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CoViD-19 and Capitalist Collapse: Answers to some questions about the present emergency

SUMMARY

According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, as many as 47 million workers may lose their jobs as a result of the emergency public health measures taken to control the coronavirus pandemic. Once the pandemic is contained, those unemployed workers will return to the labor market en masse seeking work.

47 million. If we do not take steps now to reduce hours of labor, the consequences of that level of unemployment are unthinkable.

Looking for comments on this discussion paper from everyone.

*****

So, let’s answer some questions.

QUESTION: What is unique about this crisis?

ANSWER: First, it should be clear that, from the point of view of Marx’s labor theory of value, this is NOT a crisis.

According to Marx, “crises are always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions.” Crises are internal to the mode of production; they arise from the working out of the contradictions within the mode of production itself. This event is obviously external to the mode of production. Based on reports, it began with the emergence of a viral infection of unknown origin in the People’s Republic of China, which rapidly spread to engulf most of the world market. The pandemic soon forced most nation state to take aggressive public health measures to contain it. Among these measures were so-called social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. These measures led states to close down many so-called non-essential business operations and confine citizens to their homes.

These drastic emergency public health measures had their own economic consequences: in first place, many capitals were forced to stand idle as a result of the public health measures; millions of workers have been set free from their jobs. In second place, the dependence of millions on this slender thread of survival was graphically highlighted by the emergency.

The public health measures thus interrupted both the sale of labor power and the circulation of capital.

To implement a necessary public health measure to contain the spread of a deadly disease, nation states were compelled to interrupt the global capitalist accumulation process itself; they were forced to shut it down. This makes the present emergency very different than — say — the Great Depression, the collapse of Bretton Woods, and the 2008 financial crisis, which produced the three greatest economic crises in history. Those economic contractions arose from contradictions internal to the mode of production and as forcible solutions of those contradictions.

This event may indeed be far larger in scale and more extensive than any of those crises, but the solution to this emergency is external to the process of accumulation.

***

QUESTION: Can you point to the central contradiction in this emergency on which communist should focus?

ANSWER: This is an important question. We have noticed that a lot of communists are focusing on the pandemic itself and the strategy for combating it. We think this emphasis is misplaced. The pandemic is a big problem that must be addressed, but, to be absolutely frank, it’s not our problem. It is a public health problem. Personally, we follow the advice of public health officials so we don’t get sick. We don’t take medical advice from communists, unless they have medical degrees.

However, as communists, we cannot help but consider the intersection between the necessary public health measures taken to suppress the pandemic and existing social relations. We think everyone would agree these measures have social implications. From that point of view, the central contradiction in this emergency is between capitalist relations of production and the technical requirements of the public health emergency.

As we explained above, the requirements of the public health emergency call for so-called “social distancing” to slow the spread of the contagion. But this measure has led to the interruption of the process of capitalist accumulation as millions of workers were directed to stay at home and non-essential capitalist firms were forced to close. This has produced an economic contraction that is likely larger than any previous contraction in history. As a result, the various nation states have been compelled to step in and implement assorted relief measures designed to replace the wages of the working class and to bail out idle and failing capitalist firms that are teetering on the edge of collapse.

This capacity to intervene is not uniform among nation states. In first place, the United States can operate rather freely, since it controls the world reserve currency. Next up, are those nations states, like Germany and China, who have accumulated large reserves of foreign exchange. They can, if they choose, expend some of these reserves to maintain capitalist accumulation on life support for sometime. Following these surplus nation are those countries that have standing to borrow in a pinch. They have some limited capacity to maintain their national capitals on life support, but this is circumscribed by foreign and domestic creditors. At the bottom of the pyramid are the vast majority of nations that have few resources and are utterly dependent on foreign assistance.

The recent US package amounted to about $2.2 trillion. This is roughly ten percent of its gross domestic product for 2019. It is the third and largest package passed into law. No one thinks this is the last package that will be required for this emergency; already work is continuing on a fourth package. These packages are designed to maintain existing relations of production until such time as the emergency is passed and the normal operation of the mode of production can be restored. We don’t think anyone imagines there is another nation that has the capacity to do what the United States is doing.

There is certainly no nation state in the fourth group that has this capacity. We have our doubts that there are any nation states in group three who have it without international support. In large part, all of this depends on how long this emergency lasts. Few nation states have the resources to sustain programs to replace the wages of their respective working classes and profits of capitals though these spending packages for long. Just to give an example, it would cost roughly $200 billion a month to replace the wages of 30% of the United States working class should they be unable to work because of social distancing measures — using the BLS 2019 median wage of $48,672 as our wage base.

In Europe, many people have lost their job, but this being disguised in one way or another by state programs. According to the NYT, the increase in jobless claims this past two weeks is “an American peculiarity.” Jobs are not being destroyed so fast elsewhere. Apparently, governments elsewhere are protecting employment and making it possible for workers to keep their jobs even in industries that are shut down. The state pays their wages through direct payments to employers.

The United States is late signing onto this social-fascist strategy. But it is still trying to encourage employers to maintain workers on payroll through the so-called Paycheck Protection Program. This may disguise the extent of the damage done to the productive forces in this crisis, but it does little to mitigate the actual damage. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not count workers as unemployed if they are still on payroll, even if they work zero hours.)

The most despicable thing about the program is that it forces workers to remain dependent on their employer to receive state aid.

***

QUESTION: How extensive is the damage to the mode of production in this emergency?

ANSWER: We have asserted that capitalism is dead and some take exception to this declaration. Okay, fine. At a minimum, capitalist accumulation has largely come to a standstill.

But here is the thing: capital, as we all know, is value in motion, self-expanding value. How does value in motion come to a standstill? What happens to capital, when value itself no longer circulates as self-expanding value? Can one simply turn capital off, like a light switch, for weeks, or even months, and turn it back on again, once the “All clear” has been given by the public health authorities?

Don’t be so fucking quick to answer, “Yes.”

We have never been here before. And, largely, our immediate actions will be determined by the answer we give. If we assume capital is dead, we will act one way. If we assume capital is alive and just waiting to spring back into action, like Donald Trump, we will act another way. The swift action that led to the adoption of relief measures in Washington suggest the fascist do not think capital is as resilient as communists seem to think it is.

To paraphrase that American officer in Vietnam, the fascists found it necessary to destroy capitalism in order to save it.

How bad has it gotten already?

This is unclear, but it is already unprecedented:

The Federal Reserve has predicted at as much as 30 percent of workers will be displaced from their jobs as a result of this emergency.

First, the archaic unemployment reporting system completely broke down in this emergency according to one media outlet. Basically, the monthly non-farm payroll report, which tells us how bad unemployment has become, shows that overall unemployment in the United States fell only 701,000 persons, although millions already have lost their jobs over the last two weeks. The reasons for this is the way the data is collected and published by Washington. The Economic Policy Institute has an article on the problem.

The horrendous damage actually done to the productive forces by this emergency may be hidden from official statistics for a month. This is a problem. Often, reality is only real for commies if the government reports it and the media echoes it. But the way the U.S. government collect data is deliberately designed to blunt public perception of things like rising unemployment and inflation for obvious reasons.

However, we do have access to slightly more reliable proxies.

There is the BLS weekly initial jobless claims report which shows unimaginably huge jumps in jobless claims over the last two weeks of nearly 10 million persons. This is more jobless claims than the whole of the 2008 financial crisis.

We can also look at other countries. Israel, facing the same state public health lockdown, has seen its unemployment rate jump from historic lows to 24% in a single month. While Spain has also seen a massive jump in jobless claims that has almost wiped out all employment gains back to 2013.

We have other indicators that suggest massive damage as well: the auto industry remains completely shut in; subway ridership is down 75%; airline travel is down 93%; and retail foot traffic is down 97%.

Beyond this, European purchasing managers index, a survey of purchasing managers in the services sector, is near apocalyptic levels. Italy has fallen from 52.1 to 17.4; Spain has fallen from 52.1 to 23; France collapsed from 52.5 to 27.4 and Germany plunged from 52.5 to 31.7.

Taken together, these assorted proxies suggest the public health measures to contain the pandemic are inflicting massive and ongoing damage to capitalist accumulation.

Another, less direct reason to expect unprecedented carnage to the productive forces is that we suspect the terrain of the world market has been prepared for this event in the same way years of drought prepares a region for uncontrollable wildfires. The literature has long marked the accumulation of a very large mass of superfluous capital and a very large population of surplus workers, resulting from the transformation of agriculture and the improvement in productivity of social labor in industry, combined with state efforts to engineer continuous expansion of empty labor in the tertiary sector, through massive deficit spending.

The measures taken in the present emergency appear to have punctured a bubble that has been at least nine decades in the making — back to the Great Depression. We cannot overemphasize how significant this situation is. We already have accumulated a huge surplus population from previous economic contractions that have not been absorbed back into productive employment. The emergency measures taken in response to this pandemic will easily increase those numbers by a magnitude at least. And it is likely that profound changes in the economy predicted to take place over the next decade, (e.g. widespread automation), may now be realized in a matter of months or even weeks.

Let us be clear: you do not have to be a catastrophist to understand what has happened here. In two short weeks, capital values have been destroyed and workers have been set free from production on an unimaginable scale seldom seen in a full-blown economic contraction lasting years, perhaps decades. And this has occurred not just in one or two countries, but in almost every nation on the planet and all together.

We hardly think anyone contemplating this situation can operate from the baseline assumption that capitalism has survived.

***

QUESTION: There’s probably little we can do to stop direct deposit of these ‘wages’. Or unemployment checks, etc. How do we prevent global accumulation from re-starting? Can we in any way control the restoration of capitals and restoration of wages?

ANSWER: The only way to prevent capitalist accumulation from restarting is to immediately reduce hours of labor. We need to replace the present emergency shutdown of non-essential businesses with a strict reduction on hours of labor of a similar magnitude. By radically reducing hours of labor and imposing compensation through a dramatic increase in the minimum wage, we can at least impose severe restriction on the scale of any future attempt to reestablish capitalist accumulation.

It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how this works:

It is estimated that this emergency shutdown of non-essential businesses will eventually lead to roughly 47 million workers being unemployed, furloughed or otherwise idled. This translates into an estimated reduction of GDP by about 30-35% and actual employment by about 30%.

The present approach taken by the fascists is predicated on the shutdown being ended before another relief bill is necessary. The amount of the recently passed relief measure is $2.2 trillion, but it is a mere stopgap designed to fill in temporarily until the capitalist accumulation process can be restarted. As we said above, it takes about $200 billion a month to replace the wages of those who have been laid off, furloughed or otherwise separated from their jobs. (This is assuming 30% of the working class is displaced and that they receive an average stipend of approximately $50 thousand in place of wages. The fascists won’t pay out $50k, of course, but what they don’t pay out will be lost in sales on the other end.) It does not include various other programs designed to keep capitalist firms — particularly small businesses — afloat until such time as normal operation of the mode of production can be restored. Finally, it does not include aid to the states, whose revenues have collapsed, pension funds, various independent agencies and the medical system, which is being stressed beyond belief.

Now, try funding this (or something like) this month after month after month — in Nigeria or Venezuela, where oil prices have now collapsed because demand has collapsed in this emergency. This approach obviously cannot work anywhere but the United States and a handful of very rich countries.

Communists, especially those in the rich countries, who advocate this approach need to check their privilege, as the saying goes.

The approach we advocate is simple: since we are already looking at a 30-35% collapse in GDP and employment, and since capitalist accumulation has already been halted by this public health emergency, why not just lock things in right here? This would mean a dramatic reduction of the forty hours working week to 28 or 24 hours per week  — let’s say, three 8 hour days. Instead of trying to deficit spend our way to a restoration of capitalist relations of production, we could impose a reduction of hours of labor on a scale that is similar to 30% unemployment already made necessary by the public health emergency.

What are the advantages?

First, the absolute accumulation of excess capital and a surplus population of workers has been stopped for the most part, globally. By locking in a deep reduction of hours of labor at this point, we prevent the capitalists from restarting it. We could go further and reduce hours of labor still more to 15 hours or even ten hours — imposing draconian limits on accumulation and forcing introduction of automation to compensate for a rapidly shrinking labor pool.

Second, as satellite data is showing, the present level of employment hours is having a dramatic impact on global climate change. Reduction of hours of labor has an immediate impact on this problem that can be visualized noticeably. We would be doubling down on this positive development.

Third, as more writers are beginning to note, reduction of hours of labor has a positive impact on the cohesiveness and wages of the working class. This is, by far, the most important factor for communists to think about. On the other hand, we want to warn those who are complacent about the restoration of capitalist accumulation that the damage done to labor markets in this period is unimaginably extensive and will take a long time to heal. Forty-seven million workers frantically looking for work is not something we should ever want to see happening in the United States. (Just picture that in your mind.) But this is exactly what is likely to happen if the emergency passes and the status quo ante is restored.

To give an example: retail brick and mortar is likely never coming back. That’s one out of every four workers in the United States. Where will those workers go for jobs?

Fourth, reducing hours of labor, especially in the rich countries, will, naturally, cause capital flight. As bizarre as this sounds, this is actually a good thing. Africa, Asia and Latin America need investment. They will not get it unless capital currently locked up in the rich countries is forced to flee to the less developed regions of the world markets. A dramatic reduction of hours of labor here will accelerate this process.

Fifth, reducing hours of labor will accelerate automation. There is no better way to force capitalists to introduce improved methods of production than to drive up labor costs. Reducing hours of labor can do this by increasing the cohesiveness and bargaining power of the working class — just as leaving 47 million workers unemployed can weaken the working class, by leaving it balkanized and fragmented.

***

We are calling for a shift in the strategy of communist that takes into account the new reality created by the emergency measures imposed by the state on the capitalist accumulation process. Because of this pandemic, the state has been forced to do what communists have been aiming to do since the time of the Communist Manifesto: shut down the capitalist accumulation process.

Admittedly, it has happened in a way we did not expect. The pandemic is a black swan. And it takes a second to wrap our heads around the fact that it happened. Workers are off the job not because of a general strike, but because the state has closed all non-essential businesses. This did not happen the way we expected it to happen. But it happened! The accumulation process has been shut down. This is actually where we are now!

The state has been forced, very much against its will, to shut down all non-essential businesses; to shut down the accumulation process itself. What can we do this very instant to keep it shut down? There are millions of workers who are now set free from productive employment; they are unemployed. We need to fight to convert this huge mass of unemployment into free time for every member of society. The alternative is one relief bill after another as the state tries desperately to maintain the old relations of production.

We cannot let another opportunity pass us as happened during the Great Depression when capital ground to a halt and workers fought for a shorter work week, but were given the New Deal stimulus program and World War II instead.

 

F*ck Communists! Long Live Communism!

Zer0H0urs000

I will try to keep this brief.

Do you want to get rid of wage-labor? Do you want to get rid of the state? Yes? Good! Do no more! All those other prerequisites you think are necessary to “be” a communist are as superfluous as the labor bound up in the world economy. All of the debates surrounding “what is to be done?” were made superfluous, as well, when the state flipped the OPEN sign to CLOSED on non-essential workers and businesses, doing what no other communist movement has ever achieved: grinding capitalist accumulation to a halt.

Communists had absolutely nothing to do with this economic fallout, but anyone wanting to exit capitalist social relations and bury wage-labor and the state can help realize their aims immensely by continuing to prolong and make painful the drought of surplus-value capital — nor the state — can exist without.

Presently, communists crudely think their ruthlessness lies in their outspokenness about killing or eating individual capitalists — or their fierce apologetics of mustachioed 20th century revolutionaries. However, I think our true ruthlessness lies in how well we’re able to mirror and go beyond capital’s own ruthlessness.

Simply put:

  • If capital needs something — we deny it vehemently and without conscious.
  • If capital has a weakness — we exploit it.
  • If capital has tendencies — we exacerbate them.
  • If capital is wounded — we finish the job.

The last point is very relevant here because communists, by and large, do not view the pandemic as a unique opportunity to actually keep capitalism dead. Rather, they see people’s disenchantment in the system, and the inadequate systemic response to the virus, as merely conditions to a gateway for recruiting souls to their cause.

Despite effete communist posturing and obsession over partyism and workerism, capitalism is actually mortally wounded right now and dragging its bleeding-out carcass to safety until it can make a Lazarus-like return. I’m just not confident that communists are up to the challenge of stalking it and “finishing the job.” Their assessment of the pandemic and its effect to the survival of capitalism and the state; their apparent lack of awareness that the state has setup a penultimate showdown between itself and the working-class; and their failure to optimize a strategy which is as precise as it is merciless has left me without much confidence in a Left to be viscerally fearful of.

Yes, it’s pretty tough talk. But what might a merciless attack to capitalism and the state look like?

First, it would be characterized by the mindless (but not illogical), unrelenting, and non-negotiability of capital’s own drive for the unnecessary.

From the Grundrisse:

“Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition — question of life or death — for the necessary.”[my emphasis]

LIFE OR DEATH. Read it again. Capital is not fucking around. And neither should we. We know this callous process’s personification in the figure of landlords, CEOs, corporations, and in our politicians themselves. We have to be more callous. We have to be outright hostile and threatening to the “living conditions” of capital.

Capital is a limitation to itself as much as it is a limitation to the working-class, as even the largest capitals or institutions cannot evade the law of value. Once the superfluity of labor in the economy — an existential must for capital — was purposely withdrawn by the state, and all at once, it left capitalism searching for oxygen. A concerted effort to continue to withdraw labor, prevent shuttered industries from reopening, and converting superfluous labor into free, disposable time for the recently unemployed is the same thing as asphyxiating capitalism until it chokes on the gluttony of its own premises.

Second, this kind of activity would be leaderless and anonymous. In fact, it doesn’t work any other way. We can’t consciously enact abolition of labor in the form of more labor. People have to want to convert their superfluous labor into free-time. Logically, we cannot control what each individual does with their free time and any plan or organization around this premise would fail. All we can do — since we still exist under the law of value — is prevent, or re-direct, capital from crafting an end-around to its current predicament, and deny any re-connection to the production of surplus-value— which it either will or will not be successful at in the coming year.

In doing so, no one would be particularly special in that regard (least of all, the whole underwhelming academy of leftist theorists). No one is saying creativity wouldn’t be essential to communist strategy — this is not an extinguishing of personality and individuality. But because the decrease in socially necessary labor time in the production of labor-power has not resulted in its realization as “freed” time for human consumption, human emancipation, we are still forced to throw abled bodies at the problem — all those teens and college-aged students supposedly less susceptible to the virus, for example, who could be causing utter chaos right now for the state. (Who knows? Maybe they’ll even have a future after all this is said and done!)

Lastly — and not without pause for reflection of the stakes — people are going to die during this transformation. Whether there was a pandemic or not, casualties would be unavoidable. Communists can’t offer an alternative on how to manage, nor actually manage, the pandemic and kill capitalism at the same time. Just as capital can’t save itself and all the people who will die from this pandemic, and pandemic-related issues, at the same time. Management of the pandemic is an unnecessary step and one that capital would never undertake — and certainly not for the appearance of better ethics.

We are not trying to win a PR campaign. Instead, the working-class — whether it wanted it or not — is forced to make a conscious choice: drastically reduce their own hours of labor or wait for the state to mediate this dissolution, stimulus package by stimulus package; down to the average milligram of food it takes to keep a person alive (just as they’ve been doing under neoliberalism for 40 years). Optimist that I am, though, I happen to believe less would die if we moved swiftly, broke our shelter in places (safely), kept everything shutdown indefinitely, and watched the capitalists shed blood racing to automate themselves into oblivion.

The litany of preconditions, initiations, beliefs, and acts communists think need to be internalized — even performatively— is now a burden to our ability to act at all — and worse, it’s left us without any of the concentrated blunt viciousness required to surpass a threshold that capital can never cross: the complete and total abolition of wage-labor. No vanguard, no critical consciousness, no better understanding of theory, and no better opportunity may present itself than this pandemic to do the last job I hope there will ever be: ruthlessly, unapologetically, killing capitalism.

If you’d like to join our conversation:

https://s.reddit.com/channel/1519700_2a1683369a11771ea06602bdb947ecd48c2ac17a

or

https://www.reddit.com/r/abolishwagelabornow/

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.