Jehu, what is your philosophy?
I received this request from @RealRomCade:
“Could you go over your whole philosophy with me. Not debating, I’m just not sure I quite understand it all seems really complex I’d like to understand. If you have the time of course.”
A good deal of what I write might appear obscure to most people. This, of course, in large part results from my poor writing skills. But it is also caused by the nature of the argument I am making, as well as the nature of the political position against which I am arguing.
To be honest, it is not always clear from my writing what I think the two sides are in this debate. I want to try to rectify this somewhat in the following discussion. The argument I will be making here is a logical one. As such I will discuss labor theory of value only briefly. I want to explain the logic behind my approach, not so much the theory that underlines that logic. If you want to know more about the theory that, I think, supports my approach, you will have to read Marx’s Capital.
If I am successful, you should have a better idea of the logic of my main argument. If I am unsuccessful you can post questions in the comments section and I will clarify my points.
My central thesis
My central argument is mostly unremarkable: all of the problems identified on the Left, from poverty to climate change, basically stem from the system of wage slavery.
This concept, although very simple, contradicts the dominant, political approach on the Left to social problems, which see each problem as discrete and separate. For instance, the political approach sees the problem of climate change as having no real material relation with, and even, to some extent, complicating a solution to the problem of poverty and vice versa. Some folks who are very interested in climate change, for instance, think we must accept degrowth as the price to maintain sustainable growth. There is, they allege, a tradeoff between eradicating poverty and stopping climate change.
By contrast I think all the issues we care about today — poverty, inequality, war and aggression, climate change, budget deficits, etc. — can be traced to the fact that hours of labor are too long.
The problem with politics
It would be an understatement to say my view is far from popular today. The political system is structured in such a way that we are used to looking for particular solutions for each of a laundry list of problems. This pragmatic, technical approach to problems, which tries to design specific solutions to each identified social ill, is entirely unworkable.
In the first place, a political approach is unworkable because people can attention to so many issues at once. If I care about poverty, climate change and employment, I am less attentive to foreign wars, budget deficits and police killings.
Just look at your twitter feed sometime. It is a steady barrage of single issue complaints, often made without context by persons for whom this or that particular issue is more important than all the rest. People can only focus on so many issues at once and they literally get overwhelmed by all the issues championed by special interest groups. It is really impossible for people to strongly care about every issue, much less understand how the issue they care about connects to and influences every other issue they also care about. So people tend to just give up caring about anything except the single issue in front of them.
Bourgeois politicians prefer this approach because by focusing on discrete issues, the system as a whole is never questioned. They are free to craft “solutions” that marginally address one issue or another but never challenges the system as a whole. This pragmatic (piecemeal) approach is the preferred approach for anyone who wants to protect the system as a whole.
However, if the fundamental problem is the system as a whole, and not any particular problem, social ills fester without any solution. Yes, you can jury-rig some solution to health care that increases coverage, like Obamacare, simply by passing a law that says everyone must buy healthcare insurance. but you are simply moving the problem to another area: the price of the coverage available to people.
Economic growth as the premise of all technical reforms
Another critical problem of this sort of pragmatic (political) approach is that all solutions on offer are more or less premised on more people working more hours.
One of the biggest scams along this line is climate change: Some propose we can fix climate change by “investing” in green technology. Somehow we will fix a problem caused by too many hours of labor by increasing the amount of labor we do. Another one is unemployment, which some people think we can fix by faster economic growth. Somehow we can fix a problem created by too long hours of labor by expanding how many hours people work. And how does the problem of unemployment fit in with the problem of climate change? Simple: we just give the unemployed a job producing green technology. Problem solved.
It is this kind of stupid shit that just begins to wear people out mentally.
My approach differs from this in that it proposes one solution that can address all of the many social problems we face at once.
- Don’t like climate change? Okay work less.
- Don’t like poverty? Okay work less.
- Don’t like budget deficits? Okay work less.
- Don’t like the high cost of living? Okay work less.
- Don’t like the war in Syria? Okay work less.
- Don’t like US support for Israel? Okay work less.
- Don’t like inequality? Okay work less.
- Don’t like not having health care? Okay work less.
- Don’t like police killing citizens? Okay work less.
- Don’t like the president? Okay work less.
Everything you don’t like about present society can be addressed by one single solution: Work Less.
PROBLEM: It is not the least bit clear that working less will fix anything
This approach is not without its own problems, of course. One difficulty with it is that now I have to show why all the various things people don’t like about present society are caused by them working too many hours. That is where all the complicated discussion comes in: to show how the hours of labor we work are directly implicated in all of the social ills we complain about.
The biggest difficulty with telling people that the solution to all of our social ills is to work less is that they are not stupid. They know how economies work and they know that economies incentivize people to work more. They know that in a capitalist society no one gets richer by working less unless they already started out richer. Paris Hilton can get richer by working less because she started out 3 billion dollars ahead of the rest of us. So the very idea that the rest of us can live better and solve all existing social problems by working less appears to be sheer fantasy.
And, moreover, the idea we can solve all the social ills of society by working less is a fantasy for any one of us taken separately. As a solution to social ills working less only works when we all work less together. Otherwise we are worse off for the (lack of) effort. But when the solution of working less is posed to us, we immediately think of the individual case, not the general policy.
The idea that we can address social ills by working less requires a revolution in consciousness — for people to begin to view social ills in a social, rather than individual, context. Something like this revolution in consciousness preceded all great social revolutions in the past. During the rise of the bourgeoisie, the scattered capitalists began to express their individual circumstances in a collective fashion. They expressed not primarily what was unique to each, but the conditions common to them all. And they expressed these interests against the existing state, the feudal regime and it sparked an epoch of political revolutions.
Something of this sort is required now: not for a political revolution, but for a social one.
Systemic social problems require systemic social solutions
As I have stated above, my approach differs from the dominant Left approach in two important ways:
First, it assumes all the social ills against which the Left throws is political weight are not problems that can solved with limited technical reforms. Second, it assumes that the means to solve these social ills are not directly in the hands of individuals, but require their collective direct action.
The problems we face are not individual problem, but social problems. This means, at some level, they are all connected to one another. If these problems are social problems, they require a solution that itself must be social as well, and cannot be solved on an individual level.
I think most on the radical Left would agree with this much in theory, although they fail to follow through on the idea in practice.
In the first place, in response to every particular problem, radicals tend to cluster around solution that are technical. Under this heading, I would put things like a higher minimum wage, basic income or jobs guarantee to address the problems of poverty and unemployment. These are technical fixes that are arrived at by thinking about the problems of poverty and unemployment in isolation from other social ills.
In isolation, poverty and unemployment appear very susceptible to such technical fixes like a higher minimum wage, but in reality they are not. Change one variable in a system and you begin to affect many other variables that you have not taken into account in your technical fix. For instance, change wages in an economy and you immediately begin to affect an incredible number of other variables.
Yes wages are now increased, but what impact will this have on employment, foreign trade, climate change and profits. Technical fixes are never of the sort that a change in one variable will have little or no affect on all the other variables in the system, but a lot of radical Leftists think (obsess) only in terms of that single variable and never give any thought to whether the impact of a change in their preferred variable will improve or worsen all the others.
Why profit is the key variable at present
By contrast, my approach assumes from the beginning that a change in one variable will have more or less large affects on all the other variables in the system. I want to have those affects on the other variables; which is to say, I want an increase in wages to affect employment, inequality, foreign trade, climate change and, military spending. Not only do I want to affect all of the other variables, I want the strongest possible affect on all the other variables.
And the variable on which I want to have the strongest possible affect is the one most radicals don’t even mention: profits.
Now why would profits be the critical variable to influence the system as a whole? Is this because I have some ideological aversion to profits? That I hate capitalists. Or I want communism? No. The reason why I want the strongest possible affect on profits is because the economy is based on production for profit.
If you want to maximize your impact on a system of variables, it might help to know which variable has the greatest influence on that system — and profit is without a doubt the most important variable in a mode of production founded on wage labor. For this reason, we want to identify profit as the most important variable and figure out how we can directly affect this variable to the greatest extent possible.
Why politics isn’t the critical variable
Most radicals who go through this same exercise identify the state (politics) as the most important variable we should try to affect.
This is a reasonable conclusion but wrong: Our economy is not based on the state, but only profit and of production for profit. The state itself is derivative of the system of production for profit; it feeds on the mode of production. This is true even though, admittedly, the state arose well before production for profit. The state is an unproductive stratum of society that attaches itself to whatever mode of production is dominant like a parasite. Since it produces nothing itself, it is forced to survive off the surplus produced by the dominant mode of production in every epoch.
Identifying profit as the most important variable we want to affect is usually taken negatively to mean we want to increase profits. This is particularly the objection of many radicals to the idea of accelerating capitalism into its demise. Many critics of accelerationism, like Ben Noys, have strong objections to this strategy because they imagine it means fattening the profits of capital.
This is an understandable error on the part of radicals who seldom if ever have made a serious study of how capitalism works. They assume that since the capitalists want to increase their profits, an accelerationist strategy designed to affect profits seeks this as well. This is mistaken. In first place no one has to encourage capitalists to increase their profits, this is the way capitalism works already. What we want to do is exploit this tendency for our own purposes.
But what are our purposes? To end poverty, unemployment, climate change, budget deficits, inflation, the war in Syria, US support for Israel, inequality, the appalling lack of health care, police killing citizens. We even want to get rid of presidents — and not just the bad ones, because they are all bad. All of these social ills arise from a system of production based on profit.
Since most radicals never consider these problems taken as a whole, and because even if they do they never see the obvious connection to profit, few radicals realize how affecting profit can have dramatic affects on the many social ills they think need to be addressed.
To give a single example: the war in Syria could not be prosecuted unless the US government had access to huge amounts of profits that it could essentially spend freely in this way. If you want to end the war in Syria, basically you have to deny the US government access to this huge mass of profits it borrows for war. The problem then becomes how to deny the US government access to this huge mass of profits it can borrow at will for aggression?
The only way this can be done is by ending production for profit — a step most radicals are not willing to even consider.
The fundamental problem is too much profit
And even among the small minority of radicals who might consider this idea, not one in 10,000 have any idea how to accomplish it. Capitalism appears to be such a complex organism almost no one — including economists and capitalists themselves — have even the faintest idea where profits even come from. This too is understandable since the way capitalism operates leaves the origin of profit impossible to determine empirically.
The origin of profits is the surplus labor of the worker, but there is absolutely no way to trace the connection between labor and profit. It is as if profits arise from the activity of the capitalist, not the labor of the worker. This is not the result of ideology but arises from the actual structure of the mode of production itself. Even if you accepted the idea that labor is the sole source of profit — which most radicals don’t — you could never trace the profits of a capitalist firm to the actual labor of its workers.
Thus it is not clear (even to the tiny handful of people who suspect that the sole source of all the social ills we suffer are caused by profit) that the only way to end these social ills is to reduce labor hours. The very idea we can end the biggest, most intractable problems of society by simply working less, appears to be a utopian fantasy.
Here is what most radicals miss because they are not really at all familiar with the way capitalism works: Capital is a marvelously efficient machine for extracting surplus (unpaid) labor from the worker, but it is not all that efficient in converting this unpaid labor into profit. The labor process is under the direct control of the capitalist, and he pays attention to every detail of this process. By contrast, the conversion of the unpaid labor into profit takes place under circumstances over which the capitalist has no control whatsoever.
Capital thus always has a tendency for the production of surplus value to (as Keynes puts it) outrun the pace at which the capitalist can find new uses for it. Most of the social ills against which radicals direct their protest are in fact products of this tendency of capitalistic accumulation. Too much surplus value can result in unemployment, poverty, war, environmental degradation, relentless expansion of the state against society, etc.
Thus, the solution to these social ills is already given by the definition of their fundamental cause: reduce production of surplus value. The production of surplus value is, as defined here, nothing more than the extension of hours of labor beyond a certain definite point. For surplus value to be produced, the worker must work longer than is required to produce her wages. This unpaid labor time produces a surplus product that when sold becomes the profit of the capitalist.
Thus, the solution to the social problems most radicals think of as requiring immediate social action is simple: reduce hours of labor.
Capital, the state and hours of labor
But there is a problem with this solution: even if the working class wanted its hours of labor reduced, the capitalists and the state do not. The capitalist don’t want this to happen because their profits depend on the amount of surplus labor they can squeeze from the workers. It is easier to squeeze a lot of surplus labor from the workers when the day is long, but much more difficult when it is short. Since the capitalist don’t like to work anyways, they certainly don’t want to have to sweat to increase their profits.
The opposition of the state to a reduction of hours of labor may be harder to understand at first, but it is just as simple. The state has access to and feeds off the surplus labor time that can’t be reinvested by the capitalists. The longer the working day, the greater the mass of surplus value produced by capitals, the more of this surplus value can be “siphoned off” (as the Truman administration put it) to finance US military and political aggression. No less than the capitalists themselves, nation states resist every reduction of hours of labor because it places incredible masses of surplus value at their disposal, which they can then use for whatever aggression they desire.
This begins with the rise of imperialism and culminates in 1914 with wars of aggression against their industrialized competitors and even earlier against relatively backward countries. Today it takes the principal form of the US military doctrine of Full-spectrum dominance, which depends fundamentally on US control of and access to every form of surplus value produced domestically and world-wide. So long as Washington has access to this massive global pool of surplus value, nothing we do to protest its behavior has any significance at all.
To deny both capital and the state access to this surplus value we must take back our labor time by converting our surplus labor time directly into free time. This then is my approach to addressing the social ills identified by radicals. My approach is decidedly not political, but aims at the immediate abolition of both capital and the state through our direct action.