The Real Movement

Communism is free time and nothing else!

Category: Value Criticism

Five hundred words of empty blathering from Anselm Jappe

What is wrong with communists today that they cannot just open their otherwise useless pie-holes and say, “We must aim for the immediate and unconditional abolition of wage slavery?”

The latest attempt to obscure what communism means comes today by way of Anselm Jappe who, when asked in this interview what emancipation looks like, gave this silly non-response:

Alastair Hemmens: Finally, what do you think the development and shape of a movement of human emancipation might look like in the best possible scenario? In other words, what should human beings be doing in the face of the crisis of capitalism?

Anselm Jappe: The question is no longer if we can escape capitalism but how it will happen, because this society is already collapsing all around us, even if it does so at various speeds in different sectors and regions of the world. A huge portion of humanity has already been designated as “garbage” and is condemned to survive, as best it can, often in rubbish dumps or by recycling refuse. Money, value, labor, and the commodity are being overcome but in the form of a nightmare. Not a great deal of actual work is needed in production, but we are all forced to work in order to live. The money currently in circulation is mostly “insubstantial,” based only on credit and confidence. Value-production is shrinking. The real question now is how to construct alternatives and these can only exist in a world beyond the market and the state. There are no longer any “economic” policies or systems, even if they are “fairer” or “alternative,” that can solve this problem because they are all based on the accumulation of abstract labor. The only role the state can play in all of this is to be the repressive administrator of the misery created by the crisis of capitalism. No party, no election, no “revolutionary” government, no storming of the Winter Palace can lead to anything other than the continual administration of commodity society under ever-worsening conditions. This is why all left-wing politics has completely failed in the last few decades. The left hasn’t even been able to impose Keynesian economic policies or bring back the welfare state to replace neoliberalism. It’s not a question of a lack of will power. “Economic laws” cannot be “humanized.” They can only be abolished in order to return to a society where the satisfaction of needs is not based on an “economic sphere” that relies on labor.

What we need, therefore, could be called a kind of “grassroots revolution” with a new meaning, one that is not afraid of the necessity of confronting those who defend the ruling order, particularly when it comes to appropriating basic things—housing, production facilities, resources—by bypassing the mediation of money. We have to bring together socio-economic struggles—against housing evictions, for example, or the expropriation of land by big companies—with environmental and anti-technological struggles—against mining, new airports, nuclear power, GMOs, nanotechnology, surveillance—and struggles to change people’s way of thinking—overcoming the commodity psyche. That would mean a real transformation of civilization, much more far-reaching than a mere political or economic change. The transformations I am talking about go much further than simply saying, “we are the ninety-nine percent:” that is just a form of populism that pits a tiny minority of so-called “parasites” against “us,” the honest workers and savers. We are all of us deeply entrenched in this society and we have to act together on all levels to escape it. Humanity has been completely victorious in its struggle to become the “masters of nature,” as Descartes put it, but it is also more helpless than ever in the face of the society it has created.

What the fuck is so difficult about saying we want to abolish wage slavery? How did that ever get to be too radical a statement for a FUCKING COMMUNIST!

Can someone please tell me that, please.

#5 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’

There is, I think, a great deal of confusion regarding Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse and it is playing out in this discussion of Postone’s, “Rethinking Capital in light of the Grundrisse”, as well. It can best be summarized this way.

The current dominant view is presented by Luc:

Marx makes very clear that the categories of his critique are historically specific. Even categories that appear to be transhistorical and that actually do play a role much earlier historically – such as money and labour – are fully developed and come into their own only in capitalist society (Marx 1973: 103)

I have nothing against this view, except that, more often than not, it is taken to mean, essentially, that commodity production as we know it did not exist before the capitalist epoch. I think this latter (mis)reading of Luc’s view is wrong. Commodity production and exchange existed prior to capitalism and exhibited all of the features Marx described in first part of Capital.

My view, which is more along the traditional (Engels) reading of Capital holds that, as above, commodity production existed prior to capitalism and exhibited all of the features Marx described in first part of Capital. Capitalism, however, is historically unique in that “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”. Which is to say, in no previously existing society did wealth present itself exclusively in this fashion.

To put this another way: commodity production and exchange is not unique to capital, but capitalist society rests uniquely and exclusively on commodity production and exchange; this is its historically specific character.

To further clarify the difference, I think everyone will agree that there is a great deal of difference between saying,

“Commodity production and exchange only begins with capitalism.”

and saying,

“Capitalist society is the first society to rest exclusively on production and exchange of commodities.”

The first statement can neither be supported by current historical evidence nor by Marx’s writings. The second statement rather neatly sets up Marx’s prediction in the Grundrisse that capital inevitably leads to the collapse of production based on exchange value.

#4 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’

The argument Postone wants to make in this essay is pretty straightforward:

“Beginning with his treatment of the magnitude of value in terms of socially necessary labour time, Marx outlines a dialectical interaction of value and use value which becomes historically significant with the emergence of relative surplus value and gives rise to a very complex, non-linear, historical dynamic underlying modern society. With the unfolding of this dynamic it becomes increasingly clear that the historically specific form of social domination intrinsic to capitalism’s most basic forms of social mediation is the domination of people by time”

(NOTE: As can be seen in the passage above, it is a peculiarity of Postone’s approach that he speaks of the impersonal (abstract, subjectless) domination of the members of society by time, rather than by value or the law of value — i.e., by labor time or socially necessary labor time as might be expected of a Marxist theoretician. As long as this caveat is kept in mind, however, I think it poses no problem.)

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#3 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’

In my last post, I argued that, in his 2008 essay, Rethinking Capital in light of the Grundrisse, Moishe Postone was wrong to assert ‘abstract labor’ is historically specific to the capitalist mode of production. Clearly Marx believed the value of commodities were the product of ‘abstract labor’. And, just as clearly, he believed (and Postone himself admits) commodity production took place in many societies prior to capitalism. Unless I am missing something, (which is a distinct possibility, because I am an idiot), It follows from this that ‘abstract labor’ could not be historically specific to the capitalist mode of production.

I offered the possible explanation that Postone was trying to get at a slightly different proposition: namely, that for the capitalist mode of production alone “abstract labor is [taken for] concrete useful labor”. I mean by this that capital is not concerned with the production of use-values as such. Like our enlightened moderate Democrat, who does not see color, capital does not see iron, corn or yarn. Capital only sees values.

Postone explains his reasoning this way:

“… ‘abstract labour’ is not concrete labour in general, but is a different, historically specific, category. As argued in Time, Labour, and Social Domination, it signifies that labour in capitalism has a unique social function that is not intrinsic to laboring activity as such. Rather, commodity determined labour serves as a kind of quasi-objective means by which the products of others are acquired. It mediates a new form of interdependence, where people’s labour or labour products function as quasi-objective means of obtaining the products of others. In serving as such a means, labour and its products pre-empt that function on the part of manifest social relations.”

To be honest, I don’t know what to make of this assertion by Postone. To be clear, capitalism is a commodity producing society and, as in any commodity producing society, labor in the capitalist mode of production does serve as a quasi-objective means of obtaining the products of others. Postone is thus correct to state, as he does, that abstract labor,

“… refers to the historically specific constitution by labour in capitalism of a form of mediation that fundamentally characterizes that society. This mediating activity is not, however, a characteristic that is intrinsic to laboring activity. Consequently, it does not and cannot appear as such. Instead, when the commodity is analyzed, its historically specific dimension, value, appears to be constituted by labour in general, without any further qualifications the ‘expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles’. That is to say, the historically specific, socially mediating function of labour in capitalism appears as transhistorical concrete labour, as ‘labour’ that is, as an ontological essence rather than as a historically specific form. This ontological form of appearance of labor’s historically unique socially constituting function in capitalism is a fundamental determination of what Marx refers to as the fetish forms of capitalism”.

However, according to Marx, already in Aristotle’s time labor was serving as a quasi-objective means of obtaining the products of others. The problem for Aristotle with this quasi-objective mediation, says Marx, was that Aristotle lacked a notion of human equality and, therefore, of the equality between various sorts of concrete human labors. Aristotle thus could not explain what it was that he was seeing. The fetish form of the commodity is precisely what so confounded Aristotle, according to Marx:

“Exchange,” he says, “cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability”. Here, however, he comes to a stop, and gives up the further analysis of the form of value. “It is, however, in reality, impossible, that such unlike things can be commensurable” – i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalisation can only be something foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical purposes.”

If labor in capitalism has a unique social function as Postone argued, it certainly cannot be that it serves as a means by which the products of others is acquired since this function was already clearly established long prior to the rise of the capitalist mode of production.

Further, I am particularly disturbed by this quote from Postone:

Labour in capitalism, then, not only mediates the interaction of humans and nature, but also constitutes a historically specific social mediation, according to Marx. Hence, its objectifications (commodity, capital) are both concrete labour products and objectified forms of social mediation. According to this analysis, the social relations that most fundamentally characterize the capitalist form of social life are very different in kind from the qualitatively specific and overtly social relations, such as kinship relations, which characterize other forms of social life.

While mostly true as stated, what is lost here is the fact that this could be said for any commodity producing society — even Aristotle’s. Postone’s argument fails to isolate any characteristic that is historically specific to capital in large part because he thought what was historically specific to this mode of production was also linked to commodities in general, rather than specifically to labor power.

But the quote also raises a much more important question that needs to be addressed:

Is capital really a concrete labor product as Postone asserted?

#2 on Postone’s ‘Rethinking Capital’

In my last blog, I admitted that I was unclear why Postone failed to identify labor power as the unique historically specific commodity to which Marx was referring in Capital. In my opinion, this failure led him to assert that the “use-value dimension of the commodity is not historically unique to capitalism.”

While I don’t disagree with this assertion, I think Postone forgot his more important point that Marx was not referring to commodities in general, which exist in many societies, but only to the historically specific commodity of the capitalist mode of production, labor power.

While labor power is obviously employed for material production in many societies, its use in the capitalist mode of production is unique in that it can be employed by capital to valorize its own value.

Postone then makes this dubious argument:

“[Marx] maintains that labour in capitalism has a ‘double character’: it is both ‘concrete labour’ and ‘abstract labour’. ‘Concrete labour’ refers to laboring activities that mediate the interaction of humans with nature. Although it is only in capitalism that all such activities are considered types of an overarching activity (concrete) labour and all products are classed as similar, as use-values, this sort of mediating activity is transhistorical; it exists in all societies. The use-value dimension of the commodity is not historically unique to capitalism. This implies, however, that its value dimension and the labour that constitute it are historically specific. Hence, ‘abstract labour’ is not concrete labour in general, but is a different, historically specific, category.”

If I understand Postone, he is arguing that ‘abstract labor’ is historically specific to the capitalist mode of production. If this is indeed what Postone was arguing in this essay, he was wrong. There is nothing in Capital to suggest that Marx thought ‘abstract labor’ was specific to the capitalist mode of production.

It is true that Marx thought ‘abstract labor’ was specific to commodity production, but Postone already explained that commodities are not historically unique to capitalism. If commodities are not unique to capitalism and if they all share the characteristic attributes of being both use-values and values, how can ‘abstract labor’ be historically specific to capitalism?

Did commodities prior to capitalism have values? Yes.

Was there some other source of value prior to capitalism? No.

While I can’t really attribute this thought to Postone, of course, I believe he was actually trying to get at a slightly different proposition altogether, namely, that, unlike generic commodities, the use value of labor power for capital is tied to ‘abstract labor’, not ‘concrete labor’. For capital (and for this mode of production alone), ‘abstract labor’ or ‘human labor in the abstract’ is ‘concrete useful labor’.

Labor power has a use-value dimension that is historically unique to capitalism, but this use-value dimension is located (situated, based, positioned), bizarrely and uniquely, within its value dimension. This statement means the usefulness of the commodity to capital consists entirely in the fact that it can valorize (augment, enlarge, expand) its own value.

*****

Again, I am not sure if I have this right. I was not expecting to run into this problem with Postone. I am trying to work through it to see if we can get back on the same page.

Some thoughts on Postone’s “Rethinking Capital in light of the Grundrisse”

How should we read Capital?

A lot of folks — Harvey, Heinrich, Cleaver, and so many others — have their own particular take on this question.

In my opinion, Moishe Postone had a unique take that we might call a critique of the traditional reading of Capital. His critique of the traditional reading of Capital was grounded in Marx’s Grundrisse, which became widely read only beginning in the 1970s.

In his 2008 essay, Rethinking Capital in light of the Grundrisse, Postone argues,

“…[The] Grundrisse allows us to see that Marx’s critique in Capital extends far beyond the traditional critique of bourgeois relations of distribution (the market and private property). It not only entails a critique of exploitation and the unequal distribution of wealth and power, although it, of course, includes such a critique. Rather, it grasps modern industrial society itself as capitalist, and critically analyses capitalism primarily in terms of abstract structures of domination, the increasing fragmentation of individual labour and individual existence, and a blind runaway developmental logic. It treats the working class as the basic element of capital, rather than the embodiment of its negation, and implicitly conceptualizes socialism not in terms of the realization of labour and industrial production, but in terms of the possible abolition of the proletariat and the organization of labour based on proletarian labour (as well as of the dynamic system of abstract compulsion constituted by labour as a socially mediating activity).”

I want to bring your attention to an important feature of Postone’s reading of Capital: according to Postone, in Capital, Marx treats the working class as the basic element of capital. Not, “A basic element of capital”, “THE basic element of capital.”

Based on this reading of Capital, Postone argues,

“…[The] category of the commodity here does not refer to commodities as they might exist in many societies, … Rather, the category of the commodity here is historically specific. It designates the most fundamental social form of capitalist society, the form from which Marx then proceeded to unfold the essential features and dynamic quality of that society. The characteristics of that form that it simultaneously is a value and a use value, for example should also be understood as historically specific.”

If the working class is the basic element of capital, it follows from this statement that a single commodity, labor power, is the most fundamental social form of capitalist society.

Why Postone never states this explicitly in his 2008 essay is quite unclear to me. Had he stated it explicitly, he could have then gone on to say that communism must be conceptualized in terms of the abolition of wage labor.

This is a more precise definition of communism than the one he offers.

Postone further confuses the discussion when he tackles what he calls the dualistic character of the commodity, as a use-value and as a value. In this essay, Postone argues that the “use-value dimension of the commodity is not historically unique to capitalism.” While true, the problem with this assertion is that, as Postone informs us, the commodity is not historically unique to capitalism. However, as Postone explained, in Capital, Marx is not referring to commodities as they might exist in many societies. He is referring only to a historically specific commodity, i.e., to labor power.

Labor power is not only a commodity that is historically specific to capitalism, it has a use-value that is historically specific to the capitalism. Unlike every other commodity, labor power is a remarkable commodity with a capacity for creating value itself. The use-value of labor power that is historically specific to capitalism is that it creates value and can, therefore, valorize its own value.

Labor power meets our essential definition for capital: self-valorizing value. Corn cannot valorize itself, nor can iron or yarn; self-valorization is the unique quality of labor power alone.

The unexpected result I encountered here with Postone’s 2008 essay, forces me to look at it more closely.

What am I missing?

There is useful theory — and then there is Kliman’s theory

In September of this year, Andrew Kliman took a stab at the most important question of our time: “What’s Standing In The Way Of Socialism?”

I thought his answer was interesting:

I think there are both external and internal obstacles. The foremost external one is that a substantial segment of the capitalist class — in the US, Russia, and elsewhere — has decided to turn against liberal democracy and whip up pro-fascist sentiment, in order to protect its wealth and privileges. As David Frum, a conservative political pundit, has argued, Donald Trump came to power because wealthy interests, afraid that “the poor might pillage the rich,” helped to energize the racist, authoritarian, and misogynistic “Trump base.”

The foremost internal obstacle is the naïve belief that leftists can turn capitalism into something it’s not. So instead of struggling against capitalism, many leftists struggle for power within capitalism. They think that, by imposing radical redistribution of income and wealth, they can both improve working people’s lives and make capitalism function better. This ignores the obvious, overriding fact that capitalism is a profit-driven system. What’s good for the system — as distinct from the majority of people living under it — is high profits, not low profits. They also naïvely believe that government regulation will do wonders, even though the failure of Keynesian theory and policy during the massive economic crisis of the 1970s showed that passing laws does not overcome the economic laws that actually govern capitalism.

Ignore the silly, naive political Monday morning quarterbacking of the first paragraph. Every election outcome can be explained more or less as the result of infallible intervention by “wealthy interests” — whatever this sophomoric term means — until it cannot and we are forced to introduce some other silly, naive explanation.

I mean, to be perfectly honest, we cannot prove or disprove Kliman’s silly thesis that wealthy interests, fearful of the poor, promoted Trump’s election. The statement is so vague, and the terms involved are so ill-defined, as to constitute a staggering case of theoretical malpractice on the part of a Marxist writer.

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Some remarks on Pecunity’s “Rejoinder” on the one commodity model

Another blogger, who goes by the pen name of Pecunity, recently took issue with me on my discussion of the so-called one commodity model in a blog post, “Rejoinder to the Real Movement’s Critique of Sraffa”.

He finds my discussion to be sloppy, to say the least, and most of all wildly wrong.

Let me say at the outset, my discussion may indeed have been sloppy and wrong, however, in my defense, I was trying to highlight issues that I think are relevant to a host of problems that can all be gathered together under the subject of the so-called transformation problem.

—– begin snoozing here —–

I think the transformation problem is extremely important, because, when properly understood, it can be shown that, for Marx’s labor theory of value, this problem predicts the eventual collapse of the capitalist mode of production.

A lot is hanging on any reading of Marx in relation to this issue, as should be obvious.

Marx’s approach to the problem of how labor values are converted into capitalist prices of production is very controversial. Even apart from the claim that Marx made substantial mistakes in his actual exposition, many claim he fundamentally flubbed the answer with his approach.

Bohm-Bawerk, for instance, was the first to claim Marx basically threw out volume one of Capital as he began to describe the process of conversion of labor values into capitalist prices of production in volume three. Others have made similar allegations of inconsistency against Marx. Still others have tried, through various methodologies, to reproduce Marx’s results through arguments which, in my opinion, significantly differ from Marx’s core argument.

The problem in large part shared by all of these efforts for or against Marx’s approach is that they all seem to agree Marx was trying to ‘solve’ the problem of how labor values are converted into prices. It is my contention that Marx was actually trying to show why labor values could not be converted into capitalist prices of production. What Marx was trying to show, I contend, is that capitalist prices of production inevitably lead to the complete collapse of capitalism — to the breakdown of production based on exchange (labor) value.

*****

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That one time Andrew Kliman tried to school Moishe Postone

 

In a bizarre coincidence, I just received this comment from Matthew Culbert:

“Andrew Kliman, in Reclaiming Marx’s Capital, §8.4 “Postone’s Counter Critique”, reveals Postone’s scientific incompetence on the subject of Marx’s value.”

I think Matt is referring to the same Andrew Kliman who thinks a valueless fiat currency can express the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities. But perhaps he is referring to another Andrew Kliman.

Kliman is one of those imbeciles who thinks he is doing us a favor by defending Marx — as if Marx needs an imbecile like Kliman to defend him.

Here is Kliman’s argument against Postone:

“By itself, a discussion of Marx’s intentions does not refute the internal inconsistency allegation. Postone does not call his discussion a refutation, but what then is its actual purpose? An internally inconsistent argument is no more consistent after the author’s intentions are clarified than it was before. And if, because of such inconsistency, the intended conclusion cannot be sustained, why do the author’s intentions matter?4 The claims that Capital is internally inconsistent need to be taken seriously, and taken for what they actually are—not elements of a discourse on Marx’s intentions or method, but an attempt to discredit his arguments.”

It doesn’t matter what Marx was trying to do, says Professor Imbecile, if Marx argument contains an internal inconsistency. An argument that contains an internal inconsistency is no help in analyzing capital.

Is this true? What if the process itself contains not one but two aspects, and what if these two aspects were in contradiction to one another — so that one aspect is expressed generally, while the second is expressed only as a “tendency”. This might happen, for instance, if the law of value were fundamental to the mode of production known as commodity production, while the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which operates only in capitalist commodity production, operated only as a tendency.

In this case we would have to contradictory determinants of capitalistic prices of production: the law of value and the law of the average rate of profit. The contradiction between these two laws necessarily leads to the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. An exposition on how capitalistic commodity prices of production form would then appear to contain an internal contradiction. The problem, however, is not in the exposition of the formation of prices of production as such, but in the capitalistic mode of production itself.

What then is Marx trying to show?

He is trying to show why commodity production must collapse much as he predicted in the Grundrisse. To show why it must collapse he has to show that capitalistic prices of production already contain the necessity for their own collapse. This is quite unlike Bohm-Bawerk’s aim, which is to explain market prices. In Marx’s exposition, market prices are already irrational from the beginning. They express a moving contradiction.

Kliman isn’t even qualified to shine Postone’s boots.

Against the class struggle strategy

I have been asked to comment on Werner Bonefeld’s 2004 essay with the unusually long title, “On Postone’s Courageous but Unsuccessful Attempt to Banish the Class Antagonism from the Critique of Political Economy“.

The essay attempts to establish a beachhead, so to speak, against Postone’s master work, “Time, Labor and Social Domination”. In his ground-breaking book, Postone set forth the thesis that, properly understood, Capital should not be read as affirming wage labor against capital, but as an extensive critique of wage labor itself. The aim indicated in Capital is not for the emancipation of wage labor from capital, but the emancipation of the proletariat from wage labor itself. Postone argues that this distinction was not properly understood by Marxists for most of the 20th century and accounts for our present impasse.

Bonefeld disagrees with Postone reduction of classes and class struggle to a mere superficial phenomenon:

“Postone presupposes what needs to be explained: he presupposes the class-divided human being as a personification or a character-mask – that is, as a human attribute of things.”

Bonefeld accuses Postone of treating classes and class struggle as superficial manifestations of a much deeper process in much the same way prices of commodities can be said to be the superficial manifestation of their values. He warns this must lead to communists becoming apologists for existing social relations.

In this post, I want identify five problems with Bonefeld’s approach to historical materialism. In the next and final post, I will try to conceptualize what an alternative to the class struggle strategy might look like.

Before beginning, I have to admit a bias here: Postone’s argument is one of the more important reasons why I have adopted the slogan, “Communism is free time and nothing else.” So my discussion of Bonefeld’s critique of Postone will obviously be tilted in favor of the latter writer.

That said, this examination is not a defense of Postone. Postone doesn’t need an idiot like me to defend him. I examine Bonefeld’s critique in order to better my understanding of the implications of Postone’s argument in “Time, Labor and Social Domination”. Personally, I think there is no better way of grasping an argument than by studying the arguments made against it.

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