The Endnotes collective makes the economic case for communization. Hilarity ensues.

by Jehu

In 2010, the Endnotes collective tried (and failed, badly) to assess the implications of the 2008 financial collapse for the long run viability of capitalism. Would the massive devalorization of capital, experienced by society in that crisis, give way to a new golden age of wage employment similar to the one we experienced following World War 2 — roughly between 1945-1971?

The question remains important because the communization tendency (of which Endnotes is said to be a part) argues that it is no longer possible to imagine a transition to communism on the basis of a prior victory of the working class as working class. The proletarians cannot seize political power and wield it for their emancipation; rather, they must immediately put an end to themselves as a class.

The Endnotes’ argument for this proposition is murky, perhaps deliberately stated in an ambiguous fashion. I will spend some time trying to understand why.

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The essay, On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital, seems intended to make the economic case for this conclusion. In it, two obscure academics, Aaron Benanev and John Clegg, argue that the proletarians have become increasingly superfluous to the needs of industrial capital. In a statement owing more to John Maynard Keynes discussion of technological unemployment in 1930 than Karl Marx’s Grundrisse fragment on the machine in the 1850s, Benanev and Clegg describe a growing surplus population who are increasingly displaced by capitalist technological innovation:

Today many speak of a “jobless recovery”, but if the “general law of capital accumulation” applies then all capitalist recoveries are tendentially jobless. The tendency of “mature” industries to throw off labour, whilst facilitating expanded reproduction, also tends to consolidate a surplus population not fully absorbed by the subsequent expansion. This is due to the adaptability of labour-saving technology across lines, which mean that the manufacture of new products tends to make use of the most innovative production processes. Yet process innovations last forever, and they generalize across new and old capitals, while product innovations are inherently limited in their ability to generate a net expansion of output and employment. Here the problem is not merely that product innovations have to emerge at an accelerated rate to absorb the surplus thrown off by process innovations, it is that an acceleration of product innovation itself gives rise to an acceleration of process innovation.

The similarity to Keynes here is more significant than it might appear. While both Marx and Keynes assume technological development would lead to rising unemployment among proletarians, Keynes concluded in 1930 that this displacement of human labor power by machines must lead to a reduction of hours of labor. For his part, however, Marx predicted  technological innovation would lead to a catastrophic collapse of the mode of production based on exchange value.

I think there is no question that Marx and Keynes were the two greatest economic theorists of last two hundred years, but what might surprise the reader is that Benanev and Clegg seem to think they both were wrong. This is a rather astonishing assertion by two mediocre academics. In fact, when you think about it, the assertion is twice as astonishing because Marx and Keynes disagreed themselves about the results of technological advances in production. While Keynes predicted the end of labor, Marx predicted the end of money as we know it. At least one of them had to be wrong.

Benanev and Clegg assert both were wrong.

Marx and Keynes were not just two mediocre scribblers, mind you, we’re talking about the most important economists of the last two centuries — both were wrong, say Benanev and Clegg!

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Any competent comparison of the writings of Keynes and Marx will demonstrates they do not predict the development of the forces of social production would have same impact on wage employment. To demonstrate this, let’s compare Keynes prediction in 1930 to Marx’s prediction in the Grundrisse fragment on the machine in notebook VII, which was written some time between 1857-1861.

Keynes prediction: Technological unemployment:

In 1930, Keynes is clear on his diagnosis of the Great Depression, which had only broken out the previous year. Despite the growth in global population and rising standards of living, industrial output was growing still faster. In the future, the population would not grow as fast as output and might even slow. If output grew only at a rate of two percent a year, in 100 years (2030) it will have increased 750%. At the same time, technological changes that had already transformed manufacture, would soon transform agriculture. Society now stood on edge of a revolution in food production. Within the lifetime of those living in 1930 (roughly, by the year 2000, the demand for wage employment could fall by as much as 75%.

Keynes then continues with his oft-quoted argument on the impact technology would have on wage employment:

For the moment the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems to solve. Those countries are suffering relatively which are not in the vanguard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come–namely, technological unemployment.This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.

Marx’s prediction: Collapse of production based on exchange value

Oddly enough, Marx, based on many of the same assumptions evident in Keynes’ argument, never predicted labor saving technological change would lead to the collapse of demand for wage labor. Rather, he predicted it would lead to the collapse of production based on commodity money:

The exchange of living labour for objectified labour – i.e. the positing of social labour in the form of the contradiction of capital and wage labour – is the ultimate development of the value-relation and of production resting on value. Its presupposition is – and remains – the mass of direct labour time, the quantity of labour employed, as the determinant factor in the production of wealth. But to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production. (The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production.) Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society. … As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. … Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

What is the difference between these two predictions?

The most obvious difference between Keynes and Marx is that Marx assumes that labor is not just a diminishing source of material output, soon to be replaced by machines. He also assumes that labor is the sole source of value and surplus value, which cannot be produced by machines. Technological development was not just progressively reducing the use of living labor in material production, it was progressively eroding the only source of surplus value necessary for capitalist profits. In its blind rush to eliminate paid labor in production, capital was sawing off the limb it sat on — expecting the tree to fall.

That tree was wage employment. The capitalists imagined a future when they would not need recalcitrant wage laborers in their factories. Factory production could be completely automated. What could not be consumed in the domestic market could be exported abroad. Soon the most developed countries had divided the world among themselves. Then they turned on each other in an unimaginable global conflagration.

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It has been nearly one hundred years since Keynes made his famous prediction that wage employment was doomed, and with it, the entire capitalist mode of production. It is obvious that, at least so far, Keynes argument has not been borne out by history. Rather than a progressive reduction of hours of labor that he predicted, there has been a steady increase in wage employment for most of the last 88 years. Assuming there will be no sudden catastrophic collapse of wage employment in the next decade or so, it would appear Keynes has been refuted by history.

But what of Marx’s prediction? Although the two theorists described more or less the same process, they arrived at very different conclusions. As Benanev and Clegg argue, in 1930 Keynes and many others assumed rapid technological improvements would outstrip the demand for wage labor, leading to a decline in employment. The new industries spawned by technological innovation would throw off more workers than they would employ.

Marx, by contrast, predicted that rapid technological development, while displacing human labor power in the production of material wealth, would not, of itself, necessarily lead immediately to the decline of wage labor. Rather, it would lead to the collapse of production based on exchange value. Exchange value could no longer be the measure of labor power, (use value). If production for profit continued at all, it could only continue by disregarding the exchange value of labor power. As Henryk Grossman put it explicitly in 1929, at a certain point in the development of the mode of production, “wages have to be cut continually and periodically or a reserve army must come into being.”

It bears noting that Benanev and Clegg seem to argue Marx as well as Keynes failed to accurately predict the likely results of rapid technological improvements, when they do not even mention — nor even seem to be aware of — Marx’s actual argument on how technological development would affect wage employment. Unfortunately, this sort of sloppiness is now accepted from third-rate Marxist academics today.

In this case, however, the sloppy argument of these two academics only serves to weaken the case for communization theory, as I will show in my next post.