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Cat Brain at Work: How Chris Harman explains the “Marxist theory of stagnation”

April 6, 2012 Leave a comment

As part of my continuing occupation of the Marxist Academy, I have been looking at various Marxist theories of the crisis of neoliberalism. I am now reading the late Chris Harman’s “The rate of profit and the world today”, written in 2007, just prior to the big crash. This is part two of my examination.

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Before we go any further, let me reiterate one thing: In Marx’s theory, the law of the falling rate of profit is not expressed in “stagnation of economic growth” directly or indirectly. The so-called “stagnation thesis” appears no where in the body of Karl Marx’s works on the capitalist mode of production spanning more than 40 years. Nor does it appear in any of Frederick Engels works on the same subject spanning nearly fifty-five years. It is not even an indirect result of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production. Moreover, in addition to the idea of “stagnation“, no Marxist can point to a single reference in the collective body of work by these two writers — together amounting to a century of research and publication — where either the terms “financialization” or “globalization” appear.

So, why the fuck are Marxist academics trying to explain these nonexistent phenomena? I think the answer to that question is simple: they are trying to explain stagnation, financialization and globalization because they can’t explain this:

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Chasing Unicorns: Chris Harman and the “Marxist theory of stagnation”

April 4, 2012 2 comments

"Friesian Unicorn" by Katrina Lasky

As part of my continuing occupation of the Marxist Academy, I have been looking at various Marxist theories of the crisis of neoliberalism. I am now reading the late Chris Harman’s “The rate of profit and the world today”, written in 2007, just prior to the big crash.

*****

Harman appears to be one of a group of the influential Marxist thinkers in the last quarter of the 20th Century, and especially the period leading to this crisis, who helped refocus Marxist academic attention to Marx’s rate of profit theory. In this paper, to some extent an outline of his book, published in 2009, on the same topic in the middle of the crash, Harman presents the result of his research on the rate of profit and offers some ideas to explain his findings.

In Harman’s view Marx’s argument that the rate of profit falls over the life of capitalism has far reaching implications because it argues capitalist crises result, not from some sort of failure in the mode of production, but from its successes:

The very success of capitalism at accumulating leads to problems for further accumulation. Crisis is the inevitable outcome, as capitalists in key sections of the economy no longer have a rate of profit sufficient to cover their investments. And the greater the scale of past accumulation, the deeper the crises will be.

For some reason Harman does not follow up on this very interesting argument — if in fact capitalism’s crises are not a sign of failure but a sign of success, this indicates capitalist crises themselves should not be the focus of attention when studying the mode of production.

Crises are no more than a interval during which the mode of production resolves the contradictions produced by its previous successes. As such, these crises cannot be the reason why Marx labeled the mode of production a relative, historically limited, form of development. While the recurrent crises of increasing scale demand our attention because they momentarily bring economic activity to a near standstill these crises in no way are the source of processes leading Marx to his conclusion regarding the fate of the mode of production.

The conclusion resulting from this realization are pretty staggering: for all of its social consequences, the depression of 2001 is not the harbinger of the demise of capitalism, but an interval during which the mode of production prepares for its further expansion. This may explain why Marxists, when looking at the recurrent explosions of capitalism, see no reason why they cannot continue indefinitely.

They are looking at the wrong thing.

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Marxist Academic Error 101: “A term is undefined and has no properties”

March 29, 2012 1 comment

As part of my continuing occupation of the Marxist Academy, I have been looking at various Marxist theories of the crisis of neoliberalism. This is the final part of my critique of Andrew Kliman’s “Neoliberalism, Financialization, and the Underlying Crisis of Capitalist Production” (PDF).

*****

As can be seen in the chart above, most bourgeois economists look at fascist state economic data and conclude we are experiencing nothing like the sort of economic event that occurred in the Great Depression. The Great Depression was just that — a depression — while what we are experiencing is perhaps a more severe than normal recession generated in the aftermath of a financial crisis. For the bourgeois economist this description of the situation may or may not be entirely satisfactory.

For anyone attempting to understand the fascist state economic data using Marx’s theory of the capitalist mode of production it is less than worthless — it can turn Marx’s theory into a useless glob of shit that describes nothing — least of all what is occurring within the capitalist mode of production.

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Theories of the Current Crisis: David Harvey and the Left’s search for a new master

March 4, 2012 1 comment

I have been reading David Harvey’s “Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition” (2010). Harvey’s theory of the current crisis differs somewhat from the other Marxists I have been following. I actually rather enjoyed reading Harvey because he is simple to read without being simplistic like Wolff’s and Resnick’s piece. Harvey gave this originally as a talk to the World Social Forum in 2010,

Harvey opens his talk by stating boldly:

The historical geography of capitalist development is at a key inflexion point in which the geographical configurations of power are rapidly shifting at the very moment when the temporal dynamic is facing very serious constraints.  Three percent compound growth (generally considered the minimum satisfactory growth rate for a healthy capitalist economy) is becoming less and less feasible to sustain without resort to all manner of fictions (such as those that have characterized asset markets and financial affairs over the last two decades). There are good reasons to believe that there is no alternative to a new global order of governance that will eventually have to manage the transition to a zero growth economy.

I liked his argument here, but, I think, he could have clarified things by explaining what he meant by “three percent compound growth…” Growth is one of those terms from bourgeois economics that has been adopted into the lexicon of Marxism as a category without critical examination. When Harvey then proposes that “compound growth” must sooner or later give way to “zero growth”, he unwittingly injures his own argument.

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Theories of the Current Crisis: John O’Connor, Neoliberalism and the Long Painful Death of the Nation State

February 25, 2012 1 comment

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.

Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

I am now reading John O’Connor’s “Marxism and the Three Movements of Neoliberalism” (PDF)

O’Connor proposes what he calls a “Marxian conceptual and empirical framework for understanding the disparate research on neoliberalism”. As with Saad-Filho’s work, John O’Connor’s is deeply flawed and is not in any fashion based on Marx’s theory of the Capitalist mode of production. Rather than an exercise in historical materialist analysis, O’Connor serves up a rehash of progressive nostalgia for a mythical pre-1970s Keynesian social compact, combined with a laundry list of ideological and policy crimes by the Neoliberal world order. We end with no more understanding of this thing, Neoliberalism, within the context of history, than we did at the beginning. O’Connor fails the essential test of the historical materialist critique of the capitalist mode of production.

If Neoliberalism is simply an ideological, policy, or governance construct, why is this construct the necessary form of ideology, policy and governance at this stage of development of the mode of production?

Fascism and the Myth of Keynesian Social Accommodation

For some strange reason, O’Connor arbitrarily begins his narrative in 1950 — completely bypassing a decade of depression ending in world war . He wants us to ignore this catastrophe and the war of redivision of the planet that ended in the destruction of much of Europe and Japan — 80 million dead and the productive capacity of Europe and Japan laying in ruins. He also wants us to ignore the rise of the fascist state and the debasement of currency that made that war possible. This allows him to portray the period roughly from 1950 to 1974 as a “Golden Age of Capitalism” following Glyn and Hosbawm.

Completely ignoring the fact that Europe and Japan lay in ruins at the end of the war — and, therefore, that any measure of post-war expansion begins from a base determined by this previous horrific loss of productive capacity — O’Connor tells us the “post-war economic boom was exceptional in capitalist history for its explosive growth, high profits, technological innovation, and reliance on government policy.” This last thing “reliance on government policy” is the kicker, because O’Connor is now going to use it as a crutch to get him to 1974. The “Golden Age” was made possible by two things: class accommodation at home and state involvement in the accumulation process. We don’t get any critical look at this so-called class accommodation nor state involvement in the accumulation process. In fact, both are filler material, placed there solely to let O’Connor to segue into the “crisis” of 1974-82. With this filler material O’Connor can stuff in the typical myth-story about a “Golden Age”” which he finds already present in our national political discourse.

Gone is the Great Depression, the debasement of the currency and the rise of the fascist state, the catastrophic wars of the 30s and 40s, US aggression in Korea, and a series of other police actions and coups, the red scare, the arms race, the Suez incident, Vietnam and the horrors of the United States’ Southeast Asian murderous rampage. What was blood red in reality, becomes a hazy faint shade of pink in O’Connor’s make-believe world of “I Love Lucy”. At some point, someone is going to have to call Marxists out on their patriarchal, racist, elitist, Anglocentric, rewrite of history. Frankly, the shit is just fucking unnerving — there was no “Golden Age” of capitalism! For John O’Connor, Saad-Filho, Richard Wolff and the rest of the Marxist Academy to continue referring to this myth is just bizarre!

The period under question begins not in 1950, but in 1929 with the collapse of capitalism world-wide, from which capitalism never recovered. Rather, all industrial states stepped in as the national capitalist and immediately imposed a continuous wage reduction regime across the board on their respective working classes in a ruthless act of class warfare. Then each fascist state turned on its neighbors and slaughtered everyone they could get their hands on in an orgy of bloodletting. It wasn’t enough to kill them — NO! — they then leveled their cities, destroyed their  factories and productive capacity, and stole their resources to starve them out.

You want to see the “Golden Age” of Keyesianism — just look at World War II. Thanks to Lord Keynes the United States was able to devote 40% of its GDP to slaughter and pillage, and still have “economic growth”. In the United States alone 1500 factories were built from scratch to murder strangers — not feed them and ourselves. Sixteen million men were withdrawn from all productive labor and sent to murder, fully outfitted and fed by American industry — the same American industry which, just months earlier, could neither hire nor feed them — that’s your fucking Keynesian “Golden Age”, bitches.

The insult to the 100 million dead in two global wars of redivision cannot be worst than out of the mouth of a Marxist who states, as John O’Connor does, “the USA and Britain took steps to ensure that a stable liberal world order was recreated”.

The Second Great Depression

Having used this “Golden Age” of capitalism as a crutch to get him to 1974, O’Connor misses the beginning of the crisis in the 1960s. Had he done the least bit of analysis on the period 1929 to 1950 he might have noticed a little event called debasement of the currency. With this debasement, and the devaluation of wages by 70% that accompanied it, American capitalism went through an expansion phase. That expansion was not just fueled by the devaluation of wages, but also the war expenditures of World War II and the absorption of a hefty section of post-war Europe and Japan into the newly emerging fascist American Empire. This expansion phase comes to a head not in 1974, but in the mid-sixties with the collapse of the London gold pool in 1968 (pdf) , which facilitated manipulation of gold bullion price and allowed the US to share in the extraction of surplus value wrung from the European and Japan working classes — the so-called “exorbitant privilege”, a term coined by the French. (Of course, since Marxists are MARXist in name only, they have ignored the implications of the French critique.)

The crisis begins in the mid-sixties with a run on US gold reserves, and culminates in the collapse of Bretton Woods, and the end of dollar convertibility for settling international obligations. But this is just its superficial expression — what really happened is that the new productive capacity of Europe and Japan came online. For a period this overaccumulation was disguised by the murderous war on Vietnam and the swelling of American domestic spending to stem protests. But all of this comes to a head with the opening moments of the Second Great Depression of the 20th Century — the Great Stagflation. This depression triggers the collapse of Bretton Woods and the end of dollar convertibility by the Nixon administration. And it occurs not in 1974 but years earlier, although the actual expression of this crisis in unemployment is itself triggered by the massive inflation that occurs as Washington tries desperately to spend its way out of the contraction. Those of a certain age will remember Nixon declaring fatuously, “I am now a Keynesian in economics”.

The attempt to slow the contraction by a massive expansion of government spending ultimately fails and the Federal Reserve has to choke off credit in the midst of a depression to slow the inflation of prices. Nixon is gone, Gerald Ford is running around handing out “Whip Inflation Now” (WIN) buttons, and the Fed is trying to douse inflation with unemployment. None of this has any effect on the depression, however, which continues unabated for the next five or six years  — in other words Keynesian economic policy is overcome by the growing productive capacity of society and the dissolution of nation-state economic management begins.

Only at this point do we finally reach O’Connor’s dating of the initial emergence of what eventually becomes neoliberalism — the crisis has, by this time, gone on for nearly a decade.

Neoliberalism and the Demise of the Nation State

The easiest way to understand neoliberalism is to understand exactly what the fascist state accomplished that can now only be accomplished by its demise. The success of the fascist states rested on what O’Connor terms a “distinct structural, institutional, and class foundation.”

This state led monopoly capitalism, as described by Fine and Harris (1979), was marked by the socialization of economic activity, in which the state took an active role in the accumulation process. Economic socialization helped offset the unproductive costs of accumulation and the reproduction of the labor force (Gough and Eisenschitz 1996). Through a wide variety of non-market mechanisms, the state balanced the social nature of production with the private appropriation of capital.

Okay, I admit I haven’t a clue what this means — so I am going to parse it.

“State led monopoly capitalism” appears to be some sort of a distinction from the state-as-capitalist — a concept that is apparently alien to Marxists. What role does the state play in this “state led monopoly capitalism” – clearly it is not the capitalist, so is it leading the capitalists? So how is it leading them? And to where? Well, it appears to be leading them toward some “socialization of economic activity” — which is clearly not socialism, but “socialization”. Which is to say, the capitalist accumulation process, having grown beyond the control of various forms of private management, must at some point fall under the direct management of the state. How does this work? Well, the state takes “an active role in the accumulation process”.

Okay, now I am stumped. What exactly is “an active role in the accumulation process”?

O’Connor tells us that it “helped offset the unproductive costs of accumulation and the reproduction of the labor force”. So what are these unproductive costs of accumulation and the reproduction of the labor force? Clearly by “the reproduction of the labor force” O’Connor can only mean wages and (perhaps) a meager provision of public education and a national health system. Can the state add to wages, educate, or cure illness? Not likely, since it is a bloated parasite on society, it can’t even put a chicken in a single pot. Since the state creates nothing, and produces nothing, it can only “offset … the reproduction of the labor force” by driving wages down. Perhaps I got this wrong; perhaps the state can magically whip up a subsidy for wages by creating food, clothing, and shelter out of nothing. I am not as educated as fucking Marxists Academics, but it seems to me all O’Connor is suggesting is that the state devalues labor power!

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Obama is feeding the working class from that victory garden over at the White House.

And what are the “unproductive costs of accumulation”? How does the fascist state “offset” these costs pray tell me? Frankly, I have never heard of the term “unproductive costs of accumulation” before I read this paper — the term appears nowhere in Marx. Nowhere in three fucking volumes of Capital does Marx ever mention an animal going by the name of “unproductive costs of accumulation”. Even if we assume the state plays some role in offsetting these mysterious costs, there are only two classes for the distribution of the social product of labor: workers and capitalists. If the state is “offsetting the unproductive costs of accumulation” for the capitalists, it has to be taking it from the working class.

So when I parse O’Connor’s argument, “Economic socialization helped offset the unproductive costs of accumulation and the reproduction of the labor force”, I only get two things out of it: “devaluation of the wages of the working class” and “more devaluation of the wages of the working class”. Since I am not a Marxist, you probably can understand why I come to that ‘absurd’ conclusion. If I were a Marxist, I could invent another phantom source of value for the state to redistribute as wages and profits.

Once we get past the silliness about the Keynesian “Golden Age” of capitalism, it is clear neoliberalism is not in the least a switch from social accommodation between capital and wage labor to coercive competition as O”Connor argues, but simply an intensification of systematic impoverishment of wage labor, for which Keynesian state policy was, by the 1960s and 1970s, insufficient to realize. This does not in the least require any modification of Marx’s labor theory of value, nor any special explanations. It simply requires us to grasp national capitals behave just like privately owned capitals, but with grim consequences for both national sovereignty and national fiscal/monetary policy. Which means these national capitals, although for a time appearing quite permanent features of economic analysis, were always transitory and subject to the very same laws as determine the capitalist mode of production generally: equalization of the rate of profit, concentration and centralization of capital, overaccumulation, falling rate and mass of profit, a growing superfluity of capital, a growing mass of workers who fill the ranks of the industrial reserve, etc.

What is distinct about these national capitals, however, is the constitution of purely national political class struggles. The political contest between any class of wage laborers and their national capital is fought out within the context of a nation-state form that is rapidly approaching extinction. Already countries very close to the core of Europe have been stripped of their national sovereignty, not to mention peripheral nations. And the more these nations lose their sovereignty, the more indifferent they become to both their domestic working class and domestic capitalist class.

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.

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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.