For the Left a society without labor is the only real catastrophe
At first I didn’t know what to make of this alien ecologies post “The New Prometheans: Technology and the Dreams of Reason”. On twitter, the author, S. C. Hickman subtitles the post, “Reconstructing Communism in an Age of Despair”; the post draws on Brassier’s argument that “we can try to reexamine the philosophical foundations of a Promethean project that is implicit in Marx – the project of re-engineering ourselves and our world on a more rational basis”
An argument like this gets my spider sense tingling, but I didn’t exactly know why at first. What sets it tingling, I finally decided, is the notion Hickman points to of the two paths that society’s future might take.
“One aspect [Brassier] did not go into in depth was the two paths of bifurcations upon which such a future might take. He mentions the capitalist view of those such as Ray Kurzweil and others who invest in a future that would reengineer society based on a transhumanist project in which AI, Cloning, More-than-human biotechnologically enhanced humans might transcend current humanity allowing for a new class division of those who would become superior in intellect and physical capacities, while others would be disposed into ‘zones of exclusion’ much like our slum-worlds that Mike Davis and others have already documented so well.”
This is, of course, the information age take on Luxemburg’s “Socialism or Barbarism”, updated to include the potential negative effects of the most recent frontiers of science and technology. In Luxemburg’s time, the prospect of industrial scale wars and atrocities loomed over mankind as the so-called Great Powers sought to redivide the world among themselves. Today, this choice between socialism and barbarism has been extended to include biotechnologically enhanced humans who would become superior in intellect and physical capacities to all the rest of us poor working class slobs.
One of my problems with this is that the “Socialism or Barbarism” approach of the Left has been a pure and simple failure when it comes to motivating fundamental social change. No one is convinced by the phrase nor does anyone — including the Left — actually believe society gets to make a choice between two potential futures. It really comes down to the Left appearing to cry wolf again and again:
“Vote for the Left or capitalism will starve you.”
This argument has never been shown to move a single vote in any election, nor to increase the political strength of the Left generally. If fact, it looks increasingly as self-serving as the four decades of Democrat Party pedestrian warnings that the next election, if won by the GOP, will effectively abolish a woman’s right to choose and [insert your hot button issue here].
It has been 100 years since Luxemburg offered her choice to society, yet, so far as I can tell, no Leftist seriously believes society chose barbarism in the interim. So, what happened to forestall barbarism in the intervening period? Are you going to tell me that 100 years later we still face the same future choice between socialism or barbarism that we did in Luxemburg’s day?
Frankly, did we ever actually come to a fork in the road where society had to choose? And how different would the world look today if at that famous fork in the road society chose barbarism, not socialism? To put this bluntly, why should the working class not just assume the Left is talking the same bullshit as it did 100 years ago?
“Vote for the Left or you’re all going to die!!!”
In 1930, Keynes was predicting the demise of the “old Adam” and a morality of accumulation. Everyone was excited by the prospect of less work in the 1930s — not just as a long term project but as an immediate answer to the Great Depression unemployment. No one thought 80 years in future people would still be working the hours they did then for less wages and still facing massive unemployment. Barbarism in Keynes’ day wasn’t the extinction of the species; it was labor that never ends.
Suppose that in 1930, in response to Keynes’s article, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, the Left, instead of prophesying the extinction of all human life, had simply written this modest response to Keynes:
“If you don’t vote communist, not only will you not work less, eighty years from now your grandchildren will work longer hours than you do for less pay than you get now.”
Today Hickman speaks of a barbarism composed of two classes: one bioengineered enhanced, the other locked in zones of exclusion. However, this nightmare scenario overlooks the nature of the capitalist mode of production, which is the production of surplus value. I could easily imagine another outcome: We are all enhanced so that we can work well into our 90s, producing surplus value for the capitalist class? How about making available technology that extends the average life-span of the wage worker, so that his children instead of working 50 years at present can be forced to labor 70, 80 even 100 years cranking out surplus value?
Isn’t this already the point of Social Security and pension “reform” measures?
Assume that in the future, we are all enhanced. An extended life-span isn’t just a prohibitively expensive commodity available only to the very wealthy, but has trickled down to the wage slaves of the mid-2000s. What is the result? Our life as workers is extended solely to extend the mass of surplus value we can create for the wealthy.
Seen from this alternate future, where everyone can afford a longer life, Hickman’s argument looks a lot like 20th AFL-CIO trade unionists arguing for their fair share of the eugenics pie: if the rich will live longer, why can’t the wages slaves live longer too?
Now, wouldn’t that boost economic growth?
Hickman makes this argument that I find particularly disturbing:
“The Left during the twentieth-century broke away from Marx’s basic economic insights of the Industrial political economy and machinic civilization and turned toward Culture.”
He argues this was not a terrible mistake, but did lose sight of his original vision. Frankly, I am not sure what Hickman means by this statement. In my view, Marx’s basic economic insight was that the production of material wealth had nothing at all to do with human labor. Human labor was not necessary for the production of material wealth in Marx’s ‘basic economic insights’.
Human labor was necessary for only one thing: the production of exchange value.
This is Marx’s basic economic insight and the one explicitly rejected by 20th century Leftism. And, unfortunately, it nowhere finds its way into what Hickman calls his base set of issues, which is the most bizarre thing to me, since each of his base set of issues are only symptoms of a society founded on value production, on labor.
The Left is lost today because it focuses on neoliberalism and completely ignores labor time; its idea of fundamental change is entirely superficial — a change of faces or parties in power. Labor time is not just another issue beside all the issues the Left thinks are really important; it is the only issue facing the working class.
Even changing which class holds power has no real impact on society as has been shown by the Soviet experience.
The aim of taking power is not for the working class to hold power, but to put an end to the working class; to abolish labor. The Left has had more than 100 years to figure this out and has so far not done so — and it will never figure it out. All political action by the radical Left and by every other party in society is aimed at preventing labor from going away. To lose labor as the organizing principle of society is seen by the Left and every other party in society as a catastrophe.