Endnotes 4: Trying to dazzle us with bullshit

by Jehu

I have been reading Endnotes 4, when I came across an argument by the collective in Part 3 on why the industrial working class never became the majority of society and how this led to the failure of the working class movement. The argument the collective makes has my mind twisting:

“Revolutionaries’ belief that trends would continue to move in their favour was enshrined in the policy of abstentionism. Social Democratic parties became the largest factions in parliaments, even if they remained in the minority; but those parties abstained from participating in government. They refused to rule alongside their enemies, choosing instead to wait patiently for their majority to arrive: ‘This policy of abstention implied enormous confidence in the future, a steadfast belief in the inevitable working-class majority and the ever-expanding power of socialism’s working-class support.’ But that inevitability never came to pass.”

industrial_revolutionSo, the workers’ parties expected that a working class majority would soon arrive and produce a majority in favor of socialism. Is this the argument the Endnotes collective is trying to make? If true, where did this belief in inevitability go wrong?

What happened, according to the Endnotes collective, is that the working class met its external limit of growth long before it became a majority of society:

“The industrial workers never became the majority of society: “Even as industrial labour reached its furthest extent, long-term restructuring was already tipping employment toward white-collar and other jobs in services.” That was the movement’s external limit: it was always too early for the workers’ movement, and when it was not too early, it was already too late.”.

I haven’t any idea what that is supposed to mean, or what the collective thinks it signifies for Marxist theory. If the industrial working class was supposed to become the majority of society, why didn’t this happen? Mind you, I am not taking exception with the idea the industrial working class never became the majority of society, but I am asking for a clear theoretical explanation for why this occurred. It would seem Marxists of the day expected the industrial working class eventually would become the majority of society, but this did not happen for some as yet unexplained reason.

The explanation the Endnotes collective offers is that the industrial working class did not become the majority of society because of “the obstinate continuance of peasants in the countryside, and in the tenacious holding-on of artisans and small shopkeepers in cities.”

Pardon me, but, in my humble opinion this is not a credible explanation — it is bullshit. I want to hear the Endnotes collective explain to us how Marx got it so completely wrong, since he clearly expected the whole of the peasantry to go away eventually.

It would seems to me we have a chance to make some new science, but the Endnotes collective wants to offer us nonsense like this, “The co-existence of massive factories and small shops was not a bug, but rather, a permanent feature of the system.”

This statement is too cute by half — far from what we should expect from a collective of Marxist theorists. Seriously, is the Endnotes collective saying capitalism doesn’t work the way we think it does? The assertion capitalism does not abolish smallholders would be major news to most Marxists. However, since we cannot argue with the data, which indeed shows the persistence of small producers, this would seem to require an explanation consistent with historical materialism and, if at all possible, with the labor theory of value.

Once they get past their cutesy answer that the limitation on the size of the industrial proletariat is a feature of capitalism and not a bug, the collective asserts that rising productivity of labor reduced the demand for labor while greatly increasing output. As demand for labor fell, productivity increased and output increased still faster. For some (unexplained) reason, in the second half of the 20th century productivity still continued to increase, but aggregate output now also began to fall. As output fell, the decline of employment accelerated, presenting what the Endnotes collective argues is the “real limits to the workers’ power.”

An interesting hypothesis, but here is my problem with it: The Endnotes collective is adding nothing new to the discussion. We already knew the demand for labor would eventually fall. And we already knew the smallholders did not go away quietly.

The question is this: If, as the Endnotes collective believes, the demand for labor was falling during this period, why didn’t hours of labor fall with it? Why was it that instead of hours of labor falling, industrial employment began to collapse and small producers were able to cling to a place in the economy?

The answer offered by Endnotes collective seems to be:

“[In] spite of the fact that more and more of the world’s population was made dependent on the wage […] for the most part, this wage-earning population did not find work in industry. The appearance of factories in some places did not presage their appearance everywhere: ‘Dynamism actually required backwardness in [a] dialectic of dependency.’ The success of the workers’ movement — in single-industry towns, or industrial cities — was not the realisation of the future in the present. ”

What utter bullshit. You mean to tell me that you folks at Endnotes can’t do any better than this horseshit?

Okay, then tell me this: For what class did dynamism require backwardness? And what do you mean by “dynamism”?  Don’t you mean the production of surplus value? Which means, we can restate your argument this way:

“The production of surplus value produced a very large population of workers who could not find productive employment in industry.”

Didn’t Marx argue the falling rate of profit produced a mass of excess capital and a surplus population of workers? Didn’t this ultimately result in the Great Depression and the breakdown of production on the basis of exchange value – just a Marx had predicted decades before it happened? In other words, to maintain overly long hours of labor in industry in the face of rising productivity, didn’t capital required a growing mass of employed labor that produced nothing.

The Endnotes collective is basically trying to turn a strategic failure of the workers movement to reduce hours of labor into its opposite: “the obstinate continuance of peasants in the countryside, and in the tenacious holding-on of artisans and small shopkeepers in cities.” But the peasants resistance to proletarianization had nothing whatsoever to do with the problem.

This was a failure of the working class parties and them alone.

Indeed, in the middle of the Great Depression, even a bourgeois simpleton economist like Keynes had already identified the problem of the crisis as one where the rise in productivity was outpacing new needs for social labor. He argued society would require a reduction of hours of labor to ration the jobs that remained. And decades before this Marx had already observed that capitalism was headed into a crisis where,

“not enough means of production are produced to permit the employment of the entire able-bodied population under the most productive conditions, so that their absolute working period could be shortened by the mass and effectiveness of the constant capital employed during working-hours.

The problem was already known in the literature for decades and did not suddenly appear out of nowhere. Why then, at the depths of the Great Depression, did the workers’ parties in Germany and elsewhere not fight to reduce hours of labor? For one thing, historical evidence supports the view that they clearly did not think Keynes’ inflationary expansion made sense. But what alternative did they propose for the massive unemployment, except waiting it out and hoping for the next expansion?

For the Endnotes collective to now come behind the failed workers’ parties and explains stagnation of the productive forces as the result of obstinate peasants is, quite simply, utter nonsense.