The Real Movement

Communism is free time and nothing else!

Month: May, 2017

Making a Marxian labor theory case for an accelerationist strategy

I have been spending some time discussing the concept of accelerationism as developed by Nick Land. I think it is a really useful idea that communists should embrace. Yet, I have failed to do one important thing: show why the case for Land’s acceleration is an essential component of Marx’s own approach to class struggle. Let me address this flaw today.

I have argued that there is a case for an accelerationist strategy to be found in Marx’s own labor theory. This should be no surprise, since we all know that, as early as the Communist Manifesto, Marx proposed that the proletariat should seize state power and undertake measures to speed up development of the productive forces of social labor. As far as I can tell, almost all accelerationists and even their opponents trace the idea of accelerationism to Marx for this reason.

I am going to divide this discussion of the case for Nick Land’s concept of accelerationism into five pertinent questions that I hope will serve to illustrate my argument that Marx’s labor theory of value supports the case for what might be called, “Left” accelerationism.  By the term, “Left accelerationism,” I mean a working class strategy to speed up capitalist development with an eye to achieving communism in as short a time period as possible. In the final section I will draw some conclusions regarding the implications of such a strategy.

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Reading Land’s Accelerationism Through Marx’s Labor Theory of Value

Excellent piece on accelerationism by Nick Land has been published by Urbanomics, “A Quick-and-Dirty Introduction to Accelerationism.”

I think Land’s article is a “must read’ if you want to understand the thinking behind the idea of accelerationism. But more than this, I think Land makes a good case for why you have to be familiar with his ideas if you call yourself a communist.

Accelerationism is not a term accelerationists gave their ideas. Rather, it was a derogatory name given to them by their critics, like the name, “Nigger”, was given to black people by their slave-owners. In place of the term “accelerationists”, you can simply substitute the term, “niggers”, and thus treat them in the fashion Noys intended.

But to understand the thinking behind accelerationism, I would suggest you substitute the term, “capital”, for the term accelerationism. Once you do this, you realize almost immediately why, as Land asserts, there is no such thing as Right or Left accelerationism. Capital has no political identity; rather, it determines all political relations within bourgeois society. As an idea separate from capital itself, accelerationism is simply a description of the characteristics of capital.

I hope to show why this is true by taking several statements Land makes in his article and restating them as in terms familiar to those who have read Marx. You may find more appropriate passages from Marx that agree or contradict Land’s argument.

Please do not hesitate to post them in the comments.

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Capitalist Accumulation and the Blind Accelerationism of the Left

This is how I would summarize Nick Land’s critique of the Left accelerationism of Srnicek and Williams:

“As a basis for a movement, accelerationism fails whenever it assumes the future is uncertain.”

But the term accelerationism in this case is unnecessary as this defect equally applies to Marxism and all radical critique now.

Basically, you cannot at one and the same time say you want to speed up the transition to communism by some means and at the same time hold the outcome of this sped up transition is uncertain or open. When Rosa Luxemburg argued mankind was facing a choice, socialism or barbarism, she was essentially saying that the political outcome of the capitalist development in her day was uncertain. Her conclusion was likely correct, because Marx’s theory predicted a breakdown where the political outcome of that crisis was itself uncertain.

First, it could lead to the breakdown of production based on exchange value, but not necessarily production for profit. Second, it could lead to the abolition of capitalist private property, but not property as such. Third, it could lead to social management of the national capital, but not necessarily through a commune.

How the breakdown of production based on exchange value would turn out depended on a contingent class (political) struggle. If the proletarians won this conflict, the outcome would be socialism; but if the bourgeois class won, the outcome would be barbarism.

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How Postone emptied Marxist economics with just two words

Okay, so Zero Books podcast recently did an interesting interview with Moishe Postone that contains much that is useful if you want to get a feel for the argument Postone is making in his writings.

Around 26 minutes into the interview, Postone explains how he specifically breaks with conventional Marxist reading of Marx. Important right? A writer who is by all accounts one of the most important theorists of our generation is willing to explain how his reading of Marx’s Capital contradicts the conventional, accepted Marxist reading of Marx. We probably want to know what this contradiction is, right?

According to Postone, an accurate reading of Marx is not that the working class comes into its own. “Instead, “ says Postone, “Marx is pointing to a trend that empties proletarian labor of its content, diminishes proletarian labor and yet holds on to this labor.”

Unfortunately, at this point the interviewer wandered off into a tangent regarding his previous discussion with Zizek and mostly ignored Postone’s comment.

Let me state that this statement by Postone is, by his own admission, what separates him from the long tradition of Marxism since Marx died. But what does it even mean? I mean, is Postone simply describing something he thinks amounts to a footnote in Marx’s later works? Or is he telling us: “Look there is something here. Our labor has been emptied of its content. We’re missing this.” And if Postone is saying the latter, what does it even mean? Labor is labor, right? How can labor be emptied of labor? What is this content Postone is referring to of which labor is being emptied?

Mind you, Postone does not make this statement in passing, but draws our attention to it by stating this is where he differs from the entire conventional reading of Marx. That is pretty much everybody: Harvey, Kliman, Heinrich, Shaikh, etc. Postone is saying that all the books you have read professing to be an introduction to Capital miss this crucial point.

How does Postone know this is a critical point we are missing? I mean, is he just talking out of his ass? Do words have meaning or not? Can anyone, even Postone, just throw some shit out there and we all accept or ignore it as if the statement was never made?

“Oh, yeah, Postone think labor is being emptied of its content, but who know what the fuck that means. Sounds like some metaphysical Hegelian philosophical situationist shit to me. You know, these professors are always going on about stuff like this that has no relationship to what is happening in the real world.”

What does it mean to say your labor is being emptied of its content? What would empty labor even look like? Can you identify empty labor? Can you measure empty labor? What is the yardstick by which empty labor is measured? Really, is this just an disconnected idea Postone found in Marx that Marxists should treat, as they do so much of Marx, as having “critical” value, but no analytical value.

To understand what I am getting at with these questions, consider the biggest piece of economic data: the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country. When we look at a statistic like US GDP, can we actually discern empty proletarian labor and distinguish it from socially necessary labor? I follow Postone’s writing and speeches — not religiously, but occasionally — enough to know that no one is asking him these questions.

This is important because, of late, it has become rather routine to say Marx’s work has “critical” value, but no analytical value. This is an idea that even seems to be dominant among Marxists today. Which is to say, Marx’s theory might explain to us why we feel alienated in society, but doesn’t offer any relevant theoretical context to understand, for instance, today’s unemployment report, the sluggish GDP growth in the first quarter or the rationale behind the latest Fed policy statement.

It is possible that no one seems to think Marx’s theory is a reliable guide to understand economic data precisely because, as Postone argues this data may contain a very large amount of “empty labor”. It is possible the data is like a file that contains a very large amount of 0s and very little real information. If you look at economic data and assume all of it is valid, you would be led to the wrong conclusions if, in fact, all or almost all of it is meaningless noise.

Let me make a non-economic analogy about what I mean by this statement employing a jar of jellybeans.

There is a contest where you try to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. The problem seems straightforward: you take the volume of the jar, divide it by the average volume of a jellybean and arrive at a figure. This is mostly what economists do, but Postone’s argument suggests this approach may be flawed.

Why?

Sometimes the organizers of the contest will introduce a curve-ball into the contest. For instance, they may put a golf ball into the mix to reduce the total volume available for jellybeans. If this happens, the number of jellybeans in the jar is no longer a direct function of the volume of the jar. You now need a new formula that takes the volume lost to the golf ball into account.

I am not sure, but I think this is the problem Postone poses with his empty labor thesis. Raw data like nominal GDP may be telling us economic activity has one value, but the presence of empty labor means much less economic activity is taking place. How much? If the amount of empty labor in the economy is very small, not much even in a very large economy. But if the amount of empty labor is very large even an very large economy may in fact consist of only a negligible amount of economic activity. Most of the economic activity in the economy may just be fictitious.

Now, if we substitute the term “labor” for economic activity, the implications of Postone’s argument is rather startling: Most of our actual labor may be empty of all economic value, i.e., superfluous. How much of our labor is unnecessary is probably important to nail down because, according to Postone’s argument, this mass of unnecessary labor is the material precondition for communism.

If it is just 5%, that is one thing. But suppose it is 50% or 90%. Suppose, in other words, almost all the labor we perform is unnecessary?

We can’t answer this question in large part because we have no tools to answer — in large part. The biggest problem, however, is not that we lack the tools required to measure empty labor, but that no one is even raising the question in the first place. A question that is never posed cannot be answered.

If Postone is correct, the first step in parsing economic data is to distinguish meaningless noise from actual data. However, Postone has not taken the next step and given us the tools for making such discrimination. To paraphrase Postone’s argument, what he has said is this: “Much of the economic data you think is real is just empty labor. The long tradition of conventional Marxism doesn’t understand this.”

But what is “empty” about empty labor? What is missing that we normally associate with labor? We obviously don’t know and Postone is never asked by anyone. Until Postone answers this question, there is no such thing as Marxist economics. It is all suspect, or composed entirely of assumptions smuggled in from bourgeois economic theory.

Communists need to co-opt the neoliberal agenda

I know this is going to sound like I have lost my mind, but communists have to co-opt the neoliberal agenda.

No, I am not joking: just to clarify my position, I want to provide a workable textbook (i.e., wikipedia) definition about what I mean specifically when I say communists have to co-opt neoliberalism so that there is no confusion about what I am arguing:

“Neoliberalism refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. These include extensive economic liberalization policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.

Currently, neoliberalism is most commonly used to refer to market-oriented reform policies such as “eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, lowering trade barriers”, and reducing state influence on the economy, especially through privatization and austerity. Other scholars note that neoliberalism is associated with the economic policies introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States.”

While the definition of neoliberalism is subject to some controversy, communists would likely agree that the one offered by Robert W. McChesney: “capitalism with the gloves off,” pretty much captures the spirit of the term. With its emphasis on dramatically reducing state control of the national economy, privatization, austerity, ending capital controls, lowering trade barriers and generally aligning the policies of national economies with Washington’s, it may be hard to see why any communist should accept neoliberalism, much less advocate going beyond it.

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Some thoughts on a strategy to force a reduction of hours of labor

Several interesting questions from Rory on the idea of a “Fridays Off” embargo to enforce a 32 hours work week:

“I’m on board.

There is the problem of how to overcome the resistance not only from the capitalists, but the proletariat themselves who will not be so happy when activists are blocking the highway during the morning commute. And, if it’s the employees who are participating in the strike, they are always at risk of being replaced by the more desperate within their class. In this, it’s also interesting to ponder which parts of society are striking, cashiers or surgeons.

This leads me to conclude it’s essential to consider *what* people are supposed to be doing when not working during the embargo. Is there a way to demonstrate to the worker, possibly by providing services during the strike, that there is another way to live that doesn’t require the sale of their labor-power? I have no idea if this is only a messaging issue or something more fundamental. Probably the the latter.

The strike in Brazil will probably be the next example of what happens when there is no real effort into addressing the problem of how to live without a job in a world so alienated from nature: a few burned busses with, at best, minor labor policy concessions that will barely phase the machine on it’s way to self-destruction.”

I think Rory raises four important questions in this comment. Let me see if I can summarize them:

  1. Won’t workers get really pissed off if activists block commuters who are only trying to get to work in the morning?
  2. Won’t workers who participate in such blockades be fired by their employer in retaliation?
  3. What will people do with their time off on days when an embargo is called? For instance, won’t it be necessary to organize events on days when an embargo is enforced to demonstrate another way of life is possible?
  4. Isn’t it necessary to address the problem of living without work in a world so alienated from nature.

The last question is the easiest: we already know how to live without work. Our solution is called “weekends”. An embargo on all labor time beyond 32 hours is simply an extension of the weekend from 48 hours to 72 hours per week. Over a period of five years we intend to progressively extend the weekend until it encompasses the entire week. At that point, compulsory labor time will fall to zero and all time will become free, disposable time for the mass of society. Society and social relations will be no longer constituted by labor. Rather labor, material production, will be constituted (determined) solely by the actual need of the members of society. Free time means just that: nothing should determine how this time is spent but the wants and needs of the individual for that activity.

I believe this answers question three as well. We should demonstrate what people should do with their day off by doing whatever we want for that day. If that is a festival, a demonstration, an outdoor lecture, a concert or time hiking in the hills — or all of them together. Together or separately, people can fill their time as they see fit. This activity alone demonstrates that another life is possible. These activities do not have to be in groups, nor do they have to involve “good works” or social activism. They can be whatever individuals decide to do together or separately. All that matters is that it is something each person wants to do, not some activity determined by the priests of social activism.

Some things to remember:

First, free time is not meant to be a chance for you to “give back to the community”. We have been giving and giving our surplus labor time for hundreds of years. No more “giving.” Free time is our time to dispose of as it pleases us alone.

Second, free time is not an opportunity for corporate style “team building” events or political rallies. There is no obligation implied in free time but that you do what you want to do and nothing else. Don’t try to turn free time into what it isn’t: a new way of producing and/or distributing commodities — a new way of organizing society around labor. Free time is the abolition of production, distribution and labor as the organizing principle of society.

To answer questions 1 and 2:

Yes, people will be really pissed off that they are being prevented from reaching their jobs. The capitalists will be equally pissed off that our actions disrupt the production of surplus value and will retaliate against us. But, in first place, this is no different than the hostility a few brave workers faced when they opposed World War I. Public scorn was poured on them and the entire machinery of the state set about to crush them. I have heard that not a few internationalists were lynched by other workers gripped with patriotic zeal.

Further, during the Freedom Movement, civil rights workers were routinely lynched by mobs more or less directed by governments, police and the FBI. Strikes have always been attacked by Pinkertons, soldiers, police, politicians and scabs. The distinction here is that placing an embargo on labor threatens capitalism to its core and the reaction will be equally ferocious. Communists have faced this sort of absolute hostility from the whole of society before. It is nothing new nor particularly surprising.

The very idea of placing an embargo on labor time is so outrageous as to be unthinkable. It will take some time for people to adjust. People who today would not consider walking off the job to win union recognition have to be convinced to walk off to emancipate themselves from wage slavery entirely. This will require months of militant actions just to get a hearing from the working class.