An “Advance in the Mode of Production” doesn’t mean “Better”

by Jehu

I got a comment on my blog that indicates a confusion between ‘an advance in the mode of production’ and ‘better’. This is a typical confusion of the idea that any ‘progressive’ advance of social relations results in an improvement in those Child_Labor_in_Factorysocial relations. There is, in fact, nothing to suggest any advance in the mode of production results in a better society. Moreover, it appears every advance in the mode of production results in the position of the mass of society being degraded still further.

Categories as phantom after-images

To give a good example: barbarism is an ‘advance in the mode of production’, but it is by no means ‘better’ for the working class. All indications are that this mode of production is an entirely hellish reduction of the worker herself to state property. Market relations, exchange, money, commodity production, etc. are all replaced by forms that appear on the surface to be the same as those under ‘normal’ capitalism. But, in fact, all of these categories are emptied of their content no less than money is emptied of its value content.

The odd thing about barbarism is that all the categories of capitalism appear in this mode of production but robbed of their content. The categories are entirely familiar — as in the case of fiat money, e.g., dollars — but the familiar form belies the complete lack of value substance in the very object that is supposed to be the embodiment of value is our society.

Money is, in this case, absolutely typical of the barbarism mode: on the surface all money relations appear as they did before. It is only when you actually interrogate the forms does the absolute lack of content reveal itself. We are not used to interrogating the forms of capitalist society, but take these forms as a given. But what actually is money? What is property? What is the state? What is labor? Trying to get a concise description of each of these is almost impossible precisely because under the capitalist mode of production each have contradictory appearances.

Labor is not simply labor: it is both concrete useful labor and abstract labor. Money is not simply money, but commodity money and its various tokens, on the one hand, and exchange relations, on the other. The state is not simply the state, but the state of society in general, and the machinery of state. Property appears both as the thing and as a social relation between individuals. Under barbarism, it seems, concrete labor, commodity money, the state in general and property have all ceased to exist. Yet, at the same time, abstract labor, money relations, the machinery of state and private property appear to continue on as before unperturbed by their actual abolition.

It is not unlike the after image the mind recreates upon staring into the sun. You look at the sun, close your eyes, and still see its phantom image.

Form and substance

Money continues to exist, although entirely without any substance, because it has ‘always’ existed. Labor continues to appear necessary, although it is at this point in human development and development of human productive forces entirely unnecessary. All of these forms — labor, the state, money, property — appear as both real and as abstractions because they are all in the process of disappearing under the capitalist mode of production. Labor appears both as concrete and as abstract labor, because concrete labor is already disappearing under the capitalist mode of production. Money appears both as a commodity and as credit because commodity production is already being progressivley abolished.

These categories progressively go away, but it is not clear to me that they go away in a fashion that makes life ‘better’. Labor going away is expressed in the form of rising unemployment; money going away is expressed in rising poverty; property going away is expressed in increasing proletarianization of the population. The state going away is expressed in the increasing indifference of political relations to the demands of the mass of society. How do people find any of these things ‘better’? In fact, they do not: they experience each of them as a loss. Labor becomes absolutely superfluous activity, money becomes absolutely valueless paper scrip, selling labor power becomes absolutely impossible and the state becomes absolutely indifferent to its citizens.

The critical difficulty under barbarism is that all of the categories Marx discusses in Capital have been reduced to fictions. Despite this, society continues on as if these categories still have an independent validity. Moreover, even among those for whom the fictional character of the categories should be obvious there is no consciouness of this fact.

I have gone on interminably about the category, money, but my argument could equally be applied to labor, property and the state. Even the slightest investigation of these three demonstrates beyond all possibility of refutation that they are only forms without substance: labor is entirely superfluous, labor power — the only form of ‘property’ held by the mass of society — only exists formally; democracy has no meaning for most of the planet when all the economic levers of the world market reside in Washington. This means every category we take right now to be real and determining is completely fictitious and without any substance whatsoever.

This is really a Wile E. Coyote moment in human history.

There is only two ways this can play out: we realize the fictitious character of all social relations and put an end to them. Or these fictitious social relations go away in a sudden event leaving mankind to improvise new relations on the fly and under extreme duress. In either case these fictitious relations are going to go away — this cannot be prevented.

To give you an idea of what consciously putting an end to existing relations entails and how difficult it is to even conceive of it, consider this mean no political issue, no matter what its apparent importance, is real — this includes all the issues that produce so much partisan conflict in society today. This is not because these issues are not important to individuals, but because their political expressions are entirely fictitious.

For instance, it is of great importance to each of us to meet and fall in love with someone, and this interest is bound to take any form. Since this interest can take any form, the state will, at best, be entirely indifferent to the forms it takes. In this instance, the best state would appear to be the state that is entirely indifferent to the forms of sex-love among its citizens. But, a state that is entirely indifferent to its citizens is a state that is entirely undemocratic. A state that is indifferent to its citizens has no purpose, since its only purpose is to impose particular interests on society as a whole.

There are things to consider here: first, insofar as the mode of production develops, its logic becomes the logic of all social relations. Second, this implies that as the mode develops, the state itself progressively takes on the logic of capitalist relations. This culminates in the state itself becoming the manager of the total capital within the world market. It also marks the beginning of barbarism, where the state, as manager of the total capital, is indifferent to all other concerns other than the production of surplus value. The absolute indifference of the state to its citizens, is nothing more than the state as manager of capital being indifferent to any other concern than production of surplus value.

Labor theory, therefore, predicts the ever increasing indifference of politics, the more the state becomes entangled in material relations. Under barbarism, society exists for the state only as a source of surplus value and nothing else. Now just try to plug that fucking concept into the typical talking head Sunday morning television program. It is not that “the lamestream media focuses only on distractions”, politics itself is the distraction. Well meaning liberals — especially those posing as Marxists, anarchists or libertarians — take this indifference to be the result of a conspiracy of, respectively, “the rich”, “the statists” or “crony capitalism”. None of them will admit, even if they grasp the fact, that the state and politics itself is the problem.

An empty form doesn’t mean its not ‘real’

On the one hand, politics itself is a complete fiction without any substance for most of the planet. On the other hand, capitalism has ‘technically solved’ the problem of the politics by rendering it, in all of its many forms, a fiction. All that remains is for society to recognize the state is a fiction — but this ‘recognition’ constitutes the entire present difficulty. A look at the events in Egypt yesterday, where the state is entirely fictitious and the obviousness of this fiction is amply demonstrated by the world waiting for Washington to declare the coup was not a coup for purposes of financing Egypt’s puppet army, shows that reality and recognition are not the same thing.

That the state is a complete fiction does not in the least suggest it is not real — a dollar is a fiction, but for want of a sufficient quantity one still starves. We are not talking about individual recognition, but a general social event. Marx and Engels had no idealistic fantasies on this score about people being educated to a sufficient level. People would recognize labor was no longer necessary when they starved because they could not find work. Human beings are fucking stupid and will do the same thing over and over, no matter how foolish, until they begin to starve to death. Only when they watch their children go hungry, will they figure out Wal-Mart has plenty of food and it can be seized.

And if you look at activists of every political persuasion running around Cairo, Athens or Madrid, it is clear Marx and Engels had a point. Who in their right mind is worried about the composition of a completely powerless government, when unemployment is approaching 30%?