Open Marxism’s Unspoken Prescription for the Current Crisis: Vote Harder

by Jehu

Continuing with the discussion of Holloway and Picciotto’s paper, “Capital, Crisis and the State”, which makes up chapter 3 of Simon Clarke’s book, The State Debate.

hatebushIn my last post, I showed how Holloway and Picciotto arrived at the conclusion that the definition of capital as the production of value and surplus value was insufficient basis to explain “the political”. I think the critical part of this story was the struggle to place the post-war full employment policies of the fascist state and implementation of “progressive” legislation of the 1960s and 1970s in some consistent theoretical context. “Open Marxism” was trying to explain policies that appeared to contradict Marx’s infamous base-superstructure analogy of “the political”.

Mind you, Holloway and Picciotto were not completely stumbling around in the dark on this. It is obvious that the history of capitalism is replete with instances of arbitrary actions on the part of the state that might be gathered together under the heading of primitive accumulation. The authors write:

“We have said that the initial moment of the formation of the capitalist state is dominated by the spread of commodity relations. However, until commodity production becomes fully established (when labour power becomes a commodity and primary accumulation of capital achieved), social relations and state forms are by no means dominated by equal exchange, but rather by its opposite: compulsion. Thus the mercantile state is structured around trade privileges, monopolies and regulations of commerce. It facilitates the commercialisation of agriculture and the consequent expropriation of the labourer from the land. A major feature is the direct management of the ‘surplus population’ thus created as a labour force, by various systems of direct and forced labour: vagabondage laws, houses of correction, deportation to the colonies etc. All the forms, policies and ideology of such a state exhibit the startling contradictions of a state power purporting to be the state of society as a whole, but continually exercised to favour commercial privilege and the accumulation of property. The mercantile state, therefore, is characterised not by equal exchange but by unequal relations of appropriation backed by authority and force.”

Holloway and Picciotto argue this element of compulsion remains as an aspect of the state. The principle of equality operates in the sphere of circulation, however this principle is constantly upset by the inequality in the form of production of surplus value, or, to put it in terms Marx employed: bourgeois right in the sphere of circulation is constantly at loggerheads with real material inequality in the sphere of production:

“The immediate contradictions of this process consists of the continual undermining of the appearance of equality of exchange in the sphere of circulation by the inequality in the sphere of production.”

According to the authors, this real and material inequality inherent in the production of surplus value is the heart of the contradictions of liberal capitalism and of the liberal moment of the state.

And here Holloway and Picciotto make a series of observations that should have been all they needed to understand the class implications of fascist state full employment policies. Marx, they state, points out that after the mode of production stands on its own feet, the demand for ever greater mass of surplus value took the form of the excessive prolongation of the working day:

“The struggle between capital and labour over the length of the working day … exposes most clearly the contradictions of exchange equality … the social relations of production having been established on the basis of wage-labour and the apparent equality of exchange of wages for labour-power, the working class finds capital pressing to the limits of extraction of absolute surplus value from that labour-power.”

This insight is all Holloway and Picciotto ever needed for their critique of Yaffe’s argument on full employment. If the state policy was directed at full employment of the working age population, this was not out of any desire to relieve the working class from the nightmare of unemployment, but because this policy directly expressed capital’s thirst for absolute surplus value.

The problem with this argument for Holloway and Picciotto, however, is that it undermined their argument that Marx’s base-superstructure analogy was not nuanced enough to express the relation between “the political” and “the economic”. Nevertheless, Holloway and Picciotto do not stop at this point; instead, they go on to argue:

“The liberal capitalist state is therefore engaged in a continual process of upholding the principles of freedom and equality, while constantly modifying their application in practice, in order to overcome the contradictions continually created by the central contradiction at the heart of the relations of production.”

This insight by Holloway and Picciotto, is not in the least original, since it can be found in Engels’s “Socialism”, where he writes:

“And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production…”

But acknowledging that Engels had long since made the observation that the state serves to support the external conditions for the production of surplus value, with the clear implication that this support is expressed in the fascist state’s full employment policies, would have further undermined Holloway and Picciotto’s argument against the Third International Marxism argument that, over time, the state and capital fuse together into one — since it is precisely in the passage I cited that Engels makes his famous prediction:

“In any case, with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production.”

What then explains Holloway and Picciotto’s reluctance to accept Marx’s base-superstructure analogy that the economic base of society determines the political superstructure?

I think there is a very simple answer to this: in Marx’s base-superstructure analogy, there is no determining role for the class struggle. The class struggle is itself simply a surface expression of the underlying process of capital’s own development. Rather than determining capital’s development, as Holloway and Picciotto tried to argue, the class struggle is always and everywhere determined by capital’s own development. But since Marxism is merely the political expression of the proletarian’s own movement, the idea that the political struggle in no way determines the development of capital is hard for Marxists of all variants to swallow.

People really want to believe they can overcome capitalism simply by demonstrating more vociferously, signing more petitions, or voting harder.