“Proletarians are overwhelmingly women of color residing in postcolonial countries”

by Jehu

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Chris Cutrone made comments on my series on privilege theory and Marxism which I think are highly relevant and deserve to be addressed. I print his entire comment below, followed by my response.

COMMENT BY CHRIS CUTRONE:

“Reduction of hours of labor” is not necessarily the reduction of surplus value overall, since that surplus value is not to be calculated based on extension of laboring hours past the value of reproduction of labor power. Marx described “capital” as the emergence of “relative” as opposed to “absolute” surplus-value: in other words, the realization of the value of past, “dead” labor as opposed to living, present labor.

The mid-20th century saw the overall reduction of laboring hours not only in the advanced capitalist countries and not only among those countries most privileged workers, but across the board in every country, relative to today. Marx recognized the simultaneity of unemployment and overwork that results from attempting to mediate the value of capital though the commodity form of labor.

Surplus value in capital is not in terms of hours worked, but in terms of the accumulation of “dead labor” in capital, which is highly socially mediated, what Marx called the “general intellect” of technology (including social organization) and scientific knowledge. It is that which needs to be reappropriated in socialism, not merely working hours reduced and surplus-value thus eliminated. No: surplus-value and its social ramifications will remain in accumulated capital.

Moishe Postone calls the disparity between the two — capital and wage-labor — the “shearing effect” of contradiction in the social role of the surplus value of capital.

It is difficult for us in the present to appreciate the mid-20th century circumstance of labor, in which which per capital people worked the least and produced the most than in any other era of capitalism, the present included. The reintroduction of long hours and intensified activity — absolute surplus-value as opposed to relative surplus-value — is a perverse effect of social regression and decomposition. It is an expression of crisis of the value in capital, which has been on-going in this sense since the 1970s,

But the mid-20th century “regime of accumulation” (David Harvey) was also an expression of the crisis of value in capital.

What happened was that the prior crisis was shunted into a “full employment” and high-consumption regime, which itself then went into crisis, a crisis that was expressed by demands for equality from blacks, women, and the postcolonial countries, whose demands were shunted into neoliberalism.

While the demands for social equality do point to the abolition of labor-as-value, this has been true, according to Marx, since the 1840s. The 19th century also had a differentiated labor market and workforce, without this becoming an obstacle to the working-class’s struggle for socialism.

It is only from the standpoint of the present, after neoliberalism, that the working class appears in retrospect to have been always fatally politically compromised by inequality among its members, first and foremost between the employed and unemployed (or, between the regularly and more gainfully employed and the more irregularly and less gainfully employed).

It seems in retrospect — but only in retrospect — that the project of “proletarian socialism” or socialism achieved by the wage-laborers was always doomed to failure. But we should not allow the present to blind us to past historical political possibilities that may still be with us, however more obscurely today than back then.

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MY RESPONSE TO CUTRONE’S COMMENT

CUTRONE: “Reduction of hours of labor” is not necessarily the reduction of surplus value overall, since that surplus value is not to be calculated based on extension of laboring hours past the value of reproduction of labor power.

JEHU: I would agree with this and I accept your correction on surplus value. I was compressing two things — profit and surplus value — in order to make a point, but ended up with an unacceptable formulation.

I would make certain additional points to clarify what I think we are dealing with: First, at some definite point in the past (my guess would be the period from the Great Depression and culminating in the the 1970s depression), production based on value broke down because value (socially necessary labor time) itself broke down. We are now talking about two contradictory measures of socially necessary labor time: there is the labor time socially required for the production of the commodity (socially necessary labor time in the narrow sense) and the labor time required for production of the commodity in its capitalistic form (the total labor time of society). These two labor times can no longer be resolved (as before) through the crisis.

Second, what we see in its place is a permanence of crisis, expressed in the separation of the value of the commodity from its price, or, more generally, the separation of socially necessary labor time from the total labor time of society. This is, in turn, expressed in the separation of commodity money from fiat currency, or, the separation of the chief functions of money as a universal measure of value and as medium for the circulation of commodities. These two functions can no longer be carried out by the same object, but have devolved on different objects — a commodity money and a state issued fiat currency — that are themselves no longer linked. Which is to say, with the collapse of production based on exchange value commodity prices no longer have any standard.

Third, we now also have to make a distinction between surplus value and profit. While it is entirely true that surplus value is not to be calculated based on extension of laboring hours past the value of reproduction of labor power, profit is possible only at the  point where total hours of labor of society are extended past the socially necessary labor time required for the production of labor power.

CUTRONE: Marx described “capital” as … the realization of the value of past, “dead” labor as opposed to living, present labor.

JEHU: I would also agree with this, with the caveat that between the socially necessary labor time of society and total labor time of society there is a duration of labor time that is superfluous to society in both forms. This labor time is a duration beyond both realization of the value of the past and living labor. I think this was the argument Postone made.

CUTRONE: The mid-20th century saw the overall reduction of laboring hours not only in the advanced capitalist countries and not only among those countries most privileged workers, but across the board in every country, relative to today.

JEHU: Yes. I would agree with this as well. The massive destruction of the productive forces in World War II made this possible.

CUTRONE: Marx recognized the simultaneity of unemployment and overwork that results from attempting to mediate the value of capital [through] the commodity form of labor.

JEHU: Yes. But are you suggesting there is nothing that can be done about this? Of course, if left unchecked, capital will indeed produce a mass of superfluous workers, but there is no need to leave capital unchecked — even if it cannot be overthrown. I have serious doubts about the mainstream Marxist interpretation of what we are seeing in post-war unemployment, since, clearly, “the economy”, (i.e., the total labor time of society), is not growing without state intervention. This is not just a problem of an industrial reserve — it now appears that jobs are no longer being created without state intervention. Why, rather than “stimulating job creation”, can’t hours be reduced — especially since unemployment only intensifies conflict within the class.

Further, reducing hours of labor is not a one time measure, but can be employed whenever the crisis threatens to intensify — as capital reduces the need for labor, the now freed labor time can be converted into disposable time for the majority.

CUTRONE: Surplus value in capital is not in terms of hours worked, but in terms of the accumulation of “dead labor” in capital, which is highly socially mediated, what Marx called the “general intellect” of technology (including social organization) and scientific knowledge.

JEHU: I would agree with this as well, but point out that superfluous labor is also “dead” (unproductive) labor, i.e., it is labor that does not produce value, that no longer counts as variable capital. An increasing mass of living labor begins to fall under this heading, if I understand Postone and Kurz correctly.

CUTRONE: It is that which needs to be reappropriated in socialism, not merely working hours reduced and surplus-value thus eliminated. No: surplus-value and its social ramifications will remain in accumulated capital. Moishe Postone calls the disparity between the two — capital and wage-labor — the “shearing effect” of contradiction in the social role of the surplus value of capital.

JEHU: I am not sure I see the distinction here: the reduction of hours of labor and the reappropriation of the productive forces are simply two sides of the same coin — disposable time for the majority of society for self-activity and self-development. Additionally, so much of the remaining labor time will go into replacement of the means of production that is used up and to expand it — and so further free up more disposable time.

CUTRONE: It is difficult for us in the present to appreciate the mid-20th century circumstance of labor, in which per capital people worked the least and produced the most than in any other era of capitalism, the present included.

JEHU: Can you clarify this for me, because it is not clear to me what people are producing and what constitutes their labor in this context? I am not saying I disagree, but, in the context of this discussion it is ambiguous. I cannot tell if you are referring to value production, use values or both.

CUTRONE: The reintroduction of long hours and intensified activity — absolute surplus-value as opposed to relative surplus-value — is a perverse effect of social regression and decomposition. It is an expression of crisis of the value in capital, which has been on-going in this sense since the 1970s,

But the mid-20th century “regime of accumulation” (David Harvey) was also an expression of the crisis of value in capital.

What happened was that the prior crisis was shunted into a “full employment” and high-consumption regime, which itself then went into crisis, …

JEHU: If I could rephrase this slightly, I believe you are saying at the time of the Great Depression, society had no choice but to reduce hours of labor. Because this path wasn’t chosen, instead we saw the expansion of the unproductive expenditure of labor time, particularly in the staggering growth of the state sector and the military. Harvey’s so-called “regime of accumulation” is a misnomer, since this “regime” is nothing more than the accumulation of superfluous labor, i.e., labor that no longer counts as variable capital. All that is being accumulated here is Postone’s superfluous labor — Harvey’s formulation does nothing to improve on Postone. Since living labor is being employed unproductively, the expansion of capital in the United States has all but halted (relatively) since about 1979 and in absolute terms since the late 1990s.

Further, I am not so sure I would accept your formulation that  “the prior crisis was shunted into a ‘full employment’ and high-consumption regime” in this context — it is ambiguous at best. It turns out that there was a deliberate efforts by the state to prevent any discussion of fewer hours of labor in the United States, with an eye to military competition going into, and consolidation of its gains coming out of, World War II. This included a deliberate push for longer hours of labor beginning with the effort by the Roosevelt administration to prevent 30 hours legislation in the 1930s and efforts by the Truman administration in the 1940s to extend hours of labor by deliberately provoking the cold war with the Soviet Union.

CUTRONE: … a crisis that was expressed by demands for equality from blacks, women, and the postcolonial countries, whose demands were shunted into neoliberalism.

JEHU: I must say that I am disturbed by how you formulate the above statement. There was indeed a demand for equality, but this demand emanated from the black, women, and the postcolonial working class itself, not “from blacks, women, and the postcolonial countries”. The way you formulate the statement makes it appears as if the demand for equality stands outside the class. This is precisely the error Ignatin pointed to in his original paper: the inability of Marxists to grasp the proletarian character of the demand for social equality.

Another way to say this: blacks, women and the workers of the post-colonial countries are every bit as much a part of the working class as white male workers residing in the advanced countries. We need to stop classifying their demands in such a way as to make it appear they are standing outside the class — insofar as raw number count, they are the working class. Which is to say, proletarians are overwhelmingly women of color residing in postcolonial countries.

CUTRONE: While the demands for social equality do point to the abolition of labor-as-value, this has been true, according to Marx, since the 1840s. The 19th century also had a differentiated labor market and workforce, without this becoming an obstacle to the working-class’s struggle for socialism.

It is only from the standpoint of the present, after neoliberalism, that the working class appears in retrospect to have been always fatally politically compromised by inequality among its members, first and foremost between the employed and unemployed (or, between the regularly and more gainfully employed and the more irregularly and less gainfully employed).

It seems in retrospect — but only in retrospect — that the project of “proletarian socialism” or socialism achieved by the wage-laborers was always doomed to failure. But we should not allow the present to blind us to past historical political possibilities that may still be with us, however more obscurely today than back then.

I am pretty sure you could not defend this statement for even one minute. It would requires you to throw out not only Marx and Engels (in particular, the problem of the English working class) , but Lenin and just about all worthwhile classical Marxists writings. At best, we could say there has never been a necessary obstacle within the class to the struggle for socialism. The divisions within the working class are not of the sort that exist between the class and the capitalists. Further, saying the demand for social equality has pointed to the need for abolition of wage labor since the 1840s, is not refutation of my statement that it does so now — that is just a way of dismissing its significance.

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