The abolition of labor and the conceit of labor theorists

by Jehu

In 2012, Platypus held another of its silly “discussions” with the Left on the nature of the present crisis. One of those discussions featured Loren Goldner, David Harvey, Andrew Kliman, and Paul Mattick. Kliman, of course, was all about flogging his tedious book, The Failure of Capitalist Production, which insists the present crisis results jobdadfrom a fall in the rate of profit. Of course, since every crisis results from a fall in the rate of profits, Kliman’s book only tells us that this crisis is like every other crisis that has ever happened in the history of capitalism — a fact Kliman seems content to argue. Harvey also spent his time flogging his equally useless book, which tells us crises are never resolved fundamentally, but only move. Loren Goldner had some interesting things to say about what he calls “a general process of non-reproduction” — but I had to read it several times to figure out what his point was. I think, but I am not sure based on his short talk, that he is referring to the expansion of superfluous labor time as a significant feature of the present crisis — of which more later.

How theory flatters itself

The gem of the discussion, however, was the talk given by Paul Mattick. One of the questions Platypus asked in advance of the discussion was, “Why are sophisticated leftist understandings of the world seemingly unable to assist in the task of changing it?” Mattick’s response to this was pretty much on the money: theorists don’t change the world, society does:

“This is not particularly mysterious. Changing the world requires the collective action of very large numbers of people.”

After smacking his audience upside the head with this response, Mattick drove home his point:

“If the proletarian revolution required a firm grasp of Marx’s Capital with, for example, a correct understanding of value-price transformation by the aforesaid broad masses, it is hard to imagine how that revolution could ever get going. Luckily this is not how social movements happen.”

Mattick is correct, I think. It’s not like we could have made a revolution sometime in the last 80 years, if only someone had figured out how values are converted into prices. No society has ever made a revolution on the basis of some goddamned theory and it is likely the proletarian revolution will not be the first to do so. Conversely, if a social revolution has not been made, it is not the fault of theory, but society itself. The fact that the last 80 years has seen no successful revolution in the advanced countries is to be blamed on society alone, not the Left. The Left has an entirely too high opinion of itself, to think its failures has prevented “the revolution”.

Mattick’s argument is much better than my own argument that the Left sucks big time and should just kill itself. In Mattick’s argument the Left not only sucks big time, it is completely irrelevant to anything; so it really doesn’t matter whether the Left kills itself or not, because history doesn’t give a shit about the Left. On the other hand, I am not so sure I agree with Mattick that society, once engaged in social transformation, will make theory useful.

First, I think theorists, like Marx, mostly spend their time trying to keep up with the process of social transformation. Far from providing a guide to society, theory has a difficult time even keeping up with what society has already accomplished. Capital is not a static thing like Kliman seems to argue, where we are again and again presented with the same cycles of boom and bust. It is a living, constantly evolving, social relation, whose characteristics must be grasped as a continuous historical movement of society.

Communism is not the aim of society

Second, Mattick seems to grasp the term “social transformation” in an entirely political, extremely limited, fashion. The entire movement of capital is itself a continuous process of social transformation and this also includes the political sphere. Politics is not, as many seem to believe, a sphere of activity standing outside the process of social transformation. The problem for us is that this social transformation is unconscious and in no way aims at what is its inevitable result: communism. To give an example, no capitalist has to understand what Marx wrote in Capital to be a capitalist and, therefore, to undertake what is the historical mission of the mode of production: the increase in the productive forces of society. The capitalists accomplish this without ever once grasping the significance of their actions.

As Mattick states, “This does not mean … that capitalism is a system devoid of human agency.” It simply means that the real aims of individuals are in no way those produced by the process of social transformation itself. Simply stated, society does not set out to create communism; communism is only the unintended consequences of their actual aims. Theorists and political activists since Marx and Engels have not been able to deal with the fact that the aims of the members of society is not communism, but their own aims.

Communism is simply non-labor for the laborers, but time away from labor is not the aim of the laborers themselves; rather, their actual aims are given in the fact that the sale of their labor power is the premise of their access to the means of life. Their actual aim is to secure access to the means of life, not the abolition of labor — indeed, the abolition of labor is a material threat to that aim. In this sense, the abolition of labor only appears as the aim of the capitalist and only insofar as the constant reduction of the expenditure of living labor in production is his aim. But even in this case, abolition of labor is not the actual aim of capital: the capitalist does not aim to abolish labor but only abolish paid labor — i.e., wages.

The struggle between capital and labor thus comes down to the struggle between paid and unpaid labor — not the abolition of labor itself. This struggle goes on even as the relation as a whole continuously reduces the total mass of labor and the total mass of paid and unpaid labor together. While the ratio of unpaid labor to paid labor may change over time, taken together their sum actually declines. If at the beginning of this process 12 hours of labor is divided between 6 hours of paid labor and 6 hours of unpaid labor, and if the unpaid portion of the labor day doubles relative to the paid portion of the labor day, soon this is expressed as 1 hour of paid labor and 2 hours of unpaid labor. Although the hours of unpaid labor is now double that of the hours of paid labor, the total duration of labor has fallen from 12 hours to 3 hours.

None of this process requires that society understands what it is doing. Labor can be abolished and the laborer freed of wage slavery without this ever appearing as the aim of either the laborer or the capitalist.