Michael Roberts’ dishonest criticism of Paul Mason

by Jehu

One of the big problems of post-war Marxism has been its inability to incorporate changes in capitalism since Marx and Engels died. This defect of Marxism has recently been highlighted by Michael Roberts’ critique of Paul Mason’s article on what he calls post-capitalism. Paul Mason’s article, “The end of capitalism has begun” can be found here. While Michael Roberts’ reply, “Paul Mason and postcapitalism: utopian or scientific?”, can be found here.

The question raised by Mason’s article and Roberts’ reply is whether there has been a fundamental change in the character of wage labor  following the Great Depression and what, if any, impact this change has on a historical materialist analysis of present society.

The idea that there has been a fundamental change in the character of wage labor after the 1930s will at first seem absurd. Any radical worth her salt will ask: Are workers no longer exploited? Is labor not the only source of value and surplus value? Is capital not the production of surplus value? Indeed, the answers to these questions has not changed since Marx wrote Capital. The worker is exploited, labor is the only source of value and capital is only concerned with the production of surplus value, of profit.

I1191Nevertheless, there has been a change in the character of labor since the Great Depression that post-war Marxism has mostly ignored. That change comes in the form of a growing mass of expended labor that produces no value or surplus value. This change, I would argue, is a new and unprecedented development in society that post-war Marxism neither acknowledges nor understands.

Why post-war Marxism has missed this development is beyond the scope of this article and I will offer no theory for this; however, the fact that post-war Marxism has missed the change is both indisputable and evident in the exchange Roberts has with Mason.

To be sure, when I make the argument that labor has changed after the Great Depression this raises the very real implicit possibility that Marx’s labor theory of value no longer applies to our circumstances. Capital, after all, is about the capitalist mode of production, a form of commodity production, specifically the production of surplus value.

In Capital, Marx is only concerned with labor insofar as this labor is socially necessary, i.e., only insofar as it produces value and surplus value. We know that, from the beginning, Marx specifically states not all labor produces value and thus labor, per se, is not the subject of the book. In Capital, and in labor theory generally, the only labor of concern to Marx is value producing labor. Therefore it is obvious that labor which produces no value does not fall under Marx’s analysis, labor theory does not apply to non-value producing labor.

To the extent our labor produces no value then nothing written in Capital has any applicability to our circumstances.

This is a huge problem for us, because Postone argues non-value producing labor is the inevitable product of capitalist commodity production. Non-value producing labor is itself labor expended beyond that duration materially required for the production surplus value. Following Marx himself, Postone calls this form of labor, superfluous. From the point of view of labor theory this labor in fact does not exist; it cannot be analyzed by the tools provided by labor theory. We cannot say anything about this labor except that it, a. does not produce value, and b. is not materially necessary to society.

But here is a bigger problem: We can’t identify the labor that produces no value, because we cannot identify the labor that produces value. There is no characteristic of any expenditure of useful labor by which we can identify it as value producing labor or non-value producing labor.

In our society today all labor looks alike: an expenditure of abstract, homogenous social labor power of some definite duration, embodied in the product of this labor. In labor theory, every expenditure of this abstract homogenous labor power is exactly identical with every other expenditure.

Since every expenditure of labor is identical, there is no way to tell from any of the particular characteristics of the labor whether it produces value or is superfluous. To give an example: steel production is clearly productive of value. Or is it? If the steel ends up in an aircraft carrier was the labor originally expended on its production a value producing expenditure of labor power? And what of all the variable, fixed and circulating capital that was expended during its production? Was the labor expended on production of all of the inputs into the steel now productive of value or unproductive?

To put this bluntly: The emergence of superfluous labor does not simply imply the emergence of labor that produces no value beside value producing labor, the former fundamentally negates the latter. This is precisely what Michael Roberts misses in his criticism of Paul Mason’s article. You cannot have superfluous labor existing side by side with value producing labor — this is theoretically impossible.

According to Paul Mason, Marx argues

“[Once] knowledge becomes a productive force in its own right, outweighing the actual labour spent   creating a machine, the big question becomes not one of ‘wages versus profits’ but who controls what Marx called the power of knowledge”.

Mason continues,

“In short, [Marx] had imagined something close to the information economy in which we live.  And, he wrote, its existence would “blow capitalism sky high”.”

For some reason, Roberts takes exception to this reading of Marx:

“If you read the Fragment carefully, you can see that Marx is not posing some steady and harmonious development  of a world of abundance through scientific knowledge embodied in an ‘ideal machine’.   Yes, use values will multiply through technological advance, but this creates a contradiction within capitalism that will not disappear gradually.”

Roberts offer a summary of Mason’s argument that very conveniently fails to note all the capitalism blowing up part at the end. Now, I’m not a fan of this article by Mason, but he does offer an adequate summary of Marx’s argument in the fragment that Roberts ignores on a critical point.

One of the things about scientific theories that I love is that they can be disproved. A theory is made for one reason only: to be falsified by actual evidence drawn from life. A theory only has relevance so longs as it cannot be falsified by empirical data. Based on his labor theory of value, in the fragment Marx makes a prediction that cannot be interpreted in any other way than Mason does. The validity of the labor theory of value thus hangs on this prediction, because, if we can disprove it, the entire labor theory of value collapses.

Marx ‘s prediction is much more precise than Mason describes. Marx does not simply predict capitalism will be “blown sky-high” — an ambiguous statement at best — Marx argues a very definite event would occur: The collapse of production on the basis of exchange value.

“As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth,  labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value.  With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of  penury and antithesis.”

What is “production based on exchange value?” Marx is basically predicting market-based production would collapse, right? What is exchange value? Isn’t this commodity money? What is commodity money? Does it not serve as the expression of the values of commodities in exchanges? According to Marx:

“Money as a measure of value, is the phenomenal form that must of necessity be assumed by that measure of value which is immanent in commodities, labour-time.”

In other words, production on the basis of exchange value requires a money commodity to express the values, or socially necessary labor time, contained in commodities. But in the fragment Marx predicts that at some point this system of production based on exchange values must break down or collapse. Thus, Marx’s entire theory can be falsified if it can be shown this event does not happen.

What would happen after production on the basis of exchange value collapsed? Marx could not know, because labor theory cannot predict what happens after labor no longer produces value — and that is just what his prediction states. Exchange value is the phenomenal form of the appearance of value. If there is no exchange value, value effectively no longer exists; which is to say, so far as production is concerned, labor theory has nothing to say.

Why does Roberts deliberately ignore the blowing up part of Mason’s summary? Why does he feel the need to truncate Mason’s argument so as to accuse Mason of expecting  “steady and harmonious development of a world of abundance through scientific knowledge embodied in an ‘ideal machine’.”

Roberts does not do this in order to be faithful to the original text; his aim is much more pernicious. To put it bluntly, Roberts is trying to dismiss the fragment in its entirety and he does in typical post-war Marxist style. First Roberts tells us that Mason, to whatever extent he is correct, is saying nothing new in his argument that Marx did not already argue 160 years ago.

“If Mason is telling us that the development of the productive forces have now created the pre-conditions for a society of abundance  and an end of class exploitation, then that is right but it is nothing new.  It what Marx said 160 years ago.”

This is the sort of completely dishonest statement Marxists make when they cannot dismiss Marx’s argument directly. Instead, they argue, “Oh, Marx made that argument a hundred years ago.” As if fucking Mason did not know that when he quoted Marx.

This is the sort of completely dishonest bullshit Marxists pull on everybody to avoid the discussion. I call it, “The Simpson’s did it” defense. We should ignore someone’s argument based on Marx’s theory because Marx already said that 160 years ago. The sole purpose of the “Simpsons’ Defense” is to distract us from their (Marxists) fundamental disagreement with Marx on the point in question.

Thus, Roberts introduces this dishonest ploy not to confirm Marx’s prediction but to dismiss it. In place of it, he wishes to introduce his own “Marxian” substitute for Marx’s argument, which goes like this:

“It requires the conscious action of labour to reconfigure “the social infrastructure”,  as Mason calls it, to “make a fundamental change in what governments do”.  Without that, ‘postcapitalism’ will remain a utopian dream.”

Now, please look at my quote from the fragment above.

  • In the fragment, does Marx ever mention the working class?
  • Does he ever mention “conscious action”?
  • Does he ever mention “fundamental change of government”?
  • Does he ever mention “the social infrastructure”?

Where , in God’s name, is Roberts getting this bullshit from? What the fuck is he reading? It sure ain’t the fragment, which mentions none of those things. In typical dishonest, sleazy, Marxist fashion, Roberts first dismisses Marx’s own argument as “nothing new” and then goes on to substitute his own argument in its place.

By and large I like Roberts, but this shit blog post is just unacceptable.