Capitalism Without A Capitalist: Why SYRIZA probably will fail

by Jehu

arguing-evangelismThere are two absolutely essential essays drawn from post-war Marxism that are key to understanding why SYRIZA most likely will fail: The first is Robert Kurz’s “Domination without a subject” and Michael A. Lebowitz’s “What Keeps Capitalism Going”.

Kurz explains why what we call Marxism is a reductive critique of the concept of domination  that is incapable of explaining “mature” capitalism:

“One of the favorite terms of leftist social critique, stated with all the thoughtlessness due to the obvious, is that of “domination”. The “rulers” were and still are considered in countless essays and pamphlets as malefactors of vast and universal but vague reach, in an attempt to explain the miseries of capitalist socialization. This framework is retrospectively applied to all of history. In the specifically Marxist jargon this concept of domination is extended by adding the concept of the “ruling class”. In this manner the understanding of domination acquires an “economic basis”. The ruling class is the consumer of surplus value, which it cleverly and perfidiously and, of course, violently, appropriates.

It is immediately apparent that most theories of domination, including the Marxist ones, display a reductive utilitarian approach to the problem. If there is an appropriation of the labor of “others”, if there is social repression, if there is open violence, it is for someone’s use and advantage. Cui bono—this is what the problem is reduced to. A consideration of this kind does not fit with reality. Not even the construction of the pyramids of the ancient Egyptians, which devoured a not-insignificant portion of the surplus product of that society, can be forcefully reduced to a perspective of (purely economic) benefit of a class or caste. The reciprocal massacre of the various “rulers”, for reasons of “honor”, remains notably outside of any simple calculation of utility.”

Lebowitz explains why a close reading of Marx will show capital “produces a worker who looks upon its requirements as ‘self-evident natural laws’?

“When we think about the dependence of the worker on capital, is it difficult to grasp why capitalism keeps going? After all, Marx not only proposed that capitalism “breaks down all resistance” he also went on to say that capital can “rely on his [the worker’s] dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them” (899). Capitalism tends, in short, to produce the workers it needs.”

Both essays go a long way toward explaining why SYRIZA, although it now has in its hands management of the largest single employer in Greece, likely will never consciously exploit this position to advance the emancipation of society from labor.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union — and even before this fall, back to 1914 — Marxism has been gripped in a crisis from  which it cannot extricate itself. That crisis is a political crisis and is very much bound up with the crisis of bourgeois politics itself. But politics is class struggle, or, rather, the class struggle is a political struggle. It follows from this (at least I hope it does) that a crisis of bourgeois politics is also a crisis of the struggle between classes.

The problem is two-fold: On the one hand, if Lebowitz is correct, we have a revolutionary class that looks on the requirements of the capitalist mode of  production as self-evident natural laws. On the other hand, if Kurz is correct, social domination within this mode of production has no subject, no other, no exploiter. Thus, we have a class struggle without a ruling class undertaken by a class that sees its existing material relations of exploitation as self-evident natural laws.

Are Kurz and Lebowitz correct in this extremely pessimistic hypothesis? I only know it goes a long way toward explaining shit. If they are correct, there is no inevitable political emancipation and, for Marxism, the absence of an inevitable political emancipation amounts to the  absence of any possibility of social emancipation. This does not mean a political movement is completely ruled out; only that we cannot assume this movement. It is entirely possible that society might stumble across a solution, but nothing of existing relations makes this stumble inevitable.

It is absolutely impossible for a Marxist to accept the idea a political emancipation of the working class is unlikely. Even Lebowitz, who explained why capital produced the workers it needs, nevertheless argued capitalist crises might be a vehicle  to educate the working class.

“Without question, an economic crisis brings the nature of the economic system to the surface. When there are unemployed people, resources, machinery, and factories—and at the very same time people with the need for those things that could be produced—it is pretty obvious that production in capitalism is not based on human needs but, rather, only on what can be produced for a profit. This is a time when people can be mobilized to question the system. “

And Kurz speculated it might be accomplished by councils, round tables’, and under the threat of economic, social and environmental catastrophe:

“When consciousness and practical social action are no longer subjected to an unconscious form of consciousness and to its objectivized normativity, a new formal determination will no longer be able to arise on this plane. What until then had followed a blind normative mechanism must be transposed to the “conscious consciousness” of men—self-consciousness. Perhaps this transformation would be more easily imagined on the basis of those moments of social reproduction which until now received the name of the “economy”. The social-ecological crisis on the negative terrain and network-thinking on the positive terrain would suggest that interventions in nature and society according to a universally valid principle (money-form, profitability) will no longer be allowed free reign, but will be selected in accordance with social and ecological criteria, taking account of the material content of the intervention and its scope. Such differentiation, which will become inevitable on pain of the increasing threat of catastrophe, can ultimately only be practically realized by way of a direct connection between the social decision-making processes and the material content of reproduction, no longer codified and filtered by an unconscious form. Such a decision-making process naturally requires institutions (“councils”, “round tables” or whatever name they might be given), organized as a totality into a network and (at least in the epoch of the social process of transformation beyond the commodity form) responsible for certain criteria of decision. In the future, one could therefore only speak of a social contract cum grano salis, although the very concept of “contract” constitutes part of the juridical form, and therefore also of the world of the commodity.”

However, in the first instance, who educates the educators; and, in the second, exactly what is to be discussed at these round tables? The educator herself presupposes some process whereby that person acquires a theoretical position outside existing relations; while the round table supposes some definite aim beyond existing relations. The fact that domination can exist without a subject and can appear as valid as natural laws suggests  there is no “outside” or “beyond” existing relations. It is very much like trying to find a position outside the universe from which to observe it: By definition, there is no “position outside the universe” from which to observe it; all observations take place within it.

There would seem to be no solution to this problem except to assume that capital collapses both because there is no subject in its domination and the requirements of the mode appear to be a natural law to the worker. Which is to say, the domination of the worker by capital is her own act and no one else. Now, this proposition is heretical because it explicitly amounts to victim-blaming. Once this ball of yarn comes undone, who knows what sorts of ugly shit gets tangled up in it.

Kurz sensed this in relation to male domination:

“In the same way that the system of commodity production can apparently transform all forms of criticism into commodities and consider them as thus “structurally” inoffensive, so also does the masculine and compulsively heterosexual consciousness of domination, with its obsolete demands of independence and sovereignty, appear to deploy the whole cognitive content of the critique of the structure of the sexes to a higher and more elaborate form of self-affirmation.”

Still, at the risk of being seen to blame the worker alone for her exploitation by the capitalist (the latter who does not even exist), the arguments of both Kurz and Lebowitz imply she is indeed the unconscious agent of her own exploitation. Marx says as much in Wage Labor and Capital, where he writes:

“The labourer seeks to maintain the total of his wages for a given time by performing more labour, either by working a great number of hours, or by accomplishing more in the same number of hours. Thus, urged on by want, he himself multiplies the disastrous effects of division of labour. The result is: the more he works, the less wages he receives. And for this simple reason: the more he works, the more he competes against his fellow workmen, the more he compels them to compete against him, and to offer themselves on the same wretched conditions as he does; so that, in the last analysis, he competes against himself as a member of the working class.”

Marx connects the dots in the puzzle of domination without a subject by a worker who sees the requirements of capital as natural laws. It is the labor of this worker, within the context of a division of labor, who turns her own human capacities against herself. Her activity itself becomes the domination of an apparently alien force over herself. This domination, since it is only her own activity turned back against her through the magic of the division of labor, requires no subject. Which is to say, it does not require that Marxist arch-nemesis of the working class, the capitalist. Long before the capitalist is rendered superfluous by the actual development of the productive forces of capital, he is already irrelevant. If the capitalist plays any role in the social process of reproduction whatsoever, it is solely as the boogeyman that communists use to scare their red diaper babies. Which is to say, as Kurz did, the capitalist serves a purely ideological function — a means to explain what the Marxist cannot.

Now, what does all of this have to do with SYRIZA?

It means SYRIZA will likely fail in its aim to end austerity, but not because it is reformist or a defender of neoliberalism or not KKE or some such silly bullshit. It will fail because it will do what PASOK and New Democracy did before it: try to extract more surplus labor out of the Greece working class — in this case, not to pay Greece’s creditors, but to produce economic growth. Whether you are trying to pay debts to your ‘partners’ or trying to produce economic growth your requirements are the same: You have to squeeze more surplus value out of the working class.

Everyone knows increasing the exploitation of the working class to pay debts is bad. (“Terrible; don’t do it!) On the other hand, increasing the exploitation of the working class to ‘grow the economy’ isn’t even considered exploitation. After all, a growing economy means more wages and more jobs, right? What could possibly be wrong with that? Any worker in her right mind wants a growing economy, because it puts food on the table, makes retirement possible, and pays for healthcare. So, even if SYRIZA breaks with PASOK and New Democracy in paying the creditors first and letting the workers starve, it will not likely break with them when it comes to squeezing more surplus value out of the population.

The only fly in SYRIZA’s ointment for Greece is that, in labor theory, competition with all of its ugly results, begins with labor, not unemployment, and SYRIZA is precisely proposing to increase labor to end unemployment.

Which means, even if SYRIZA is successful beyond our wildest dreams, it will simply be reproducing the exact same conditions that created the present crisis on an even greater scale.