The Real Movement

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How the breakdown of production based on exchange value altered the terrain of Marxist strategy

At this point we have to ask ourselves two questions:

  1. How does the breakdown of production based on exchange value affect the terrain of classical Marxist strategy?
  2. Why would this impact on strategy have already been built into Marx’s assumptions from the beginning?

To begin to answer these questions it is necessary to understand what it means to say “production based on exchange value breaks down”.

According to Marx in the fragment on the machine, breakdown occurs because direct employment of human labor in production has been eclipsed by machines as the primary means of production of use-values. As machines become more important to the production of commodities than the direct expenditure of human labor, exchange value ceases to be the measure of use value.

In plain English, prices and profits begin to fall, an economic condition economists call deflation. Collapsing prices and profits are a signal to capitalist firms to curtail production. They begin to cut back their schedules, reduce orders, lay off workers, cut wages — all of which only serve to aggravate the crisis.

However, it is important to note that Marx argues exchange value itself ceases to be the measure of use value. This statement does not mean wages, prices or profit are too high or too low; rather, it implies that the very structure of production itself has changed. It is no longer individual production carried on for exchange.

Commodity production has been replaced by a cooperative social form of the labor process, involving the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, and the socialization of the instruments of labor for use as means of production by a combined, socialized labor.

Apart from whether society recognizes the material change that has occurred here, the actual transformation of production from individual production carried on for exchange to cooperative social form of the labor process is a real, material alteration in the material economic foundation of society.

As Marx explains in chapter 1 of Capital, use-values become commodities only because they are products of private labor carried on independently. These individual producers do not come into contact with one another until they exchange their products and their products do not exhibit a social character except in the act of exchange. Only by being exchanged do the products of labor acquire a uniform social status as values. The only evidence we have of the uniform social status of use-values as values are their exchange values.

Cooperative social production of the sort Marx identifies in chapter 32 involves no exchange of the products of labor similar to what he discusses in chapter 1 — a fact he even telegraphs by explicitly citing the modern factory example in chapter 1. Exchange value is, therefore, entirely foreign to this sort of mode of production.

This is a big problem for capital for two obvious reasons.

First, Marx traces the origin of money to exchange value. This would suggest that a system that is incompatible with exchange value is, therefore, incompatible with money. Given this, we should expect to see the breakdown of production based on exchange value to be expressed in a massive global monetary crisis of the sort that occurred at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

Second, labor power is simply a use-value unique to the mode of production, whose historically specific use for capital is the production of surplus value. If exchange value ceases to be the measure of use-value, this situation is true not only for a newly produced pair of shoes, but also for the labor power of the worker who produces them. If money (exchange value) is incompatible with social production generally, so is the buying and selling of labor power.

This is essentially the argument made by Grossman in his remarkable reconstruction of Marx’s theory of breakdown in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression: at a certain point in the development of the mode of production, either wages have to be cut continuously or a reserve army must come into being. What mattered is not that wages were too high, but that they would always be too high.

It is also the argument made by Keynes from the viewpoint of the bourgeois class:

“A fall in real wages due to a rise in prices, with money-wages unaltered, does not, as a rule, cause the supply of available labour on offer at the current wage to fall below the amount actually employed prior to the rise of prices. To suppose that it does is to suppose that all those who are now unemployed though willing to work at the current wage will withdraw the offer of their labour in the event of even a small rise in the cost of living.”

“Wages must be cut continuously,” says Grossman, “or massive unemployment will result.”

“Oh, I have a plan for that,” Keynes responds.

So how do you cut wages once and for all?

Simple, if you sever your national currency from commodity money, it now will always express the exchange value of commodities, including labor power, as zero. No matter how high wages appear to be in currency denominated terms, its real (i.e., exchange value) equivalence will always be zero.

Revisiting Mike Macnair’s “Revolutionary Strategy”

According to Macnair, revolutionary strategy is the long-term framework within which communists develop their plans to achieve their goals over a series of tactical struggles. He suggests communists begin with a review of the strategy proposed by Marx, Engels and the classical Marxists in the period leading to First World War 1914 for two reasons:

First. in some respects social conditions we live under in the 21st century are more like that of Marx’s time than they are to the period after the outbreak of World War I. The world market of the late 19th and early 20th century was both more ‘globalised’ and more dominated by finance capitals than the world market that dominated the 20th century with its cold war and imperialist blocs. Also, the workers’ movement was only just beginning to emerge as an organized force. This is much closer to our own situation than the period of massively dominant socialist and communist parties that characterized the 20th century.

Second, World War I triggered a political crisis within the workers’ movement that led to the world historical defeat of the proletarian revolution. The legacy of this world historical defeat of the proletarians remains with us today and forms the subject matter of Macnair’s book. In my view, however, Macnair’s explanation of this defeat is painfully simplistic, irrelevant, if not complete nonsense. Essentially, the world historical defeat of the working class is reduced to the alleged theoretical weaknesses of strategic ideas introduced by Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg and the isolation of the revolution in Russia in the 1920s. Per Macnair, the alleged theoretical weaknesses of these communists were transmitted to other revolutions in due time, leading the revolution into a blind alley.

Macnair then makes this bogus argument:

When you are radically lost it becomes necessary to retrace your steps. In the present case, this means retracing our steps to the strategic debates of the early workers’ movement and the Second International, which defined the strategic choices available to socialists in the early 20th century, and in this sense led to the blind alley of 1918-91.

On its face, the argument might seem logical. You’re in a place you have never been before, lost, so what do you do? You try to get back to the last place you can recognize — a place with clear landmarks. You search the horizon, looking for the landmark in the distance that you recognize as the place where you began your journey. You want to use this starting point to reorient yourself.

But there is a problem — a huge problem.

Macnair has made an argument that in some respects life in the 21st century looks more like the period from 1858-1928 than it does the period from 1929-1991. As I noted in my last post, the dates he chose are significant: in 1858, Marx was busy writing what we now recognize as the Grundrisse. In those notebooks, in his fragment on the machine, he made his famous prediction that capital was embarked on a process that would eventually eliminate the need for direct human labor in production. Labor would become superfluous. This would lead to the collapse of production based on exchange value.

The other bookend in Macnair’s time frame, 1928, is equally significant in that it is the last year before the start of the Great Depression in 1929. With the start of the depression, capitalist production began to collapse; as would be expected, commodity money is withdrawn from circulation by its owners and employment collapsed. In one country after another, governments are forced to intervene and sever their currencies from precious metals. Only after governments sever the connection between their national currencies and gold do their economies begin to stabilize. For the first time in human history, no industrial country issues a commodity-based currency. Production based on exchange value had disappeared as Marx predicted.

The problem with retracing our steps as Macnair suggests is that somewhere around 1929 the landscape was fundamentally altered to such an extent nothing that remains is recognizable. There are no landmarks. Our maps are completely obsolete. Where rivers once ran, there aren’t even dry beds. Mountains have becomes valleys.

It is said that no strategy ever survives contact with the enemy. How then was Marx and Engels strategy supposed to survive the collapse of production based on exchange value?

What’s wrong with this statement?

This is from the final chapter of Mike MacNair’s groundbreaking 2008 book, Revolutionary Strategy: The Challenge of Left Unity:

I began this book with the argument that it was necessary to go back over the strategic debates of the past in order to go forward and effectively address strategy now. The primary focus of the book has been to attempt to understand critically the various strategic choices made by socialists between 150 and 80 years ago, rather than echoing uncritically one or another side of the old debates, as often occurs with the left today. It is necessary to follow the former course because those choices have led up to the defeats, demoralisation and disorientation that currently affects the socialist movement internationally.

Notice the timeframe.

MacNair’s book was published in 2008. This would set is his book in the period roughly between 1858 to 1928 — which is to say, roughly between the time Marx penned his prediction that the capitalist mode of production would break down and the actual event, the actual breakdown, in 1929.

In an interview last year on the Alpha to Omega podcast, MacNair had this to say about how the leading Marxists of that period, following the death of Engels, approached their work among the working class:

“We think the capitalists class are going to screw things up really badly. The regime is going to screw things up really badly. We can, by self-help, build up our organization and our skills to the point where when things really do get screwed up, we can intervene and take things over.”

In other words, the leaders of that period leading to the 1929 expected something catastrophic to occur. When it occurred, they expected the capitalists class would lose control of the affairs of society. The proletarians would get their chance to step in and assume power.

This assumption was not spurious. It was the conclusion explicitly projected in Capital, volume 1, chapter 32 as the inevitable result of capitalist accumulation:

“As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”

If that projection had not been explicit enough, in 1880, Engels produced a pamphlet that became required reading for all young Marxists of the day — the Communist Manifesto of its time — Socialism. This little pamphlet again reiterated Marx prediction of a breakdown and warned that even if the working class did not seize power, the state would be forced to take over production:

In any case, with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into State property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication — the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.

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.

Okay, so what is my point?

Why waste your time once again quoting stuff I have quoted dozens of times in the past?

Simple: the strategy MacNair is talking about in his book was meant to prepare the working class to act when what we now know as the Great Depression plunged society into the long nightmare. That’s when they were supposed to seize power!

But by that time the workers’ movements were long past the time when they were politically capable of seizing anything — that strategy was thwarted by the Great War.

Nothing can revive MacNair’s strategy of patience — it’s as dead, dead, dead as the Marxists who created it.

Ask Tsipras.

Speculative presence – 11

Our exploration has taken us to the edge of what is likely the minimum requirements of a fully communist society: a working day of three hours. Keynes predicted this three hours labor day based on a two percent growth rate and then existing technological trends. He assumed it would be likely to emerge by 2030. The Soviet Union, basing its projections on a much higher ten percent rate of growth, projected a three hours working day would be achievable fifty years earlier in 1980.

As we know, neither projection has come to pass thus far.

Nevertheless, I am engaged in creating an alternative world, a speculative fictional alternative future communist society that, at least so far, has never actually existed. I do this in order to describe how such a society might operate. This question is constantly posed by people who are skeptical such a society could ever exist.

***

So, let’s jump ahead for this post and assume we now have arrived at Khrushchev’s professed goal of a three hours day in 1980.

Have we solved all the problems facing mankind? Are we now in my communist utopia? Has history ended? Perhaps not.

Why not?

Well, remember what I said back in post seven:

Essentially, communism itself would be knowledge objectified, an extension of the human mind.

I used those terms for a reason. Marx used both of them to describe machines.

Another way to say the above is that, in contrast to capitalism, which is essentially a mode of production for squeezing surplus labor out of wage workers, economically, communism can be conceptualized as a massive machine, an intelligent machine. Communism is the creation of an artificial (machine) intelligence.

Initially, we would create that machine, maintain and supervise it. But, as time goes on, the machine would maintain and supervise itself, design its own improvements and mostly function without significant human intervention. It is even possible that this machine might one day (perhaps sooner than we expect) eclipse human beings in intelligence.

Cool, right?

Well, maybe not. In 1993, in an essay titled, Technological Singularity, Vernor Vinge gave some thought to this idea and decided this could lead to our extinction as a species.

It turns out that what I call “the material foundation of communism”, Vinge calls a “technological singularity”. The term carries an echo of Keynes own neologism, “technological unemployment”, which Vinge actually refers to in his 1993 essay. In that essay, Vinge defines what he means by the term and why he thinks it may be a threat to mankind’s future.

According to Vinge, the accelerating technological progress has been the central feature of this century. It has not only eclipsed the employment of human labor in production, it has produced a change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth — the imminent creation by technological means of a consciousness with greater-than-human intelligence. We can expect that, in one form or another, a superhuman intelligence will emerge. Vinge thinks this is a certainty by 2030 — the date by which Keynes predicted the emergence of a three hours working day.

Once this superhuman intelligence finally emerges, technological progress will be even more breathtakingly rapid. That progress will involve the creation of still more intelligent entities, on a still-shorter time scales. While the evolution of intelligent life through natural selection took billions of years on Earth, human beings have been able to accomplish it in a matter of centuries. Now we stand on the precipice of new stage that is as radically different from our own as we are from lower animals.

Vinge states his conclusion:

This change will be a throwing-away of all the human rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye — an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that were thought might only happen in “a million years” (if ever) will likely happen in the next century. It’s fair to call this event a singularity (“the Singularity” for the purposes of this piece). It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules, a point that will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs until the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens, it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown.

In Vinge’s opinion, if a technological singularity can not be prevented or confined, the physical extinction of the human race is possible. But, he warns, physical extinction may not be the scariest possibility: mankind could be reduced to mere livestock, employed for specific useful functions in a larger AI environment:

Think of the different ways we relate to animals. A Posthuman world would still have plenty of niches where human-equivalent automation would be desirable: embedded systems in autonomous devices, self-aware daemons in the lower functioning of larger sentients. … Some of these human equivalents might be used for nothing more than digital signal processing. Others might be very humanlike, yet with a onesidedness, a dedication that would put them in a mental hospital in our era. Though none of these creatures might be flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the closest things in the new environment to what we call human now.

This is pretty much the concept behind the movie, The Matrix. Mankind has been reduced to a power source for an AI. It is digitally fed a simulation to keep it sane. What Vinge has done here is conceptualize the post-apocalypse in such a way as to make it appear to be the inevitable result of technological innovation.

Or has he?

Read this passage carefully:

I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology.

Vinge would have us believe that whatever threat of physical extinction hangs over the head of humanity today results from technological innovation. This technological innovation will in the very near future produce an intellectual runaway, an exponential explosion of machine intelligence beyond any hope of human control.

But examining his argument closely, it is obvious that there is no control over technology at present. Technological innovation is driven solely by competition.

According to Vinge:

  • “I think that any rules strict enough to be effective would also produce a device whose ability was clearly inferior to the unfettered versions (so human competition would favor the development of the more dangerous models).”
  • “We humans have millions of years of evolutionary baggage that makes us regard competition in a deadly light.”
  • “The competitive advantage –economic, military, even artistic –of every advance in automation is so compelling that forbidding such things merely assures that someone else will get them first.”
  • “[Intelligence Amplification] for individual humans creates a rather sinister elite.”

Vinge suggests, perhaps without realizing it, that his chief symptom of a technological singularity — technological runaway — is not a future concern, but a constant reality under the existing mode of production. And it has been a threat since capitalist competition-driven technological innovation triggered the first depression — perhaps as early as 1819 in the United States.

First, technology displaced human labor in production, creating the Great Depression; now it threatens to make human beings superfluous even to the design and supervision of the machines they have created to replace human labor.

If Vinge’s argument about competition and technological innovation sounds vaguely familiar to you, it should. The same discussion has been raging among communists for decades now, under the rather awkward question: “Where is the revolutionary subject?”

Speculative presence – 10

While Keynes relied on crude back of the envelope calculations to arrive at his conclusion that hours of labor would shrink to no more than 15 hours per week by 2030 in the areas of the world market hit by the Great Depression, Khrushchev and the leaders of the Soviet Union proposed an actual timetable to get the USSR to the shortest workweek in the world by 1968.

Beginning in 1956, the Soviets announced they were undertaking a transition from a 48 hours workweek, established after World War 2 to recover from the catastrophic global conflict, to a 40 hours workweek by 1962.

Starting almost immediately in 1964, the Soviets would begin a transition from the newly established 40 hours workweek to a 35 hours workweek. The transition was scheduled to be completed by 1968, at which time the Soviet Union would be able to boast having the shortest workweek in the world.

But the reductions of hours of work would not end there: Khrushchev publicly claimed that the USSR would continue reducing the working day over the next decade or so, to achieve a three or four hours working day by 1980. In other words, the Soviet Union claimed it could reach Keynes’ speculative 2030 target of a three hours working day fifty years ahead of his crude, back of the envelope schedule!

Was Khrushchev talking nonsense?

Not really.

Key to the credibility of Khrushchev’s claim is the fact that Keynes relied on estimated annual increases in productivity of two percent in his conservative 1930 calculations, while the USSR was estimated, at least by the CIA, (hardly a source given to revolutionary hyperbole) to be expanding output at an annual rate of ten percent in the first nine months of 1960.

Moreover, whether you are in the camp of communists who think the Soviet Union was socialist, or in the camp that thinks it was capitalist — or even stuck somewhere in between — you have to admit that, essentially, this was planned production, in which the entire infrastructure of production was managed as if it consisted of a single enterprise (or capitalist firm, if you are so inclined). Thanks to central planning, this massive enterprise, according to reliable sources, was accumulating additional surplus at a rate of ten percent a year, without the usual disruptions of periodic capitalist crises.

So, assuming no more than the conditions in existence at the time of Keynes back of the envelope calculations, the Soviet Union was roughly doubling in size every seven years, not increasing by half in twenty years as Keynes figured. As Keynes says, think of this in terms of the total capital infrastructure of the Soviet Union — houses, transport, and the like — the capacity to produce everything.

To understand the implications of the Soviet timetable for reduction of hours of labor, we need only mention that 1968 would have opened with the spectacular defeat of US aggression in Vietnam and the collapse of the Johnson presidency into disarray; and, closed with the Soviet Union announcing establishment of the shortest official working day in the history of mankind.

Over the next decade, the world market would have seen the collapse of Bretton Woods and the collapse of the global economy into the then unimaginable simultaneous eruption of hyperinflation and hyperunemployment, leading to the rise of Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the United States, as the Soviet Union was progressively reducing its working day from seven hours to three hours, fully fifty years ahead of Keynes prediction.

As in the case of Keynes’ prediction, a good speculative fiction writer could have taken Khrushchev’s timetable and speculated on what a world where, essentially, the Soviets solved “the economic problem” might look like.

Of course, we already know what it looks like if that timetable wasn’t met — that’s what the picture above shows.

Speculative presence – 9

I like this statement by Le Guin regarding speculative fiction, although I am pretty sure I don’t agree with it:

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.

–Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to the Left Hand of Darkness

***

Contrary to Le Guin, I think speculative fiction can be extrapolative.

We can, for example, take Keynes statement in 1930, which extrapolates from the social conditions of the Great Depression.

Let me see if I can patch it together from one of Keynes most interesting essays on the depression, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930):

If capital increases, say, 2 per cent per annum, the capital equipment of the world will have increased by a half in twenty years, and seven and a half times in a hundred years. Think of this in terms of material things—houses, transport, and the like. … All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is. … I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not-if we look into the future-the permanent problem of the human race.

And what were the implications for society of this technological trend according to Keynes?

We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

This latter bit is a piece of speculative fiction; it is extrapolative as well. Keynes simply takes then existing trends of technological innovation, extrapolates them 100 years into the future and arrives at a society markedly different than the one he observed in his day.

A good speculative fiction writer could have taken Keynes ruminations and speculated on how a society where “the economic problem” has been solved might look like. Indeed, Keynes provides some interesting hints along this line:

  • “We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues.”
  • “We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”
  • “All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.”

But, an even better speculative fiction writer might have asked herself,

“What would it take to frustrate Keynes vision?”

Or, more relevantly:

“What would the world look like if Keynes vision wasn’t realized and and ‘the economic problem’ was actually solved, but hours of labor still remained unchanged? What would these poor crazy bastards who worked for no reason do for work?”

Speculative presence – 8

Okay, I don’t want to literally blow up the world.

But I do want to establish an alternative timeline that ends with the Soviet Union realizing a fully developed communist society before 1990, rather  than collapsing into an oligarchic-gangster-fascist state run by former KGB operatives or whatever the latest pop theory says happened there.

To remove the collapse of the Soviet Union from my timeline, naturally, I have to remove the benighted leadership of General Secretary Gorbachev and his program of perestroika.

But this means I have to remove about two decades of economic stagnation in the Soviet Union from the timeline under the incompetent management of General Secretary Brezhnev, which made the benighted leadership of General Secretary Gorbachev appear historically necessary, i.e., the necessary form, in hindsight, taken by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Which brings me back to General Secretary Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, (born 15 April 1894, died 11 September 1971), revisionist, tankie extraordinaire and the proverbial “drunk uncle in the middle of my wedding” of modern communism.

***

If few communists want to be identified with Stalin today, it’s because of Khrushchev, who, in 1956, gave a secret address detailing what he said were the crimes of Stalin. So it is odd that, despite Stalin’s infamy, no one identifies with the guy who denounced him.

That is, it’s odd until you realize that a lot of the things people claim to be the crimes of “stalinists”, like the invasion of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the Berlin wall, etc., were committed not by Stalin, but by the people who denounced Stalin.

The tankies, like those who hate them, hate Stalin.

Stalin never invaded anyone who didn’t attack the Soviet Union first.

But commies fight over complete bullshit. And commies will still fight even in my speculative fictional alternative future communist society over complete bullshit.

That’s another thing that makes my speculative fictional alternative future communist society interesting: people just do dumb shit that makes no sense because — dumb.

But back to Sergeyevich. Yes, he denounced Stalin, but I don’t hold that against him. I don’t have a dog in that fight. I wasn’t there. He invaded Hungary and I wasn’t there either. It probably was the wrong thing to do, but he did it. Proletarians don’t always do the right thing. Sometimes they do evil shit too.

Which  is why proletarian women will tell you to never leave your drink untended when you use the bathroom at the club.

My reason for saving Sergeyevich is rather selfish. I need Sergeyevich in this story because he seems to be the last figure in the Soviet Union’s leadership who realizes the connection between labor and communism. After he is removed from his position as General Secretary, things quickly go down hill to collapse.

After Sergeyevich is removed, the Soviet leadership reneges on its commitment to reducing hours of labor and its stated goal of a fifteen hours work week by 1980. The reason for this about face may be that the workers gain increasing social power to resist the demands of the enterprise management.

It is possible that both the management of the enterprises and the military are concerned that emphasis on heavy industry will be lost as workers demand more consumer goods.

This is just speculation on my part, of course. But I can use it to fill in the gaps in the narrative.

I want a different outcome. I want the Soviet leadership to stick to its commitment to reducing hours of labor. This means the military has to stand down. Sergeyevich, who was present during the Great Patriotic War, can force them to stand down.

Moreover, the Soviet Union has the weapon to guarantee its survival in the face of US military aggression. To prove it, Sergeyevich orders a full scale demonstration of Tsar Bomba.

Although it won’t be known for decades, the event creates two world timelines.

In timeline one, history unfolds as we know it and the Soviet Union collapses.

In timeline two, the Soviet Union goes on to create the first communist society, with all the implications that event has for the world market.

The narrator follows timeline two, of course. So we get to spend a lot of time watching the Soviet Union develop into a fully communist society. Then, quite by accident, the shocking discovery of timeline one occurs in 2020. The discovery is not a surprise to us, of course. We know we are here. But what will they make of us? How will they explain what has happened.

And what, if anything, will they try to do about it?

Speculative presence – 7

So, what is a general intellect?

To be honest, no one seems to know.

And don’t try to consult the Wikipedia on the term; the entry there is worse than useless:

General intellect, according to Karl Marx in his Grundrisse, became a crucial force of production. It is a combination of technological expertise and social intellect, or general social knowledge (increasing importance of machinery in social organization). The “general intellect” passage in the Fragment section of Grundrisse, shows that, while the development of machinery led to the oppression of workers under capitalism, it also offers a prospect for future liberation.

The Wikipedia entry references the writing of some guy named Paolo Virno. This idiot academic claims Marx got the concept of the general intellect completely wrong!

As is usual in the long Marxist tradition, Marx coins a term to capture a concept, then some third-rate Marxist academic comes along and claims the term Marx invented captures a meaning other than the meaning Marx invented the term to capture.

The sheer cheek of this guy is astonishing.

***

The general intellect is Marx’s term for the general state of science and technology (i.e., the application of this scientific knowledge to production) as it is physically hardwired in the total productive infrastructure of society. It describes both the actual revolution in knowledge as mankind taps the secrets of nature and the practical application of that knowledge to production as mankind unleashes the forces of nature and employs those very forces to press their mastery over nature itself.

The archetypal element (unit, component) of the general intellect is the machine.

Some people confuse machines with tools, but I think they are not the same thing. With a stone axe, you can split wood, but it takes a machine to split atoms. Moreover, machines are not extensions of the human hand. Marx makes clear that machines are actually extensions of the human brain, scientific knowledge materialized in the form of industrial processes:

They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.

The machine is knowledge objectified!

The general intellect is the total sum of mankind’s scientific and technical knowledge given objectified form in the total productive infrastructure of society. In this form, scientific and technical knowledge has become both a direct force of production in its own right and immediate organs of social practice generally.

This is the force Stalin indicated Soviet society would unleash to realize communism. Essentially, communism itself would be knowledge objectified, an extension of the human mind. Labor would have to go away to make room for this new organ of the human brain.

I can paraphrase Marx’s fragment on the machine to better describe what is taking place in our speculative fictional alternative communist society.

The creation of communism would progressively depend less on the expenditure of human labour and more on the controlled application of the natural forces set in motion during production. The focused application of natural forces in production, in turn, would depend on the general state of science and on the application of this science to production, as it is hardwired (physically embodied) in the continuously evolving infrastructure of production.

Since production of the material foundations of communism would directly involve unleashing processes of nature that have been transformed into industrial processes, the workers themselves would not be directly involved in the production that created communism. Rather, they would merely supervise the machines that actually created the material foundation of communist society.

But this is only the first stage.

In the second stage, we could imagine the first Ivakhnenko-class machines would begin to emerge with the capacity to supervise themselves. These new generations of machines will learn on their own. Later iterations might even begin to maintain themselves, and design and build better machines.

In the third stage, it is possible that machines will act as advisers to human society!

***

This point will mark our departure from the actual historical record, but before we can get there, we have to save Khrushchev from early retirement and blow up the world.

Speculative presence – 6

“Stalin? Ewwww!”

I know, right? And we were getting along so famously until this point. Now you probably want to take a shower or some shit. But, hey, you can’t make an omelette without collectivizing the peasants and expropriating their eggs, can  you now?

Besides, we were going to give them communism in return and drag them kicking and screaming away from the idiocy of rural life. Their kids would have thanked us. I mean, seriously, what teenager says, “I can’t wait to be a pig farmer, when I graduate!”

***

So, yeah, Stalin.

The guy has a bad reputation even among most communists, but I’m not here to defend him. Like I said, he adds flavor to the story. We have to keep Stalin somewhere in this speculative fictional alternative future communist society. Without Stalin, everything is just too neat and tidy. Without Stalin, dumb communists would start to believe their own heroic technicolor masturbatory fantasies about proletarian revolution.

Think of it this way: the American bourgeoisie has to face the flaws of its own heroes. Everybody knows Thomas Jefferson screwed his wife’s half-sister, who was also their slave. They had a regular Roman orgy going on, while he was penning declarations that all men were created equal, “except this slave bitch, who I have down on her knees, sucking my white dick, and her bastard offspring!”

Despite that evil shit, they built him a monument in Washington.

Jefferson didn’t get airbrushed out of American history and Stalin stays in this story, because the people who create communism are products of capitalism. We need to know that the proletarians who have passed through the bowels of this monstrosity to create communism were not necessarily very nice people. And we have no reason to expect them to start being nice the day after wage slavery is abolished.

As Marx put it in the Critique of the Gotha Program:

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

Initially, my speculative fictional communist society is going to be morally frightful because it is being created by people who are still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society; people have been renting themselves out in return for food and shelter for generations. Do you think that damage disappears overnight? The lid of the old society will come off and all sorts of monsters will emerge. We will discover shit that nearly makes us lose our faith in humanity — and may be even our lunch.

***

But there is a second, less negative reason for Stalin to stay in the story. Although it really has never been recognized by communists, of all the communists of the 20th century, Stalin had some pretty clever things to say about practical steps necessary to actually realize communism.

In 1950, Stalin realizes that once you start distributing basic necessities on the basis of needs, the world’s going to beat a path to your door. Have you seen the homeless tents lining the streets in San Francisco? Why are they there? They are there because people know the government will not stop them from living on the streets, yet has no plan to build housing to keep them from living on the streets. That’s why.

If the S.U. announces that henceforth basic necessities will be distributed based on need, they better be prepared to cope with the influx of tens of millions of proletarians fleeing the capitalist zone to enjoy their new lives in the commune, where all basic goods are distributed on the basis of needs.

Stalin, who, whatever you think of him, remained a practical person to the end, thought about this and said that if communism was ever going to happen, the S.U. need to be able to constantly expand social production, and moreover expand production of the means of production at an even faster rate. Unless it could do this, the S.U. could not constantly extend the scale of production as would be required by a system of distribution based on need.

Interestingly, however, even as Stalin was talking about the need to constantly expand social production and extend the scale of production to meet the requirements of a system of distribution based on need, he also proposed that the working day should be shortened to five hours. Clearly, Stalin did not believe that constant expansion of the scale of production to meet the requirements of of a system of distribution based on need would be achieved by the brute force of human labor.

It would be the product of the machine and that means lots of technological innovation. So Stalin proposes that the Soviet government introduce universal compulsory polytechnical education. He wants to turn technological innovation from a destructive force, as it is described in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, into a productive force capable of creating the material basis for a communist society.

Communism would be the creation, not of human hands, but of what Marx called “the general intellect”.

Speculative presence – 5

So, we have our hidden culprit in the catastrophe behind the post-apocalyptic drama that unfolds in The Day of the Triffids. And the culprit turns out to be the same perpetrator Keynes implicated for being behind the Great Depression: technological innovation.

The question I need to address now is how I can turn this highly destructive potential, latent in technological innovation, into a useful productive force to construct the material foundation of my speculative fictional communist society?

***

In chapter 15 of Capital, volume one, Karl Marx offers a suggestion taken from an actual 19th century British historical example: it turns out that the relation between technological innovation and labor redundancy may be largely reciprocal. It is true that technological innovation can create technological unemployment, leading to severe economic contractions like the Great Depression, but it appears that the reverse is also true: dramatic reductions of hours of labor greatly accelerate technological innovations and boost productivity.

Marx examines the data for these reductions in chapter fifteen.

In 1844 the working day in Britain was capped at 12 hours. In 1847, that cap was lowered again to just 10 hours. The improvements in productivity from the two reduction appear to come from three different sources:

First, within certain limits, what is lost of the labor day by shortening its duration is gained back by the increased tension of labor power expenditure. Better rested workers are able to labor with more energy, consistency and attention.

Second, with the shortening of the working day and the improved capacity of the worker, the capitalist firm employs improved machinery to systematically squeeze out more labour within the limits of the new working day. This is effected by speed ups and by concentrating more machines under the control of a single worker.

More than 150 years later, these two observations by Marx are still supported by research.

These responses by capital to limitations on the working day meant that early efforts to limit hours of labor actually had the combined paradoxical effect of increasing profits fivefold, rather than reducing them!

According to figures cited by Marx, between 1838 and 1850, profits in English cotton and other factories averaged 2.7% annually. Profits jumped to 14.3% between 1850 and 1856 after hours of labor had been capped at ten hours.

By slashing the working day to twelve hours in 1844 and again to ten hours in 1847, parliament forced British industry to innovate  and become more productive in order to restore its profitability.

Says Marx:

There cannot be the slightest doubt that the tendency that urges capital, so soon as a prolongation of the hours of labour is once for all forbidden, to compensate itself, by a systematic heightening of the intensity of labour, and to convert every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means of exhausting the workman, must soon lead to a state of things in which a reduction of the hours of labour will again be inevitable. On the other hand, the rapid advance of English industry between 1848 and the present time, under the influence of a day of 10 hours, surpasses the advance made between 1833 and 1847, when the day was 12 hours long, by far more than the latter surpasses the advance made during the half century after the first introduction of the factory system, when the working-day was without limits.

It would seem, then, that to create the material foundations of my speculative fictional communist society I can call on a dramatic reduction of hours of labor to unleash the sort of technological innovation that would result in a society with characteristics very similar to the fictional London of The Day of the Triffids. The difference, however, would be that no one need be disabled, no one is unemployed (as occurs in a apocalyptically severe version of the Great Depression) and there are no people-eating sunflowers.

Okay, cool, but what fun is that?

Where’s the drama?

Where’s the conflict?

Where are the flesh-eating zombies?

I want a communism with real warts!

If the quintessential bourgeois revolution, the French Revolution, had room for Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, certainly we can have Stalin in our speculative fictional communism!