Capitalism Without A Capitalist: Why SYRIZA probably will fail

arguing-evangelismThere are two absolutely essential essays drawn from post-war Marxism that are key to understanding why SYRIZA most likely will fail: The first is Robert Kurz’s “Domination without a subject” and Michael A. Lebowitz’s “What Keeps Capitalism Going”.

Kurz explains why what we call Marxism is a reductive critique of the concept of domination  that is incapable of explaining “mature” capitalism:

“One of the favorite terms of leftist social critique, stated with all the thoughtlessness due to the obvious, is that of “domination”. The “rulers” were and still are considered in countless essays and pamphlets as malefactors of vast and universal but vague reach, in an attempt to explain the miseries of capitalist socialization. This framework is retrospectively applied to all of history. In the specifically Marxist jargon this concept of domination is extended by adding the concept of the “ruling class”. In this manner the understanding of domination acquires an “economic basis”. The ruling class is the consumer of surplus value, which it cleverly and perfidiously and, of course, violently, appropriates.

It is immediately apparent that most theories of domination, including the Marxist ones, display a reductive utilitarian approach to the problem. If there is an appropriation of the labor of “others”, if there is social repression, if there is open violence, it is for someone’s use and advantage. Cui bono—this is what the problem is reduced to. A consideration of this kind does not fit with reality. Not even the construction of the pyramids of the ancient Egyptians, which devoured a not-insignificant portion of the surplus product of that society, can be forcefully reduced to a perspective of (purely economic) benefit of a class or caste. The reciprocal massacre of the various “rulers”, for reasons of “honor”, remains notably outside of any simple calculation of utility.”

Lebowitz explains why a close reading of Marx will show capital “produces a worker who looks upon its requirements as ‘self-evident natural laws’?

“When we think about the dependence of the worker on capital, is it difficult to grasp why capitalism keeps going? After all, Marx not only proposed that capitalism “breaks down all resistance” he also went on to say that capital can “rely on his [the worker’s] dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them” (899). Capitalism tends, in short, to produce the workers it needs.”

Both essays go a long way toward explaining why SYRIZA, although it now has in its hands management of the largest single employer in Greece, likely will never consciously exploit this position to advance the emancipation of society from labor.

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Capital in the 21st Century: Thomas Piketty’s homage to Michael Heinrich

Who can read Piketty’s gloss on Kuznets, Malthus and Ricardo in his introduction and not wonder if he read as little of them as he read of Marx?

I can imagine a replay of his New Republic interview:

INTERVIEWER: “Can you talk a little bit about the effect of Kuznets, Ricardo and Malthus on your thinking and how you came to start reading them?

PIKETTY: “Ricardo and Malthus?”

INTERVIEWER: “Yeah.”

PIKETTY: “I never managed really to read them. I mean I don’t know if you’ve tried to read them. Have you tried?”

INTERVIEWER: “Some of their essays, but not the economics work.”

PIKETTY: “I think, they are very difficult to read and for me they were not very influential.”

INTERVIEWER: “Because your book, obviously with the subject matter, it seemed like you were tipping your hat to them in some ways.”

PIKETTY: “No not at all, not at all! The big difference is that my book is a book about the history of capital. In the books of Malthus and Ricardo there’s no data.”

terminator_salvation_24444In his introduction to Capital in the 21st Century, Piketty characterizes Marx’s definition of capital as “infinite accumulation”. In fact, far from infinite, Marx characterizes capital as a “merely historical, transitory” mode of production. Where in Marx’s argument, covering three volumes, does Piketty find this characterization of capitalism as one of infinite accumulation? It is difficult to read Piketty’s characterization of capitalism in Marx and come away with any confidence in his characterizations of Malthus and Ricardo’s writings.

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MMT and the United States as the international monetary sovereign

NOTE FOR THE READER: I want to reiterate that fascism, in the sense I use the term, only describes a state managed economy. I need to clarify again that my argument is not that modern money theory (MMT) is wrong, but that it correctly describes how fascism works. Nor do I wish to suggest that fascism means MMT is Nazism — many people who could never be described as Nazis embrace MMT insights. A fascist state, as I use the term, must be contrasted with a commune of the social producers, not with ‘democracy’ or a bourgeois republic. In fascism the bourgeois state manages the economic activity of the whole society, while a commune of social producers is self-managed. If the reader fails to keep these critical ideas in mind when reading this post, nothing much of my argument will make sense to you.

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A ‘sufficient’, but not ‘necessary’ cause?

At this point, I want to discuss a critical weakness in Tymoigne and Wray’s “Modern Money Theory 101: A Reply to Critics”, that is exposed when a third, external trade, sector is introduced to the simple two-sector MMT model of an reservecurrencieseconomy. In the simple two-sector model, the means of exchange used by society in its exchange relations is assumed to be supplied by the state. According to MMT, the preference for state issued inconvertible fiat currency — over commodity money or bank notes — is that the state imposes taxes for which it only accepts its currency as payment. This, the writers argue, is sufficient to explain what “drives” state fiat as currency:

“The simple fact is that almost all monies of account are ‘state monies’ and almost all government currencies do have taxes or other obligations standing behind them. Further, even if one can find a money of account and a currency that has no fee, fine, tax, tribute, or tithe backing it, that would not invalidate MMT. Perhaps Palley does not understand the difference between ‘necessary’ and ‘sufficient’ conditions: a tax (or other involuntary obligation) is sufficient to drive a currency; it might not be necessary. MMT theory relies on the sufficient condition, not the necessary condition.”

For the moment, I will overlook the questionable assertion that “almost all monies of account are ‘state monies'”. For July alone, in the US, consumer credit outstanding — a money form that is not in any way a ‘state money’ amounted to $3.2 trillion. This private money is, of course, denominated in US dollars, but it is a privately issued money form that seldom takes the form of state currency.

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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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Proletarian Revolution versus The Real Movement of Society: A reply to Siddiq

revolutionA comment by Siddiq on my blog argues that I am off-base by suggesting there is no need whatsoever for a conscious revolutionary subject. I want to take a moment to respond and explain my apparent difference with value critique writers like Robert Kurz.

In contradiction to value critique theorists like Kurz, I assume the collapse of capitalism and emergence of communism are one and the same event. Disputing this opinion, the commenter writes,

“First hand experience, and historical precedent, leads me to agree with Kurz that there is no guarantee that capitalist collapse will lead to some sort of emancipation.”

His argument is based on his direct experience in Zimbabwe in the aftermath of its recent crisis, where he observed economic crisis led not to a post-capitalist order, but to

“grassroots capitalism, in which the entire population hustled to survive by any means PERMITTED, most of which involved entrepreneurship and trading.”

I take this to mean, in the aftermath of the crisis, people tried to reconstruct their lives on the basis of barter relations. This is not at all unusual; as the commenter points out, evidence of this sort of thing can be found in any number of countries hit by an economic catastrophe. I can personally attest to seeing just this sort of behavior in the aftermath of the Argentine crisis with my own eyes. So I can vouch for the general view expressed in the comment, if not to the specifics in the case of Zimbabwe.

So what is the takeaway from these sorts of experiences with economic crisis and their political impact?

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Anselm Jappe and the end of the wertkritik school?

JappeI might turn out to be wrong, but based on my reading of Anselm Jappe’s “Towards a History of the Critique of Value”, I think wertkritik has encountered its limits. In the essay, Jappe shows that all you can get from wertkritik is an ever longer laundry list of dumb shit that will go when labor goes. This effort played a crucial role historically by challenging Marxism in all of its varieties, but it cannot do what we need right now — indicate a path forward.

Jappe states wertkritik has refused to come up with practical actions based on its methodology, but this is a specious argument: What he should have said is what the critics say themselves: wertkritik cannot provide a practical guide to action.

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Superfluous labor and state debt

In his “Apotheosis of Money”, Robert Kurz makes this statement:

“If State consumption and State credit, crushed together as if by an avalanche, play a central role in this development, this is also due of course, to the fact that the State (unlike a private entity which avails itself of credit) is considered to be a “secure debtor” which means, however, that the State, in the event of a great monetary and credit crisis, will not declare bankruptcy, but will simply expropriate its citizen-creditors.”

The argument Kurz makes here is that the unproductive consumption of surplus value, made possible by the credit extended to the state, is dependent on the state’s ability to repay its debt and must, sooner or later, result

Decreasing federal deficits preceded both the 2001 and 2008 crises. (Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve)
Decreasing federal deficits preceded both the 2001 and 2008 crises. (Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve)

in the state expropriating the owners of capital. I am not especially satisfied with the way Kurz formulates the problem here. My difficulty with Kurz’s formulation is probably best expressed in the words of the bourgeois simpleton, Paul Krugman — for reasons that are not entirely clear to the bourgeois simpletons the long-standing prediction of an impending crisis for Washington’s finances over the last thirty years never finally materialized:

“Fear of a Greek-style fiscal and financial crisis has loomed over much of our policy discourse over the past four years, and has played a significant role in shaping actual policy, constituting the principal argument for austerity in countries that don’t face any current difficulties in borrowing. However, despite repeated warnings that crises of confidence are imminent in floating-rate debtors – mainly the United States, the UK, and Japan – these crises keep not happening.”

Krugman has his explanation for why the predicted crisis “keeps not happening”, but he is a simpleton who thinks the problem is, “as simple and silly” as he is. Labor theory offers a much simpler and elegant explanation for why Washington has never experienced the sort of crisis predicted by bourgeois economists. It is an explanation I will need if I am to finally explain how reduction of hours of labor affects profits in an economy characterized by massive expenditures of unproductive labor time.

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How superfluous labor time creates inflation

Dollarpurchasingpower
The purchasing power of one dollar, as measured in percentage of an ounce of gold. (1970-2012)

I want to turn to the question of the impact of the growing mass of superfluous labor time has on the exchange value and prices of commodities. Once i am finished, I hope you will understand why inflation is not a mystery — and, consequently, why all inflation within the mode of production can be traced to the growing mass of unproductive labor.

As I explained in the previous post, the emergence of a significant mass of superfluous labor time within the mode of production is the result of the tendency toward overproduction of commodities, of overproduction of capital in the form of commodities.

According to Marx in Volume 3 of Capital, this overproduction necessarily results in the devaluation of capital: At the point where overproduction of capital becomes a general condition of the mode of production, no increase in the mass of capital can add to the mass of profits; indeed, the possibility exists that an increase in the mass of capital actually results in a fall in the mass of profits.

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Why superfluous labor time is a really big problem for labor theory

To explain the impact a reduction of hours of labor has on the state, it is first necessary to explain three interrelated phenomena that, while not explicitly assumed by Marx in Capital Volume 3, chapter 15, nevertheless can only be explained based on that text. Taken together these three premises amount to the breakdown of production based on exchange value.

These premises are:

  1. A growing mass of superfluous labor time within the mode of production;
  2. a growing divergence between the values and prices of commodities (i.e., inflation); and
  3. a growing mass of state debt that cannot be repaid.

socially-necessary-labor-time-as-a-percentage-of-the-work-dayWith regards to point 1, we have already spoken of the empirical work of both labor theorists and bourgeois simpletons that point in the direction of a significant mass of unproductive labor time within the so-called economy. However, this observation immediately runs into a problem for labor theory: superfluous labor cannot exist on the premises Marx assumes in Capital, yet it has to be explained based on those premises.

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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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