Frederick Harry Pitts and the New Reading of Marx

by Jehu

Frederick Harry Pitts has produced a paper, Beyond the Fragment: The Postoperaist Reception of Marx’s Fragment on Machines, that disputes the idea that changes in the mode of production lead to the breakdown of production based on exchange value and communism. Pitts asserts that, when Marx’s criticism of political-economy is understood as a critical theory of society, it does not predict the breakdown of exchange value. He admits his assertion has implications for radical politics today.

In his introduction Pitts argues that, although intended to be a weapon in the hands of the workers, the impact of Marx’s labor theory of value has been at best ambiguous:

“Marx’s value theory has for some time struggled against its adherents. Weaponised for worker power, its analysis wavers. Traditionally, it has been taken to theorise the link between expended labour-time and surplus-value. The rendition goes something like this. Workers, with every hour, create value. Part of this is necessary for the worker. What is not, accrues as surplus to the capitalist. Read this way, it wielded a long but limited efficacy in mobilising workers politically. Or, at least, it falsely reassured them they were more powerful than they were in reality.”

The theory, Pitts says, has been read as demonstrating that the worker is exploited, but its use for this purpose has been limited. However, two new revisionist readings of Capital have emerged that challenges the traditional interpretation of Capital: “Post-workerism” and “New Reading”.

I don’t have the least bit interest in any revisionist reading of Marx’s theory, so I will ignore Pitt’s take on them, however, I do want to examine Pitts’ own attempts to summarize what he thinks is Marx’s original argument that must be revised. So far, we have been told two things: first, Marx’s argument in the fragment contradicts his argument in Capital. Second, Marx’s argument in Capital details the exploitation of workers and conveys a false assessment of workers capacity to fight back.

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Let me just say that Pitts second argument is the most far-fetched reading of Capital I have ever come across. We are supposed to believe Marx devoted his entire life to demonstrating the worker is exploited and that this demonstration took three or more volumes — and, moreover, was still incomplete when he died. That’s a lot of proof for a proposition that was mostly uncontroversial in Marx’s own lifetime. In reality Marx was just another in a very long line of classical economists for whom this assumption was the starting point of analysis of the capitalist mode of production.

The problem this very long line of economists ran into was that they couldn’t explain, on the basis of the assumption that labor was the source of profit, why this did not lead to its collapse. The logic of the capitalist mode of production is that overproduction of commodities is the aim of the capitalists, but, as we all know, overproduction of commodities leads to crises and collapse of production. How did a mode of production whose logic violated its premise manage to not only survive but thrive in these conditions?

The exploitation of the worker plays a necessary role in this discussion but the worker herself never actually makes significant appearance in Marx’s theory. Far from Capital “[reassuring] them they were more powerful than they were in reality”, Marx almost entirely ignores the workers except as the source of surplus value. At no point in the entire three volumes of Capital does the working class have any significant role to play in the process Marx describes; which is to say, Marx abstracts the process he is describing completely from the class struggle. Politics, the state, classes, etc. have no role whatsoever in the process of capitalistic accumulation as described in Capital.

Which means Pitts’ simplistic summary of Capital in his introduction must be wrong about is argument. In his introduction, Pitts takes three heavy volumes of Marx’s life work and reduces it to a meaningless caricature. He then makes this caricature the object of dispute between the “post-workerist” and “new reading” schools. Interestingly enough, however, is that, in order to reduce Capital to this meaningless caricature, Pitts has to argue that the fragment on the machine is an orphan detached from Marx’s life work, Capital.

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Michael Heinrich has already pioneered this approach by arguing the fragment was nothing more than a blunder wherein Marx makes a mechanical connection between crises and proletarian political revolution. So impressed by the revolutionary events of 1848 and the coincidence of those events with the outbreak of a crisis, says Heinrich, Marx indulged in wishful thinking:

“In the Grundrisse, the theory of crisis bears the stamp of the expected ‘deluge’ that Marx wrote about in his letters. In an early draft for the structure of the manuscript, crises come at the end of the presentation, after capital, the world market, and the state, where Marx fashions a direct connection to the end of capitalism: ‘Crises. Dissolution of the mode of production and form of society based upon exchange value.'”

Of course, the briefest examination of Marx’s argument in the fragment will show that there too the proletariat makes no appearance. Marx’s argument does not in any way suggest a collapse of production based on exchange arises from any cause than capital itself. In this respect, the argument in Capital is identical with the argument in the fragment — no class struggle, no banners, no barricades.

It is almost as if, there is no working class at all in Marx’s analysis of capitalist society. Almost! In fact we know the proletarians are necessary to the description because labor is the only source of value and surplus value. What Marx is describing is a process in which there is no class struggle because there are no capitalists. It has long been argued that, in Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production, the worker can be both the source of surplus value and the capitalist.

There is no class struggle in Capital because in the process Marx is describing only the worker is necessary. The role of the capitalist in Marx’s analysis can be filled by any number of successive personifications. How little the class struggle plays a role in Marx’s analysis is shown by the fact that he could have written the entire book in such a way that only an abstract social relation — capital — dominates the workers.

You have to question a reading of Capital that is as political as the one Pitts gives us when the case for a political reading is this thin. It is not that Capital exaggerates the power of the proletariat so much as it assumes they are powerless against it. Once you accept the notion that the proletariat is powerless against capital, the question becomes where is this relation headed? This is the question Marx’s addresses in chapter 32 of Capital, v1.

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Capital, says Marx, is on a trajectory headed toward the abolition of capitalist private property. As Marx describes this process, there is no class struggle and no appearance by the working class or its struggle for political power. Capital decomposes existing society top to bottom, expropriating the individual producers, reducing them to proletarians and concentrating their property in its hands. Having accomplished this primitive accumulation, capitals now turn on each other leading to the expropriation of many capitalists by few”: “[Capitalist] production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation.”

In Capital, Marx describes an autonomous process that is not the result of conscious action on the part of individuals. The result of this process is already given in the social relation itself. It is possible to dispute Marx’s claim here, as both “post-workerism” and “new reading” do, but it would help us all if you at least got his argument correct while you were doing this.

If we place the fragment and Capital side by side, we find essentially the same process being described. In the fragment, the progressive reduction of the employment of labor in production reaches a limit where material wealth can no longer be measured by the living labor expended on its production. Production based on exchange value (on labor) breaks down, because the application of human labor in production has become negligible. At the same time, the reduction of the values of commodities drives first the individual producers and then capitals themselves into bankruptcy.

Thus, side by side with the reduction of the values of commodities, there is the concentration of ever larger masses of capital into fewer hands. The collapse of production based on exchange value is thus, at the same time, the abolition of capitalist private property. There is no contradiction whatsoever between the argument Marx makes in the fragment and his argument in Capital. Both arguments suggest the capitalist mode of production is headed towards a collapse.

If this is not clear enough, the literature up until the 1930s is precisely a debate over this very prediction among classical Marxists. The question under debate is not whether Marx’s theory makes the prediction of a capitalist collapse, but whether he was correct in his conclusion. Did the capitalist mode of production have to collapse or not? No one in that debate, on either side, argued Marx was simply describing how the working class was exploited.

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