It is generally assumed among socialists that society cannot go from capitalism to communism in one leap, but, like Rooksby, I am unclear exactly what socialists think can be accomplished on the day after they get elected or otherwise seize power. If I read him correctly, it appears as if Rooksby imagines self-styled socialists (or what passes for socialist these days) can and must be satisfied to simply manage capitalism for a longer or shorter period of time.
I have been reading this article by Alan Nasser: “The Alternative To Long-Term Austerity: Less Work, Higher Wages, No Mere Utopian Dream”. Nasser appears to be an advocate of labor hours reduction; which he calls “the only practical alternative to […] secular stagnation”. To make his argument, Nasser enlists the writings of both Marx and Keynes to arrive at his own synthesis — a sort of Keynesian-Marxism.
Now, a lot of people have their own pet reading of Marx’s Capital and there are controversies about how it should be properly interpreted. For instance, some writers. like Cleaver, approach Capital politically, rather than as an economic work. Others approach Capital as if it is an economics textbook: “This is how capital works.” Still others approach Capital as a critique of political-economy, a radical criticism of the premises of bourgeois economic science.
There is some truth in all of these approaches in my opinion, but hardly enough to sustain any long-term genuine interest in the book. In my opinion, to really understand Capital, you have to realize that capital, the social relation, is a transitional mode of production.
In my opinion, nothing about Capital, the book, makes sense unless you understand capital, the social relation, is a transitional, historically limited, mode of production.
I have been rereading the paper by Kallis, Kalush, O’Flynn, Rossiter and Ashford, “Friday off”: Reducing Working Hours in Europe. I first learned of the paper when it was tweeted by Alex Tsipras on the night SYRIZA was elected to lead the government of Greece. I found it remarkable that this paper, which calls for a reduction of labor time, was being distributed by the head of that radical party on the eve of its victory. Did it signal his intention to pursue a new, radical, approach to the crisis in the European Union?
After that initial reaction, I’m now beginning to understand how the argument of Kallis, et al. was limited by a flawed approach to labor hours reduction in which labor hours reduction is essentially treated as just another tool of fascist state management of the economy. Many of the flaws relate to their poor (perhaps, non-existent) grasp of the basics of labor theory and reliance on neoclassical theory to make their argument. Those flaws can be broken down into three questions:
- Is labor hours reduction a policy tool?
- Can reducing hours of labor fix social ills created by capitalism?
- Is a reduction of hours of labor compatible with capitalism?
The following is my take on their approach.
Wolfgang Streeck has written a fascinating essay titled, “How will capitalism end? I think it is a must read for anyone who wants to shake the cobwebs of routine thinking from their head and open up a bit of room for thinking differently about the present crisis and its ultimate outcome. There are four outstanding observations in particular that I wish to draw attention to:
- “I suggest that we learn to think about capitalism coming to an end without assuming responsibility for answering the question of what one proposes to put in its place.”
- “[There] is today no political-economic formula on the horizon, left or right, that might provide capitalist societies with a coherent new regime of regulation, or régulation.”
- “[Disorganized] capitalism is disorganizing not only itself but its opposition as well, depriving it of the capacity either to defeat capitalism or to rescue it.”
- “[Capitalism’s] defeat of its opposition may actually have been a Pyrrhic victory, freeing it from countervailing powers which, while sometimes inconvenient, had in fact supported it.”
Interesting enough, although his argument is fascinating, Streeck can’t seem to take his eyes off purely superficial expressions of the crisis. There is stagnation, inequality, private appropriation of the public sphere, corruption and a breakdown in the Post-World War II order. Examined closely, it would appear this isn’t a critical examination of the process of capitalistic collapse; it is a series of mainstream media headlines. Thus, Streeck offers a very interesting observation — capitalism is killing itself with its own success — based on paltry, almost banal, evidence.
While Streeck argues there is no political-economic formula to provide capitalist societies with a coherent new regime; he never investigates the possibilities for a path outside political-economy. Capitalist political-economy, argues Streeck, is shaking itself apart and anti-capitalist political-economy seems, at best, only to mediate the process. But, in the end, all Streeck has told us is that no political-economy (capitalist or anti-capitalist) offers a way out of the present crisis. He leaves it here, as if he has thoroughly investigated every possible future.
But suppose we do not aim for a new regime of regulation? Suppose we neither want to defeat capitalism nor rescue it? Suppose, as Landian accelerationism proposes, we do not wish to act as a countervailing power, but an accelerating one? And suppose, in acting as an accelerant to capitalism, we do not intend to put anything in its place?
The very idea that we should be solely concerned to accelerate capitalism headlong into its inevitable demise without any concern for what comes after it is sure to loosen the bowels of our Marxists imbeciles, but what comes after capitalism is not foreshadowed by anything we imagine today.
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?
The 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.
I am reading, “Systemic Fear, Modern Finance and the Future of Capitalism” by Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan and my head is exploding as I try to grasp the implications of their argument. I will try to cover this paper in two parts.
In this part I want to show why Bichler and Nitzan are concerned only with a certain sort of capital — superfluous or excess capital. In the next part I will show why this capital, since it has no productive purpose, i.e., because it does not produce surplus value, can only function as capital if it lent to the fascist state. My argument has implication that I will develop in part two.
Capitalization and ‘rupture’
According to Bichler and Nitzan, capital is finance capital and is only concerned with the present value of future stream of profits:
“In its modern incarnation, capital exists as forward-looking capitalization, a universal financial ritual that discounts expected future earnings to a singular present value.”
This perspective ignores the “duality” between real and fictitious capital; between material production and finance. In terms Marx might put it, Bichler and Nitzan proposed that the reality of capital in the 21st century is not M=>C=>P=>C’=M’, but the truncated formulation of fictitious capital, M=>M’. In short, this is the capital that Marx says knows nothing about production; It is a speculative capital that makes its home solely in the sphere of fictitious profits.
For this reason, perhaps, Bichler and Nitzan do not speak of a capitalist mode of production at all, but a ‘capitalist mode of power’.
If you want to make the case against Nick Land, you could not do it more completely than the case made against him by Alex Williams. According to Williams, Land seeks to dissolve humanity “in a technological apotheosis”. The terminology is just completely over the top: Land has ‘hijacked’ Deleuze and Guattari, “bringing out an implicit inhuman pro-capitalism.”
Note Williams admit this so-called “inhuman pro-capitalism” is already implicit in Deleuze and Guattari. He cannot possibly accuse Land of having invented it as I have so often accused Marxists of inventing ideas said to originate with Marx. If Land has done anything, it is only to tease out of Deluze and Guattari an inhuman pro-capitalism that was already present.
Well, at least in part, it is because Land’s self-styled critics, such as, for instance, Alex Williams, write shit like this:
Where Deleuze and Guattari ultimately counseled caution, to accelerate with care to avoid total destruction, Land favored an absolute process of acceleration and deterritorialization, identifying capitalism as the ultimate agent of history. As Land puts it, “Capitalism has no external limit, it has consumed life and biological intelligence, [and it is] vast beyond human anticipation.” Here, the deregulation, privatization, and commodification of neoliberal capitalism will serve to destroy all stratification within society, generating in the process unheard of novelties. Politics and all morality, particularly of the leftist variety, are a blockage to this fundamental historical process. Land had a hypnotizing belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity. In this visioning of capital, even the human itself can eventually be discarded as mere drag to an abstract planetary intelligence rapidly constructing itself from the bricolaged fragments of former civilizations. As Land has it, through the acceleration of global capitalism the human will be dissolved in a technological apotheosis, effectively experiencing a species-wide suicide as the ultimate stimulant head rush.
Marxists look at Land and they are scandalized by his writing; writings that violate their petty bourgeois sensibilities.
Left accelerationists have to show why they are not simply repackaging a discredited Marxist political strategy — a charge Nick Land makes forcefully here. The reason I say this is simple: a vulgar interpretation of Marx’s theory would suggest that as the conditions of the working class deteriorated, they would be goaded into a socialist revolution. Some variant on this idea regularly becomes very popular among Marxists in the middle of economic downturns.
Of course, this idea is not as blunt as I put it. For instance many simply assume deteriorating conditions push people into struggle with capital and requires the additional intervention of some sort of advanced or vanguard element to raise the political consciousness of the class. This seems to be the thinking behind the more polished argument made by Michael A. Lebowitz in this passage that crises produces conditions for socialist education:
“But, they are merely open to this understanding. All those actions, demonstrations and struggles in themselves cannot go beyond capitalism. Given that exploitation inherently appears simply as unfairness and that the nature of capital is mystified, these struggles lead only to the demand for fairness, for justice within capitalist relations but not justice beyond capitalism. They generate at best a trade union or social-democratic consciousness—a perspective which is bounded by a continuing sense of dependence upon capital, i.e., bounded by capitalist relations. Given that the spontaneous response of people in motion does not in itself go beyond capital, communication of the essential nature of capitalism is critical to its nonreproduction.”
But it was (and still is) generally held that when conditions deteriorate the working class is pushed in a heightened level of at least defensive conflict with the capitalists and thus become more open to “socialist education”.
Accelerationism simply asks a perfectly reasonable question: If deteriorating conditions allows the working class to become more open to going beyond capitalism, why try to prevent conditions from deteriorating? Why fight for piecemeal reforms that only prop up existing society by maintaining the illusion it can be fixed? If the capitalists are only concerned to push their brutal exploitation of the class to ever more extreme limits, why not welcome this?
The post mentioned in the title of this blog post has a rather different take on Nick Land’s Accelerationism (because, in any case, Land is the boogeyman we should all fear) and its Leftist expression. In this view, no Left accelerationist advocates accelerating capitalism because it will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Any such idea is a straw man.
“Not even Nick Land? No. Not even Nick Land. He likes capitalism. He wants to accelerate it, but not because it will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. What about Deleuze and Guattari? No. According to them ‘nothing has ever died of contradictions’, and so whatever deterritorialising force they aim to accelerate, and whatever end they aim to accelerate it towards, neither is a contradiction or its inevitable collapse. What about Srnicek and Williams? No. Much of what they do can be seen as breaking with D&G (and a fortiori with Land), and returning to a much more Marxist position, but they explicitly refuse to see the transition between capitalism and post-capitalism as a dialectical sublation brought about by the intensification of contradictions.”
“Well, what about Marx then?!”, the author asks. Not surprising, at this point the author wants to change the subject:
“Just how much Marx is invested in a substantive notion of contradiction as the metaphysical driving force of history is a question up for debate, and I’m not about to stumble into that particular hermeneutic hornets’ nest.”
Really? You’re shitting me, right?