First we get the power, then we get … Oops!

by Jehu

Okay, now what?

scarface_17Citizen CoKane always has relevant comments to my blog that put me on the spot:

His question this time is what are workers in Greece supposed to do when their counterparts in Germany appear to be complacent, even indifferent to their plight? The workers of Greece clearly can’t overthrow capitalism worldwide all by themselves and the rest of Europe seems paralyzed at best. I reproduce his comment in its entirety:

True, there is no “Greek working class,” but we CAN talk of “the portion of the worldwide working class that happens to find itself in Greece.”

For that portion of the working class in Greece, what are they supposed to do, given that the portion of the working class that happens to live in Germany is clearly not prepared to stand together with them against capital? What are Greek workers supposed to do?

Capital has an answer that will provide most of them with temporary survival, albeit at a lower standard of living: make yourself available to world capital at lower wages for longer hours. Yes, this will just create more overproduction and kick the can down the road so that there will come a time where Greeks or other workers will be asked to make even more cuts in the future, but it will provide temporary survival.

I don’t see that you or anyone else on the left (including those pandering to fascism as you so rightly called out) has an answer that will allow them to survive. You say, have the Greek government buy out Greek capital, employ Greeks, reduce their hours, and spread the work around (profits be damned). How will the Greek government pay for this buyout? And, if profits be damned, how will Greece import enough of the essentials it can get only through imports?

It would be great if human beings could divorce their consciousnesses from their bodily functions at will. That is to say, it would be great if we could allow our physical bodies to die without ending our existence. This would allow us to behave more like capital. If we saw no profit in selling labor power, we could stop being in the business of producing labor power—i.e. we could choose not to sustain our physical bodies—until market conditions improved, and then once the owners of capital were willing to negotiate a better deal where we got some of the surplus value, we could “go back into the business of producing labor power” and sell it for a profit (rather than at-cost as we do so today). We would feel free to go on strike at any time, not just collectively, but even individually. But sadly, our consciousnesses are tied up with our continual production of labor power, so there is a limit to the heroics that we may perform. My point is, there is a limit to the heroics that we may reasonably expect the Greeks to perform when their survival is on the line.


Reducing hours, CoKane rightly notes, also reduces profits and promises only to bring capitalist production to a halt. What happens to imports? How will the working class of Greece eat if they cannot sell their labor power? I think all of these points are extremely important, because the problems Greece faces are unprecedented in three ways: First, the Left has never had to face the problem of class struggle in a completely open economy; no one has given the problem any thought. Second, the Left has devoted almost no discussion to the problem of the working class strategy when political power is meaningless. Third, the Left has given very little thought to the role labor plays as a weapon in the struggle against capital.

The Left’s strategy has looked something like this:

  1. First we get the power.
  2. Then we get the money.
  3. Full Communism

Point 1, power, of course, is political power; the proletariat raises itself to position of the ruling class. Point 2, money, as I am using it here, simply means control of the productive forces and can be extended to include the Leninist focus on getting control also of the factories and machines. If you are a Keynesian, money is enough; but Leninists emphasize the need to get all the forces under our control. Point 3 — “…” — means there is this somewhat undefined period, where we do some stuff — although no one has any real idea what it is. Whatever “…” is, after doing it for some undefined period of time, we get full communism, i.e., the end of labor, property and the state.

This, fortunately, was enough to carry us through most of the 20th century; all we had to focus on was how to accomplish step 1. Some sections of the class happily got to step 1 and even step 2. There was a problem with all of this, because we knew this was not enough — everyone had to get at least to step 2 to do step 3 together. Thus, folks who had already accomplished steps 1 and 2, languished waiting for everyone else to catch up.

This year, however, SYRIZA got to step 1 and found, much to everyone’s dismay, that step 1 is now completely meaningless in the eurozone. The workers of Greece got the power, but, for some odd reason, the power turned out to be an illusion. A very large group of folks on the Left — basically everyone except SYRIZA voters — warned SYRIZA it had to get the money. But SYRIZA’s voters did not want the money, they wanted to be a part of the EU and were not persuaded by argument to the contrary. The SYRIZA voters wanted to be part of a massive free trade zone that included a quarter of global GDP and has this highest standard of living on the planet. A free trade zone that workers from all over the world literally risk not only their own lives, but even the lives of their children to reach.

Here is the problem: Although the Left has known this to be true for decades, they never planned for it. They never said to themselves,

“What do we do if people don’t want to leave the euro? How do we use the political power we have won?”

Instead, the Left — being the Left, i.e., imbeciles — simply continued on a path that had to end in a catastrophe. The Left knew they would not have control of the currency, and they knew control of the currency was in the hands of the sworn enemies of the working class. But did this give them pause? Did this spark a discussion of how this inevitable impasse could be addressed? Well, we are talking about the Left, aren’t we? A group that has never met a defeat it did not cheerfully, even dogmatically, embrace.

So, SYRIZA finally got to step 1 and found it was meaningless because its entire strategy depended on the money controlled by the sworn enemies of the working class. The Left now holds power in a situation where power is meaningless, a mere formality, since the money, which was always its real objective, is controlled by the enemy.

Here is he thing: No one on the Left reads Marx any more, especially the first three chapters of Capital. If they did, they would know that money is only the phenomenal form of the expression of value. And they would know that value itself is only socially necessary labor time; which is to say, absent labor, money is just so much metal or paper.

Labor is a weapon in the class struggle

I don’t know about you, but I can’t eat metal or paper. However my labor can provide me everything I need to live. Moreover, my labor has this magical capacity to turn metal and paper into real capital. Our labor has been used effectively as a weapon against capital for more than one hundred years. Even if the political power of the working class could not seize the currency, it can be employed to manage our labor time. But, recall, our labor time is what creates value, whose phenomenal expression is the money we can’t get our hands on. Thus, even if we cannot get our hands directly on the money (step 2), we can still get our hands on the only thing that can turn money into capital.

Now this is no great revelation to anyone; we have always withheld our labor until our demands were met. However, for some reason, once a Left party gets its hands on the formal power of the existing state this weapon is immediately discarded. This is always how it happens and should be no surprise to anyone — remember, the Left are imbeciles

Well, in this particular case — Greece — getting our hands on the formal power of the state has proved meaningless. Not only does control of the state confer no real power on SYRIZA, but it has turned the SYRIZA government into an instrument of austerity. Mind you, this is not the first time this has happened: the GM and Boeing workers’ own unions was forced into the same position. SYRIZA is just another in a long, almost unbroken, series of defeats the working class movement has suffered since its inception. Moreover, everyone already knew the decisive battle between labor and capital will not be fought in Greece.

SYRIZA has gained at least the formality of existing state power, but the working class cannot emancipate itself in Greece alone. How does the working class survive both physically and otherwise with the working class of Germany and France apparently indifferent to its fate? The working class has reached step 1, but there it is stuck. In place of step 2 — “Get the money” — I would suggest SYRIZA use its formal legal powers to reduce hours of labor.

SYRIZA has a lot of room to maneuver on this point precisely because Greece is one of less developed countries in the EU. A unit of GDP in Greece requires almost 50% more labor than it does in Germany or the Netherlands. This is the real plum in Greece that IMF austerity is aimed to capture. If necessary labor time can be reduce to Germany’s level, a massive deposit of surplus value can be produced. The IMF aims to reduce necessary labor time in Greece to Germany’s level so as to increase profit.

This process begins with slashing wages and increasing still further hours of labor by extending the retirement age and other measures. SYRIZA has the power to combat this strategy by just reducing hours of labor in way that does not increase profits. The IMF has proposed to reduce only necessary labor; Syriza should respond by reducing all labor.

Reducing hours of labor reduces production prices

CoKane has a problem with this: “if profits be damned, how will Greece import enough of the essentials it can get only through imports?” This argument is based on the widely held fallacy that less labor in production increases the prices of commodities; a fallacy that I emphatically reject. In fact less labor forces a reduction in the prices of commodities.

The key to understanding how is this: the production price of every commodity equals c+v+s, where “c” is non-labor inputs, “v” is wages, and “s” is the average profit. Assuming profit falls to zero, reducing hours of labor lowers the price of the commodity from c+v+s, to c+v+0, or simply c+v. As counterintuitive as this seems, less labor in production actually reduces the cost of commodities rather than increasing them.

If I give actual hypothetical values to the above formula, c+v+s, such that “c” = 2 hours, “v” = 4 hours and “s” = 4 hours, the production price of the commodity equals 2+4+4, or ten hours, reducing hours of labor from 10 hours to 6, will bring “s” to zero, but will also bring the production prices of the commodities to 6.

Of course, capitalist production will naturally halt at the point where s = 0 and this will cause a crisis. However, for the social producers, s = 0 forms no obstacle to their management of production, since they do not live off the labor of others. They can produce even when s = 0 and thus can lower their prices well below capitalists producers. No capitalist firm can produce competitively with a firm managed directly by the social producers provided they are equally equipped. And this is predicted by Marx’s transformation function which demonstrates v+s can never be equal to v, i.e., production for profit can never be as cost efficient as cooperatively managed production.

Which means, if all of those factories in the hands of KKE-led unions were converted into cooperatives, managed by the workers, in theory they should easily be competitive with capitalistically run firms in the European Union. SYRIZA has the power both to reduce hours of labor generally and to seize these factories by “eminent domain” from their owners.

How would this work?

Hypothetically, the owners could be issued bonds paying some low rate of interest for some definite period of time — thus converting their equity ownership into debt. This was similar to what happened at GM and is nothing particularly difficult to arrange. The firms would become the common property of society and the workers would assume the function of management in trustee for the whole community.

Of course, how this scheme works in practice is not my concern here, since it will necessarily depend on events on the ground. I only want to show that by controlling its own labor, the working class can set in motion events that must lead to abolition of capital. Yes, SYRIZA does not control the currency, but the working class controls its own labor power that, alone, can turn the euro into capital.

Control of our labor power is not just a weapon to be used in strikes, or even for political aims — as in a general strike — it can, at least in theory, be a means of capturing all the forces of production in society.