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Anarchism versus Marxism (Or, Dumb and Dumber, Part two)

January 17, 2012 5 comments

Marx (L) and Bakunin

I had a conversation with Tim (@timthesocialist) last night which was really interesting. I have not debated a Marxist about Marx in some time. I am really trying to understand the Marxist argument on the state — at least the Leninist wing of Marxism. As a Marxist by history this should be easy for me, but surprisingly it is not. I am looking for some distinction between anarchism and Marxism on the state — but it is quite difficult to find one.

Both anarchists and Marxists insist Marx’s theory involves something called the “worker’s state”, that replaces the present state. They both insist on this despite the lack of any reference to such an abomination in Marx’s own writings. Marx does indeed insist that had there been a successful revolution during his lifetime, the result would have been a “revolutionary dictatorship”. But, there are many curious features of his argument.

Read more…

The Black Hole: Marxism, the State and the Social Revolution (3)

August 13, 2011 Leave a comment

“…the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit.”

In the first part of the series, I made three critical assumptions about present political-economic relations.

First, in 1929, Capitalism suffered a general breakdown, brought on by absolute over-accumulation — absolute over-production. This crisis, known popularly as the Great Depression, occurred in every major industrialized nation in the world market, and constituted a global over-accumulation of capital that was irreversible. It took the form of a great mass of unemployed workers, side by side with a mass of unemployed means of production and subsistence.

Second, the fascist states which emerged from this economic catastrophe took the form of the ‘political rule of the proletariat over itself’, effected through its suffrage in the nations where it formed the largest class.

Third, the only alternative solution to the breakdown of capitalism and the “political rule of the proletariat over itself” was and remains the reduction of labor hours.

I also attacked the “Marxist theory of the state” and argued this “theory” is, in fact, not supported by Marx’s critique of capitalist society. So far as I can determine, not a single point of Althusser’s 1970 statement of the ‘Marxist theory of the state’ is found either in Marx’s or Engels’ writings of the state. While it is true, Althusser agrees with historical materialism that the state is an organ of class rule, this simplistic description of the state is ahistorical and does not satisfy the historical materialist description of the capitalist mode of production as a distinct historical stage in the development of the forces and relations of production.

Althusser’s statement can be applied to any epoch of human civilization, and to every known mode of production. It does not explain what of the capitalist state is specific to the capitalist mode of production and the social relations within society that are founded on this mode. What is specific to the state under the capitalist mode of production is not merely, or even primarily, that it is an instrument by which the ruling class imposes its will on society: in the writings of Marx and Engels, the state under the capitalist mode of production is “essentially a capitalist machine,” that displaces and renders the capitalist class itself superfluous to the mode of production and functions as the national, i.e., social, capitalist.

Althusser treats the state as an ahistorical category, not as a real thing situated in the capitalist epoch. The state is reduced to an instrument of repression, which appears in the capitalist epoch already in its complete and unchanging form. Essentially, Althusser recycles Duhring’s argument on force and dresses it in 20th Century “Leninist” clothing. While he does not go so far as Duhring and Anarchism to give force the determining role in historical development, he treats the state itself as essentially unchanged by the material changes in society.

This essentially static view of the state can not help us understand our present condition, as it throws no light on existing social relations.

*****

In the second part of the series, I examine Lenin’s and Kautsky’s argument that the class conflict takes place completely within the bounds of a commercial transaction and confirm it as agreeing with my understanding historical materialism. The recognition by Lenin and Kautsky of the limits of the purely economic struggle — of the struggle with the capitalist over the terms and conditions of the sale of labor power, however, is converted by Leninism into an argument that the proletariat is incapable of carrying out its historical mission of burying capital without theory. And, since the proletariat is not “the bearer of theory”, into an argument for a vanguard party.

The argument for a Leninist vanguard party on these grounds, however, is a non-sequitur, since, despite the limitations of the economic struggle, historical materialism insists the working class abolishes capital based on empirical comprehension of their circumstances — not on a theory purporting to describe these circumstances.

Marxists take Kautsky’s and Lenin’s arguments completely out of context of the capitalist mode of production itself, and abstracted from the impact the mode of production has on the state. Although the conflict between capitalist and wage laborer is essentially a commercial conflict, Engels description of the State shows how the capitalist (as personification of the relationship) is progressively displaced by the state as Capital develops. The marginalization of the capitalist does not resolve — overcome — the class conflict; rather, it converts it into a directly political struggle. Which is to say, the worker to assert her purely commercial interests in the class conflict, must also assert her political interest against the state.

If, on this basis, historical materialist investigation of the Fascist State refutes the arguments of the Marxists who trace their thinking to Lenin, still more clearly does it refute the European Social-Democrats who, having thrown Marx and Engels out the window entirely, propose to tinker with existing relations to render capitalism more humane. This latter gang of opportunists aspire to nothing more than perfecting the Fascist State as the social capitalist.

Against both failed variants of this tradition, we demand not a new brand of sectarian organization, nor reform of politics, but the abolition of the state.

*****

While the historical task of the worker is simplified by the convergence of Capital and the State power and the emergence of the Fascist State, it is obvious this fascist state rests on universal suffrage of the proletarian majority. To put it bluntly, in her political activity the worker constitutes the very machinery of exploitation against which she fights. Her commercial interest as a seller of labor power, sparks her political activity to ensure this sale is consummated; the terms and conditions of this sale, and the prerequisites of these, figure as this or that economic policy of the fascist state. On the other hand, the enlargement of the state, its increasingly pervasive economic role, is no more than the expansion of the state as social capitalist and must lead to the ever increasing exploitation of the worker. The more she struggles to realize political relations to satisfy her requirements as a seller of labor power, the more indifferent the State becomes to her needs as a human being.

This must lead to two results that I can think of:

In the first instance, what was once concealed beneath purely monetary relations must become increasingly obvious to the proletarians: that their activity is the enlargement of an alien power standing over against them. As the state becomes the social capitalist, what was previously only a theoretically derived conclusion regarding the relationship between capital and wage labor is made explicit and comprehensible to the worker.

In the second instance, the increasingly comprehensible relation between capital and wage labor appears, not in its commercial form, but in the form of increasing antagonism to the fascist state, and to its role as social capitalist, stated in a political form, i.e., as demands against the state. However, expressed in this purely political form, it is now the empirical expression of a radical critique of all existing relations.

The Black Hole: Marxism, the State and the Social Revolution (2)

August 11, 2011 1 comment

Karl Kautsky

(I want to clarify that I am discussing certain writers, while withholding judgement on their overall work. It is not my intention to assert they were wrong in their time and place, only that their arguments have been taken out of context by what is currently referred to generally as “Marxism”. Moreover, by “Marxism” I include the body of work that traces its origins to both the Soviet experience and to Western Social-Democracy.)

Convergence of the economic and political conflict in society

In the first part of this series, I introduced some fundamental assumptions about 21st Century society. I also took issue with the Marxist theory of the state, as elaborated by Louis Althusser in his 1970 work, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Now, I want to sketch out my understanding of the historical materialist conception of both the State and Capital, in order to trace the error in the ‘Marxist theory of the State’ back to its likely roots.

The nexus of the relation between the two appears to arise just before Lenin and his work, What is to be Done. In chapter II of this book, Lenin quotes Karl Kautsky on the relationship between Marxist theory and the practical economic struggle of the working class:

“Many of our revisionist critics believe that Marx asserted that economic development and the class struggle create, not only the conditions for socialist production, but also, and directly, the consciousness of its necessity. And these critics assert that England, the country most highly developed capitalistically, is more remote than any other from this consciousness. Judging by the draft, one might assume that this allegedly orthodox Marxist view, which is thus refuted, was shared by the committee that drafted the Austrian programme. In the draft programme it is stated: ‘The more capitalist development increases the numbers of the proletariat, the more the proletariat is compelled and becomes fit to fight against capitalism. The proletariat becomes conscious of the possibility and of the necessity for socialism.’ In this connection socialist consciousness appears to be a necessary and direct result of the proletarian class struggle. But this is absolutely untrue. Of course, socialism, as a doctrine, has its roots in modern economic relationships just as the class struggle of the proletariat has, and, like the latter, emerges from the struggle against the capitalist-created poverty and misery of the masses. But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von Aussen Hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig]. Accordingly, the old Hainfeld programme quite rightly stated that the task of Social-Democracy is to imbue the proletariat (literally: saturate the proletariat) with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task. There would be no need for this if consciousness arose of itself from the class struggle. The new draft copied this proposition from the old programme, and attached it to the proposition mentioned above. But this completely broke the line of thought…”

Kautsky’s statement concerns the formation of consciousness under the capitalist mode of production. In it he proposes a dual track model of communist consciousness, where the direct conflict between wage labor and capital coexists side by side with, but separately from, the understanding of the implication of this conflict. The worker is engaged in the direct struggle, the intellectual brings to her a consciousness of the implications of her struggle — the need for her to assume control of the state.

In chapter III of the above book, Lenin imports Kautsky’s statement into his argument against what would later become the Mensheviks in Russian communism. However, we now have a problem: societies do not imagine themselves into existence. (I got this statement from somewhere, but can’t remember who, perhaps the Marxian writer Chris Cutrone) This is, in my opinion, a restatement of the fundamental historical materialist assumption — material conditions first, ideas second.

Kautsky’s statement, therefore, violates a fundamental assumption of historical materialism — its most important assumption. Perhaps a correction is in order: he does not directly violate this assumption, since he is only talking about Marx’s theoretical conclusion. As a theory, he may be correct, but communism cannot possibly rest on general acceptance of a theory. Which is to say, communism, as a real movement of society, must have been inevitable even if Marx had not discovered it. If the science had advanced no further than, say, Ricardo or Hegel or St Simon, the emergence of communism would still occur.

Discovering this inevitability, of course, was science, and this is a product of the intelligentsia — but not the historical process itself. The result is, if all communists were to disappear tomorrow, this process would still unfold according to its own logic. Communists are superfluous to it — a fifth wheel. We can no more change the outcome than can Ben Bernanke over at the Federal Reserve Bank.

I tried this argument out at Kasama.org and (after having a collective seizure) they asked me if this was true why was I a communist? More importantly, Why was Marx a communist? Why did he organize the working class movement? I had no real answer for this at the time.

I do now, because a tweep, @, asked how I would explain 1929 from a materialist perspective.

I think it was because Marx saw 1929 coming, and the implications of the Event — Engels actually stated it explicitly. At a certain point, both knew, the State would have to seize control of the entire machinery of production. Whether this ended in a social revolution, or what I now call the Fascist State would depend on the “political consciousness” of the class. How much of the theory of its own material condition it had absorbed would decide the outcome — not the final outcome, but the intermediate outcome.

That was the Event that should have seen the Paris Commune reborn on a global stage — a form for the proletariat to work out its final liberation — a liberation, not just from wage slavery, but from labor itself.

Marx was notorious for not talking about the future, only the immediate was important — because he was not given to making blueprints. The world did not need another utopian system — it only needed to understand its actuality and the process inherent in it. In Volume 3, however, and Engels in “Utopian and Scientific Socialism” we get a glimpse into the implications of his theory.

The fact is, in historical materialism properly understood, the Proletarian never even realizes she is a wage slave. As individuals, they act exactly like any other commodity seller, like small commercial players. The worker sells her one commodity over and over again and the conflict with the capitalist over the terms of this sale falls completely within the bounds of commercial rivalry.

Lenin explicitly states this idea in chapter III of What is to be Done; he argues that the trade union fight alone is insufficient for the development of a communist consciousness among the working class:

“The overwhelming majority of Russian Social-Democrats have of late been almost entirely absorbed by this work of organising the exposure of factory conditions. Suffice it to recall Rabochaya Mysl to see the extent to which they have been absorbed by it — so much so, indeed, that they have lost sight of the fact that this, taken by itself, is in essence still not Social-Democratic work, but merely trade union work. As a matter of fact, the exposures merely dealt with the relations between the workers in a given trade and their employers, and all they achieved was that the sellers of labour power learned to sell their “commodity” on better terms and to fight the purchasers over a purely commercial deal. These exposures could have served (if properly utilised by an organisation of revolutionaries) as a beginning and a component part of Social-Democratic activity; but they could also have led (and, given a worshipful attitude towards spontaneity, were bound to lead) to a “purely trade union” struggle and to a non-Social-Democratic working-class movement. Social-Democracy leads the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale of labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich. Social-Democracy represents the working class, not in its relation to a given group of employers alone, but in its relation to all classes of modern society and to the state as an organised political force. Hence, it follows that not only must Social-Democrats not confine themselves exclusively to the economic struggle, but that they must not allow the organisation of economic exposures to become the predominant part of their activities. We must take up actively the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness. “

What does Lenin’s statement imply about the empirical relation between these two great classes of capitalist society, and for the mode of production itself?

The capitalist as buyer of labor power confronts the worker as seller; and, later, the worker as buyer of subsistence commodities confronts the capitalist as seller. Both poles of this relationship rests on the successful exchange of labor power for wages. The sale of labor power appears, in the first instance, as the direct result of the exchange of labor power for wages. And, the sale of labor power appears, in the second instance, as the condition for the exchange, as means of purchase in the form of wages for commodities.

Historical materialism states that labor power has undergone a change between the first instance and the second instance. This change is both qualitative: labor power is consumed and this consumption turns it into various useful objects — shoes, cars, etc. But, there is also a quantitative change: the value of the latter — shoes, cars, etc. — is greater than the former — the initial labor power.

Empirically, however, it appears otherwise: while a qualitative change has taken place, there has been no quantitative change. This is because all the quantitative change has taken place outside the purview of the commodity sellers — outside of exchange.

Everything which, from the standpoint of the law of value, appears as a necessary result of the improvement in the productivity of social labor, appears to the society of commodity sellers in its inverse form: theoretically, there is creation of surplus value, but, empirically there is “not enough money in circulation”. Society is constantly threaten by overproduction and crises.

The entirety of the reality of the material relations of production is hidden behind money, not only from the capitalist but also the worker. Both classes are fucking clueless. And, they are engaged in this meaningless, never-ending, commercial squabble over terms of a filthy transaction. But, as repulsive as the relationship is, they are both trapped in it: without it, the capitalist cannot be a capitalist, while the worker starves.

The reproduction of the relation, the purchase/sale of labor power, is their entire, and intimately shared, basis for existence. And, as Engels shows, and many writers like Kevin Carson recount, the relationship becomes increasingly dependent on the state. Now let’s look again at the quote from Engels, I referred to in the previous part of this series:

But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions [my emphasis] of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.

What Engels is predicting here is an Event: that impending convergence of the purely commercial relation between the wage worker and the capitalist over the purchase/sale of labor power, with the incremental expansion of state management of the process of production itself. Stated simply: in 1880, Engels was predicting that the purely commercial conflict between the two great classes would be converted by the convergence with increasing state control over production into a directly political struggle — into a direct fight against the national — i.e., social — capitalist, the state.

In 1929, capitalism enters its end-stage, and becomes absolutely dependent on the State. The state, in turn, becomes the fascist state, representing not capitalist or worker, but Capital — the relationship itself. And, this happen 50 years after Engels wrote these words:

“The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist…”

From the moment this process culminates, the capitalist class is a side-show, lacking any real role in production beyond clipping coupons. Everything is being managed by the state. The fight against capital is now immediately political — expressed directly in the conflict with the state itself.

The Black Hole: Marxism, the State and the Social Revolution

August 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Louis Althusser

There is a massive black hole in the center of Marxism that cannot be ignored, since it touches on the question of social revolution itself. That question can be posed this way: What happened to the Soviet Union? But, the better formulation is this:

Why didn’t the Great Depression touch off a revolution in the West?

Numerous explanations of this failure have been offered by commentators of every variety within and without Marxism. During the Great Depression, it is clear, capitalism suffered an irreversible breakdown due to absolute over-accumulation. And, it is also clear that effective control over the state was already in the hands of the proletarian majority through its suffrage. Moreover, as now, the solution to the general crisis of capitalism was already obvious, and universally recognized: reduction of labor hours.

The principal explanations now fashionable within Marxism deny one or more of these facts. They propose: There is,

  1. no general crisis; or,
  2. no effective control over state power by the proletariat; or,
  3. that reduction of hours of labor will not work.

Every one of these explanations violate the assumptions of historical materialism.

If you deny there is a general crisis of capitalism, you are making the argument there can be absolute over-accumulation in one country leading to export of capital to the less developed regions of the world market, but there cannot be absolute over-accumulation in the world market itself. And, since Lenin’s theses on imperialism is entirely based on the concept of global over-accumulation, you have to reject his conclusions. Not too mention a materialist explanation of the more than 130 million dead in two world conflicts and the numerous conflicts following this.

If you want to deny universal suffrage of the proletarian majority is the sufficient condition for its effective political rule you must then impose conditions on this rule other than those that stem from its material position in society. You must then deny Marx’s thesis that the proletariat’s historical mission stems from who they are, not what they think. This position, as in the “Bolshevik model”, denies the capacity of the proletariat to empirically determine their own role in history.

Lenin advances the “Bolshevik Model” in “What is to be Done.” Which, I think, is a reaction to social-democratic reformism. No matter what the cause, this idea becomes embedded in Marxism so firmly that it has been enshrined as the concept of “vanguard party”. Anarchists rightly ridicule this by pointing out Marxism leads either to reformist social-democracy or despotic Leninism.

On the other hand, Marxism borrows from the argument of Anarchists like Noam Chomsky that, somehow, the effective power of the proletariat is a manufactured consent — the working class is indoctrinated. Their leaders are bribed, their organizations are co-opted, and their reality is hidden from them by deceptions spread in the media.

Finally if you deny reduction of hours of labor is the only solution to the general crisis of capitalism you can’t explain the fascist state. The fascist state emerges simultaneously in all industrial nations during the Great Depression despite their numerous historical differences. It clearly emerges as the political response to the general crisis, which is nothing more than massive unemployment a glut of productive capacity and intense competition between national capitals over division of the world market.

But, absolute over-accumulation is just accumulation of capital that can no longer function as capital that cannot expand its own value through exploitation of labor power, cannot realize the surplus value extracted as profit. It takes the form of a mass of superfluous means of subsistence, means of production, and idled workers, who are now available for war.

This surplus of mean of subsistence, means of production and idled workers is produced during the period of the social work day beyond that required for the wages of the productively employed population. Absolute over-accumulation simply means the work day can’t be longer than that needed to satisfy the material requirements of the laborers.

I think, any attempt to explain why the Great Depression did not end in a social revolution must begin with these assumptions. This explanation must, at the same time, account for the failure of the Marxist-Leninist model of revolution. The first failure is only the second failure presented in another form.

We can probably best begin to account for what happened during the Great Depression by examining the flaws in the Marxist theory of the state. For this, I want to use Althusser’s 1970 work, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.

Althusser has this formulation of the ‘Marxist theory of the state’ (the quotation marks are his, not mine):

To summarize the ‘Marxist theory of the state’ on this point, it can be said that the Marxist classics have always claimed that (1) the state is the repressive state apparatus, (2) state power and state apparatus must be distinguished, (3) the objective of the class struggle concerns state power, and in consequence the use of the state apparatus by the classes (or alliance of classes or of fractions of classes) holding state power as a function of their class objectives, and (4) the proletariat must seize state power in order to destroy the existing bourgeois state apparatus and, in a first phase, replace it with a quite different, proletarian, state apparatus, then in later phases set in motion a radical process, that of the destruction of the state (the end of state power, the end of every state apparatus).

The problem with this statement by Althusser of the ‘Marxist theory of the state’ is that it is a fantasy; and is not historical materialism. To figure out why, we have to work backwards in Althusser’s formulation — from (4) to (1)

With regards to (4), I have never encountered the formulation in Marx or Engels that the workers replace the bourgeois state apparatus with their own. In fact, I have never encountered Marx or Engels speaking of any state apparatus but the present bourgeois state apparatus. And, their verdict on this, based on the Commune, was definitive: It must be broken.

Not reformed, not replaced, not refurbished — broken.

What made the proletarian state power different from all preceding forms is that this apparatus itself was abolished at the outset. The Anarchists of the Commune replaced it with a working body combining both deliberative and executive functions. Marx could have differed with this, but he explicitly did not — he endorsed it.

With deliberative and executive functions combined, there is no state apparatus as distinct from state power. But, the present state consists of this division — of a useless legislative body and power concentrated in the executive. Since, there was no stand-alone executive in the Commune, the idea that the state is destroyed only in later phases is complete bunk. For this reason, Marx referred to what Anarchists created in the commune as no longer a state.

This has to be emphasized: Marx looked at what the Communards created and said it was NOT a state.

And why was this: because the Anarchists had abolished the historical division between the executive and deliberative functions of the state. The new society was itself both the deliberative body and the means for executing its decisions. In both the Soviet despotic and the Western democratic forms of proletarian rule, we find exactly that this division is not done away with.

In (3), Althusser argues that the objective of the class struggle is to wield the state apparatus as a function of class objectives. But, as early as 1845, in The German Ideology, Marx described the proletariat as a class which was not a class, but the dissolution of other classes. In 1851 work, Reflections on Money, he explains how money relations conceal relations of production and classes.

Both classes shop the same stores, pay the same prices for the same goods — the only apparent difference is the amount of money in their wallets. While material relations of production determine society, these relations are buried deep beneath purely monetary ones. Given that, for the proletariat, it is not a class in any real sense, and given that its relation to other classes is concealed from it how is historical materialism to conclude that the proletariat wields state power as a function of its class objectives?

Since all interests are only interests in the exploitation of labor under given relations, how is labor itself to express such an interest? Against what class is this interest to be expressed other than itself?

In (2), Althusser expresses the opinion that state power and state apparatus must be distinguished. So, how are we to do this? Until the Commune had state power ever been exercised in any other form than through the state apparatus? Was there a discovery in 1970 of some epoch in which the state power of the ruling class was exercised directly and not through an apparatus?

Althusser is wrong on this, I think.

Throughout history, state power has consisted of an armed body of men to enforce the domination of the existing ruling class. This special interest, which having raised itself to position of the general interest, must become the objective of all special interests seeking to impose themselves on society as the general interest. The competition between classes over control of this apparatus only expresses the fact that the history of society is the succession of one after another special interests.

In (1), Althusser defines the state as “the repressive state apparatus”. But, Engels, in his 1880 work, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, is already describing the state as much more than this: “The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital.”

If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies, trusts, and State property, show how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first, the capitalistic mode of production forces out the workers. Now, it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus-population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.

But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.

Already, under the pressure of the capitalist mode of production, the state was undergoing a profound transformation. The state was not eclipsing the two great classes in bourgeois society, but coming more to function as the social capitalist.

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.

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

June 14, 2011 1 comment

Bodies of the Communards in the aftermath of the Paris Commune

“woeful work they have made with it…”

Kevin Carson asserts Marx held to the idea the abolition of the system of wage slavery could not occur until the productive forces it represents had reached their fullest possible development. According to Carson, Marx made the argument that an attempt to create a society free of exploitation before technical and productive prerequisites for it had been achieved would be unwise. This argument is vital for Carson, because he intends to assert on the basis of this alleged error by Marx that, absent State coercion, a market in wage labor would not spontaneously give rise to a system of wage slavery. According to Carson, State coercion is the necessary condition for exploitation of the worker to take place. Without this State coercion, the worker cannot be reduced to a wage slave simply by the act of selling his labor power. Quoting Benjamin Tucker, Carson states, “the natural wage of labor is its product.”

But, by raising the charge against Marx, Carson is, in fact, changing the entire nature of his argument. Instead of sticking strictly to a historical argument, he now switches to a hypothetical one. He is asking the question: “In theory, is it possible for free and non-exploitative social relations from replacing the State before all of the technical and productive prerequisites are in place?” He asserts, without offering any evidence, that Marx answers this question with a negative. So, I have to pause for moment to disprove Carson’s charge.

The first problem with this hypothetical question is that Carson never details, on the basis of Marx’s argument, the technical and productive prerequisites for a free and non-exploitative society — that is, he never describes what the phrase “fullest possible development” of wage slavery means. And, the reason for this failure is obvious: Marx assumed Capital had already created the basis for the voluntary association of labor, by creating modern industry, the world market and a mass of individuals in all the most developed nations who had all the attributes necessary to effect this association.

In the German Ideology, Marx explains that Capital has already rendered a great mass of society propertyless, and produced great wealth and culture, based on a great increase in productive power of labor. It had already developed the productive forces and brought about universal competition within society; which produced a global labor force of wage slaves, made each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and effectively created a perverse sort of global community founded on wage slavery.

Thus, in 1845, Marx argues, the premises for a voluntary association were already in existence. These developments, in Marx’s opinion, not only made a free and non-exploitative society possible, they made its eventual emergence inevitable. By buying into the argument of Benjamin Tucker with regards to Marx’s theory, Carson is forced to ignore Marx’s own writing on this question in the German Ideology — an error which, apparently, is not difficult for Carson, since, as we have seen, he already failed to find any reference to primitive accumulation in the very same text.

In that text, Marx writes:

Thus things have now come to such a pass that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence. This appropriation is first determined by the object to be appropriated, the productive forces, which have been developed to a totality and which only exist within a universal intercourse. From this aspect alone, therefore, this appropriation must have a universal character corresponding to the productive forces and the intercourse.

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

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

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

Again, not to put to fine a point on this, in 1845, Marx states explicitly that this voluntary association of labor results “from the premises now in existence.”

So, in complete contradiction to Kevin Carson’s assertion, and to the muddle-headed arguments of the Marxist, Marx himself argues in 1845 that all the conditions for a voluntary association of labor had already been achieved by society. On this basis, any charge made against him that the system of wage slavery had to reach “their fullest possible development,” is both an egregious distortion of the facts, and a lie. It follows from what I have said, that Marx greeted the Paris Commune — led, as it was, by Anarchists/Libertarians — as an authentic communist attempt to realize a voluntary association of labor and put an end to wage slavery.

Even if we consider Carson’s assertion that

Just social and economic relations are compatible with any level of technology; technical progress can be achieved and new technology integrated into production in any society, thorough free work and voluntary cooperation.

we only arrive at the conclusion that in all epochs men and women have struggled to put an end to the exploitation of their labor under whatever were the prevailing conditions of its extraction and realize a society in which they were not treated as the property of another in one guise or another. Marx makes no argument against this assertion, except to state that, owing to the conditions of society up to Capita,l all of these attempts merely end in new fetters on the individual. While the existing mode of the exploitation of labor is abolished, it is merely replaced by a new mode of exploitation. He does not offer a theoretical response to Carson’s hypothetical argument, but a historical one, in which men and women replace one limited mode of existence with another.

Carson, however, is not satisfied with this answer, so he further argues:

Had not the expropriation of the peasantry and the crushing of the free cities taken place, a steam powered industrial revolution would still have taken place–but the main source of capital for industrializing would have been in the hands of the democratic craft guilds. The market system would have developed on the basis of producer ownership of the means of production.

The point of Carson’s argument is, of course, that the market in wage labor need not result in a system of wage slavery. However, Marx never once argued development of the productive forces could not take place within a producer owned context; he only argued that the actual historical development of productive forces took place in opposition to peasant property and the free cities. Far from making the patently absurd argument that development of the productive forces could not take place within the context of producer control over the forces of production, Marx made the argument that, with the system of wage slavery, producer control of the productive forces could be achieved only through their voluntary association and the means of production made the common wealth of society — there was no other possible route to ownership and control over the means of production by the great mass of propertyless wage slaves other than by establishing this control in a voluntary cooperative union.

Moreover, Marx argues the system of wage slavery was itself the drag on the development of the productive forces. The productive power of social labor would never be truly realized as long as wage slavery existed. The system of wage slavery, he argued, increasingly demonstrated its senility as it proved unable to overcome the obstacles placed in the path of the development of the productive forces created by the system of wage slavery itself.

Thus we find, in the previously cited Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 15:

On the other hand, the rate of self-expansion of the total capital, or the rate of profit, being the goad of capitalist production (just as self-expansion of capital is its only purpose), its fall checks the formation of new independent capitals and thus appears as a threat to the development of the capitalist production process. It breeds over-production, speculation, crises, and surplus-capital alongside surplus-population. Those economists, therefore, who, like Ricardo, regard the capitalist mode of production as absolute, feel at this point that it creates a barrier itself, and for this reason attribute the barrier to Nature (in the theory of rent), not to production. But the main thing about their horror of the falling rate of profit is the feeling that capitalist production meets in the development of its productive forces a barrier which has nothing to do with the production of wealth as such; and this peculiar barrier testifies to the limitations and to the merely historical, transitory character of the capitalist mode of production; testifies that for the production of wealth, it is not an absolute mode, moreover, that at a certain stage it rather conflicts with its further development.

He later adds:

Capitalist production seeks continually to overcome these immanent barriers, but overcomes them only by means which again place these barriers in its way and on a more formidable scale.

The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers. The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers can alone move — these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means — unconditional development of the productive forces of society — comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.

From these passages, it is clear that Marx could not have believed that a non-exploitative society had to wait until the productive forces created by wage slavery reached their fullest possible development, because he believed the system of wage slavery itself created barriers to development of the productive forces. It follows from the evidence I have offered here that, for Marx, it was not a matter of tolerating the system of wage slavery until it has reached its fullest possible development, but precisely the opposite: without abolishing the system of wage slavery the productive forces of society could not reach their fullest possible development!

How Carson manages to stand Marx’s argument on its head, and to level this charge against him is simply incomprehensible to me, but is not the least bit surprising, since Carson sets out, not to disprove the arguments of the Anarcho-Capitalist and Marxist variants of critical communist thinking, but to synthesize their arguments with his own mutualist argument that a market in wage labor is consistent with a non-exploitative society. He therefore, ends up appropriating both the theoretical blunders of the Anarcho-Capitalist and the Marxist along with their insights.

I will turn to this angle in my next post.

Stateless society and the uprising in Egypt.

February 5, 2011 10 comments

Can the events in Tunisia and Egypt reshape the way libertarians, anarchists and communists think both about a stateless society and how this stateless society can emerge?

I think it should.

The popular uprising, somewhat discredited as a means of achieving a stateless society until recently, appears to be in vogue again. What makes it of particular interest to me is that the uprising is itself a voluntary cooperative act by members of society against an intolerable state machine. It doesn’t take much curiosity to wonder if this voluntary association can do more than simply challenge the existing order.

Can it replace the existing order as was attempted with the Paris Commune?

I have been reading the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s recent talk “Alain Badiou on Tunisia, riots & revolution”. As usual, this monumental thinker clarifies a lot of things in my opinion. Just reading his talk aided my own understanding of the Egyptian uprising going on now.

Here is how Badiou analyzes the Tunisian uprising:

The particular problem of the riot, in as much as it calls state power into question, is that it exposes the state to political change (the possibility of its collapse), but it doesn’t embody this change: what is going to change in the state is not prefigured in the riot. This is the major difference with a revolution, which in itself proposes an alternative. That is the reason why, invariably, rioters have complained that a new regime is identical to an old one…

The power of the uprising, Badiou argues, “is essentially negative (‘make it go away’)” All uprisings are acts of despair and desperation and this desperate act is a striking out against, and throwing off of, the intolerable burden of the existing State.

The problem with this act is that it does not, of itself, address the question: “What now?”

The riot is a desperate rage against an intolerable State, which, even when successful, has no affirmative design beyond getting rid of the existing order. Absent a positive conception of a new order to replace the old one it offers no obvious solution to the problem of the intolerable power whose overthrow it has just effected. The danger posed by the absence of a positive aim after the overthrow of the old order is that the old order merely reconstitutes itself in a new form. In a remarkable passage in which he identifies Egypt as a potential target, Badiou explains this reconstitution of the old order:

The Western press has already responded by saying that what was expressed there was a Western desire. What we can affirm is that a desire for liberty is involved and that such a desire is without debate a legitimate desire under a regime both despotic and corrupt as was that of Ben Ali.  How this desire as such suggests a Western desire is very uncertain.

It must be remembered that the West as a power has so far given no proof that it cares in any way whatsoever about organising liberty in the places where it intervenes. The account of the West is: “are you walking with me or not?”, giving the expression “walk with me” a signification internal to the market economy,* if necessary in collaboration with counter-revolutionary police. “Friendly countries” like Egypt or Pakistan are just as despotic and corrupt as was Tunisia under Ben Ali, but we’ve heard little expressed about it from those who have appeared, on the occasion of the Tunisian events, as ardent defenders of liberty.

Without a positive conception of its aspirations the uprising will fall prey to the reconstitution of the old order that is not merely the Mubarak regime, but the empire headquartered in Washington, for which the Egyptian state is only the local outpost. The hallmarks of this reconstitution are constitutional reform, replacement of the most odious personalities, a reshuffling of the cabinet, and a promise of “free and fair elections” — what Badiou calls the “Western inclusion”. Beneath all of this reshuffling, however, the existing State continues undisturbed.

Badiou asks: “Is there another possibility?” He answers: “Yes.”

If it is true that, as Marx predicted, the space where emancipatory ideas are realised is a global space (which, incidentally, wasn’t the case with the revolutions of the Twentieth Century), then the phenomena of Western inclusion cannot be part of genuine change. What would genuine change be? It would be a break with the west, a “dewesternisation”, and would take the form of an exclusion.

If there were a different evolution than the evolution toward Western inclusion, what could that attest to? No formal response can be given here. We can simply say there is nothing expected from the analysis of the state’s process which, through long and torturous necessity, will eventually result in elections.

What is interesting about Badiou is he never feels the need to tack on some finishing touch to his analysis. He goes only so far as his analysis takes him and leaves it there. This gives his analysis the appearance of being unfinished, but it is actually his most powerful argument. Badiou simply tells us that, so far as he can see, there is no reason why an uprising has to end up with “free and fair elections” and the perfunctory reforms orchestrated by Washington. In the case of the Tunisian riots, he concludes only by stating that what the riot lacks in terms of an affirmative statement can only be discovered by studying the events themselves:

What is required is an patient and careful inquiry among the people, in search of that which, after an inevitable process of division … will be carried by a fraction of the movement, namely: statements. What is stated can by no means be resolved within Western inclusion. If they are there, these statements, they will be easily recognisable. It is under the condition of these new statements that the development of the organisation of figures of collective action can be conceived.

So, what can we learn from Egypt about the possibilities for a stateless society in light of Badiou’s analysis of Tunisia? In my opinion, the following:

In his inquiry Badiou poses the alternative affirmation as an essentially negative act: “an exclusion” or break with the West. It is expressed in the form of a declaration of intention by the uprising that is fundamentally incompatible with the existing order — with globalization and empire itself.

However, so far as I can tell, the uprising in Egypt is this negative act of exclusion already. By challenging the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime the uprising called into question the entirety of relations of which Mubarak and his henchmen are only the local expression. Confirmation of my conclusion can be seen simply by reviewing Washington’s response to the uprising — the Obama administration certainly believes that its fundamental interest are at risk.

What Badiou demonstrates, therefore, is that the uprising must become aware of itself as an active challenge to “the West” — to globalization and empire. To become more than a mere riot, the uprising must recognize that it is the first act of a voluntary association — the first act by which this voluntary association establishes itself as a new basis for society. Badiou demonstrates that it is not a question of organization, but a question of consciousness on a mass scale that is wanting.

The question we all have to ask ourselves at this point is simple: What separates the uprising of January 25 from the Paris Commune?

In the case of the Paris Commune, the uprising recognized itself as the solution to the intolerable burden of the State. It did not merely sweep away the existing order, but set about to manage society itself in voluntary association. It invited the rest of France to join with it.

Every local uprising like January 25 should aspire to become a non-local event – to declare itself as the new basis of social organization and to appeal to the oppressed of the world to join with it. The call for a transitional government, constitutional reform, new elections, etc., should be rejected. The January 25 uprising must avoid being defined as something of significance only to Egypt; it cannot win if it is confined to Egypt — it must strip off its national form. In response to the secret negotiations directed by Washington, the January 25 uprising will have to aggressively declare its intentions to go global.

If the January 25 movement does not acquire a consciousness of its own global significance it will be isolated and suppressed. It has to aspire to more than changing local personalities and declare that the empire, headed by Washington, is the enemy.

What is truly revolutionary in the uprising in Egypt is that it can become a universal event, spreading beyond Egypt – a general rising of the oppressed. To do this, the uprising will have to reject every attempt both to confine it to Egypt and pacify it with minor changes in the existing State.

The target is Washington and its empire; the aim is to replace this empire with the voluntary association of individuals.

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

December 5, 2010 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.

Badiou’s Proposal for a Third Sequence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marx’s commentary on communism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can labor be abolished today?

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

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

Says Postone:

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Marx:

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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