The Real Movement

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Month: August, 2013

Discuss: Low wage fast food jobs suck, but they ain’t the problem

For the weekend I thought I would provide some space for anyone who cares to engage me in flame wars over a simple proposition:

Low wage jobs is not the problem; the problem is wage slavery

I have been thinking about the twitter thread I began last night on fast food workers, their low wages and yesterday’s actions in 60 cities.

Bloomberg, the bourgeois mouthpiece, characterized the action this way:

“Thousands went on strike in cities including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit,  Milwaukee and Indianapolis, according to local organizers and the Service Employees International Union, which is advising the strikers. About 200 workers showed up at the two-story Rock N Roll McDonald’s store in Chicago’s River North neighborhood  this morning chanting: “Hey hey, ho ho, poverty wages gotta go!”

There may be some deliberate clues to the nature of this action provided by Bloomberg: The River North community was targeted for obvious reasons that it is a high profile area, not because the 200 folks actually work there. ap_fast_food_wage_protest_ll_130829_16x9_992It was, in other words, a photo op. The involvement of the SEIU, a labor union tied to the Democrat Party, should be noted as well. And the chant, “Hey hey, ho ho, poverty wages gotta go!”, clearly demonstrates the limited aims of the movement. (The article quickly degenerates from there, with a number of argument for why the fast food industry needs low wages to survive — none of which have any relevance to this discussion. If you can’t survive paying your workers a decent wage, get a real job like the rest of us.)

In any case, however, I do not think any of these things suggest the movement is not valid — this is not the point of my argument. I had to think about this because my argument was fairly incoherent last night, and I did not feel I was getting to my point. I am intimately familiar with both SEIU and with the practical economic reality of working in retail. And I am also highly familiar with the Democrats, since my family has been very involved in it for decades. My argument really doesn’t involve any of these issues either, however.

So what is my point?

My argument was an attempt to separate the actual class struggle at the core of these actions from both its political expression and from its decidedly moral tone that, somehow, “low wages are unjust”. Theoretically at least, communists are convinced labor under the mode of production is not the problem of particular sorts of useful labor. In principle, therefore, we are speaking about labor abstracted from all of its particular, specific and useful qualities.

This abstraction from particular useful labor includes all of its characteristics including the wage rate. We refer to this as abstract homogenous labor and point out the mode of production is composed entirely of this sort of labor. Our opposition to wage labor, therefore, is equally “abstract” i.e. not premised on any particular attribute of any particular sort of labor. It doesn’t matter for us whether wages are high or low, fast food or high tech, service sector or public sector — we hate all equally.

This not a “political position” based on some ideology or morality; it is essential to the entire cause itself: The struggle against wage labor can ONLY assume the form of a struggle against abstract homogenous labor and no other form. It is not true in the least that the struggle can begin with some particular form of useful and broaden into struggle against abstract homogenous labor; it must be directed at abstract homogenous labor from its inception or it will fail.

And I want to be absolutely fucking crystal clear about this: Every defeat the working class has suffered at the hands of the capitalist in the past two hundred years can be traced to this defect. It is not an accident in my opinion that every defeat in the last 200 years has been a defeat of labor in some particular form — this is exactly what is supposed to happen. It is only after the defeat of every particular struggle of labor — up to and including the labor of entire nations — that the fight against abstract homogenous labor itself can begin.

Communists of every variant already know (or at least sense) this theoretically, but they have yet to give voice to it. Their agitation among the class remains wholly within the fractures of the present division of labor. Moreover they seem to be believe that they only need express these divisions more vociferously in order to give rise to a general struggle. If the working class would only expresses its divisions harder and more actively, somehow it will overcome these divisions.

This, I would argue, is a fucking recipe for failure.

In the commonplace lingo of modern society, these divisions, which accord with the capitalist division of labor, are referred to as politics. It is the very basis for assuming the actions by the SEIU, a known tool of the Democrat Party and of Obama, is judged to be valid. For certain, the struggle of the fast food workers is valid, but hardly because they are underpaid service workers in a filthy industry. Being underpaid and working in a filthy industry is what it means to be a wage worker. Their struggle is valid because abstract homogenous labor itself has to be done away with entirely.

I am not sure how else to put this out there in a way that doesn’t sound fucking callous and uncaring, so I will simply put it out there. But my intention is not to be callous and uncaring: I simply want to raise what I think is a very relevant point of analysis. That point is that there is a very big jump from the everyday struggle to the ultimate aim, but communists don’t want to grapple with this. Somehow they think the ultimate aim takes care of itself so long as we struggle harder on the day to day issues.

It ain’t going to happen; it has been demonstrated for decades this can’t happen, and no one can show, even theoretically, how it does happen. Theoretically, no form of labor can be demonstrated to be abstract homogenous labor and, therefore, the struggle against it cannot be such. This because abstract homogenous labor is only produced by a single commodity: labor power itself. You cannot struggle against abstract homogenous labor without struggling against wage labor, i.e., without abolishing labor power.

Recognizing that the struggle of the working class must be a struggle against abstract homogenous labor itself presents a difficulty, since it is definitely not the place of communists too invent the slogans of the working class on its behalf. The aim of putting an end to abstract homogenous labor (which is at the moment only a theoretical aim) can only be set by the class itself.

The problem of reform versus revolution restated

What communists can do, however, is argue for the widest possible direct association among the proletarians. Such an association would neither respect nor express any division among the working class that exists within capitalist society. We tend to put a lot of emphasis on “demands”, while Occupy showed the really important thing was association itself, not demands. Occupy demonstrated, I think, that association is the demand. There is no need for any others. Association is itself the abolition of abstract homogenous labor; it is the answer communists have been vainly looking for in politics.

A demand against abstract homogenous labor, against wage labor, cannot be formulated as special demand in any case since this demand is only a demand for association. Nor can it be formulated as a political demand on existing state because it is simply a demand for association to replace the existing state.

So the problem communists have articulating a path from the everyday struggle to abolition of abstract homogenous labor is precisely  the same problem as figuring out a path from limited to universal organization of the class. This means, conceptually and in practice, that the aim of the association is the association itself, not its aims — whatever those might be. How to make the association universal is a matter of demonstrating association can indeed replace the state for the working class. Which is to say, it is a matter of demonstrating the working class can manage its own affairs without the state.

Does this make sense? I don’t know for sure; I am just looking for a practical way out of the impasse posed by the Left. The Left, i.e., politics, is dead. Waiting patiently for it to return is a completely Christian mistake — the Messiah never will return and neither will politics.

This argument is (probably) badly and (obviously) provocatively stated, but I want some input to round the edges off. Of course, if this whole thing seems a bit out there, you can just call me an asshole for raising this issue in the context of an ongoing struggle of some of the lowest paid workers in the United States. That will work too.

The Global Currency Crisis: Dress rehearsal for the abolition of money?

billsEmerging Markets are blowing up and some are blaming the Federal Reserve Bank and all of its talk about slowing the pace of its insane counterfeiting of dollars.

Says Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:

This has the makings of a grave policy error: a repeat of the dramatic events in the autumn of 1998 at best; a full-blown debacle and a slide into a second leg of the Long Slump at worst.

Emerging markets are now big enough to drag down the global economy. As Indonesia, India, Ukraine, Brazil, Turkey, Venezuela, South Africa, Russia, Thailand and Kazakhstan try to shore up their currencies, the effect is ricocheting back into the advanced world in higher borrowing costs. Even China felt compelled to sell $20bn of US Treasuries in July.

“The big risk is that Fed tapering will spark a rush for US dollars. That is when the Fed will stop being complacent,” said Lars Christensen from Danske Bank. “Central banks around the world think they have been doing something they shouldn’t do with all this stimulus, and they want to unwind it as quickly as possible. But the danger is that they will go too far and trigger a relapse like 1937.”

If the Fed really thinks that the rest of the world will have to “adjust to us” as it insists on draining global liquidity come what may, it may have a very rude surprise, yet again.

How might we understand what it taking place in the aftermath of all the Fed talk about easing off is mad counterfeiting? How might this be explained within the context of labor theory?

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WHY capitalists want work expansion: A reply to David Graeber

I had an interesting exchange with David Graeber last night regarding the argument he raised in his article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: Why would the capitalists want to expand completely unproductive jobs. obamacare1The answer to this question has a number of implications the Left often completely overlooks.

The bourgeois ideologist, Ryan Avent, in his response to Graeber, suggested these newly created jobs are not bullshit jobs at all but a necessary material response to an increasingly complex mode of production. In other words, the newly created jobs since the peak of the industrial revolution were created because production has become more complex, not less.

“Over the past century the world economy has grown increasingly complex. The goods being provided are more complex; the supply chains used to build them are more complex; the systems to market, sell and distribute them are more complex; the means to finance it all is more complex; and so on. This complexity is what makes us rich. But it is an enormous pain to manage.”

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David Graeber’s much needed discussion of “Bullshit Jobs”

There are interesting inversions in the results of labor theory, which, I think, most Marxists often do not grasp. For instance., labor theory suggests once wage labor emerges it already carries the seed of the principle “From each work_stress2according to his ability, to each according to his need”. The complete detachment of labor from satisfaction of needs begins with detachment of the labor of the worker from the surplus product of her labor. If this is true, once wage labor emerges communism is the inevitable result of the development of the mode of production itself. By that I mean the realization of communism is nothing more than the culmination of the process whereby the worker is increasingly stripped of the product of her labor.

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Race, Gender and Class: Guess which one doesn’t belong

As you might know, of late the twitter Left has been aflame with intersectionalismvarious expressions of the circular firing squad that is intersectional politics. First, it was some feminists confronting transgendered folks (“Your penis is not female!”); this later morphed into women of color taking on white feminists (#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen); later episodes featured a (for me at least) long-awaited World Series of intersectional disputes: black women expressing their anger at the abuse they have suffered over the years at the hands of black men.

So it goes.

Which is not to say any of these internecine outbursts were unjustified. I just wondered for a while where it would erupt next. So while I was waiting for the next front in the circular firing squad, I figured I would do some reading up on intersectionality. I decided to read two very interesting articles: “MARXISM AND CLASS, GENDER AND RACE: RETHINKING THE TRILOGY” by Martha E. Gimenez and a popularized Marxist take on the same subject, “What is intersectionality?” by Shanice McBean.

Frankly, I am not impressed with either argument.

There have been reams of paper, gallons of ink and trillions of web page electrons devoted to this question. I am no expert on the matter and admit at the outset all the nuances of the discussion probably go right over my head. So if this commentary seems theoretically naive, chalk it up to someone putting his nose in the middle of a dispute where it doesn’t belong.

In any case here goes:

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Paul Krugman: “Oh no! I said too much.”

Help me here: Did Paul Krugman just call for the end to wage labor?

I am not sure how to take Krugman saying, essentially, post-war fascist state economic policy is dead. Krugman’s stated reason for deserting from the side of fascist state “expansionary” policies to the side of regulations and taxes designed to limit the risk of crisis is that “the political economy of policy turns out to make an effective fiscal response to depression very difficult.” Which is to say, Krugman thought the fascist state was interested in maximizing output and employment in the face of a “shock to demand”, when it is actually only interested in maximizing the production of surplus value.

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How Sweezy and Baran stood Marx on his head

I wrote this a few days ago:

“The movement of capital and the movement of the commodity are not separate movements, but constitute the same movement. Marxists lose their way and begin tracing the movement of the commodity, while completely neglecting the movement of capital. Keynesian economics is not about the movement of commodities; it is solely concerned with the movement of capital. But its specific obscuring method is to present the movement of capital as the mere movement of commodities. “

This is what I think throws the Monthly Review school off.

sweezy and baranThe MR school only sees the buying/selling of labor power and the terms and conditions under which this buying/selling takes place. For this school (and many others as well) the buying/selling of labor power is completely detached from the production of surplus value. This is very similar to certain anarcho-capitalist/voluntarist strains of communism who treat wage labor in complete isolation from the mode of production. They both share the view that wage labor is not itself constitutive of a definite set of relations.

How so?

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John Bellamy Foster’s dead end ‘socialist strategy’

Michal_KaleckiIn an article published on the Montly Review website earlier this year, John Bellamy Foster manages to devote 5000 words to the source of capitalist crisis (SPOILER ALERT: he’s against capitalist crises) and a strategy for dealing with it, without mentioning reduction of hours of work even once. He wants us to know the crises do not happen because the capitalist class is “too weak” and a working class was “too strong.”

So why do capitalist crises occur? Foster borrows an answer from Kalecki.

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The Left’s myopic defense of the Keynesian social state

The root of the Keynesian social state is the starvation of the working class

I think the post-war Left has never been able to properly understand Keynesian economics because it has never grasped capital itself. This problem has deep roots in labor theory back to Marx’s piece, “Reflections on Money”, where he criticizes a one-sided view of capital. He pointed out that capitalism is not just the exchange between consumers and capitals, but also between capitals themselves and the relation between the two. Another way to put this, I think, is that capital is not just the circulation of commodities, but capital in the form of commodities.

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Paul Volcker, the Fed’s “dual mandate”, and the future of capitalism

So here are two things that have never happened before:

The first thing that never happened before is the fall in labor force participation since 2001:


Civilian Labor Force Participation rate 1948-2013 (BLS)

Since about 1963 labor force participation has increased each year for more than 30 years. It peaked in 1997-2000 than began falling — at first gradually, then more rapidly.

Why is this thing that never happened before important? Between 1963 and 1997, the growing mass of labor powers employed served as means for a growing mass of profits to find a place in production. This place was, of course, entirely unproductive of use value, but it was a means of accumulating value. This is absolutely necessary because an increase in the mass of profits must lead to an increase in the mass of labor power employed. Clearly, this has not taken place in the US since 2001 — each year there has been a decline in the portion of labor power employed.

This tells me the fascist state can no longer increase the mass of labor power employed in the US. It has given up on this and, even if reluctantly, has accepted the mass of labor powers employed in the US can no longer endlessly increase. On the other hand, this has now left an ever increasing mass of labor power (workers) who cannot find their place in production. These workers are now locked out of production and form a mass of entirely superfluous labor powers. This is not, as some allege, a reserve army of labor, but entirely superfluous laborers, who can never find a place in production. The difference between superfluous mass of workers and a reserve army is that the latter is cyclical, while the former is permanent.

I admit I could be wrong about this, but if I am right hours of labor must be reduced and right now. There is no alternative.

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