The Weird Netherworld of Barbarism
The odd case of superfluous labor time
Based on the assumptions Marx employs in Volume 3, superfluous labor time should not exist under capitalism. At the same time, the mode of production is the production of surplus value, i.e., labor time that is superfluous to society. These two ideas mean that when superfluous labor time does actually emerge in the social labor day, a crisis should erupt and the capital produced during this superfluous labor time should be devalued. So all of the evidence pointing to a large amount of superfluous labor time in the economy suggests something else is at work. This something else has allowed the accumulation of superfluous labor time within the social labor day for almost seven decades.
So, for seven decades capital has gone without flushing the superfluous labor time out of the labor day. This is like the pressure building along a fault line that is long overdue for an earthquake. One of the difficulties conceptualizing how capitalism “just dies on its own”, is actually understanding how this can happen practically. Since capitalism “survived” the Great Depression, it seems it can survive anything — it is just a matter of how much suffering there is among the working class. In this view, given enough time, capitalism will adapt itself to its crisis.
In fact, capitalism adapted after the Great Depression by means that imply a massive terminal event that can be conceptualized this way: Almost all accumulation since World War II has taken the form of superfluous capital. When this superfluous capital is devalued, it will take the entire mode of production with it in one massive event. Capitalism as a mode of production is already dead in fact, but manages to keep itself alive in the form of the accumulation of superfluous capital. All the effort of the fascist state at present is aimed at trying to forestall the devaluation of excess capital. Eventually, the effort must fail, devaluation will ensue and seven decades of history will unfold in a matter of days or weeks. There is no question this is going to happen. We saw it in the death throes of the Soviet Union. If a centrally planned capital can implode in a matter of weeks any capital can and will.
Additionally, almost all bourgeois economists and labor theorists have noted the slowing of the growth rate. Larry Summers’ discussion last year focused on what he called stagnation of growth (which he argues is not a temporary problem). Among labor theorists the tendency has been noted since the 1960s-1970s. Even earlier than this, Hansen discussed the problem of stagnation in the 1930s during the Great Depression.
However, although labor theorists have sometimes used superfluous labor to explain stagnation, they have never explained superfluous labor itself — it is simply a convenient crutch for their analysis. In fact, there is nothing in labor theory that gives credence to Hansen’s stagnation thesis. Which is to say, there is nothing in labor theory that suggests the rate of capitalist growth slows. According to Marx, capitalist crises add momentum to its rate of growth.
No depression since World War II
On the other hand, stagnation in the rate of growth has been accompanied by the remarkable absence of a replay of the Great Depression since World War II. There is at least a strong correlation between the tendency toward stagnation, accumulation superfluous labor time within the social labor day and the absence of depression. This strong correlation among the three suggests over the last 60-70 years the three may be linked in some way. Moreover, in labor theory there is no more explanation for the long absence of depressions than there is for stagnation and the accumulation of superfluous labor time. So here are three things — none of which can be explained by labor theory of value, but all correlated temporally.
And what else emerges during this time? Secular inflation of prices or the constant depreciation of state issued currency. The period also witnesses the collapse of the gold standard and the emergence of inconvertible fiat currency. Finally, we begin to hear that the state has a role to play in managing the so-called “business cycle”.
Okay, so the tendency toward stagnation and accumulation of superfluous labor time in the work day might be written off as coincidental, right? But add in the fact that there hasn’t been a depression since World War II? Does this now seem a little less like a coincidence? Toss in rampant sustained post-war inflation and the breakdown of money into commodity and inconvertible fiat. Now it seems as though either Marx was horribly wrong about capitalism, or something else is happening. Add in state managed capitalism and I think it is safe to say we are not in Kansas anymore.
But, hold on! We haven’t even touched the surface of this shit yet. The capper to this — the thing that calls Das Kapital itself into question — is this: jobs now have to be created by the state! Since the capitalist mode of production is nothing more than the employment of labor power for the purpose of producing surplus value, how the fuck do jobs have to be created by state? There is only one explanation for this that is consistent with labor theory: the additional employment of labor power no longer creates additional surplus value.
Is capitalism already dead?
Frankly, once you begin to add up all the seemingly coincidental facts of our time, I don’t see how you escape this conclusion. What separates Das Kapital from an economics textbook is not just that it accurately describes the capitalist mode of production, but that it also predicts historical conditions under which the analysis present in Das Kapital will no longer be relevant. Several times Marx goes off on these tangents where he describes how the future society will not operate like capitalism. And in these excursion into the future society Marx never describes, in Das Kapital or anywhere else for that matter, a situation where the state has become responsible for creating jobs.
As @JochemDeVr pointed out, when Marx spoke of conditions where Das Kapital did not apply, he was generally speaking about socialism. I think this is absolutely correct. So are we now living under socialism? Let me rephrase this question more broadly: Do so many fundamental categories of Marx’s analysis appear to contradict him because capitalism no longer exists?
Let me just make an observation along these lines: Almost all Marxists argue that the end of capitalism is not the same as communism. Okay. Then if this is true, have we already passed the end of capitalism and are now in some netherworld between capitalism and communism? Postone argued that Kurz’s prediction of capitalist collapse was wrong. Capitalism, says Postone, cannot just collapsed but would give way to a sort of barbarism. Kurz argued in response that were capitalism to collapse without a revolution, it would indeed look just like Postone’s barbarism. For both Postone and Kurz the description of this barbarism looks surprisingly like today — megacities occupied by a superfluous population, policed by the state. Connect the list of phenomena that appear to contradict Marx with these huge megacities of superfluous proletarians and I see barbarism. (Of course, I call it fascism — but this is only semantics.)
Did capitalism collapse, but not get replaced by socialism as Marxists say would happen in absence of a proletarian revolution? This gets to the question of what Barbarism is. There is no literature on the political-economy of barbarism, so we don’t even know what we are dealing with. But we do know this: the phenomena I listed are features of this period — features that appear to contradict Das Kapital.
Here is another thing: What is the difference between barbarism and socialism? Both seem to imply capitalism has collapsed, but only socialism assumes the working class has seized power. Barbarism assumes, at a minimum, the working class did not seize power. So if capitalism no longer exist, and the proletariat is not ruling on its own behalf, who or what is exercising power at this point?
Barbarism as a form of transition to communism?
Let me offer an possible idea along these lines: In his critique of the Gotha Program, Marx speaks of a period of revolutionary transformation of capitalism into communism. We already know socialism is that period of transformation under the rule of the proletariat. Is it just possible barbarism is this same period of transformation under the rule of capital? I know this might sound far-fetched, but we already widely assume capitalism can collapse without producing socialism. And we already widely assume this failure by the working class to assume power must result in barbarism. The question then comes down to whether barbarism is also a transition of sorts to the higher phase of communism. A transition where the proletariat cannot assume power, but the capitalist can no longer rule.
This sort of formulation appears in Lenin’s writings to describe “dual power”, right? One thing Lenin says in “Dual Power”: While the analysis of Marxists might on the whole be right, “their concrete realisation has turned out to be different.” We expected socialism after the collapse of capitalism, but instead we got barbarism. Capitalism collapsed, but the proletariat could not establish its own rule. The question raised by this awful state of affairs is whether communism still results at the end of this awfulness or not. Is barbarism a permanent state of mankind, as most Marxists seem to believe, or does it have a trajectory just like any other mode.
The trajectory of socialism begins with the abolition of wage labor and the establishment of the principle: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” Although wage labor is abolished, the level of development of the productive forces does not allow labor itself to be abolished. A form of state is established where access to the commonly produced means of consumption is made dependent on a labor contribution. This is nothing more than a state of the producers: their association and it is enforced over the former owning classes — essentially, the property of the capitalists and landlords is made common property and they are told to get real jobs. That is the trajectory of socialism: eventually the need for labor disappears and so the requirement. Once completed, society passes over to realm of “To each according to his needs.” A labor contribution is abolished as a condition for access to the commonly produced means of consumption.
So does barbarism have a trajectory similar to this? Barbarism implies wage labor is not abolished, so does it also imply no transition to communism? Are we stuck forever in a netherworld of wage slavery that no longer produces anything of value? Insofar as Marxists have given this any thought at all, the answer appears to be that barbarism is some sort of permanent state. It can just go on forever — it has no trajectory, no political-economy, no future: it is the Marxist equivalent of the end of history.
However, it seems to me that barbarism is a readily accessible to critical analysis as capitalism. Social labor progressively loses its substance, i.e., its capacity to produce value. Money is steadily depreciated toward zero. The state is forced to assume control of more and more of “economic activity”. And employment increasingly stagnates. This looks a lot like a definite trajectory to me.