Jaime Semprun rejects the Manifesto — hilarity ensues

by Jehu

semprun5In an essay written sometime around 2007, “Notes on the manifesto against labor”, the late Jaime Semprun critiqued wertkritik and discovered it was not up to the task because it embraces the most obsolete thesis of the Communist Manifesto: the reappropriation of the productive forces.

What I find interesting in Semprun’s argument is his opening:

“It would seem to be granting too much credit to technological modernization to say that it has made labor “superfluous”. Without even considering the qualitative dimension of labor saving technology (what does “liberation” by machines cause us to lose?), it is quite doubtful that, in the quantitative sense, modernization makes labor obsolete and can only preserve it by increasingly artificial means (the central thesis of the Manifesto).”

This statement was formulated in a style that is typical of the approach taken by intellectuals to the problem of social emancipation. When did Marx say modernization makes labor superfluous? The term modernization is a signifier for a social process that implies a lot more than the mere introduction of machines into the labor process. Capital — a social relation between individuals — not technology or modernization, makes labor superfluous.

Part of the technique introduced by academics to avoid the actual questions of social emancipation is to ascribe living processes to dead things. In fact, no one is “liberated by machines”, people liberate themselves, but they do not always realize what they are doing. For Semprun’s to credit “liberation” to machines rendered the process so abstract as to be indecipherable. If we state, “society liberates itself from labor, but the members of society don’t always know what they are doing”, who wants to read this shit in the academy? Instead, the intellectual can introduce a fantastic element into the narrative, where the product of labor rises up from its place on the factory floor to free the social producer from her stultifying labor.

Enough of this sort of bullshit.

Labor and the state

The second interesting thing about Semprun’s critique was that nowhere in this critique did the term “state” appear even once. A feature of the dominant fashion in the “radical critique” of existing society is that capital itself appears in it as an abstraction with no given form. The intellectual Left likes to refer to “fordism”, “modernization”, “the abstract and fetishized character of social domination”, etc. What they really are trying to do, of course, is grasp capital without ever examining the concrete form taken by capital.

If in fact labor does not go away, despite unconscious efforts of society to make it go away, this can only be explained by the fact no one in society really wants it to go away. Efforts to make labor go away is only a reflexive result of some other process, in which the abolition of labor does not appear as the aim. If, “it is quite doubtful that, in the quantitative sense, modernization makes labor obsolete and can only preserve it by increasingly artificial means”, nevertheless these artificial means are employed and must itself be subject to critical inquiry.

What are the means by which labor, despite being abolished, is retained? How is the unnecessary labor, “that this same process makes socially necessary”, actually made necessary? Are we describing some steady state model of accumulation where jobs disappear in one sector of the economy only to magically reappear in another? Of course not. Even the most superficial examination of the world market today, must lead to the conclusion that the first and over-riding goal of the economic policy of every national state on the planet without exception is economic growth.

Economic growth means nothing more than accumulation, which is itself the product of surplus labor.

Did Semprun see any fucking connection between labor not going away, despite introduction of labor saving technology, and national states setting as their aim the expansion of labor? Is there something mysterious about capital that, despite it resting on the constant diminution of labor, labor remains? Could this fact not be connected to the fact that the nation state is just a capitalist machine?

This, however, is not enough for our academy. Since their own fucking jobs rest on making comprehensible incomprehensible relations of production, keeping them incomprehensible amounts to a full employment policy for worthless academics.

“Well, you see you can’t understand the abstract fetishized character of social domination unless you buy my book.”

Labor doesn’t go away because the collection of fascist states that manage capital don’t want it to go away. These states are nothing more than the ideal representatives of the national capitals they manage. These national capitals can only produce surplus value if labor doesn’t go away and only if the total volume of labor increases. Even assuming the representatives of democracy do not directly recognize this — because, unlike you and me, they are too illiterate too read Marx — Capital itself only describes what they will do in any case because they are capitals. So, the “public servants” of every government on the planet may not be able to read Capital, but they still have managed to figure out on their own that economic growth, means, in the words of Larry Summers, “having more work done, more product produced and more people earning more income”

In a phrase: more labor time expended by society despite any reduction in the actual material need for labor.

Social Emancipation as the “re-appropriation” of abandoned, rusting, factories

So if this is all that is happening, how can it be overcome? Here, Semprun criticized Krisis for asserting the productive forces of society can be re-appropriated by society. Krisis, Semprun tells us,

“preserved—at least in some passages of the Manifesto—precisely the most obsolete part of the project of the old revolutionary workers movement: the idea of a possible re-appropriation of the “productive forces” of big industry…”

Really? Is it true re-appropriation of the productive forces is the most obsolete part of communism? In this passage Semprun continued the recent critical tradition of ascribing forces to things, not people. The productive forces are embodied in, Hiroshima, Chernobyl, digital technologies etc — in a word technologies that have become destructive of both value and nature.

Is this the idea behind the Manifesto? Of course, this is pure nonsense. In the German Ideology — written 2 years earlier — Marx and Engels identify the thing to be appropriated as the productive powers of the individuals themselves. As Marx and Engels put it, under capitalism,

“the productive forces appear as a world for themselves, quite independent of and divorced from the individuals, alongside the individuals: the reason for this is that the individuals, whose forces they are, exist split up and in opposition to one another,” (My emphasis)

The communist “project” as Semprun labeled it, has nothing to do with seizing factories, but consists entirely in the social producers seizing our own productive capacities back from capital. These productive capacities must be re-appropriated from capital, which, previously, appropriated them from the individual producers. How the fuck could this be “the most obsolete part of the project of the old revolutionary workers movement”? The Manifesto does not, in any way, suggest the seizure of the dead products of labor — some rusting deserted factories, or decaying roads and bridges, or Google Chrome — but the living capacities of individuals. And these capacities must be seized back by the individuals “whose forces they are.”

Are we to believe that, sometime between 1846 and 1848, Marx and Engels inexplicably stopped talking about people and began talking about fucking factories?

Fukushima as the production of value?

Next, Semprun did this very bizarre thing: he began equating value production with disaster cleanup:

“The technological “remediation” applied to a truly devastated world is, of course, for any lucid soul, the guarantee of new devastations, but from the perspective of the market economy it is above all the guarantee of job creation, always more jobs, to restore, decontaminate, clean up, manipulate, that is, to create value along with disaster.”

This is a complete inversion of labor theory, where labor that produces neither value nor use value is said to produce value solely because the worker performing it was paid a wage and the firm who employed the worker was paid a profit.

How can the ecological destruction of nature, its poisoning, produce value? How can the attempts to clean up and recover from this produce value? In this argument the sole reason Semprun calls this wasted effort the production of value is because someone was paid to perform it. He therefore conflates the production of value with its destruction, its waste in the form of ecological disasters. Who can this possibly aid, if not BP and TEPCO, Washington and Tokyo?

But the entire error of post-war Marxism is precisely to conflate wage labor with the production of value.

In much the same way as neoclassical economics conflates value with currency, so Marxists conflate labor performed for wages or profit with labor that produces value. They have lost sight of the concept of value behind the mystification of money relations. And this, indeed, results from the fact the Marxists have no understanding whatsoever of the role of the fascist state. This remains a mystery to them, an ahistorical organ that simply exists, as anarchism argues, to enforce the rule of capital. According to this view, in every stage of human history the state remains exactly the same, to serve as enforcers of the existing order, no matter the order. For Marxists, the capitalist state differs from the feudal state or the ancient state of slavery only by representing the interest of capital, not landowners or slavers. It must, therefore, play no role whatsoever in our analysis of the mode of production — it stands outside of analysis as given.

The Marxist intellectual completely swallows bourgeois ideology in one gulp. This childish anarchist notion of the state, which never was held either by Marx nor Engels, continues unperturbed by reality. Marxism is only a variant of anarchism that embraces this infantile idea rather than rejecting it. Indeed, on this score Marxism is inferior even to the anarchist, who, at least, still has the common decency to reject the state, even in this form.

No matter the defect of anarchism on this question, they at least have enough shame not to be seen groveling on their knees, begging for food stamp socialism.

The forces of production and communism

As we saw, Semprun’s argument against wertkritik was that it does not go far enough in rejecting the Communist Manifesto. According to Semprun, wertkritik still retains a view that something can be salvaged of existing relations, namely modern industry. This view on the part of wertkritik is in keeping with the distinction Marx makes in Capital between use value and value. Wertkritik is the critique of value, not use value and, apparently, Semprun thought both value and use value must be abolished. The forces of production must be overthrown along with the social relations within which these forces are employed. Somewhere between Hiroshima and Chernobyl, even the technical means of production became destructive of the earth and society. Given this, the attitude the Manifesto maintains toward capitalist big industry is no longer useful.

In the Manifesto, the bourgeoisie is heralded as the bearer of big industry and appears as a revolutionary force because of this. Marx reiterates this view in his critique of the Gotha Programme, where he explicitly rejects the formulation of the proletariat as the only revolutionary class in modern society. The two great classes of modern society are thus revolutionary classes together. What distinguishes them is this: whereas the bourgeoisie is revolutionary in relation to previous classes, this position is relative. The bourgeoisie is not revolutionary in relation to labor, property and the state, but only to the forms these took in prior epochs. The proletariat is, by contrast, revolutionary in relation to labor, property and the state in any form, since its political rule implies the abolition of labor, property and the state.

While the bourgeoisie is revolutionary in relation to previous modes of production, the proletariat is, by contrast, revolutionary in relation to its own material conditions of existence. Essentially, the argument Semprun made in his rejection of the Manifesto is that the proletariat is not, in fact, a revolutionary class. He couches this in the critique of the destructive impact of big industry, but, in the Manifesto, big industry is not the special product of the bourgeoisie — the proletariat is. The productive forces of modern society are not factories, but the productive powers of the proletariat coinciding with big industry.

Marx and Engels write this in the German Ideology, two years earlier:

“The appropriation of these forces is itself nothing more than the development of the individual capacities corresponding to the material instruments of production.”

Big industry serves as an incubator within which the productive powers of the social producers develop. The point of social emancipation is not to seize and hold big industry, but to re-appropriate the productive powers of the individuals by the individuals themselves.

Doesn’t this follow directly from the criticism Marx made of communism for being infected with property? I think Semprun’s criticism of wertkritik shows the extent to which communism remains infected by property; it is the conflation of the productive powers of society with the concrete modes of its employment in Hiroshima and Chernobyl. The argument Semprun makes against the Manifesto is an argument Marxism makes for the Manifesto — an argument infected with property. The Marxism after Marx and Engels places great importance on state property against private property; thus it arrives at a communism not very different than the one Marx criticized originally.

Under the pretext of criticizing the “obsolete” formulations of the Manifesto, Semprun falls into the same absurdity.

The state, capital and the end of production based on exchange

As Engels argued, the state, in taking over big industry, does not resolve the problem but conceals within it the technical conditions of that solution. Which is to say, it puts an end to exchange relations and permits society to manage production as what it is: social production. Exchange relations and production on the basis of exchange, (i.e., individual production carried on for exchange), comes to an end. This process, however, does not put an end to property, labor and the state — property is only generalized as public property, not abolished. To abolish property requires abolition of labor and the state as well, but labor can only be abolished if the productive forces have developed to the level that permits this — this is no simple matter of declaring labor abolished by fiat.

What really matters for us is this: all of this can be accomplished without society ever being aware it has accomplished it. There is nothing in the Manifesto that states society must know what it is doing when it does it. Let me give a good example: In Capital, Volume 1, Marx explains the circulation of capital as opposed to the commodity. The circulation of capital begins as the circuit of money:

M ==> C ==> M

Marx states,

“M-C-M’ is therefore in reality the general formula of capital as it appears prima facie within the sphere of circulation.”

Since all capital begins with M and ends with M’, capital can be expropriated from the expropriators simply by the state replacing money with its inconvertible fiat tokens. The state has now gained complete control of capital simply by replacing commodity money with its own token. The replacement of commodity money with a token appears on the surface as made necessary by money becoming “non-neutral”. Which is to say, commodity money — gold — will no longer circulate as money and, therefore, cannot become capital.

In fact, what has actually occurred is that production on the basis of exchange came to an end exactly as Marx predicted in the Grundrisse. As Engels predicted in “Socialism”, the state was, because of this, forced to assume management of process of production by the development of the productive forces themselves, which no longer permitted production on the basis of exchange.

Now, clearly society did not know this is what happened, because rather than putting an end to money itself, it only put an end to commodity money. The conflation of wage labor with production of value begins with the conflation of fascist state fiat with money, with commodity money. On the basis of this conflation, Semprun could conflate cleanup of disasters with value production solely because wages and profits, in the forms of valueless inconvertible fiat tokens, are paid out.