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.
Land’s definition of capitalist accelerated accumulation is a pertinent starting point for any discussion of an accelerationist strategy:
“Capital, in its ultimate self-definition, is nothing beside the abstract accelerative social factor. Its positive cybernetic schema exhausts it. Runaway consumes its identity. Every other determination is shucked-off as an accident, at some stage of its intensification process. Since anything able to consistently feed socio-historical acceleration will necessarily, or by essence, be capital, the prospect of any unambiguously ‘Left-accelerationism’ gaining serious momentum can be confidently dismissed. Accelerationism is simply the self-awareness of capitalism, which has scarcely begun.”
Land’s argument here is simple: capital is nothing more than accelerated accumulation. By definition, any strategy designed to accelerate this process only adds to what is already a capitalistic process.
This much of Land’s argument is beyond dispute, I think, and must be the premise of any Left accelerationist strategy: we are doing no more than adding to a process that is already defined by what we are hope to add to it, namely accelerated capitalist accumulation.
This brings us to our first question:
1. Why would we want to speed up capitalist development?
Why would anyone want to accelerate a process that is already generally characterized by accelerated development of the forces of social production and the accelerated rate of exploitation of the working class? As Land has observed, capital is defined by accelerated development of the productive forces. It is not, in the first instance, a program. Why would we want to speed up this already increasingly accelerated process and what would be the result of speeding it up?
A number of writers have argued that the results of capitalist accumulation are indeterminate and leads to nowhere special, (see, for instance, Michael Heinrich). Another, more popular argument is that the results of capitalist development are not only indeterminate but actually disastrously akin to a runaway train, where the final destination recedes from us even as the destructive consequences of accumulation increase.
In his essay, Emergency Brake, Ben Noys has argued along these lines:
“[The] idea of the tracks stretching into the future leaves revolution as a receding moment – the station we never quite arrive in. The result, contra to the revolutionary intervention, it is the constant stoking of the train, i.e. the capitalist productive forces. In this way ‘accelerationism’, as I’ve called it (Noys 2010: 4−9), either tries to actively increase the speed of capital, or simply becomes the passenger on the train, allowing the constant destruction of living labour at the hands of dead labour to do the work.”
It should be clear that there is no support either for Heinrich’s argument or for Noys’ in Marx’s labor theory. In chapter 15 of volume 3 of Capital, Marx gives us his answer to my question. Capitalist development itself is creating the material basis for communism. Briefly stated, communism is what capitalism does:
“Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production.”
Of course, capitalism does not intentionally lay the material basis for communism, but the creation of the material basis for communism is the necessary result of capital’s incessant revolutionizing of the forces of production of material wealth. Communism, Marx argues, is the necessary, though unintended, by-product of capital’s own relentless self-expansion.
2. Can capitalist development be sped up?
But the idea capital lays the material basis for communism does not imply this process can be sped up. Even if we assume that capitalism creates the material basis for communism, this does not imply the process itself can be sped up. What is it about the unconscious manner capitalism creates the material basis for communism that makes an accelerationist program possible?
Again, in Capital volume 3, chapter 15, Marx suggests the case for intervention can be located in the fact that capital has a real material barrier to fulfilling its historical mission of creating the material basis for communism: capital itself, which is concerned only with its own self-expansion and does not aim to create communism.
“The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers.”
According to Marx, the limited aim of capitalist accumulation is itself a barrier to the completion of its historical mission to create the material basis for communism — and this requires an important caveat: Capital is only concerned about its self-expansion and nothing we do can alter this essential character. While capital is creating the material basis for communism, it does this in a self-contradictory way as the blind working of the laws inherent to the mode of production.
The case for intervention is the blind, unconscious character of capitalist accumulation itself.
3. What does it mean to speed up capitalist development?
In chapter 15 of volume three, Marx seems to be saying there is a case for conscious intervention into the process of accumulation despite the fact that capital is already actually creating the material basis for communism. It is that capital places obstacles in its own way and tries to overcome them through periodic crises, but, according to Marx, it overcomes the obstacles that it places in its own path in such a way that they remain obstacles to its own development:
“The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers can alone move — these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means — unconditional development of the productive forces of society — comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.”
To give an analogy: If you have ever watched a colony of ants discover a new food source, you know they just spend most of their time wandering around apparently aimlessly. The ants do eventually find the food source, but the method is extremely wasteful time-wise. That is very similar to the problem posed by capitalism: capital spends a lot of time trying to remove barriers to its own self-expansion, but this effort is solely concerned with its self-expansion, reproducing the barriers, and only accidentally creating the material basis for communism.
Now let me say something I have said previously should never be said: Imagine that the creation of the material basis for communism is akin to creation of a commodity. The socially necessary labor time required to produce this commodity is obviously of interest to the producers. We want to take no more time than is absolutely necessary to produce communism, because it will emancipate us from the need to labor. The blind, unconscious character of capitalist accumulation, with its periodic crises and interruptions of industrial production and commerce, implies a massive waste of labor time that we can minimize by our intervention.
4. How can we affect capitalist development in such a way as to accelerate it?
So the problem is that we want to get to communism, but capital only wants its self-expansion and is not at all interested in getting to communism. Is there a way we can exploit capital’s blind concern solely with its own self-expansion to get what we want?
The good thing about capital is that it is a blind, unconscious process that has a singular aim: self-expansion. If we try to block this self-expansion along one path, capitalism will, as Land puts it, treat our attempt to block it as damage and try to route around the barrier we place in its way to find another path to its incessant self-expansion. To use the analogy of ants foraging for food: place a barrier between the ants and the food source and they will immediately begin to find another path to the food.
This is the basic argument Marx provides in Capital — however, he makes it not in chapter 15 of volume 3, but in chapter 15 of volume 1, after a discussion where he makes a distinction between absolute and relative surplus value.
(To perhaps over simplify the discussion, absolute surplus value is a function of the duration of unpaid wage labor; while relative surplus value is a relation between the unpaid and paid portions of the labor day.)
Marx explains what happened when England introduced a limit on the duration of the working day that had the effect of limiting the aggregate duration of both paid and unpaid hours of labor: Capital immediately went to work on means to circumvent this limit by intensifying the exploitation of wage labor within the new shorter work day.
These new means of evading the cap on aggregate labor time included new technologies, more advanced science, increasing efficiency of labor time and materials, new organization. The shortening of the labor day also facilitated this intensification because the workers could labor more intensely in shorter bursts. As a result of the shortened working day, economic expansion, i.e., capitalist accumulation rose five-fold.
5. So we increase the rate of exploitation in order to abolish exploitation?
Yes. Now, it is important to remember what happened: the shortening of the working day led to the increased exploitation of the working class; yet Marx called the shortening of the working day the Magna Charter of the working class.
It wasn’t just that a shorter working day meant each worker had more free time at their disposal, although this is what happened. There was, however, another more far-reaching implication of putting a cap on hours of labor: introducing a limit on the duration of the labor day forced capital to intensify the exploitation of the working class through introduction of better machines, etc., i.e., the legislation forced capital to accelerate development of the productive forces.
In this way, the legislation imposing a limit on hours of labor had the unintended consequence of forcing capital to accelerate the creation of the material basis for communism. Capital is only concerned with self expansion, but by forcing it to take the work around of substituting machines for human labor, capitalist accumulation could be Accelerated and the transition to communism shortened.
6. Conclusion: Implications of this strategy
There are so many lessons to be learned from this example it could easily fill a book. Here a just a few the come to mind:
First, the effectiveness of the accelerated development resulted from the depression of profit, not wages. Capital seeks to overcome the barriers it places in its path by further and forcibly driving wages below their value. This set up a new barriers to its own self-expansion which it must again overcome. The strategy I focus on here — reducing hours of labor — avoids this dead-end by directly hitting the goad of all capitalist production: profits.
Second, in an open world economy, we should expect accelerated development to be accompanied by concentration and centralization of capital. This must operate not only between capital within individual countries but between national capitals as well: resulting in the concentration and centralization of capital in the hands of a few big national capitals. This means the capitalists do our work for us by killing each other off.
Third, we should also expect capital flight as capital flees to regions of the world market offering higher return. This is not a defect: accelerated development means also accelerated maturation of the world market. Because hour of labor were limited, England became the workshop of the world.
Fourth, my argument here shows why accelerated adoption of advanced machines, technologies, organization and science are not an independent variable, but function of the falling rate of profit. Left accelerationism errs on this point by fetishizing technology. The introduction of new technology into production only occurs when the capitalists can raise their profits by such introduction.
Fifth, reducing hours of labor is the only antidote to the neofascist impulse represented by Trump, Le Pen, Farage and the alt-Right. This is because reducing hours of labor is the only policy consistent with open borders and abolition of the state, of politics itself. Unlike Keynesian policies, a reduction of hours of labor dies not lose efficacy due to its impact being blunted by foreign trade.
I could go on, but this post is getting pretty long, so I will end this here. As I have tried to show, Marx’s theory essentially confirms Land’s analysis and deserves more attention from communists.