Platypus Question No. 4: The Great Depression, the Left and the Politics of Work

by Jehu

In question 4, the Platypus group asks about the historical influences that inform the politics of work:

“4. In the history of the Left, what examples do you regard as informing your attitude towards the politics of work and unemployment today, and what is relevant about these touch points?”

In think the seminal event in the formation of the Left’s attitude (not my attitude) toward the politics of work and unemployment is its inability, eight decades later, to come to grips with the Great Depression. To a large extent Marxism is precisely at the same point it was in its classical period and in some important aspects it has regressed.

I would define the classical period of Marxism as that period between the death of Marx and Engels, and the beginning of the depression. What is interesting about the classical period was the attempt to extend labor theory into the 20th century and second industrial revolution. This attempt necessarily ran into the question of the relation of the state to the operation of the law of value. At issue was the question of whether the state operated outside the law of value. If the answer was yes, politics becomes very difficult to explain and has to rely on methods outside labor theory proper.
If the answer was no, the extension of labor theory to the state remained to be accomplished.

We have some very tantalizing hints in the direction of the second view from Marx and Engels: First, the fact that Marx planned to include a volume of Capital on the state suggests he believed its development in the capitalist epoch too could be explained by labor theory. Second, Engels includes a hint of this relation in “Socialism”, where he describes the state as more than a mere instrument of class coercion. It was, said Engels, “essentially a capitalist machine”, which exists to ” support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists”. However, in time, this capitalist machine would become more than this: “it actually become[s] the national capitalist”. Engels took pains to explicitly state that this would mark “an economic advance, the attainment of another step preliminary to the taking over of all productive forces by society itself”. According to Engels, the state “will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production.” Certainly the state predates capital, but Marx and Engels give clear hints that, in their opinion, capital would transform this ancient organ.

The tendency among labor theorists has been to ignore their hints and treat the state ahistorically as a mere instrument of class rule. This defect has had serious consequences for labor theory analysis of the mode of production since the Great Depression. It was during the Great Depression that state management of production emerged as a permanent feature of capital for the first time. Which is to say, during the Great Depression, the state emerged as the national capitalist just as predicted by Engels and Marx. But this is also the period where we first see the emergence of what Keynes called “technological unemployment” produced by the capitalist class’s “discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.” Which is to say, for the first time we see a mass of workers who can no longer find a place in the productive employment of capital.

Another possible way to describe this is that the mode of production itself begins to run into the limits of its expansion. From the Great Depression forward the over-riding concern of politics is “full employment” — a goal first declared attained by Nazi Germany.

The late Chris Harman marks the development this way:

“This began to happen in the great crisis of the interwar years. Far from bankruptcies of some firms bringing the crisis to end after a couple of years they deepened its impact. As a consequence, capitals everywhere turned to states to protect them. Despite their political differences, this was what was common to the New Deal in the US, the Nazi period in Germany, the emerging populist regimes in Latin America or the final acceptance of Keynesian state intervention as the economic orthodoxy in wartime Britain. Such interdependence of states and big capitals was the norm right across the system in the first three decades following the Second World War, an arrangement that has variously been called ‘state capitalism’ (my preferred term), ‘organised capitalism’ or ‘Fordism’.”

Which is to say, from this point forward, the state emerges full-blown as the fascist state, a state whose avowed aim is to prevent the emergence of “technological unemployment”.

The relevancy of these facts are obvious: all politics at present is determined by the function of the state as manager of the total national capital, whose aim is to maximize employment, i.e., to maximize the expansion of wage labor. All political conflict between the two great classes of bourgeois society is carried on within the limits of this state function. Given this, politics can never go beyond the battles between the two classes over how to expand wage slavery, can never seek its abolition.

The limitations of politics does not simply define the limits of the struggle between classes, it defines the limitations of a Left politics — a politics that is inherently incapable of superseding the capitalist mode of production.