mass of society by a numerically small group of parasites. Having dispatched the materialist view of history, Carson should at least be required to offer an opinion on why a State based on universal suffrage, clearly dominated by a proletarian majority, might come to enforce circumstances where this proletarian majority are systematically robbed of their “natural wage” through unequal exchange with their own consent? What we have to explain is not, “pure E-vill” but, rather a complete lack of material gain to the majority of voters under the existing political relations of society.

Once you introduce the idea that capitalist exploitation is based on unequal exchange, you must now explain why the democratic republic continuously enforces this unequal exchange despite a obvious lack of material gain for the proletarian majority, and even at their expense. The easiest way to explain this, of course, is by identifying an obvious defect in existing political relations themselves — that, somehow, democracy is also infected with the parasite — that, in the words of Noam Chomsky, this consent is in some fashion manufactured, as he describes in a 1992 interview:

QUESTION: You write in Manufacturing Consent [(Pantheon, 1988)] that it’s the primary function of the mass media in the United States to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector. What are those interests?

CHOMSKY: Well, if you want to understand the way any society works, ours or any other, the first place to look is who is in a position to make the decisions that determine the way the society functions. Societies differ, but in ours, the major decisions over what happens in the society — decisions over investment and production and distribution and so on — are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations and conglomerates and investment firms. They are also the ones who staff the major executive positions in the government. They’re the ones who own the media and they’re the ones who have to be in a position to make the decisions. They have an overwhelmingly dominant role in the way life happens. You know, what’s done in the society. Within the economic system, by law and in principle, they dominate. The control over resources and the need to satisfy their interests imposes very sharp constraints on the political system and on the ideological system.

QUESTION: When we talk about manufacturing of consent, whose consent is being manufactured?

CHOMSKY: To start with, there are two different groups, we can get into more detail, but at the first level of approximation, there’s two targets for propaganda. One is what’s sometimes called the political class. There’s maybe twenty percent of the population which is relatively educated, more or less articulate, plays some kind of role in decision-making. They’re supposed to sort of participate in social life — either as managers, or cultural managers like teachers and writers and so on. They’re supposed to vote, they’re supposed to play some role in the way economic and political and cultural life goes on. Now their consent is crucial. So that’s one group that has to be deeply indoctrinated. Then there’s maybe eighty percent of the population whose main function is to follow orders and not think, and not to pay attention to anything — and they’re the ones who usually pay the costs.

Innumerable variants of this silly thesis are employed by Libertarians, Anarchists and Marxists to explain how a Fascist State so clearly operating at the expense of the mass of society nevertheless enjoys their continued support or, at least, their apathy in the face of its ravages and predation. Marx’s theory, on the other hand, predicts precisely political support for the existing mode of exploitation, since he never assumes existing political relations are founded on anything other than the law of value, equal exchange, and material advantage accruing to both exploiter and exploited. It is the operation of the law of value itself, which encourages the small-holder to convert herself into a wage slave, that also ensures its continued existence, despite the obstacles Capital places in its own way, through the continuous intervention of the Fascist State.

The conclusion arrived at by Marx’s theory should be sobering for critical communist theory — the worker does not merely sell herself into slavery willingly, she also assures, through her political activity, that the conditions for her enslavement are maintained despite her exploitation. This conclusion cannot be ignored or jury-rigged out of existence by means of silly arguments based on alleged “social power”, unequal exchange, or manufactured consent. They must be faced squarely by critical communism. In this task, Carson’s mutualist synthesis of the dominant streams of critical communist theory is an utter failure.

A critical examination of Kevin Carson’s Mutualism (Part Five)

June 25, 2011 Leave a comment

“…an ingredient in someone’s soup.” –Rod Serling

According to Carson the arguments of the Anarcho-Capitalist and Marxist variants of critical communist theory identify a movement of large-scale, organized capital to obtain its profits through state intervention into the economy, although the regulations entailed in this project are usually sold to the public as progressive restraints on big business, which creates, “a system of industrial serfdom in which politically connected capitalist interests exploit workers and consumers through the agency of the state.”

It should have been obvious to Carson at the outset that this argument by Anarcho-Capitalism and Marxism was always suspect, since it is just a simplistic inversion of the argument of “mainline ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals'” that the Fascist State acts to restrain “the power of big business” by means of “Progressive and New Deal programs forced on corporate interests from outside, and against their will.” It doesn’t take any particular genius to see that the social class most advantaged by existing political relations might find it in their interest to portray these relations, not as advantages, but as limitations or constraints on their social power.  That, this realization should be seen as an analytical accomplishment in the 21st Century is not just curious on its face, it is a commentary on the pathetic state of critical communist theory.

The simplistic mirror imaged world view of the conservative and liberal pundits is mirrored again in the simplistic conclusions of its Anarcho-Capitalist and Marxist critics, and the superficial analysis of the critical camp as a whole is itself merely the mirror image of the superficial analysis of the mainstream camp. The common conclusion of both critics and the mainstream is that the State is the autonomous author of political-economy, and economic players merely act out a script that emerged full blown from the central plan of society’s general manager. All agree — to one extent or another — that the role of the Fascist State has nothing at all to do with the relation between capitalists and the wage laborers as antagonistic poles of Capital and absolutely dependent for their existence as opposing classes on this relation. On this basis, Carson argues there is no antithesis between property and labor as such — that wage labor can coexist with property, if the State, which dominates both in the interest of monopoly, is abolished.

Kevin Carson’s attempt to synthesize the arguments of Anarcho-Capitalism and Marxism was always a fool’s errand. He produces a mash up of a critique of Capital from the viewpoint of the capitalist and from the viewpoint of the laborer, when what was really called for from him is a critique of capitalist labor itself — of the relation between these two classes and the implications this relationship has on the emergence and development of the Fascist State. We are led to believe that the relation between property and wage labor is entirely innocuous save for Fascist State intervention. Thus, Carson makes the assertion that wage labor can exist in a non-exploitative society without ever investigating the nature of wage labor itself as a historical social form. He essentially treats the worker as a self-owned commodity and applies to the labor market the same analysis he applies to the market in shoes.

Is this possible? Marx, who before he even begins to consider the commodity in circulation, and before he considers it as an essential element of the capitalist mode of production, takes the time to consider the commodity in its own right as an object. He begins by noting that every commodity has a two-fold character — that, for the producer, it satisfies no need for her and exists for her only as an object to be exchanged, a social use value. Without these two together, it is not a commodity:

A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. (And not only for others, without more. The mediaeval peasant produced quit-rent-corn for his feudal lord and tithe-corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent-corn nor the tithe-corn became commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others. To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.) Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.

Understand what is going on here in Marx’s analysis: the commodity has no usefulness to the individual producer, but it must have a usefulness for others. This appears altogether benign in relation to object like a sack of potatoes or shoes (although, as I will show, even here Marx argues it is surprisingly malignant) but, in relation to the human capacity to labor, it implies her productive capacities are entirely useless to her. Her own body is not her self, but a detachable object that exists only to be exchanged for money. Before he even begins to consider this object in the context of the capitalist mode of production, and its vital role in this mode, Marx has already demonstrated how for the laborer her own qualities as a human being no longer exists for her except as means. And, to be absolutely clear on this point, throughout all of Capital, labor power is the only commodity Marx is discussing — even when he uses quantities of coats and tons of iron as his practical examples. In his dry sarcastic academic style Marx is painstakingly describing precisely what it means to reduce a human being to a commodity.

He is discussing the capitalist mode of production and he is only speaking of the inherent qualities of the commodity that is specific to this mode of production — qualities it shares with other commodities, but which have quite unique results when applied to this one in particular. The pathetic abortion that passes for Marxism has no inkling of this fact. And, Carson, because he uncritically accepts the assumptions of the Marxist and Anarcho-Capitalist analyses of the capitalist mode of production, never ventures into an analysis of labor power on his own. As a result he offers nothing new in this regard, and fails to address the critical objection raised by Marx to the very idea that human capacities can simply be treated as another commodity for sale. Instead we get from Carson only that the value of this commodity consists in what it can be compelled to produce:

“[T]he natural wage of labor in a free market is its full product…”

The only thing differentiating one set of human capacities from another are not the uniquely human  desires and wants of the individuals concerned, nor how these unique desires and wants are expressed in their activities, but the impersonal exchange value contained in each as expressed in so many ounces of gold. Thus, human beings can be compared to each other as one might compare linen and coats. This corrosive force, introduced into our very concept of what it means to be a human being by the capitalist mode of production and exchange, is never examined by Carson — as it is never examined by the Anarcho-Capitalist or the Marxist, nor by mainstream political-economy — but generally accepted among both apologists and critics of capitalist society as a fact.

This brings us to the refutation of Eugen Duhring by Frederick Engels — and to Carson’s objection to the views expressed by Engels in this debate:

Engels, to render the Marxian theory consistent (and to deflect the strategic threat from the market socialists mentioned above), was forced to retreat on the role of force in primitive accumulation. (And if we take his word on the importance of Marx’s input and approval during his writing of Anti-Dühring, Marx himself was guilty of similar backpedalling). In Anti-Dühring, Engels vehemently denied that force was necessary at any stage of the process; indeed, that it did little even to further the process significantly.

Every socialist worker [like every British schoolboy?]… knows quite well that force only protects exploitation, but does not cause it; that the relation between capital and wage labour is the basis of his exploitation, and that this arose by purely economic causes and not at all by means of force [emphasis added].

This raises the question of to what extent the legal system is presupposed in even “purely economic” relations, and whether more than one “purely economic” state of affairs is possible, depending on the degree of such state involvement. For example, are combination laws, laws of settlement, and laws on the issuance of credit without specie backing essential to the process of free exchange itself, or only to the capitalist character of such exchange?

Engels stated the case in even more absolute terms later on, denying that force was necessary (or even especially helpful, apparently) at any stage of the process.

…even if we exclude all possibility of robbery, force and fraud, even if we assume that all private property was originally based on the owner’s own labour, and that throughout the whole subsequent process there was only exchange of equal values for equal values, the progressive development of production and exchange nevertheless brings us of necessity to the present capitalist mode of production, to the monpolization of the means of production and the means of subsistence in the hands of a numerically small class, to the degradation into propertyless proletarians of the other class, constituting the immense majority, to the periodic alternation of speculative production booms and commercial crises and to the whole of the present anarchy of production. The whole process can be explained by purely economic causes; at no point whatever are robbery, force, the state or political interference of any kind necessary.

You can see Carson’s brain smoking here. How can exploitation occur when obviously the value of wages must be equal to the value of its product — yet, as a practical matter it does not? Indeed these are Engels words, and, moreover, they are fully consistent with the conclusions reached by Marx in his analysis — indeed Marx himself contributed an entire section to Engels polemic against Duhring. But, even if Marx had not made such a contribution, Engels words stand on their own as an exemplary piece of historical materialist argument. So let’s parse Engels argument.

Is Engels denying the role of force in history? Obviously not. He explicitly states force has been employed to enforce existing social relations throughout history, and that the capitalist mode of production was no exception to this role. So, although differing on a lot of fundamentals with Kevin Carson, Marx and Engels did not differ much with him on the historical record of the State; which is what makes the points on which they differ both significant, yet entirely beside the point: Kevin Carson believes exploitation cannot happen without the State; however, Marx and Engels are discussing an altogether different subject!

To do this, they document a number of then known  instances where pre-capitalist forms of private property emerges without State action directly out of communal ownership. Engels shows how, in documented cases, the commons themselves were dissolved through the emergence of commodity production. Private property emerges spontaneously, and without any action by the State — gradually the commons is converted into a community of small-holders because the members see a material advantage to the dissolution of the commons:

Private property by no means makes its appearance in history as the result of robbery or force. On the contrary. It already existed, though limited to certain objects, in the ancient primitive communities of all civilised peoples. It developed into the form of commodities within these communities, at first through barter with foreigners. The more the products of the community assumed the commodity form, that is, the less they were produced for their producers’ own use and the more for the purpose of exchange, and the more the original spontaneously evolved division of labour was superseded by exchange also within the community, the more did inequality develop in the property owned by the individual members of the community, the more deeply was the ancient common ownership of the land undermined, and the more rapidly did the commune develop towards its dissolution and transformation into a village of smallholding peasants. For thousands of years Oriental despotism and the changing rule of conquering nomad peoples were unable to injure these old communities; the gradual destruction of their primitive home industry by the competition of products of large-scale industry brought these communities nearer and nearer to dissolution. Force was as little involved in this process as in the dividing up, still taking place now, of the land held in common by the village communities [Gehöferschaften] on the Mosel and in the Hochwald; the peasants simply find it to their advantage that the private ownership of land should take the place of common ownership. Even the formation of a primitive aristocracy, as in the case of the Celts, the Germans and the Indian Punjab, took place on the basis of common ownership of the land, and at first was not based in any way on force, but on voluntariness and custom. Wherever private property evolved it was the result of altered relations of production and exchange, in the interest of increased production and in furtherance of intercourse—hence as a result of economic causes. Force plays no part in this at all. Indeed, it is clear that the institution of private property must already be in existence for a robber to be able to appropriate another person’s property, and that therefore force may be able to change the possession of, but cannot create, private property as such.

Engels is not here discussing hypothetical scenarios of exploitation; rather he is discussing actual evidence from documented research of contemporary scientists into historical and contemporary communities. Moreover, he was an acknowledged expert in his on right on the subject he is discussing. In this research, he notes, there is compelling evidence to support the hypothesis that pre-capitalist private property spontaneously emerged from communal ownership, disintegrating this ownership, not due to force and violence, but due to the material advantages it offered over communal ownership. To what in this argument can Carson possibly object? Is Engels distorting or fabricating the research of these scientists? Is he spinning this evidence in a way that throws the best light on his own hypothesis? Is he concealing other exculpatory evidence that proves these communities broke, not on their own volition, as Engels states, but due to the force and violence of previously undisclosed players? This is a pure and simple presentation of the historical record, which cannot be refuted simply by dismissing it out of hand — as Duhring does — but must be met with equally persuasive evidence to the contrary, or with evidence Engels is making an erroneous interpretation of the facts.

Nowhere does Carson offer any such evidence.

The separation of the laborer from the objective conditions of labor is by no means accomplished all in one leap as Carson would have us believe, but is a process lasting thousands of years, beginning with the dissolution of the early human communities founded on common ownership. The emergence of commodity production and exchange, and private property with it, directly out of the commonly held property of the community was the initial step by mankind on the long road leading to the complete separation of the laborer from the means of production — an act only finally completed with Capital, when the laborer herself is turned into a commodity. True, in its earliest moment of development, this separation is only rudimentary; however, in a community founded on common ownership of the means of production, all members had access to all of these commonly owned means. The separation of the producer from the means of production begins exactly with the division of this common property into private hands, when the individual’s access to the now privately held property of the community can only take place on the basis of exchange. The individual is now in possession of his own individual means of production, but he is, by the same token, severed from the greater portion of the total communal means of production which now are the property of other members of the community. On the one hand, with the disintegration of the community, the total communal means of production is now divided into privately held properties, and, on the other hand, the producers are themselves divided from the mass of total communal means. This world historical separation, of course, is simply the outcome of a process that begins with the producer’s own act of commodity exchange — an act which is nothing less than a separation of the individual act of labor from satisfaction of the needs of the producer.

Engels is not discussing exploitation; he is discussing how society itself, and our conception of ourselves as human beings, is being transformed by the way we go about our productive lives. A transformation that, as I will discuss in the final part of this series, culminates in the emergence of a completely unique circumstance: exploitation based entirely on equal exchange of value within the world market.