Postone on structure and agency

“One of the things I found very eye opening about the Grundrisse … was that Marx was not simply interested in the end of exploitation  of the proletarian labor but rather in the abolition of this labor. Most interpretations of surplus value missed this point.  The idea that Marx was interested in the self-abolition of the proletariat and not in its realization, led me to begin rethinking  Marx fundamentally.” –Postone, Interview with Moishe Postone: “Critique and Dogmatism”

In this quote from a 2011 interview, Postone describe what I agree is the most important aspect of historical materialism outlined by Marx. My ‘difficulty’ (if that is the right word) with Postone on this point is that, in the interview itself, he never relates Marx’s insight back to a real process. This might mislead the casual reader into believing Marx’s argument is merely political.

Postone does relate his point directly back to the real process in his book, Time, Labor and Social Domination, where he shows that Marx ‘interest’ in the abolition of labor is only a theoretical expression of the actual process of capitalistic development. Which is to say, Marx only demonstrates theoretically that abolition of labor is the trajectory of the capitalist mode of production itself. Postone makes this point in his book, but not in his interview.

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A dagger aimed at the heart of capitalism

The beauty of reducing hours of labor is that it appears to be an insignificant reform, when, in fact, it has the potential both to lay the foundation for communism and destroy capitalism. The significance of the conflict over hours of labor is as deeply obscured by capitalist relations of production as the role labor plays in the production of surplus value. However, anyone familiar with Marx’s reasoning, would understand why he called the struggle for reduction of hours of labor, “the modest Magna Carta of a legally limited working day.”

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Three reasons why my argument for reducing hours of labor may suck big time

There seems to be three major categories of objections to my argument on hours of labor:

First, what material impact will a reduction of hours of labor have on the operation of the capitalist mode of production?

chair-on-the-beach-1082-2560x1440A fall in the rate of profit produced by shorter hours will cause bankruptcies in a lot of marginally profitable industries. The capitalists will not simply respond to a fall in profits by paying workers more.  When hours are reduced, the capitalists will unleash an assault on the living standards of workers. Thus, a reduction of hours of labor will lead to an offensive against the social conditions of the working class.

Second, is a reduction of hours of labor incompatible with, or opposed to, the conventional Marxist argument that the working class must seize political power?

My argument exudes a hostility toward the working class seizing political power. My proposal for reduction of hours of labor treats the capitalist mode of production as an abstraction from the class struggle. Marx insisted that objective economic processes were an expression of class forces. The idea that reduction of hours of labor can lead to communism on its own is economism. Essentially, ending capitalism means abolition of private ownership of the means of production, and the capitalist nation-state system. In isolation from the seizure of state power and nationalization of private property, proposals for changes to the mode of production, like reduction of hours of labor, are reformist.

Third, will the working class itself support a demand for reductions of hours of labor?

Workers believe reducing hours of labor will reduce their income. Hours of labor reduction might result in a shift in such that most workers will actually see their wages fall; although some rise. With a reduction of hours of labor, wages might increase relative to profits, but still fall overall. A reduction of hours under capitalism will only intensify the social crisis of the working class.

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I’m pretty sure that does not exhaust the list. But they are interesting arguments anyways. Question 3 really is the killer, because if workers think they will be poorer they will never support it. Oddly enough, this was never a problem in France’s 35 hours law. Also average hours of labor in the US right now is about at 34.6 hours per week. Depending on the industry, hours of labor in October varied from 45 hours per week (mining) to 26.2 hours per week (leisure/hospitality). Retail, for instance, regularly runs a work week of less than 32 hours. Most people in the private service sector never see 40 hours per week.

I will probably address these three objections separately in the near future.

The ‘reformism’ of less work and the dull stupidity of Marxists.

Here is a comment on my blog post that was posted to Reddit’s socialism subreddit:

REDORDEAD: hmm yes in the age of austerity, in which an out of control falling rate of profit is causing massive reduction in work hours, automation of labor and mobilization of the world reserve army of labor the solution is the reformist demand for shorter work hours. what century are you living in?

WORKThe comment was fascinating to me, not just because I have heard it before, but also because I had no idea what it means. Reduction of labor is reformist? How so? On what basis does the redditor make this charge? Intrigued, I asked for clarification:  “Can you tell me what is reformist about demanding the end of wage labor?”

REDORDEAD: Thats not what you’re demanding. You’re demanding a reduction in the working day which capitalism already accomplishes through the rising organic composition of capital. Even Marx point out in Capital Vol. 1 that the movement for the 8 hour work day saves capitalism from itself by regulating the coercive laws of competition which cause the abuse and long-term exhaustion of the working class.

That’s not to say it can’t be a revolutionary demand given the right economic conditions, almost anything can be linked to the revolutionary demands of socialism given a mass party and disciplined mass line. But it seems worse than most, especially given the conditions today. Not sure why it’s significant at all, though it is time to think about tactics and less about theory.

This clarification had a lot of features in common with another comment posted to Reddit regarding the same blog post:

“It is thoroughly reformist. Your whole strategy is to simply fight for shortened work hours, increased hourly wages, etc. Nothing here about the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat… Congratulations, you’ve discovered economism.”

It appears that, in the thinking of these two critics, the reduction of hours of labor isn’t revolutionary because it doesn’t involve the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat, a direct demand for socialism, and a political party dedicated to this demand that practices a method of leadership that seeks to learn from the working class.

And this argument has some validity and much historical accuracy: both the ten hours day and the eight hours day were won without any fundamental alteration in the capitalistic nature of political relations. I am fascinated by this argument because, when all the dogmatic assertions are set aside, it suggests real material changes in the mode of production aren’t real without the right politics.

The problem with this reasoning is that capitalism is the production of surplus value; self-expanding value, etc. In their debates with the anarchists, Marx and Engels were stubbornly insisted on the primacy of economic relations over political relations.

Moreover, Marx almost never discussed capital without reiterating his definition of the mode of production, as he does, for instance, in chapter 15 of volume 3 of Capital:

“The purpose of capitalist production, however, is self-expansion of capital, i.e., appropriation of surplus-labour, production of surplus-value, of profit.”

Now, what has to be grasped is that, this old fart had already spent two fucking volumes of Capital defining and discussing capital yet he wants to emphasize — again — what he means by the term. In other words, after having already spent two volumes of Capital and 15 chapters of a third volume discussing capital, Marx feels the need to again reemphasize exactly what capitalism is!

Since capital is the production of surplus value, and since the production of surplus value varies with the length of the working day, how can the reduction of hours of labor be economism? It really can’t be economism and no amount of micro-sectarian ranting can make it economism. So, what is intended by activists who slap that label on reduction of hours of labor? What is intended by folks who call reduction of hours of labor reformist or economism?

I really think it is meant to draw attention to the fact it doesn’t necessarily involve the dictatorship of the proletariat, the association of laborers. People who make that charge really are trying to say I am neglecting the need for association of producers. I really have no answer to this charge. I just wanted to open my ears and for once understand why folks keep saying it. Implicit in this charge is the view that any measure, no matter how far reaching its implications, is a mere “reform” unless it is linked to the political rule of the working class.

This sort of view may in fact be valid for any measure you can imagine — except reduction of hours of labor. To understand why, simply think of a reduction of hours of labor carried to its extreme limit: hours of labor equal zero. Can capitalism exist on this basis?

Now, the argument might very well be that we can’t get to zero with a capitalist state — but that is a completely different argument. That is an argument that has nothing to do with the measure itself, but with the resistance of the capitalists and their state. Since the folks running the show today have always resisted less work for the producers, I don’t expect them to suddenly have a change of heart. Their resistance, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with reduction of hours of labor itself. They will just as viciously fight against higher wages, basic income or any other measure that appears to threaten the appropriation of surplus labor.

The difference, however, is that no matter how high wages go, they will never create communism; no matter how many food stamps you hand out or how high you raise the minimum wage or how good your health care system is — none of this can lead to communism. Because none of these measure touches on the heart of the problem: Labor itself.

However, reduce hours of labor to zero — and you will have communism before you ever even reach zero. The reduction of hours of labor is not like any other reform because no other reform touches on the critical role labor plays in the mode of production.

You can nationalize private property all day long; replace the existing state with an association of producers; or turn money into worthless labor chits — none of these measures directly touch on labor itself. Reduction of hours of labor alone can do this. The logic of my argument follows directly from Marx’s definition of capital as the “appropriation of surplus-labour, production of surplus-value, of profit.”

This is the problem we face, the conceptual obstacle post-World War II Marxism seems unable to surmount: How can the proletariat work out its own emancipation without turning back to the failures of 20th century political parties? How can the working class continue to focus on the seizure of state power, when the development of the productive forces themselves — expressed both in the form of globalization and its attendant neoliberal ideology — are undermining the very capacity of nation states to implement sovereign management of their own national capitals?

The political parties of the 20th century were based on the concept of what is today called accelerationism by some. This strategy is stated simply in the Communist Manifesto:

“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

The vision Marx and Engels evoked in this passage is that of a political power held in the hands of this class who basically would do what capital has itself done over the last 170 years: create the material conditions for communism. Going back to the political parties of the 20th century is not only impossible, it is unnecessary.

If Marxist writers like Postone, Kurz, Hudis, Harman, Kidron, Mohun, Sheikh, Tonak, etc. are correct, capitalism has already converted the largest portion of the labor day into superfluous labor time. At this point the proletariat need only to complete the process: convert the superfluous labor time into free disposable time for themselves. Marxists often assert that capitalism, even if it generates its own collapse,  is incapable of creating a communist society; yet, they have never once been able to describe what this latter act of creation consists of.

What is it that only the proletariat can accomplish? It certainly is not creating the material condition for communism — according to Marx in Capital, volume 3, capital itself does this without any assistance from proletarian political rule.

“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.”

So, what can the proletariat do that the bourgeoisie cannot? Since of all classes in modern society, the proletariat alone gains nothing by expenditures of unnecessary hours of labor, it can convert the surplus labor time of society into free disposable time for all.

“All Slaves Should Get Sundays Off”: Richard Wolff on the four day work week

Richard Wolff, clueless economist that he is, has even managed to fuck up a discussion of hours of labor reduction. He has written a very interesting piece in Truthout proposing a reduction of the workweek with no cut in pay. The idea is very attractive, and Wolff is a ‘celebrity’ Marxist who can give the issue wide circulation.

richard_wolff_photoIn principle I have no opposition to Wolff’s proposal, which at least raises the possibility that the present 40 hours work week was not handed down from Mt. Sinai on two tablets of stone. Wolff shows why we can set any number of hours of labor as the social norm that we want.

Unfortunately, almost from the first, Wolff mangles the discussion of hours of labor reduction in two important ways: First, by conflating his own reduction of hours of labor with several capitalist proposals to  ‘compress’ the work week into fewer days. Wolff never clearly distinguishes his proposal for a reduction of labor hours from the capitalists’ own proposal for a compression of the present 40 hours of labor into fewer days per week.

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The Value of Labor Theory: Money as a class dictatorship

Continued from here

Labor screen_shot_2014-04-13_at_7.29.21_pmtheorists are so used to expressing their ideas in the form of abstract, scholastic, indecipherable bullshit, they have lost all ability to state in clear language, comprehensible to the working class, the gist of the argument they wish to make.

Take, for instance, this passage from Paulani’s paper:

“the categorical evolution of money results in a need for the expulsion of the materiality of money, that is, its ‘natural’ logical movement leads it to a figure that is no longer connected with a real (produced by labour) commodity.”

What does this gibberish even mean?

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The Value of Labor Theory: Money is a political weapon of one class over another

Continued from here

Here is a fact that is absolutely vital to your material standard of living and that of your children:

Money is political.

atlanticapril2012It is a political weapon employed by one class in society to subjugate the other class and force it to labor ceaselessly.

Yet, today, we have a bunch of useless labor theorists running around who approach money as if it is above classes. There are two classes in society and, therefore, two antagonistic and incompatible expressions of the socially necessary labor time of society. This cannot but give rise to two fundamentally incompatible money forms. The struggle in society over which money form will be established as the universal equivalent cannot be divorced from the struggle over what constitutes the socially necessary labor time of the working class.

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The Value of Labor Theory: Money as an unconscious class war raging in society

Continued from here

One of the difficulties I often encounter when discussing money is that the discussion is so couched in incomprehensible philosophical or scholastic bullshit that the absolutely vital stake ordinary working folks have in the debate never dwars 88 Unifac Financien - Basia Dajnowiczsees the light of day. The question at issue in the debate is not just “What is money?” Rather, the question posed is “What would be the socially necessary labor time of society today if the money we used was a commodity money as Marx argued?”

Labor theorists have a number of very interesting answers to the question, “What is money?” But not a single one of them has ever actually investigated the implications for wage slavery if their pet answer were true. You can look at the writings of people like Moseley, Foley, Nelson, Arthur, Campbell, etc. All have very interesting answers to the question, “Must money be a commodity?” However, one thing you will notice in common in all of these papers is that not one of these useless academics ever manages to explain how their particular answer affects the labor time of the working class.

It is time to put an end to this sort of nonsense: money is class warfare and labor theorists are fighting on the wrong side.

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The Value of Labor Theory: “Our friend, Moneybags, should be so lucky …”

In part I of this series, I explained how the events of 1971 — the collapse of Bretton Woods — had its roots in a process Marx first fully described in Capital: the ever increasing separation of the useful qualities of the commodity from its value, i.e., the socially necessary labor time, required for its production. In this separation, for the first time the labor time required to produce the commodity takes a form that is independent of the useful qualities of the commodity.

banqueroThis fact has significance for us because unless Marx established in the opening chapter of Capital that these two characteristics of the commodity take on forms that are independent of one another, he could not show that Keynes’ so-called “technological unemployment” was an inevitable result of capitalist commodity production. In other words, Marx intended to show that absolute overaccumulation — in the form of an excess mass of capital and an excess population of workers — had to develop, leading to the complete breakdown in production on the basis of exchange value that he predicted in the Grundrisse.

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The Value of Labor Theory (and the uselessness of labor theorists)

In 1971, the United States, under pressure from international economic forces, was forced to abandon the gold standard. Yet forty years later, labor theorists have failed to come to grips with that event and refuse to acknowledge what it technologicalunemploymentsignified: the final collapse of production on the basis of exchange value, as was predicted by Karl Marx in 1858. This incapacity to recognize Marx’s prediction in the actual events of 1971, probably more than any other single event in 20th century history, demonstrates the utter and complete failure of the post-war Marxist school.

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