Social Emancipation and Socially Necessary Labor Time

by Jehu

At a recent conference sponsored by the Platypus group, Elmar Flatschart spoke of the most important abstraction existing in our society today, value, and stated:

“Marxism shouldn’t be understood as an identity-giving, wholesome position, which history proved to be erroneous, but should be reduced to a theoretical core that can help us to understand society, via a negative critique, even if it does not necessarily provide us with a way out. The call for the abolition of labor does not have immediate ramifications for Marxist politics.

There is no new program or a master plan for emancipation that can be developed out of the abolition of value. Rather, it can be seen as a condition of emancipation from value and the abstract system of oppression it represents. How emancipation will be achieved is a more complex story. We know what will not work: much of what the Old Left proposed as Marxist politics. A lot of that should be abandoned because, essentially, abstract domination cannot be abolished through the imposition of some other kind of direct, personal domination. If we are to critique the abstractions of the economic forms, we similarly have to target the political form itself. While Marx and Engels suggested as much by their formulation of the state eventually “withering away,” I think we need to be a lot more radical. Emancipation ultimately has to mean the abolishment of the political as well. This is contradictory in the present political situation, but we should not try to postpone this task until after the revolution. We should see the constraints and the fetishizations immanent to the political form as something we want to get rid of now.”

This was an oddly ambiguous statement, with which his two co-speakers took issue. In response to Flatschart assertion, Alan Milchman stated: “The division Elmar drew between the domain of politics and that of Wertkritik is highly dubious.” Jamie Merchant also argued against Flatschart assertion, value criticism “have certain implications for politics.”

Flatschart statement was ambiguous because it is unclear whether he is speaking about a politics after the abolition of value, or a politics arising from the critique of value. If as a literal reading of the statement suggests Flatschart means there is no politics after the abolition of value, I think he is correct. But it is odd that both of Flatschart’s co-speakers seemed to think this was not at all what he meant. They appear to interpret his statement as meaning labor theory offers no guide to action on the question of social emancipation of the individual.

precipice_737235Indeed, Flatschart went on to say the abolition of value is only “a condition of emancipation from value and the abstract system of oppression it represents.” Which is to say, the abolition of value is distinct from emancipation, the achievement of which “is a more complex story.” He seemed then to be separating the abolition of value from emancipation itself.

Here is my problem with that: the abolition of value is nothing but the abolition of socially necessary labor time. Flatschart is essentially arguing socially necessary labor time can be abolished without emancipating the laborer from labor and the division of labor. This is an important assertion, because socially necessary labor time — value — has both a purely social dimension and a material one. Its material dimension is that of satisfying the material needs of the producer; while its social dimension is satisfying these needs in a specific historical context — wage labor. So Flatschart was either saying the material dimension can be abolished short of abolition of the social dimension or vice versa.

This brings us to a fundamental ambiguity within post-World War II Marxism itself: can the material need for labor be abolished while social need is maintained? Even a great thinker like Moishe Postone thinks so:

“Against the analyses of Robert Kurz, I don’t believe that these developments will necessarily lead to the collapse of capitalism, even if the dynamic of expansion stalls. The current crisis-ridden developments could instead lead to the creation of highly militarized states, in which a large number of people have become superfluous and are kept in check by authoritarian-repressive measures. That is not a very pretty scenario, but capitalism could survive. So I don’t believe in an inevitable collapse, unless what is meant is the regression into relations of capitalist barbarism.”

Although Postone thinks Robert Kurz disagrees with this, he is wrong. Said Kurz:

“One has to distinguish between a crisis or even the collapse of capitalism, and the transcendence of capitalism. Those are two different kettles of fish. The actual emancipatory transcendence of capitalism depends upon a critical consciousness, which can either develop or not. That is independent of the crisis.”

Even these two magnificent thinkers are careful to distinguish between the abolition of value and emancipation. It is a very peculiar argument in which, with the need for labor having passed, wage labor is held in place purely by force of arms. The argument, however, is not unprecedented: it is precisely the distinction between material necessity and wage labor that was at the root of the conflict between Marx and Bakunin, only the situation was reversed: instead of the material necessity for labor being abolished while the social necessity remained, wage labor would be abolished by the proletarian revolution but material necessity would remain. The difference between Marx and Bakunin came down to this: if the exploiters were overthrown, how would materially necessary production be organized? Marx thought it would require some level of self-organization of the working class (a proletarian dictatorship), Bakunin insisted against this idea.

The same argument is being replayed now, only with the poles of the discussion social necessity versus material necessity, changing places. However, the fact that the poles of the relation between material and social necessity have changed places makes for all the difference here. It is one thing to seek to replace the exploiters in condition of material necessity, and quite another when there is no material necessity. In conditions where the material necessity for labor has already more or less been eliminated, the conflict between Marx and Bakunin over how to organize materially necessary labor after wage labor has been overthrown is made moot by the development of capital itself.

The problem with which we are faced, and about which neither Postone or Kurz were particularly optimistic, is how the consciousness of individuals comes to recognize that material necessity having been conquered, social necessity for labor must be overthrown. This recognition requires a revolution in the consciousness of individuals that must arise directly out of their empirical circumstances. Personally, I don’t believe there is any theoretical substitute for an empirically derived consciousness.

Absence of a material need for labor must be demonstrated in such a way that it becomes obvious to the vast majority of those burdened to perform this labor. In the German Ideology, Engels and Marx argued this lack of need for labor would make itself felt in a crisis in which, side by side with a society of great wealth, the mass of laborers would find themselves cut off from labor and from satisfaction of their material needs. They would essentially be rendered superfluous to capital and to production itself. I think this is not to say this was the only route, but it was the prerequisite for an empirical transcendence of capital. Empirically, the vast majority of society would only overthrow a mode of production founded on wage labor after the mode made the laborer herself superfluous.

This was Engels’ and Marx’s baseline scenario on the ‘transcendence’ of capitalism. It is a baseline that presupposed capital had already completed its historical mission of reducing socially necessary labor to an absolute minimum. Given this baseline scenario, the role empirical circumstances play in generating a revolution in consciousness is obvious.

This explains why it has always been so important for bourgeois apologists to argue the development of the productive forces has improved the lives of the working class. And in this effort they have been aided and abetted by Marxists who buy into this argument and the idea of a consciously regulated capitalism without crises. According to Wikipedia, Horkheimer and Adorno, for instance, argued

“… state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the tension in capitalism between the “relations of production” and “material productive forces of society”—a tension which, according to traditional Marxist theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The previously “free” market (as an “unconscious” mechanism for the distribution of goods) and “irrevocable” private property of Marx’s epoch have gradually been replaced by the centralized state planning and socialized ownership of the means of production in contemporary Western societies. The dialectic through which Marx predicted the emancipation of modern society is thus suppressed, effectively being subjugated to a positivist rationality of domination:”

Said Horkheimer and Adorno,

“[Gone] are the objective laws of the market which ruled in the actions of the entrepreneurs and tended toward catastrophe. Instead the conscious decision of the managing directors executes as results (which are more obligatory than the blindest price-mechanisms) the old law of value and hence the destiny of capitalism.”

The idea that planning could itself resolve the problems of the capitalist mode of production has a long pedigree within the revisionist wing of Marxism. One would think this idea had long been refuted by the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it is today resurrected with a surprising new twist on historical materialism: Postone and Kurz appear to suggest mankind could walk to the precipice of the abolition of socially necessary labor time, but then back away. At the point where socially necessary labor time became materially obsolete, according to Postone, society would simply regress to barbarism.

Now, on what basis does Postone make this rather startling prediction? And why does Kurz assume transcendence is at best only a coin toss? I would suggest the obvious: Because critique of the value form can see no further than the abolition of that abstraction. Theoretically, it is impossible for labor theory to describe a society founded on the abolition of labor other than negatively. Labor theory can only say, “After the abolition of the law of value, society will not be organized according to the law of value.”

Not very helpful, I suppose.

But is it as unhelpful as it would seem? Perhaps not. With the abolition of the material necessity for labor, material social life organized on the basis of material necessity must also pass away — in first place, agricultural labor, followed by industrial labor. If this seems to be a stretch, consider that since we are only speaking of homogeneous abstract labor, the two of these concrete particular forms of labor appear only in the form of a given part of the sum of abstract homogenous labor — not as what they are: concrete particular labors. In labor theory, concrete particular useful labor plays no role in homogenous abstract labor, except that all labor must be socially useful. So, it would appear the materiality of labor has nothing whatsoever to do with the category, value, i.e., socially necessary labor time.

We could, it is assumed in certain arguments like that of Andre Gorz, have a society composed of individuals who trade paper claims to future profits to each other at a healthy rate of fictitious profit, attended to by a massive army of babysitters, maids, gardeners, janitors and the like. Plus, of course, a large standing body of armed men and women to ‘enforce the law’. Everything would continue as before, except all material production would be automated somehow. In place of a capitalism without the capitalist in the Marxian nightmare of the 20th century, we have a 21st century Marxian nightmare of a capitalism without materially necessary labor.

It seems to me that, in the scenario painted by Postone and Kurz, the social necessity for labor consists entirely of the necessity for individuals to sell their labor power and nothing else. A social necessity made possible entirely by the enforced exclusion of the wage slaves from the automated means of production by a heavily militarized state. Or something like this. Has anyone ever actually tried to figure out how the fuck this would work? All material labor is automated and the necessity for labor only arises simply from state-enforced control of these means of production?

In the debate between Bakunin and Marx, it would appear Postone and Kurz deserted to the side of Bakunin and the anarchist idea that, at the most fundamental level, capitalist social relations are to be explained entirely by state imposition. In their argument, capitalist social relations can be enforced solely by means of an armed body of men and women. In other words, the two thinkers appear to come to the demise of the value form as an economic category and make a straight line projection for all other existing social relations. In their argument, these other social relations, founded though they may be on the value-form, continue undisturbed by the disappearance of value and of materially necessary labor itself.