The Real Movement

Communism is free time and nothing else!

Month: November, 2019

Speculative presence – 6

“Stalin? Ewwww!”

I know, right? And we were getting along so famously until this point. Now you probably want to take a shower or some shit. But, hey, you can’t make an omelette without collectivizing the peasants and expropriating their eggs, can  you now?

Besides, we were going to give them communism in return and drag them kicking and screaming away from the idiocy of rural life. Their kids would have thanked us. I mean, seriously, what teenager says, “I can’t wait to be a pig farmer, when I graduate!”

***

So, yeah, Stalin.

The guy has a bad reputation even among most communists, but I’m not here to defend him. Like I said, he adds flavor to the story. We have to keep Stalin somewhere in this speculative fictional alternative future communist society. Without Stalin, everything is just too neat and tidy. Without Stalin, dumb communists would start to believe their own heroic technicolor masturbatory fantasies about proletarian revolution.

Think of it this way: the American bourgeoisie has to face the flaws of its own heroes. Everybody knows Thomas Jefferson screwed his wife’s half-sister, who was also their slave. They had a regular Roman orgy going on, while he was penning declarations that all men were created equal, “except this slave bitch, who I have down on her knees, sucking my white dick, and her bastard offspring!”

Despite that evil shit, they built him a monument in Washington.

Jefferson didn’t get airbrushed out of American history and Stalin stays in this story, because the people who create communism are products of capitalism. We need to know that the proletarians who have passed through the bowels of this monstrosity to create communism were not necessarily very nice people. And we have no reason to expect them to start being nice the day after wage slavery is abolished.

As Marx put it in the Critique of the Gotha Program:

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

Initially, my speculative fictional communist society is going to be morally frightful because it is being created by people who are still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society; people have been renting themselves out in return for food and shelter for generations. Do you think that damage disappears overnight? The lid of the old society will come off and all sorts of monsters will emerge. We will discover shit that nearly makes us lose our faith in humanity — and may be even our lunch.

***

But there is a second, less negative reason for Stalin to stay in the story. Although it really has never been recognized by communists, of all the communists of the 20th century, Stalin had some pretty clever things to say about practical steps necessary to actually realize communism.

In 1950, Stalin realizes that once you start distributing basic necessities on the basis of needs, the world’s going to beat a path to your door. Have you seen the homeless tents lining the streets in San Francisco? Why are they there? They are there because people know the government will not stop them from living on the streets, yet has no plan to build housing to keep them from living on the streets. That’s why.

If the S.U. announces that henceforth basic necessities will be distributed based on need, they better be prepared to cope with the influx of tens of millions of proletarians fleeing the capitalist zone to enjoy their new lives in the commune, where all basic goods are distributed on the basis of needs.

Stalin, who, whatever you think of him, remained a practical person to the end, thought about this and said that if communism was ever going to happen, the S.U. need to be able to constantly expand social production, and moreover expand production of the means of production at an even faster rate. Unless it could do this, the S.U. could not constantly extend the scale of production as would be required by a system of distribution based on need.

Interestingly, however, even as Stalin was talking about the need to constantly expand social production and extend the scale of production to meet the requirements of a system of distribution based on need, he also proposed that the working day should be shortened to five hours. Clearly, Stalin did not believe that constant expansion of the scale of production to meet the requirements of of a system of distribution based on need would be achieved by the brute force of human labor.

It would be the product of the machine and that means lots of technological innovation. So Stalin proposes that the Soviet government introduce universal compulsory polytechnical education. He wants to turn technological innovation from a destructive force, as it is described in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, into a productive force capable of creating the material basis for a communist society.

Communism would be the creation, not of human hands, but of what Marx called “the general intellect”.

Speculative presence – 5

So, we have our hidden culprit in the catastrophe behind the post-apocalyptic drama that unfolds in The Day of the Triffids. And the culprit turns out to be the same perpetrator Keynes implicated for being behind the Great Depression: technological innovation.

The question I need to address now is how I can turn this highly destructive potential, latent in technological innovation, into a useful productive force to construct the material foundation of my speculative fictional communist society?

***

In chapter 15 of Capital, volume one, Karl Marx offers a suggestion taken from an actual 19th century British historical example: it turns out that the relation between technological innovation and labor redundancy may be largely reciprocal. It is true that technological innovation can create technological unemployment, leading to severe economic contractions like the Great Depression, but it appears that the reverse is also true: dramatic reductions of hours of labor greatly accelerate technological innovations and boost productivity.

Marx examines the data for these reductions in chapter fifteen.

In 1844 the working day in Britain was capped at 12 hours. In 1847, that cap was lowered again to just 10 hours. The improvements in productivity from the two reduction appear to come from three different sources:

First, within certain limits, what is lost of the labor day by shortening its duration is gained back by the increased tension of labor power expenditure. Better rested workers are able to labor with more energy, consistency and attention.

Second, with the shortening of the working day and the improved capacity of the worker, the capitalist firm employs improved machinery to systematically squeeze out more labour within the limits of the new working day. This is effected by speed ups and by concentrating more machines under the control of a single worker.

More than 150 years later, these two observations by Marx are still supported by research.

These responses by capital to limitations on the working day meant that early efforts to limit hours of labor actually had the combined paradoxical effect of increasing profits fivefold, rather than reducing them!

According to figures cited by Marx, between 1838 and 1850, profits in English cotton and other factories averaged 2.7% annually. Profits jumped to 14.3% between 1850 and 1856 after hours of labor had been capped at ten hours.

By slashing the working day to twelve hours in 1844 and again to ten hours in 1847, parliament forced British industry to innovate  and become more productive in order to restore its profitability.

Says Marx:

There cannot be the slightest doubt that the tendency that urges capital, so soon as a prolongation of the hours of labour is once for all forbidden, to compensate itself, by a systematic heightening of the intensity of labour, and to convert every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means of exhausting the workman, must soon lead to a state of things in which a reduction of the hours of labour will again be inevitable. On the other hand, the rapid advance of English industry between 1848 and the present time, under the influence of a day of 10 hours, surpasses the advance made between 1833 and 1847, when the day was 12 hours long, by far more than the latter surpasses the advance made during the half century after the first introduction of the factory system, when the working-day was without limits.

It would seem, then, that to create the material foundations of my speculative fictional communist society I can call on a dramatic reduction of hours of labor to unleash the sort of technological innovation that would result in a society with characteristics very similar to the fictional London of The Day of the Triffids. The difference, however, would be that no one need be disabled, no one is unemployed (as occurs in a apocalyptically severe version of the Great Depression) and there are no people-eating sunflowers.

Okay, cool, but what fun is that?

Where’s the drama?

Where’s the conflict?

Where are the flesh-eating zombies?

I want a communism with real warts!

If the quintessential bourgeois revolution, the French Revolution, had room for Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, certainly we can have Stalin in our speculative fictional communism!

Speculative presence – 4

I have made the case for re-situating John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic nightmare in a context that is slightly more consistent with the actual history of the 20th century and, perhaps, a little more plausible. Of course, it is still somewhat of a stretch, since we have to drop World War 2, and assume no other mechanism for Keynesian-style stimulus of a similar scale. (We might fudge this a little by assuming early and aggressive British-French intervention to confront Germany over Czechoslovakia, but let’s clean that up later.)

In truth, I don’t actually want to create a Europe with 95% unemployment like occurred in The Day of the Triffids. I just want to show that, in theory at least, it is possible that a catastrophe like the one in Triffids could have arisen solely from economic causes and without any extraordinary mechanism like the sudden and inexplicable blindness of 95% of the planet’s human population. At the same time, if 95% unemployment happened solely as the result of economic causes, the end of the world, which, per Zizek, we have no problem imagining, would be identical with the end of capitalism.

Finally, my point in this particular post is to show that behind both causes — blindness/triffids and the more plausible economic depression — is the same proposed mechanism: technological innovation.

***

John Wyndham was quite aware that technological innovation had the most unpredictable effects on economies.

He has this to say about it in The Day of the Triffids:

The discoverer and the inventor are the bane of business. A little sand in the works is comparatively a mere nothing – you just replace the damaged parts, and go on. But the appearance of a new process, a new substance, when you are all organized and ticking nicely, is the very devil. Sometimes it is worse than that – it just cannot be allowed to occur. Too much is at stake. If you can’t use legal methods, you must try others.

For Umberto had understated the case. It was not simply that the competition of a cheap new oil would send Arctic and European and their associates out of business. The effects would be widespread. It might not be fatal to the groundnut, the olive, the whale, and a number of other oil industries, but it would be a nasty knock. Moreover, there would be violent repercussions in dependent industries, in margarine, soap, and a hundred more products from face-creams to house-paints, and beyond. Indeed, once a few of the more influential concerns had grasped the quality of the menace Umberto’s terms came to seem almost modest.

It is technological innovation in two fields that come together briefly to create the catastrophe in The Day of the Triffids: the first is in the field of horticulture, likely from the Soviet Union, which produces the deadly triffids. The second is in the field of space weaponry, likely from the United States, which produces the malfunctioning satellites that blind 95% of the world population.

To establish the role of technological innovation in the generation of economic depressions, we need cite no other source than John Maynard Keynes, who argued the Great Depression was caused by rapid technological progress that was eliminating the need for human labor in production.

Keynes wrote:

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.

Just to remind the reader: at this point, I am not actually trying to find a way to create a global depression with 95% unemployment. I am simply trying to show that the mechanism John Wyndham employs in his story, technological innovation, is the same one Keynes employs to explain the Great Depression, which actually produced a much less severe 25% global depression. I argue that by fiddling with the actual historical timeline — namely, removing the destructive impact of World War 2 on the productive forces — we could realistically have expected the Great Depression to be far more severe than it was.

This should set the stage for my attempt to construct a speculative fictional alternative future communist society.

Speculative presence – 3

Near the end of that previous text, the narrator makes this haunting statement:

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here”—that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms

Of course, these are the words of the author, put in the mouth of the narrator. The author, John Wyndham, was not likely to be someone who thought “it can’t happen here”. He had fought in the Great War, lived through the Great Depression, watched the even more horrifying conflict of the Second World War, seen the rise of fascism, the Russian revolution, and the brilliant dawn of the atomic age over Hiroshima.

He had, essentially, lived though the beginning of the end of capitalism and probably suspected it to be the beginning of the end of capitalism.

***

Speculative fiction allows us to suspend belief.

I say “allows us to suspend belief”, not “requires us to suspend belief”.

If you want to fantasize that somewhere in a galaxy far away, long ago, there is a princess waiting for you to rescue her, you must suspend belief. Many people argue that this isn’t speculative fiction. This is fantasy.

Unlike fantasy, speculative fiction is said to create worlds that are at least possible.

If you want to believe that some calamity suddenly puts the great mass of able-bodied workers out of a job in 1951, you need only extrapolate the Great Depression or one of the two world wars of the previous thirty years and try to imagine a possible trigger for that event.

What is the difference between twenty-five percent unemployment and ninety-five percent unemployment? Certainly only a matter of degree.

At the time of its publication, most readers of The Day of the Triffids had already lived through a calamity where a quarter of the working age population had been put out of work suddenly and without any apparent cause. As in Triffids, during the Great Depression the factories and farms were not destroyed by any bombs, there had been no pestilence or plagues, and people desperately needed the products the firms produced. Yet, despite all this, the factories and farms stood idle and the workers wandered aimlessly looking for work as if blind.

(Okay, there were no carnivorous, venomous people-eating, walking sunflowers that I know of — so that might be a little different.)

John Wyndham wrote a story where 95% of the able-bodied population are out of work because they are disabled, but he could have just as easily written a story where 95% of the able-bodied population was out of work because of an economic depression. In either case, we have a piece of speculative fiction of which most people probably would say, “it can’t happen here”.

Yes. You’re right, of course. It can’t happen here.

Only there is a branch of science — labor theory of value, to be exact — that says it can happen here.

In fact, labor theory of value says it would have happened in the 1930s — i.e., twenty-five percent unemployment would have eventually become ninety-five percent unemployment — had it not been for the wholesale destruction of the productive forces in World War 2.

Eventually, the entire labor force would have been put out of a job without a single factory or farm being destroyed by single bomb.

Speculative presence – 2

Following Zizek’s proposition, I suggest that the 1951 classic, The Day of the Triffids, may be one of the best examples of the speculative post-capitalism-fiction genre ever written, for reasons I hope to detail.

According to Wikipedia:

The Day of the Triffids is a 1951 post-apocalyptic novel by the English science fiction author John Wyndham. After most people in the world are blinded by an apparent meteor shower, an aggressive species of plant starts killing people.

The story, written after the two Great Wars and the Great Depression, and on the cusp of the Cold War, has received critical praise for its realistic portrayal of a global catastrophe. At the same time it has been criticized by some for portraying a “cozy” catastrophe and, according to one critic, for being “totally devoid of ideas”.

The most important thing about the story, however, the thing most people I have read seem to miss, is that it poses a simple question for us to consider:

What would happen to capitalist society if 95% of the adult working population woke up tomorrow to discover they were blind?

In the opening pages of the story, almost every able-body adult capable of a day’s labor has been suddenly disabled and no longer able to perform even the simplest tasks. Perhaps one person in twenty has managed to escape this illness. Recalling those first moments, the narrator addresses the implication of this new reality where almost all labor power is disabled as he recalls the growing horror when he realized that the incredibly sophisticated division of labor, on which society depends for survival, effectively no longer existed.

Although highly educated, the narrator realizes he knows almost nothing about how the basic processes that made his life possible functioned:

It is not easy to think oneself back to the outlook of those days. We have to be more self-reliant now. But then there was so much routine, things were so interlinked. Each one of us so steadily did his little part in the right place that it was easy to mistake habit and custom for the natural law—and all the more disturbing, therefore, when the routine was in any way upset.

When almost half a lifetime has been spent in one conception of order, reorientation is no five-minute business. Looking back at the shape of things then, the amount we did not know and did not care to know about our daily lives is not only astonishing but somehow a bit shocking. I knew practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how my food reached me, where the fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy. Our life had become a complexity of specialists, all attending to their own jobs with more or less efficiency and expecting others to do the same. That made it incredible to me, therefore, that complete disorganization could have overtaken the hospital. Somebody somewhere, I was sure, must have it in hand—unfortunately it was a somebody who had forgotten all about Room 48.

I side with those who have labeled this insight “extraordinarily well carried out”, in the sense that it manages to explain in the briefest possible way both how dependent we are on the modern division of labor and how in credibly ignorant it has made us of the material requirements of our own life. With the great mass of society physically disabled, this modern division of labor is suddenly and irretrievably lost.

With the loss of labor power and the division of labor, nothing would be left to maintain the great world instrument of production that capital had brought into existence:

I wandered across to the window and looked out. Quite consciously I began saying good-by to it all. The sun was low. Towers, spires, and façades of Portland stone were white or pink against the dimming sky. More fires had broken out here and there. The smoke climbed in big black smudges, sometimes with a lick of flame at the bottom of them. Quite likely, I told myself, I would never in my life again see any of these familiar buildings after tomorrow. There might be a time when one would be able to come back—but not to the same place. Fires and weather would have worked on it; it would be visibly dead and abandoned. But now, at a distance, it could still masquerade as a living city.

My father once told me that before Hitler’s war he used to go round London with his eyes more widely open than ever before, seeing the beauties of buildings that he had never noticed before—and saying good-by to them. And now I had a similar feeling. But this was something worse. Much more than anyone could have hoped for had survived that war—but this was an enemy they would not survive. It was not wanton smashing and willful burning that they waited for this time: it was simply the long, slow, inevitable course of decay and collapse.

Standing there, and at that time, my heart still resisted what my head was telling me. Still I had the feeling that it was all something too big, too unnatural really to happen. Yet I knew that it was by no means the first time that it had happened. The corpses of other great cities are lying buried in deserts and obliterated by the jungles of Asia. Some of them fell so long ago that even their names have gone with them. But to those who lived there their dissolution can have seemed no more probable or possible than the necrosis of a great modern city seemed to me….

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here”—that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms. And now it was happening here. Unless there should be some miracle, I was looking on the beginning of the end of London—and very likely, it seemed, there were other men, not unlike me, who were looking at the beginning of the end of New York, Paris, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Bombay, and all the rest of the cities that were destined to go the way of those others under the jungles.

Speculative presence

If I were to write a speculative piece on a future communist society, where would I begin?

I would begin of course, with Zizek:

By way of a simple reflection on how the horizon of historical imagination is subject to change, we find ourselves in medias res, compelled to accept the unrelenting pertinence of the notion of ideology. Up to a decade ago, the system production-nature (man’s productive-exploitative relationship with nature and its resources) was perceived as a constant, whereas everybody was busy imagining different forms of the social organization of production and commerce (Fascism or Communism as alternatives to liberal capitalism); today, as Fredric Jameson perspicaciously remarked, nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer, whereas popular imagination is persecuted by the visions of the forthcoming ‘breakdown of nature’, of the stoppage of all life on earth–it seems easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than a far more modest change in the mode of production, as if liberal capitalism is the ‘real’ that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global catastrophe…. One can thus categorically assert the existence of ideology qua generative matrix that regulates the relationship between the visible and the non-visible, between imaginable and non-imaginable, as well as the changes in this relationship. From Žižek’s Introduction to Mapping Ideology (London: Verso, 1994), p. 1

If what Zizek says is true, post-apocalyptic literature holds the key to speculative ideas about our communist future. So, I want to borrow this idea from Zizek. I want to assume not just that people have an easier time imagining the end of the world than they do the end of capitalism, but that the post-apocalyptic literature is essentially speculative literature describing the world after capitalist collapse.

EPI on the so-called “slow-motion wage crisis”

Decline of manufacturing employment in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the labor force, 1939-2017. Source: EPI, U.S. Census

The Economic Policy Institute has produced a report, America’s slow-motion wage crisis, purporting to explain the decline in the living standards of American workers since 1979. The problem with this report is that it completely ignores the role unions played in abandoning the fight for fewer hours of labor:

For the last four decades, the United States has been experiencing a slow-motion wage crisis. From the end of World War II through the late 1970s, the U.S. economy generated rapid wage growth that was widely shared. Since 1979, however, average wage growth has decelerated sharply, with the biggest declines in wage growth at the bottom and the middle. The same pattern of slow and unequal growth continues in the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession.

In addition to grossly understating the decline in real wages since 1971 by employing the misleading Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index measure, there are real problems with the conclusions to this study.

The first problem is that with regards to the decline of manufacturing, it is entirely predictable based on Keynes theory of technological unemployment. That theory simply states technological unemployment is inevitable because the rate at which we are improving the productivity of labor is outstripping the rate at which we can find new uses for labor. Keynes clearly stated that this problem could only be solved by a progressive reduction of hours of labor.

The second problem is that the term, “full employment,” is meaningless. We have one objective benchmark by which to measure whether available labor power is fully employed or not: can the employment of additional labor power produce additional profit. But here we run into Keynes problem of technological unemployment, which suggests there is no use for the additional surplus product. If there is no use for the additional surplus product, it has no value, according to Marx. This situation can be disguised for a time by the wholesale destruction of the productive forces in a world war, as happened from 1936-1945, but it must reassert itself eventually.

The third problem is that if unionization is mostly concentrated in manufacturing and related sectors and those sectors are being eviscerated by technological unemployment, the natural tendency would be for unionization to decline unless effort was made in the opposite direction by labor unions and workers. For whatever reason (and there are many), we don’t see this.

Not surprising, union membership has been devastated during the period from 1983 to 2018:

Declining union membership, 1983-2018. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

It is this last trend that should make us pause at this point: historically, unionization is tied to manufacturing and related sectors, but these sectors are precisely the ones that were being eviscerated by technological unemployment and shedding massive numbers of union jobs during the 1970s. To save those union jobs, labor unions should have been pressing for a sharp reduction in hours of labor to address the effects of technological unemployment. Instead, the unions abandoned the fight for less work, with the devastating results we see today.

The year 1979 is in fact a pivotal year not only for the study, but in American labor history: that was the year the AFL-CIO and the Democrats celebrated the signing of the Humphrey–Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act. Although highlighting full employment in its title, the act actually de-emphasized employment; giving priority to maintaining low inflation. Which is to say, after effectively abandoning the fight for a shorter work week in the 1960s, in 1979, full employment was abandoned entirely with the tacit approval of the labor unions.