Posts Tagged ‘Marxism’

Guglielmo Carchedi’s bad advice for activists

December 16, 2012 Leave a comment


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 2 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


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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