Marxists desperately need a new vision for the future
Given its ultimate result, this may sound bizarre, but I think Marxists need their own Manhattan Project for the 21st century. Rather than aiming to level cities, this project will openly aim for the complete automation of production and the complete elimination of wage labor.
A global movement that sets this almost inconceivable aim will capture the imagination of humanity and it is likely the only thing that can put communism back on the agenda in the advanced countries.
Here is the problem: Capitalism naturally reduces the need for labor, but in the worse possible way. Under capitalism free time takes the form of unemployment and poverty for the workers. In other words, capitalism creates the material conditions for communism, but in a way that benefits the most wealthy members of society. Communism is free time and nothing else, but under capitalism workers experience this free time in the form of unemployment — free time in the form of unemployment means the working class are utterly cut off from the means of life.
In one way or another, today everybody is trying to figure out how to stop this, with policy proposals ranging from “green investment” to jobs guarantees to basic income to opposition to TPP. People focus on the symptoms of wage labor, unemployment and poverty, while ignoring the thing that is actually creating the unemployment and poverty in the first place, wage labor.
Workers experience free time as poverty and unemployment only because they must sell their labor power to get the means to life. So long as wage labor exists unemployment and poverty will exist. Wage labor turns what should be an exciting future into a dystopian nightmare. The natural impulse of capitalism — abolishing the need for labor and making possible the conditions for a society of freely associated individuals — is turned into a horrific vision of billions cut off from all means to life.
Rather than getting rid of wage labor, people spend time trying to figure out how it can be reformed so as to eliminate poverty and unemployment. They think they can fix it by handing out cash or getting the state to give everyone a job, invest in infrastructure, etc.
Here is the thing: For millennia the wealthiest members of society have lived without labor, and never once complained about not having a job.
A job is not necessary to life, it is a deliberate imposition on the majority of society to extract wealth. Today, we live in a time where it is completely possible to really have a society where, for the first time in human history, no one has to work; where everyone can enjoy what only the wealthy have enjoyed for millennia.
The idea of a society where no one has to work seems delusional to most people, but so was the idea of people walking on the moon or being able to level an entire city simply by splitting a particle so tiny no one could see it.
To create a society without labor, we have to embrace what Marx called capitalism’s tendency “towards an absolute development of the productive forces, which continually come into conflict with the specific conditions of production in which capital moves, and alone can move.”
Marx’s argument here, as odd as it might sound, is that all we have to do to create a society without labor is remove the barriers to capitalism’s own tendency in that direction.
This sounds insanely creepy, I know. Communists calling for removal of all barriers to capitalism’s development? Really? You want more capitalism? How can you call yourself a communist?
However, the barriers to capitalism’s development are nothing more than its increasingly outmoded relations of production. The barrier to capital, says Marx, is capital itself. In practical terms, Marx’s argument suggests the more you reduce wage labor, the more absolute capital’s tendency to develop the productive forces becomes.
The interesting thing is that I have never once read a single Marxist who suggests the capitalist tendency toward absolute development of the productive forces can be harnessed to abolish capitalism. The discourse among communists today is entirely focused on concepts like “resistance to capitalism” or that abysmal term “anti-capitalism”.
In Marx’s theory, however, capitalism is already its own anti-capitalism.
That is what Marx means when he says capital runs into its own specific conditions of production. If you uproot the specific conditions of capitalist production, the tendency toward absolute development of the productive forces becomes a law, not just a mere tendency.
I have said this before, but let me repeat it: among communists only Nick Land gets this. To kill capitalism, you only have to remove the barriers to development of the productive forces that capitalism throws up in its own path. The rest of post-war communism reacts in complete horror at the very idea of doing this, as if Land is saying something terrible. Marxists’ horror with Nick Land extends even to his idea all of humanity will be removed from the productive forces.
As if our aim in social emancipation is to be mere instruments (a ‘substrate’, as Ray Brassier calls it) for production of use values.
The specific historical condition of capital is wage labor. The contradiction lying at the heart of capital is that it seeks to abolish wage labor, while retaining value as measure of social wealth. Thus, capital seeks to abolish wage labor, but, at the same time, is forced to expand wage labor because it is the sole source of capitalist social wealth.
To interrupt this process of capitalist social wealth production, you need only prevent the further expansion of the absolute duration of wage labor. Capital inherently responds to a progressive limit on labor time by trying to accelerate the development of the productive forces, as it does in every crisis. The aim of this accelerated development is to increase the relative portion of the labor day during which surplus value is created.
If the absolute labor time of society cannot increase, capital must attempt to increase the relative portion of the labor day devoted to unpaid labor. In the long run capital can only do this by developing the productive forces and reducing still further that amount of living labor used in production of commodities.
Thus, it is possible to force capital toward absolute development of the productive forces simply by reducing absolute labor time available for production of capitalist social wealth.
This, mind you, is not fucking rocket science; Marx already did the rocket science part. All we have to do is the part where we understand what the fuck he wrote.
A Manhattan Project for complete automation of production, therefore, simply consists of progressively reducing the absolute length of the labor time of society; capital does the rest of the heavy lifting by developing the productive forces.
Marx left communists with a clear easily understandable road map for complete abolition of labor in our society. We have instead used his legacy for its exact opposite, to use the state to prevent labor from ever going away. Millions of words and hundreds of books written by Marxists are devoted to saving wage labor, but nothing to abolishing it.
You would think it was impossible to abolish labor, and indeed most Marxists will admit this if asked; yet, they exert an amazing amount of energy trying to prevent labor from going away.
If labor is not going away because of automation, why do Marxists spend so much time thinking up ways to prevent it going away? Why do they spend so much time talking about how the state can create new investment in “green jobs” and the like? Why do they spend so much time on schemes like jobs guarantees and basic income if labor is not going away?
They spend an inordinate amount of time on ideas to prevent or compensate for jobs going away and then they swear labor is not going away.
We can do better than this.