The Real Movement

Communism is free time and nothing else!

Tag: post-capitalist society

Capital, commodity production and collapse (V): After collapse, what?

Part 5: Is Marxism today out of sync with history?

“Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.” –Albert Einstein

In first place, the failure to recognize production based on exchange value has already collapsed implies Marxists are (or may be) looking for an event to occur in the future that has already happened in the past. In second place, it is effectively the same thing as stating Marx was wrong about the ultimate trajectory of capitalist production. At best, we have to explain why Marx’s predicted breakdown has not happened already; at worst, we might conclude Marx’s theory has been falsified by history.

This problem is further complicated when Marx’s theory is misread to predict something he clearly never predicted, “a collapse of capitalism”. If capitalism did not collapse as Marx said it would — and, obviously, it has not — it must follow his theory has been falsified by history. The problem with this conclusion, of course, is that Marx never actually predicted capitalism would collapse, he predicted production based on exchange value would collapse. In Marx’s theory, the collapse of production based on exchange value might very well lead to the end of capitalism as well, but it could just as easily lead to the state becoming the national capitalist, the direct exploiter of the working class.

If you think Marx predicted the collapse of capitalism, Marx is obviously wrong. This is bad for Marx, but no worse than hundreds of would-be prophets throughout history who have turned out to be wrong, including a considerable population waiting for Jesus to return. But if you think Marx predicted the breakdown of production based on exchange value, as I do, the implications are much worse for the working class today.

If Marx was right, Marxists today are completely out of sync with history.

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Capital, commodity production and collapse (IV): Collapse or Collapsed?

Part 4: Back to the future?

If you ask the typical Marxist to name the most important prediction made by Marx’s labor theory of value, they will likely point to his prediction of a proletarian social revolution. Few, if any, Marxists will argue Marx’s most important prediction was that commodity production would break down, capitalist private property would be expropriated and the bourgeois state would be forced to undertake management of production.

Which is odd, since, in the intervening 160 years, no successful proletarian revolution has occurred, yet we have witnessed the collapse of production based on exchange value, the expropriation of capitalist private property and we have seen the state undertake management of production — a ubiquitous and routine function in all countries today. By the measure of an alleged prediction of a proletarian social revolution, it can be said Marx’s theory, at best, remains unproven. Yet, by the measure of a break down of production based on exchange value, Marx’s theory has been remarkably accurate.

It’s almost as if Marx knew what he was talking about. “Almost”, reply many of our most influential Marxist theorists.

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Capital, commodity production and collapse (III): Collapse of what?

Part 3: Breakdown in Marx’s Theory

So, I have been mulling Marx’s prediction of the ultimate result of capitalist development with increasing confusion — confusion because Marx is extremely precise, yet he never exactly predicts the breakdown or collapse of capitalism itself.

Marx makes three important predictions about capitalism.

First, in the Grundrisse, he predicts,

“As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis.”

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Capital, commodity production and collapse (II)

Part Two: The ambiguous case of the Soviet Union

To explain profit, Marx proposed the existence of a new type of commodity peculiar to the capitalist mode of production. This new commodity, labor power, had the characteristics of a typical commodity; it had a value equal to its socially necessary labor time and it had a specific social use value: it could be used as capital to produced surplus value. The specific social use value of this commodity, argued Marx, explained how capital created profit apparently out of nothing.

It also explained how capital violates the premises of commodity exchange generally.

In commodity production, of which capital is a specific historical form, the value of a commodity is equal to the socially necessary labor time required for its production. The time spent on production of the commodity in excess of what is necessary on average for its production creates no value.

To illustrate his point, Marx pointed to the case of a producer who, by lack of skill or laziness, spent more time producing her commodity than the social average. This additional labor time, argued Marx, produced a commodity with no more value than that embodied in a commodity produced by a skillful efficient producer. In the market, each would fetch the same price, with no more paid for the commodities of lazy unskillful producers than for the commodities of efficient ones.

The reproduction of labor power as a commodity, however, operates according to decidedly different laws than those of simple commodities. It is the source of surplus value and the quantity of surplus value created by its productive consumption is directly proportional to its duration. In contrast to ordinary commodities, therefore, the duration of labor expended by labor power in production must always exceed the duration of socially necessary labor time required for the reproduction of the labor power itself.

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The Great Unsolved Mystery of the 20th Century: Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

Despite its devastating impact on global relations between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie within the world market, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union remains mostly unexplained. A large body of literature has been produced to explain the collapse, but, to my mind, very little of it provides a satisfactory explanation.

So I took up reading this paper, recommended by someone on ask.fm, A Reassessment of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, by Robert C. Allen, without the expectation it would add much to the subject.

I was wrong. I now think it is a must read.

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A future beyond capitalism is the end of the world

Zizek is famously quoted as saying, “it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.” I have been reading a lot of writers who are trying to prove Zizek wrong by imagining a society that might be loosely categorized as post-capitalism — a term I personally detest.

Despite my aversion to that term, I want to make several observations that might be considered odd for folks interested in the subject of post-capitalism:

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After capitalism, what? (Random thoughts on Paul Mason’s article)

I am reading an article by Paul Mason, “The end of capitalism has begun”. This article can be placed in the context of several videos exploring the same theme by radical thinkers. There is, for instance, a video by Peter Hudis, “Alternatives to Capital”; and David Harvey gave a rambling lecture from 2013 along the same lines,  “The End of Capitalism”.

The three pieces are all of a type: speculation regarding the end of capitalism and of what might replace capitalism if it is at its end.

According to Mason, the end of capitalism is driven by three forces: First, capitalism has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly because, while markets depend on scarcity, information is abundant. Third, Mason notes the spontaneous rise of collaborative production that is no longer determined by markets and managerial hierarchies.

To be sure, the end of capitalism has been predicted so often that any sane person would conclude the subject hardly bears serious examination. The end of capitalism is the “Who shot JFK?” of social commentary, periodically surfacing in society during crises. None of the above mentioned individuals are insane, however, yet they are willing to stand before audiences and speculate on what many may judge to be crackpot theories.

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Robert Kurz, David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs” and the collapse of capitalism

In section 3 of the Apotheosis of Money, Robert Kurz takes on a problem that has been discussed by Marxists for almost 80 years. The discussion is important because, I believe, its conclusions will have more to say about what a post-capitalist society actually looks like than any of the issues typically raised by the Left:

“it is clear that, taken as a whole, the share of those unproductive workers (viewed from the perspective of surplus value production) who only represent social consumption, that is, “overhead costs”, is constantly increasing.”

t1larg.office.spaceAnother way to state this is that an ever increasing share of the total labor time of society is being wasted on unproductive labor —   an issue raised by David Graeber in his recent essay, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.

Kurz’s essay is significant to me, because if, as I think, communism is free time and nothing else, society seems to be preparing for just this possibility. The collapse of capitalism will likely appear, as it did in the Soviet Union, as a crisis in the form of massive unemployment, which locks billions out of the labor market, making it possible for the social producers to eliminate most work in a single stroke. The preparation for a society founded on free, disposable time for the many, who can use this free time for self-activity in whatever way they want, may just be taking the form of an ever increasing quantity of labor time that is being unproductively expended by capitalist firms.

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