Wertkritik and The State: “It’s complicated”

by Jehu

“The call for the abolition of labor does not have immediate ramifications for Marxist politics.” –Elmar Flatschart, “Marx and Wertkritik”

“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie” –Karl Marx “Communist Manifesto”

Okay, so which of those views is right and which is bullshit?

If the abolition of labor doesn’t inform and determine political activity, what remains to inform it? The Left balks at advancing the demand for abolition of labor because it is “unrealistic”. How will the worker pay her miserable 30 year mortgage and service her credit cards if she does not work long hours? Doesn’t this imply that, absent the aim of the abolition of labor to inform politics, politics will be “informed” by poverty and debt?

I think wertkritik has so far failed in its project precisely because it seeks only “to understand society, via a negative critique”, not to change it. We can, in this view, know what we are against, but can never really know what we are for. The failure here is that wertkritik, following the tradition of post-war Marxism, has thus far failed to bring the state in its new role as manager of the national capital into the analysis of the mode of production.

Can wertkritik escape its present dead end?

What Flatschart said is not of secondary importance; it is how wertkritik sees itself and why it has so far only led to a dead end.

The statement by Flatschart was a softball tossed to the audience of the Platypus conference where he appeared. But his audience, lacking any killer instinct at all, never even addressed it. They could have hammered a stake into the heart of wertkritik simply by quoting Flatschart’s contradictory statements back to him. When Flatschart states, “the abolition of labor does not have immediate ramifications for Marxist politics”, he is, of course, confused, because in the very next paragraph he states, despite what he has just said to the contrary, “Emancipation ultimately has to mean the abolishment of the political as well.”

Is this latter conclusion, which completely contradicts the former one, not one arrived at by wertkritik? How can he say, on one hand, abolition of value has no implications for politics, yet, on the other hand, state politics must go as well? What Flatschart seems to be trying to say is that the abolition of labor makes necessary the simultaneous abolition of the state, but he can’t quite bring himself to say this clearly, because, by definition, there cannot be a political movement to abolish the state. Since wertkritik cannot conceive of a non-political movement of society — a communist movement — it can’t even make the argument for one. Instead, Flatschart dances around the subject arguing that wertkritik,

“corresponds to new forms of praxis and reacts to the fact that everything now is more complex”.

or that,

“emancipation from the currently prevailing system of abstract oppression is immensely complex and also highly unlikely.”

In Flatschart’s view the abolition of labor and the social emancipation of the laborer are two distinct things having no necessary relation between them. While labor must go, abolition of the state becomes increasingly more “complex”, i.e., contradictory. This is because it is impossible to formulate a political demand for the abolition of politics itself. The problem is that what Flatschart seems to mean by “social emancipation” is simply its “political emancipation”; thus a merely political emancipation is highly unlikely.

And why would a merely political emancipation be impossible only now? This, of course, is not a new development? It is not something that began with wertkritik, or Backhaus, or the Frankfurt school or any of that bullshit. It was already enunciated in the Communist Manifesto and confirmed in the lessons of the Commune. The seizure of political power was not conceived in isolation from the necessity to end both labor and the state. This political rule of the proletariat was just a means to accomplish both — a temporary transitional state, a “dictatorship”. The exercise of this political power was to be both anti-economic and anti-political. It was, in fact, not a political power at all, as Marx and Engels took pains to explain on several occasions.

So what has changed since 1848 that causes wertkritik such confusion? Why does Flatschart announce his school can offer no guide to action?

Simple: proletarian action as Flatschart and the wertkritik school conceive it is not proletarian action as Marx conceived it. Between 1848 and 2013 something has changed in the very definition of proletarian action. Proletarian action in 2013 is no longer conceived of as anti-economic and anti-political. Which is to say, political rule of the working class no longer seeks to put an end to labor and the state. In Elmar Flatschart’s view, political action has some aim other than abolition of labor and the state.

For this reason, wertkritik can offer it no advice.

In the Communist Manifesto, political power was aimed to wrest by degrees the productive forces from capital. But for what reason? In the Manifesto the political rule of the proletariat aimed, “to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.” In other words, political power was not aimed simply at creating a proletarian power, but to end the proletariat itself — to abolish labor and the class itself. Since there was no way the proletariat could abolish labor and itself in 1848, the political rule of the proletariat was understood as a means for creating the conditions necessary for abolition of labor and the proletariat.

Abolition of the state as contradictory

I am completely confused that Flatschart labels the call for the immediate abolition of the state, “contradictory in the present political situation”. Since Flatschart states immediate abolition of the state is necessary, what of the present political situation contradicts the aim? Why does Flatschart think Marx argued for the eventual withering away of the state? And why, in response to this, does Flatschart say, “I think we need to be a lot more radical.”

Flatschart isn’t wrong about this in my opinion, but he is right to propose the state must be abolished in 2013 for the very same reason Marx only said it withers away in the 1870s. Flatschart is speaking in 2013, while Marx spoke in the 1870s; the level of development of productive forces is different. According to Marx, “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby. ” It was utopian to demand immediate abolition of the state in the 1870s as the anarchists did, absent a level of development of the productive forces materially consistent with this.

If in Marx’s time the call for the immediate abolition of the state was utopian, Marxists, incomprehensibly, declare it still utopian also today. No one actually examines the level of development of the economic structure of society to see if it still poses a barrier. It is enough for Marxists that Marx said it in the 1870s, for it to be true for all of the ages. Marx, however, was looking at a party programme — what this party stated it would undertake if it gained power in the 1870s, not in 2013. Another way to state Marx’s argument is that a higher economic structure of society must be expressed in a higher level of right. If at one level of development of the productive forces the immediate abolition of the state was utopian, it is no less dystopian to avoid setting it as our aim today.

No Victorian ever called me “nigger”?

As Flatschart explains it, the contradictory character of a demand for abolition of the state results from a broadening of the conception of social emancipation itself:

“The 1970s were a turning point in both theory and praxis when it was acknowledged that the old economicist and politicist roads to revolution do not work out. So the reformulation of the theory, which builds on the earlier work of the Frankfurt School, corresponds to new forms of praxis and reacts to the fact that everything now is more complex: There is no one vanguard party but many situated politics; no one system of oppression that covers all, but an abstract notion of reified domination (verdinglichte Herrschaft) that realizes itself in various ways; and no one strategy for revolution, but contradictory relations that, although graspable only in the negative, we have to confront wherever we meet.

Some aspects of the Left’s impasse today, according to value critique, came about for necessary reasons. These difficulties were necessary in that they prompted a broadening of perspectives, which made things more difficult but ultimately more complete, corresponding to social reality and the new complexities of oppression.”

Sorry, but I am not buying that bullshit. There wasn’t racism and sexism in 1848?  Nowadays, we are enjoined to get rid of labor and the state only on condition that we can get rid of racism and sexism too. Because, you see, without the state, these racist and sexist workers will be running around exerting their privileges over everyone else. They will be making me feel bad for being black. And besides, who will hand out the foodstamps if the state goes away?  (To this, we could add post-colonial violence in Africa, or anti-immigrant violence in Europe and America, or apartheid violence in Palestine.) The idea of proletarian political action aiming to create a society freed of labor and the state disappears from view. In this “broadening of perspectives”, we lose sight of the fact that racism, sexism and food stamps are only expressions of present social relations.

But any discussion of these issues within the tradition of historical materialism has to recognize that labor alone constitutes them. It is not the case that labor constitutes some of existing relations, but racism or sexism constitutes others — all social relations within existing society, including racism and sexism, are constituted by labor and labor alone. When, therefore, Flatschart proclaims, “concerning the social-revolutionary aspect of value critique, there simply is none”, he is only admitting that wertkritik has not undertaken the task of bringing politics and the state within the laws generally holding for the mode of production. Wertkritik looked at the state and has decided it stands outside the law of value and is, therefore, incomprehensible to labor theory.