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Posts Tagged ‘social revolution’

Value and the Demise of Capitalism: Reconciling Postone and Kurz

September 20, 2012 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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Social emancipation cannot be founded on labor

September 14, 2012 9 comments


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social emancipation is incompatible with every form of property

September 11, 2012 1 comment


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

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

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The “nightmare scenario” of capitalist collapse

September 9, 2012 Leave a comment


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

“Buy guns, gold and beans! Now!”

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

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Kurz and the dead end of Statist Marxism

September 5, 2012 1 comment

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

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

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

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My May Day Post: The Marxist Academy and the Myth of “Working Class Consciousness”

May 1, 2012 7 comments

This May Day, as in all previous May Days going back almost to its establishment, will be marked by the indifference of the working class, at least in the United States, to its arrival. The odd thing about this is that May Day was born here in the United States as an expression of working class power and its determined struggle for the reduction in hours of labor. Yet here, more than in any other country, it passes almost unnoticed by the very class that created it through its own independent power. That it should be met with indifference here in the country of its birth is a paradox that requires explaining — if for no other reason than it points to a fundamentally troubling aspect of communist theory in its orthodox Marxist and anarchist variants: the apparent failure of the working class to rise to its historical mission as gravedigger of capitalism, to acquire what is commonly referred to as a class consciousness.

Part of this paradox can be explained by visiting a paper recently published by Alberto Toscano on the problem posed by Post-Workerism interpretations of Marx’s and Engels’ argument in which a worker, Nanni Balestrini, complains:

Once I went to May Day. I never got workers’ festivities. The day of work, are you kidding? The day of workers celebrating themselves. I never got it into my head what workers’ day or the day of work meant. I never got it into my head why work should be celebrated. But when I wasn’t working I didn’t know what the fuck to do. Because I was a worker, that is someone who spent most of their day in the factory. And in the time left over I could only rest for the next day. But that May Day on a whim I went to listen to some guy’s speech because I didn’t know him.

As I stated in a recent interview:

What I find interesting about this quote is that, obviously, May Day does not “celebrate work”, but celebrates a victory in the working class’s struggle for a reduction of hours of labor. What began as a celebration of a victory marking a step toward the abolition of labor became, over time, redefined as the celebration of the thing to be abolished, labor. But what is equally interesting about the quote is that the worker quoted, while apparently ignorant of this history, recognizes the idiocy of celebrating wage slavery. Even without realizing it, the worker reestablishes the original significance of the day.

This is an observation that seems lost on the critics of the Occupy and Tea Party movements.

*****

How EpicPhil leaves us with no options to the present oligarchy

August 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Over at r/Anarcho_Capitalism, writer EpicPhil outlined several objections to my critique of Rothbard’s proposal for the dismantling of the Soviet state planned economy. The gist of his argument seems to be that my plan for reduction of hours of work was not a reasonable alternative to Rothbard’s, and that the utter collapse of the economy was, in fact, an improvement in the living standard of that nation.

This writer is making no sense.

Like Rothbard, I thought a plan of action should be undertaken quickly; but unlike Rothbard, I proposed to start at the bottom of society, not the top.

OK, fair enough.

So, I proposed a simple reform:

Reduce hours of labor by forty percent.

Huh? That’s a top down solution like Rothbards! It requires the state to decree that working hours are reduced by 40 percent.

More importantly, if working hours were reduced by 40%, then MILLIONS of people would have perished. Not only were they already perishing due to the woefully inadequate productivity of labor that existed at the time, but if that low productivity of labor was utilized on a reduced number of hours worked, then productivity would have declined even more.

The problem of the late Soviet Union was not the lack of markets, money or property rights; it was the vast accumulation of superfluous working time embedded in the economy by a rather startling increase in the productivity of labor in the decades following Stalin’s rise to power.

This statement makes it seem like the USSR was an industrial powerhouse that could afford a reduced number of hours worked. The exact opposite was the case.

Events brought Jefferey Sachs, then at Harvard University, to “advise” Boris Yeltsin on the economic policy of the new Russian government. While differing significantly from either Rothbard’s approach, and my own, I think it is fair to say, Sachs proposed a solution a magnitude closer to Rothbard’s than my own. In place of the then existing centrally planned economy, Sachs’ plan sought to establish a working market economy in one bold move.

It was a fucking disaster! — a cruel and unmitigated catastrophe for a nation of honest working people who had no inkling what was about to hit them. A crippling generational cataclysm, from which Jefferey Sachs emerged with his reputation intact, while women were reduced to prostituting themselves for food. Almost immediately the entire wealth of the nation fell into the hands of a tiny oligarchy of former managers of the old state-run economy.

The standard of living of the average Russian increased upon the collapse of communism. The writer thinks that women prostituting themselves for food was a step down? How about women EATING dead people? That’s what many did under Stalin.

That a large proportion of the nation’s wealth ended up being owned by former managers of the state run economy does not in any way represent a step down either. For these managers owned and controlled near 100% of the wealth under communism anyway! The only difference is that they could not be legally competed against economically. After the collapse of communism, they COULD be competed against economically, but there are still remnants of communism in Russia, which has made it a country more along the lines of America: Crony capitalism.

Okay, fine.

To summarize EpicPhil’s objections:

  • My solution is not bottom up, but top down
  • Fewer hours of work would have only increased mass poverty in an already impoverished nation
  • The Soviet Union was not an industrial powerhouse
  • The collapse of the Soviet planning mechanism improved the average Russian standard of living.
  • The rise of the Russian oligarchy represented no real change in economic relations, but actually improved the situation, since now there was competition, however limited by crony capitalism.

If I could generally classify these objections, they seem to fall into these categories: first, how do you implement any stateless society? Second, what are the actual facts regarding the specific circumstances surrounding the collapse of planning in the Soviet Union? Third, what were the actual economic and political relations established by the collapse of Soviet planning?

With regards to EpicPhil’s first objection, I think it is pretty clear that when I argue reform should have started at the bottom and not the top, I was referring not to how these reforms should have been implemented, but whose situation should be considered first and foremost when undertaking the transition. I think I made this pretty clear in my argument. EpicPhil, however, wants to deliberately confuse this point with an entirely separate point: How do we actually achieve any reform? How do we actually effect the abolition of the state?

My argument was simple: Do you start reforming a system by creating an elaborate structure of rules detailing how something as complex and sophisticated as a full fledged market economy is to function, or do you begin by insuring that the transition to an economy with no centralized management and control doesn’t leave people starving for food and unable to find basic necessities of life. For instance, how long can people wait for potable water while — from your perspective — the new owners of the water system figure out how to run things profitably? I would say probably three days — and that is a very steep learning curve even for EpicPhil’s preferred model of organizing society.

Even if we assume the replacement of a centralized state economy by an anarcho-capitalist one, it has to be acknowledged that such things do not emerge overnight. Yes, you can end centralized management and control of the economy simply by not telling people what to do, but now they have to figure it out on their own. And, under Rothbard’s plan, they would have had to do it essentially within an incredibly small window. To be absolutely clear, we are not talking about whether a worker shows up for work the next day, but how you secure all the requirements of a massive and sophisticated steel producing enterprise — raw materials, financing, markets for output, wages, pensions, etc. — all this is now your problem on day one, Mr. Manager. Plus, you have to make sure the Mafia is not selling off the company’s assets out the back door. And, no. The central authority is not there to get your back when your projected output misses the target and you are now so deep in the red you contemplate bankruptcy — in a nation that, owing to the history of planned production, only has one or two suppliers of your goods.

EpicPhil, can I just suggest you stop playing revolutionary for a moment and seriously think about the implications of such a transition?

With regards to EpicPhil’s second group of objections: To assert, as he does, that the standard of living for the average Russian citizen improved after the collapse of the central planned economy is laughable. By every standard of measurement, Russian life spiraled into a cesspool. The death rate jumped as the nation was plunged into an economic catastrophe broadly estimated to have been twice as deep as our own Great Depression. If we cannot agree on the facts, we can’t have a debate on the question. So, my suggestion is for you to go out and find evidence that Russian life improved. Then we can debate the issue.

With regards to EpicPhil’s third objection: Even if we assume your argument: that power remained in the hands of a tiny handful of top managers, who after reform organized themselves into an oligarchy, we only admit that Jeffrey Sachs’ shock therapy was a complete failure from our point of view — i.e., from the point of view that wants to see, not oligarchy replacing state control, but the abolition of both oligarchy and the state. What your objection offers as a suggestion in this regards is not at all clear to me.

I was trying to critically examine Rothbard’s rather bold “thought exercise” on how one goes about actually dismantling the state, what EpicPhil gives anti-statists instead is a plan for doing nothing, but sitting around bitching about it.