by Nathan Coombs
The following commentary is in response to a forum organized by The Commune and the Marxist-Humanist Initiative, held in London on July 5, 2010. This involved a talk by Anne Jaclard, “You Can’t Change the Mode of Production with a Political Agenda,” followed by a talk by Andrew Kliman, “The Transformation of Capitalism into Communism in the Critique of the Gotha Program.” Both talks can be read here.
In 1965 Louis Althusser opened his famous paean For Marx with a withering reflection on French theoretical culture at the time. He bemoaned the fact that ‘we have spent the best part of our time in agitation when we would have been better employed in the defence of our right and duty to know’.[i] The result of which was ‘the stubborn, profound absence of any theoretical culture’; whereas, he claimed, ‘Marxism should not be simply a political doctrine, a ‘method’ of analysis and action, but also, over and above the rest, the theoretical domain of fundamental investigation’.[ii] For this task Althusser saw as indispensable the role of intellectuals committed to necessary theoretical work.
Of course, nowadays an opposite problem appears to present itself: the apparent aloofness of ‘ivory tower’ Marxist intellectuals, cosseted by a conference circuit of stimulating debate allaying the, in any case long lost, angst about the severing of theory from practice. It is in this context that an either/or situation appears to logically follow: either resign oneself to scholasticism; or, engage in the rush of unreflective activism, valorising every flight to the barricades. But in reality the two choices operate symbiotically. The studious academic can patronise the spirit of the hyperactive activist, whilst drawing back from engaged criticism (lest he or she be dragged into actual politics, or possibly dent the heroic will of those ‘daring to act’). Conversely, the activist declines to criticise the academic, seeing them as part of the theoretical/ideological wing of the struggle, happy with the current status quo of mutual non-interference.
The inadequacy of this cold peace between theoreticians and activists is both exemplified and problematised by the question of abstraction, which is not merely a register of theoretical depth, but moreover an intrinsically political question itself. Alberto Toscano’s recent book, Fanaticism, convincingly links the embrace of abstraction—and fear thereof—to the difference between universal, emancipatory politics and liberal-conservative politics. Toscano traces the connection back to the Edmund Burke, who in his denunciations of the French revolution condemned the ‘tyranny of the politics of theory’, and ‘the ‘monstrous fiction’ that they could be handled like mathematical theorems or geometrical objects.’[iii] Thereafter, the conservative criticism of Republican, and later Marxist politics, became obsessed by uncovering the will to power of scheming, abstraction obsessed intellectuals attempting to guide the masses’ spontaneous subjectivity to their own, pretentiously altruistic, ends.
Where abstraction links into the present debate is in regard to the foregoing discussion of the autonomy of Marxist intellectual work. Andrew Kliman’s recent talk in London on ‘What must be changed in order to transcend capitalism’—co-sponsored by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative and The Commune—was greeted with a degree of mixed opinion regarding precisely the abstraction of the theoretical project he was proposing. Without claiming to do justice to Kliman’s talk, the discussion centred on his claim that Marxist politics has been too focused on the political transition to communism, where, on the contrary, not enough thought has been given to the underlying economic basis of value production under capitalism. Most provocatively, he demarked the difference between the political and economic via reference to the distinction between the quantitative and qualitative in Hegel’s Science of Logic. So although the Marxist political theorem of the withering away of the state is based on a gradualist, quantitative transition, the change in the mode of production cannot operate according to the same logic, and must, of necessity, constitute an incommensurable shift; in other words, an event dividing capitalist value production from communist production. The upshot is that since the political is emergent upon the economic, attempts to politically force transition to communism, in lieu of fundamentally refiguring the economic base away from value production, explains the growth, rather than the withering away of, the state in 20th century socialist countries.
During the talk Kliman refused to be drawn away from this emphasis on theorising the shift away from value production by discussion of imperialism, the need for a ‘green economy’, and suchlike diversions, giving the whiff of a faintly Platonic air to his project. Some attendants recoiled at the suggestion of the need for abstract, theoretical work, subtracted from really existing struggles. Yet, in Kliman’s defence, one needs to understand his grand career project of rescuing Marx’s labour theory of value to put his call in context.
In Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital” Kliman shows how Marx’s labour theory of value has been undermined by successive generations of economists as internally inconsistent. Whilst delving into the arcane debates underwriting the question ofCapital’s inconsistency is beyond our scope here, the significant point is that like the conservative critique of political abstraction, many of the critics of the labour theory of value have rested on condemning its ‘metaphysical’ concept. Even Marxian thinkers in attempting to rescue the theory have implicitly acknowledged the critique by refiguring it in physicalist terms. The resistance to the abstract concept at the core I think operates on a number of levels. It is not just that the labour theory of value implies, somewhat horrifically, in a precise, scientific sense, that the entire capitalist system is based on exploitation; but, moreover, the sheer absence of intuitiveness to its concepts of ‘abstract labour’, ‘totality’, and ‘socially necessary labour time’ indicates an irreducibly intellectual compartment for understanding the economic base. In contrast to the ‘folk political’ demand to see actual exploitation, actual oppression, or to see the real accounting of profit and production[iv]—to see, touch, and hear their object of study—Marxist ‘economism’ seems to demand a level of abstract thinking, which suggests the separation of the intellectual and the masses.
By implication, accepting Marx’s labour theory of value has profound political consequences. It undermines a Marxist political subjectivity based on simply cheering on ‘movements from below’, and equally discredits the disavowal of vanguardism (or a least, in its most totalising sense). The responsibility of the intellectual becomes exactly to engage in the abstract, intellectual work as their responsibility in engaging with the real movement. Like Slavoj Žižek’s call for us to repeat Lenin’s pre-revolutionary gesture of studying Hegel’s Science of Logic, Kliman’s project, much as Althusser’s earlier remarks, treat speculation as the highest calling. Whether many are willing to stomach the political consequences of this division of labour is another question.
[i] Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, Verso, 2005, p. 23
[ii] Ibid., p. 26
[iii] Alberto Toscano, Fanaticism, Verso, 2010, p. xiii
[iv] See Nitzan and Bichler, Capital as Power: A study of Order and Creorder, Routledge, 2009
57 thoughts on “is marxism just too abstract?”
Andrew Kliman’s recent talk in London on ‘What must be changed in order to transcend capitalism’—co-sponsored by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative and The Commune—was greeted with a degree of mixed opinion regarding precisely the abstraction of the theoretical project he was proposing.
I don’t think so. Abstraction is fine. It’s just that a) he merely argued for the importance of a certain line on enquiry, whilst himself doing nothing to advance that line, b) oddly, for a humanist, failed to acknowledge the necessarily social aspect of the “social revolution”, as if it was necessary or possible to find a system of economic relations, almost an incentive structure, in which today’s humans could be contained, and which would allow them to live communistically. Perhaps the attempt to do b) explains the actuality of a).
So although the Marxist political theorem of the withering away of the state is based on a gradualist, quantitative transition, the change in the mode of production cannot operate according to the same logic, and must, of necessity, constitute an incommensurable shift; in other words, an event dividing capitalist value production from communist production.
I’m not sure he did argue that. You’re saying that he’s for communist productive relations, still presided over, in some sense, by an – albeit withering – state? Would you accept that?
accepting Marx’s labour theory of value has profound political consequences. It . . . discredits the disavowal of vanguardism (or a least, in its most totalising sense).
Run that by me again. Why? What do you mean by “vanguardism”? Are you using the term just to mean “giving any sort of lead, including on the level of ideas”? Because that is not what vanguardism is.
On the contrary, I actually think the labour theory of value is pretty intuitive. Alberto Toscano told me a story about how one of his friends had been teaching it in an evening class attended by mainly mature students who worked day to day. Having taught it pretty plainly a woman at the back said, completely spontaneously, “the bastards!”.
I wasn’t going to comment on this because I found the title confusing.
It is a problem when there is a divide between academics and the ‘real’ movement. I don’t know what this has to do with being abstract, this just describes detachment.
Abstraction on the other hand is a necessary part of any science to a) reduce volume of work – it works like modern databases which take multiple tables and use the information contained to advance new information and b) To simplyfy analysis. So if say rent is affected by say 10 variables, we keep 9 constant and see what happens logically if we change the remaining 1.
The conclusions of Marxism are far from abstarct as Alex points out!
1. In response to what c0mmunard wrote, let us note that Nathan accurately presents our view when he writes,
“So although the Marxist political theorem of the withering away of the state is based on a gradualist, quantitative transition, the change in the mode of production cannot operate according to the same logic, and must, of necessity, constitute an incommensurable shift; in other words, an event dividing capitalist value production from communist production. The upshot is that since the political is emergent upon the economic, attempts to politically force transition to communism, in lieu of fundamentally refiguring the economic base away from value production, explains the growth, rather than the withering away of, the state in 20th century socialist countries.”
––except that we would say “partly explains.”
But this does *not* mean that we’re “for communist productive relations, still presided over, in some sense, by an––albeit withering––state.” In our view, and Marx’s, the withering away of the state takes place *before* the free and classless communist society is established, during the period of the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society into communist society. Once it is established, there is no longer a state (because the need for a state, in the proper sense of the term, arises from the division of society into classes); as long as there is a state, in the proper sense, communist society does not yet exist. The 2nd and 3rd paragraphs of Andrew’s talk addressed this:
“Bertell Ollman and James Lawler and others––it’s a common myth––say that Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program (CGP) recognized the need for a transitional society that would precede the first, lower phase of communism. They ignore the fact that the CGP states––twice––that the first phase of communist society emerges from capitalist society––one is transformed into the other, directly. There is nothing in between, not in Marx’s statement.
“The basis of the myth is Marx’s comment in the CGP that ‘Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.’ There’s no mention here of a transitional society. There is the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society into communist society, and a corresponding political transition period.”
2. Nathan wrote,
“accepting Marx’s labour theory of value has profound political consequences. It undermines a Marxist political subjectivity based on simply cheering on ‘movements from below’, and equally discredits the disavowal of vanguardism (or a[t] least, in its most totalising sense). The responsibility of the intellectual becomes exactly to engage in the abstract, intellectual work as their responsibility in engaging with the real movement.”
“Run that by me again. Why? What do you mean by ‘vanguardism”? Are you using the term just to mean ‘giving any sort of lead, including on the level of ideas’? Because that is not what vanguardism is.”
Nathan may have meant “discredits the avowal of vanguardism,” not disavowal. In any case, our view is indeed one that rejects political subjectivity based on simply cheering on ‘movements from below’, and equally discredits the *avowal* of vanguardism. The responsibility of the intellectual becomes exactly to engage in abstract, intellectual work as his/her responsibility in engaging with the real movement.
And our view is that this “is not what vanguardism is.” Vanguardists want to lead movements from below, not just engage with them, and they accept the Kautskyian-Leninist view that revolutionary consciousness needs to be brought to regular people “from outside.” We disagree. So did Dunayevskaya. But she warned that revolutionary consciousness does not mean “so total a conception of socialism that a *philosophy* of Marx’s concept of revolution [can] likewise be left to spontaneous action. Far from it.” This is on p. 60 of her _Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution_.
3. c0mmunard writes that Andrew,
“oddly, for a humanist, failed to acknowledge the necessarily social aspect of the ‘social revolution’, as if it was necessary or possible to find a system of economic relations, almost an incentive structure, in which today’s humans could be contained, and which would allow them to live communistically.”
“Contained” is quite wrong. We think it is necessary, and we hope it is possible, to find a system of economic relations in which today’s humans can be *released*, *freed* from the domination of others and of alien economic laws, and which will allow them to live communistically.
And yes, “incentives” must be addressed in order for this to become a reality. If today’s world GDP were equally distributed, we’d all have a standard of living about 1/4th of the U.S. average. For most people in the world, that would be a big improvement, but it is *nowhere* near what would be needed to have a society in which each individual contributes to society without regard to what s/he receives, and each individual receives from society without regard to what s/he contributes (“from each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her need”). So if you want a new society in the here and now, you have to deal with the here and now––realistically. And that means, in part, dealing with relative scarcity and the consequent need to tie what people get to what they contribute—but without exploitation, the production of value, markets, and all that rot.
We don’t know what “the necessarily social aspect of the ‘social revolution’” means. It may perhaps be a hand-waving gesture to avoid having to deal realistically with the problem of what’s needed in order to transcend capitalism, aspects of which we’ve noted above. In other words, c0mmunard might be suggesting something like this: “The social revolution will change everything, including people’s consciousness, and to such an extent that the change in consciousness will *be* the solution. So the problem will take care of itself and we don’t need to worry about it—we have to deal with _______” (fill in the blank with “imperialism,” or “the need for a green economy,” or whatever your favorite diversion from the problems is).
If that is the case, our response is:
a. You’re dreaming. No reasonable person would be convinced by such assurances about the future. And that has a lot to do with why the Left isn’t taken seriously by a great many reasonable people, especially regular people who don’t like capitalist society at all.
b. What happens if you’re wrong? There’s a “social revolution” and it doesn’t work out like you dreamt it would. The whole thing collapses, or reverts back to capitalism, or something worse like warlordism––precisely because the “social revolution” took place in an unthinking, seat-of-the-pants way, with less forethought ahead of time than people give to what to make for dinner. The lives and aspirations of billions of people will be crushed, and those who appealed to the magical and mysterious “changes in consciousness” panacea will be to blame. They are the ones who will have caused the lives and aspirations of billions of people to be crushed. Can you live with that?
4. We suspect that dismissal of our views and concerns as “abstract” is also largely a way to avoid having to deal realistically with the problem of what’s needed in order to transcend capitalism. We’re not saying that this was necessarily what was going on in the meeting last month. But we’ve encountered such resistance again and again, and those who resist frequently justify their resistance by calling our views and concerns “abstract.”
5. As for “abstract” in the sense in which Nathan is using it, and as for his comments about Platonism and “division of labour” (evidently meaning a division between the work of mass movements and the work of intellectuals), our view is that the issue has to do with dialectics. Abstraction is part of dialectics, and we agree that this is needed. Another part, indeed the core notion of dialectics from the days of Socrates and Plato to the present, is dialogue. We’re reminded of Dunayevskaya’s statement that this is correct, but the problem is that the intellectuals never included the masses in the dialogue. We agree. So in saying that the responsibility of the intellectual becomes exactly to engage in abstract, intellectual work, we do not mean that this should be, or can be, accomplished in separation from the thinking and activity that emerges from below. The point is to engage with the real movement.
And it’s a two-way road. The divisions between theory and practice, and between intellectuals and workers, need to be broken down and a new relationship established. How else can regular people run their own lives? Human beings are thinking beings. Our important actions, including those that shape society, are always mediated by thought. And this is why the creation of a new society can’t be left to “spontaneous action,” i.e. why it’s deadly to ignore all of the conceptual problems pertaining to what’s needed in order to transcend capitalism … until it’s too late.
As an aside, I would just note that Nathan’s opening distinction (which I think he is both burlesquing and bolstering) regarding the present day, wherein one must “either resign oneself to scholasticism; or, engage in the rush of unreflective activism, valorising every flight to the barricades,” is an inaccurate assessment.
Speaking from the US, and with some involvement in various actions there in the last year, one absolutely striking fact is that some of the most sophisticated and abstract thought and writing about economic crisis, contemporary struggle, and historical development is being done by the very people who have “flown to the barricades.” I should direct you to Endnotes, to the essay on “the double barricade” that Benjamin N is publishing, and so on.
The bromide of “unreflective activism” just doesn’t parse. Indeed, this may indeed be one of the significant novelties of the current situation. We should wish to recognize this development, and perhaps assess why it has come to pass, in considering which ways to leap from here.
I admit I am generalising from my experiences here in the UK, and developments in the US have been promising. But from my partial knowledge, is not the ‘Occupy California’ movement and associated activities primarily driven by academics and students? And are they not vexed by the problem of abstraction driven politics precisely because they do not represent a wider social movement?
But Nathan, you seem to have conceded the point. For what you said before didn’t concern the development of a “wider social movement” (a complex question indeed — one with such great historical specificity regarding, among other things, class decomposition, that the writings of Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci et al have almost no purchase). It concerned the schematic division (“an either/or situation”) between “scholasticism” and “unreflective activism,”
which you have now conceded has been — in California — no division at all. That is, we can agree that something about this historical moment has implicit within the provisional overcoming of that division, not its further calcification. And this is not just true in California; there are similar cases in Greece, in France, and so on. The theorists and soi disant spontaneists are one, to some significant degree.
That said, I would also aver that it is at this conjuncture a profound misrecognition to suggest there is some difference between “students” and some more authentic subject of capital’s crisis. Indeed, student life in the last five or forty years has been characterized by proletarianization of the clearest demarcation, compelled to spend money to have work to make money to spend, caught up increasingly in credit traps as the cost of living outpaces receding real incomes, and so on. And moreover, the actions of students have often been misregistered as not being legitimately anti-capitalist, as they are purported to be a kind of different, privileged subject, but this doesn’t get at the situation, I think. Here’s an excellent and nuanced approach to this theoretical problem:
Yes, but your whole argument hinges on the idea that students and academics can be the sole subject of social revolution, which has been — and I hazard will continue to be forevermore — a comforting illusion, particularly when considering that the movements in California, Greece and France have achieved few, if any, tangible gains. They constitute ‘resistance’ not transformation.
No, Nathan, I have made no such argument. I have only noted that the division you proposed as actual, existing, and “either/or,” ain’t. To which you seem to have agreed, and then decided that I was arguing something else.
Meanwhile, these movements are of course moments within what might be seen as an extended rejiggering of the global power arrangements. As to whether they are transformative: it is far too early to offer a verdict.
Thanks to Andrew and Anne for the response. I’ll have to be brief:-
1. Fair enough, I’d not recalled how you’d framed that, nor re-read the version of the talks online at your site at the time.
Apropos of that, are you aware of the debate around “communisation” in the European ultra left? There are a number of currents which use this term to express opposition to any transitional society.
2. So we agree with each other; the extant question is whether Nathan does as well – and made a typo – or whether he draws opposite conclusions from the same basis. Nathan?
3. Here we still disagree. I’ll address some comments directly:
We don’t know what “the necessarily social aspect of the ‘social revolution’” means. It may perhaps be a hand-waving gesture to avoid having to deal realistically with the problem of what’s needed in order to transcend capitalism, aspects of which we’ve noted above. In other words, c0mmunard might be suggesting something like this: “The social revolution will change everything, including people’s consciousness, and to such an extent that the change in consciousness will *be* the solution. So the problem will take care of itself and we don’t need to worry about it—we have to deal with _______” (fill in the blank with “imperialism,” or “the need for a green economy,” or whatever your favorite diversion from the problems is).
First of all, let’s leave aside the last sentence; that relates to nothing I say, and I can’t be held responsible for other people’s particular preoccupations.
That aside: I don’t think it is quite true to say that “the change in consciousness will *be* the solution”; but I think that a) this change in conciousness will be the major component accounting for the solution; and b) that no solution not premised on such a change is possible. That is, any solution which imagines that humans with the subjectivities they have today can be slotted in to (or whatever verb you prefer, however emancipatory its tone) a structure of incentives to produce communism is totally hopeless, no solution at all. No reasonable person would be convinced by such an argument; the most convincing arguments are not those which work backwards from the need for an imagined future but which abstract from the nascent, half-made revolutionary attempts which there have been. Think of the passages in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia describing Barcelona when he arrives. These make clear that changes in conciousness are a necessary, empirical, historical fact; as part of revolutionary processes. It seems odd that there is no room at all given to this necessity.
An example from the talk – which isn’t in the online texts. One of you criticised PARECON on the grounds that it didn’t explain how the transfer of technology from first to third world would happen because it didn’t explain why the first world people would have the incentive to do that (I wasn’t that interested in the whole thing about imperialism in the talk, but I think we agree this particular question is an issue, and it’s one you discussed). But this is a totally impossible demand. That there be some carrot or stick to incentivise the first world people requires some superior force to dangle or wield it; and this implies some form of state power. Of course in communism, local centres of decision making could choose not to cooperate with others for unprincipled behaviour. But there’s no general guarantee that this would be effective early on.
What happens if you’re wrong? There’s a “social revolution” and it doesn’t work out like you dreamt it would. The whole thing collapses, or reverts back to capitalism, or something worse like warlordism––precisely because the “social revolution” took place in an unthinking, seat-of-the-pants way, with less forethought ahead of time than people give to what to make for dinner.
In this conception, it’s necessary not only that such a plan is developed in advance, but that such a plan become widely accepted amongst the pre-revolutionary class; which accords such formal planning a very, very high place in the importance of revolutionary activity. For me, I think it’s mostly enough to establish the negatives: no market, no state, no “production for exchange”. The precise relations holding between different centres of decision making will probably be contingent and specific to productive and distributive capacities.
4. In fact, no one here damns abstraction. As I indicated in my comment, that is not the issue. As far as I’m aware, no one in The Commune has made that objection, and I don’t really understand why N hung his contribution on that hook.
5. We agree. However, I agree with Jane’s comments: the best intellectuals should not merely bounce off the movement, but be fully part of it. (Edited to add: that’s not a dig by the way; I just want to say it’s an important point.)
“4. In fact, no one here damns abstraction. As I indicated in my comment, that is not the issue. As far as I’m aware, no one in The Commune has made that objection, and I don’t really understand why N hung his contribution on that hook.”
This is either definitional wriggling or back peddling. The objection was that Kliman’s analysis did not start from existing political subjectivities, and thus erred towards an intellectual project of arid abstraction. And as you have said, you think the Marxian Labour Theory of Value is no longer of any use, and does not function as a “critical, emancipatory text” because its central premises rely on philosophical concepts and a conceptual schema foreign to the laity.
As for your position on planning — “For me, I think it’s mostly enough to establish the negatives: no market, no state, no “production for exchange”. The precise relations holding between different centres of decision making will probably be contingent and specific to productive and distributive capacities” — in itself this high weight given to subjectivity and contingency militates against the kind of analysis performed by Kliman, and, in a circularity, returns the duscussion to the very point of my commentary.
In general, your position evinces a certain political determinism that strikes me as idealistic. If only people can have the right subjective attitudes everything else will sort itself out. Sounds lovely, but not very realistic; and, by definition, contradicts any form of economic analysis.
On the question of vanguardism I will concede, however, that I used the term in an undernuanced way. But still, Kliman’s analysis and proposed solutions of ‘what must be changed’ does, by definition, imply a higher degree of intellectual leadership than c0mmunard’s faith in solely political change.
This is not addressed to anyone in particular, but I think the danger here is that ‘communism’ — in the Marxist tradition — becomes defined as a sort of utopian regulative ideal, describing a situation wherein there is no state, no incentive structure, no scarcity, etc. etc. Which is fine, up to a point, but then I’m not sure how useful it is to criticize present political choices working towards these goals, with respect to a regulative ideal like this, as if merely setting a voluntarist ambition towards the ideal is adequate to the task.
” I have only noted that the division you proposed as actual, existing, and “either/or,” ain’t. To which you seem to have agreed, and then decided that I was arguing something else.”
Your arguments are linked. I pointed out that the irrelevance of the either/or dichotomy in California is consequent on their substitutionism for a wider social struggle. You suggested that students and academics can constitute the subject of social revolution — “I would also aver that it is at this conjuncture a profound misrecognition to suggest there is some difference between “students” and some more authentic subject of capital’s crisis.” –thus allaying my argument about substitutionism. I argued that I reject the idea that student-academic substitutionism is adequate, ergo the either/or dichotomy, for me, holds.
You also say: “Meanwhile, these movements are of course moments within what might be seen as an extended rejiggering of the global power arrangements. As to whether they are transformative: it is far too early to offer a verdict.”
This is, in my opinion, just an avoidance of serious analysis.
Actually, just to clarify, when I said in the last post “ergo the either/or dichotomy, for me, holds” that is not to say I endorse the division, but rather that I don’t think developments in California have necessarily undermined the tendency towards the division in the context of a radical politics with realizable transformative potential.
The objection was that Kliman’s analysis did not start from existing political subjectivities, and thus erred towards an intellectual project of arid abstraction.
No. If you read my first comment, you can see my two objections. Neither of them were that. Later, I emphasised that abstracting from experience was a necessary component of the (dialectical) method we need to start talking about a future society in an intelligible way. Of course, we also need to abstract again from the principles for the future society we thereby deduce, and from the necessity of transcending a society which produces for profitable exchange… but I’m surprised by your dismissal of abstracting from experience as well.
you think the Marxian Labour Theory of Value is no longer of any use, and does not function as a “critical, emancipatory text” because its central premises rely on philosophical concepts and a conceptual schema foreign to the laity.
Well, actually, in our fb discussion, you said that you think the same thing. I quote, you’re quoting me to begin with (your remarks are bolded):
“As long as people get intimidated or confused by Capital, it is a problem, and it does not do its job as an emancipatory critical economic theory – which is not philistinism, but what Marx intended it to do. Hence his enthusiasm about it being available in an edition accessible to workers.”
Then, yes, I might agree with you. The LTV becomes an act of high level abstraction of necessity only accessible to philosophers to fully understand
So what’s your objection to what I said again? You’re changed your mind?
I should say, as a caveat, that by this point in the discussion we are talking about the quantitative aspect of theory which – recently – I have come to find not at all useful. I still think the general relationships elucidated by the qualitative analysis are devastating. I just don’t think that, historically, the LTV has done much to help the working class understand how capitalism works, and much – not due to its level of abstraction, but due to its counter-intuitive categories – to hinder it. (In general, for the record, I accept Andrew’s interpretation in his most recent book as the best basis for understanding Marx’s theory.) My basic point was that the LTV leads to no predictions about the capitalist economy that are both unique and empirically verifiable. Given that other accounts, not using the LTV, can explain the same things, personally I would prefer to explain them to people in those ways.
c0mmunard’s faith in solely political change.
pfah. I have no such faith, that’s a total misrepresentation. Every revolutionary movement in the history of capitalism has immanently reorganised production in some way. We can – must – learn from the mistakes of the Bolsheviks, the CNT etc – but none of that backs up what’s unique about Andrew and Anne’s position, as far as I can see, which is a heavily structuralist account of the transcendance of capitalism, with no place – as yet – for revolutions in conciousness. We’re left with a world of formalised incentives; carrots and sticks; rewards and threats.
You seem to be both wanting to deny your aversion to the abstraction involved in the Marxian LTV and at the same time wanting to say that it no longer works as an emancipatory text because of its “counter-intuitive categories”. But surely the whole discussion we are having about abstraction and its political consequences follows from the mutually reinforcing identity of counter-intuitiveness and abstraction? An abstraction that was also intuitive would be a strange sort of abstraction indeed!
Anyway, for my part I am still undecided upon all this; a hesitation which I hoped to convey through the tone of the piece. I don’t necessarily consider what is true, or what has to be done, to be based on intuitive categories though.
The problem with Andrew Kliman’s analysis is that its wrong. He says that capital can only be valued at its historic price, that is the price that it cost when purchased. The problem is that when it is sold commodities are valued at current price, that is the cost of production, what they are worth now. If capital were only ever valued at its historic price then recessions, which see the mass destruction of historic values and their writing down to their current price, could not occur.
Without realising it Andrew Kliman has proved the impossibility of capitalist crisis – well that’s a weird thing huh?!
“Given that other accounts, not using the LTV, can explain the same things, personally I would prefer to explain them to people in those ways.”
Can you provide examples of these other accounts please.
Isn’t the destruction and writing down of values a sympton of recession rather than the cause?
e.g. this – http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/issr/cstch/papers/BrennerCrisisTodayOctober2009.pdf – by the pre-eminent Marxist economic historian (an appellation of which Andrew has been careful to remind us in the past) Robert Brenner.
Also a book which I’m reading at the mo, which is very good in explaining the post war boom and resultant crisis of over accumulation is Armstrong, Glyn, Harrison, Capitalism Since 1945.
Nathan – but my confusion is that you appear to think the same thing, which is why I quoted you saying that you thought you agreed…
Yes a symptom of the crisis, but if values must always be valued at their historic, i.e. purchase price then the writing down of values, the result of a crisis cannot occur, and so a recession cannot occur.
What Kliman wants to do is to resolve away a real contradiction of the capitalist crisis, the rate of profit is calculated on historic costs, but production takes place at current costs. This is actually true. During recessions they are brought together, something Kliman rules out in his book and indeed his paper about the current recession, which tries to prove the constant falling rate of profit, but if you look at his graphs does anything but. He shows the steepest increase in the rate of profit up to 2007 of any Marxist currently working.
Next year when he does his calculations then the rate of profit will be its highest ever level. In 2009 depreciation exceeded investment in the USA for the only time since WWII, while this year profits will exceed their previous peak year of 2007. Kliman takes historic fixed capital, that is last year, and divides it by the mass of profit this year to derive his favoured rate of profit, so this year will show the highest rate of profit in history.
Brenner’s theory is problematic for the same reason, he too tries to prove that capitalism has been stagnant and profits low, but he only does so by ignoring the restoration of capitalism in China, the ex-USSR, Central and Eastern Europe etc. In fact he proves the stagnation of Western capitalism not the stagnation of capitalism. And his profit rates do not include financial capital, executive remuneration or foreign capital, which together amount to more than half total profits. Unsurprisingly after ruling out most profits from his calculation of the rate of profit he concludes that capitalism has low profits.
if values must always be valued at their historic, i.e. purchase price then the writing down of values
Well, they were always bought at their purchase price, but can only ever be sold at their current market price. What’s wrong with that?
Brenner – I think not including financial capital could be legitimate, since it’s overwhelmingly ficticious/unproductive. The other things, I don’t know about. You got a link for a critique of Brenner’s method?
Financial profits are not fictitious. Financial capital is fictitious, it is a claim on future profits, but the profits themselves are a deduction from total profits.
What’s wrong with saying capital can only be valued at its purchase price?
a) its not true – it is written up or down to the current market value all the time
b) it means that a recession cannot occur – that is the major writing down of values from the historic to their current value
c) it means a recovery cannot occur- that is the restoration of the rate of profit on the basis of the write down of historic values to their current value
d) in short its very mechanical, static and tries to rule out a real contradiction in the capitalist mode of production, the distinction between historic and current values, simply by asserting that we have to pick one over the other, we don’t.
In response to the point made above by Anne and Andrew in relation to the transition to Socialism, I think they are wrong, but I suppose it depends how you define your terms. In the Grundrisse for example, Marx comments that just as Capitalist Society only developed gradually, so would it only disappear gradually. If you look at what Marx says in Capital, and elsewhere about Co-operatives, you also see that he sees them as a transitional form, and argues that they could be extended nationally by means of Credit. In his writings for the First International, he also talks about a Co-op Federation centralising profits for that purpose. Given his otehr comments about the resistance that would come to such a process from the bouregoisie and their State, and the need, therefore, for workers to create their own political party, to challenge the political hegemony of the bourgeoisie, it is clear that he is talking about a transitional stage WITHIN Capitalism, during which Co-operative production, and the continued dominance of the market continue.
Moreover, in backing up Marx’s comments in the CGP, Engels writes that he and Marx saw Co-operatives continuing to perform a dominant role for a long time during the period of transition to Communism. I think the problem is that many Marxists have got used to the leninist view of revolution rather than the Marxian view. In the former the “Revolution” is seen in terms of the seizure of State Power, with the Dictatorship of the proletariat following that, during which the basic social relations are overturned. But, the Marxian view as with previous revolutions is that the actual social revolution proceeds behind Men’s backs. It is that development of Co-operative productive relations. The political revolution which is centre stage in the leninist view, becomes something that merely flows from this development, as workers are froced to deal with the POLITICAL reality of bourgeois resistance to the growth of Co-operative property, and consequent growth in workers economic, and social power. In fact, in much of their writing they seem to suggest that the overwhelming numbers of the working-class will make that a small matter. Engels in his pamphlet on the Prussian Military Question, for example, argues that universal military conscription is the logical corrollary of universal suffrage, and is the basic means by which an armed and trained majority, would back up the Government they had elected against any attempts at a coup against it!
If Socialism is defined as a society in which market relations have been superceded, then this clearly represents a stage beyond that initial transitional phase that Marx and Engels were describing in which Co-operative production exists alongside private Capitalist production – the period during which the working class has also become politically dominant, and during which they spoke about the gradual elimination of the private Capital, and even it being bought out – and during which market relations continue to operate on a large scale. But, that first stage of Socialism, described by Marx in the CGP as one where the market has been replaced, and where accounting acocrding to Labour-time has been introduced, rmeains as he says one dominated by bourgeois Right, because choices have to be made about how to allocate that labour-time. Equal distribution on the basis of labour-time put in results in inequality because not all humans are equal in skill, strength etc. In short, the law of Value continues to operate, but not in its Capitalist, Exchange value form. It only when production is expanded to such an extent that the Law of Value ceases to operate, because choices on allocation of labour-time no longer have to be made, i.e. under Communism, which he says he does not even know whether its possible or not, that the principle of true equality based on “From each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her needs”, can be implemented.
In short, Co-operatie production grows up as a transitional form within Capitalism just as Capitalist production grew up within feudalism. On the back of it, workers economic and social power develops as did that of the bourgeoisie. The bouregoisie resist its spread, and workers are led to understand that it can only function effectively if developed on at least a national scale, and that to do this, and to stop the acts of the bourgeoisie to resist its spread, they have to create a Workers party to challenge the political pwoer of the bouregoisie and to further their own ends. This clash between two forms of property, two modes of production ultimately leads to the victory of the workers, and their domjination of society. Their follows a period of transition where class struggle continues, and where the workers need the pwoer of their state as against the continuing counter-revolutionary struggle of the bourgeoisie at home and abroad, and during which the workers use their State to further the spread of the Co-operative production in competition with private and State capital – Engels argued that the most advanced workers in Germany were demanding the emancipation of the class by the transfer of State Capital to Co-operatives – and during which time, the workers seek to increasingly replace the market with planned production. Only when that stage is completed can it truly be said that Socialism has been achieved, and the need for the State begins to wither away. Only then can the attempt to build Communism begin.
In reply to Bill. I agree with most of your points. One slight disagreement. Although, I largely agree, obviously that the profits of Money Capital are a deduction from the Surplus Value of Industrial Capital, I’m not sure this is absolutely true of ALL the profits of the Financial Services Industry. Marx’s analysis begins in this relation with an analyis of the three circuits of Capital Money Capital – Productive Capital – Merchant Capital. He begins by treating these as all belonging to the same Capitalist, which may or may not be historically accurate. However, he then demonstrates how and why they separate out, because for one thing specialisation means that the costs involved in each can be reduced, and so realised Surplus Value increases.
The profits of Money Capital come from interest received on Money lent to productive Capital. Having shown how if all three are in the hands of a single Capitalist having to hold Money without it being used represents a cost, a deduction from his Surplus Value, this truth remains when that Money is now held by a separate Money Capitalist. The productive Capitalist is prepared to pay the interest in so far as the specialisation of the Money Capitalist reduces the cost to a level lower than the productive Capitalist would have incurred i.e. his actual realised Surplus Value increases. A similar argument applies as to why the productive Capitalist is prepared to share his surplus value with the merchant Capitalist who specialises only in selling the produced goods.
Now there could be an argument here about whether what we should really be interested in is potential or realised Surplus Value. However, that is not my aim here.
My point is that the lending of Money to productive Capital is not the only function today of the Financial Services Industry. Nor even, I think, its major source of profits. In reality the industry has created a whole range of Financial “products”, which are sold not to Capital, but to consumers – albeit some of those consumers might themselves be Capitalists, but Capitalists buy other commodities such as expensive meals, the providers of which are productive Capitalists, making real surplus value from the workers they employ. There is a danger of adopting a neo-physiocratic view in which “productive” is restricted to mean only that which produces some kind of physical product. Marx argued against such a definition. He defined the Theatre owner who sold “entertainment” as a commodity, as just as much a productive Capitalist as the Mill owner. The profits of the theatre owner just as real as those of the latter, and the workers in both were all productive workers, exchanging their labour-power with Capital.
I beleive that the FSI, in so far as it sells financial commodities to consumers – an exchange between Capital and Revenue – is no different than the Theatre or other enterprise selling some other form of service as a commodity.
On the issue of whether financial services to working class consumers are productive of surplus value, (this is by the way broadly speaking the view of Costas Lapivitsas) I would say it is still a transfer from manufacturing to financial capital, albeit via the pocket of the working class consumer.
Let’s take a mortgage.
Say the worker pays on average £500/month interest to the financial capitalist
The wage of the worker from which the interest is paid comes from the service/manufacturing capitalist. The worker has to deduct that amount of interest from his wage in order to receive his real wage, that is his wage after interest, so in effect that part of the wage which is paid in interest is an indirect transfer from one set of capitalists to the financial capitalists.
This is a slightly semantic argument, you could describe it as the direct exploitation of the worker by the financial capitalist or the indirect exploitation of the employer of the worker by the financial capitalist, the result is the same in either case.
But still real profits if from fictional capital.
c0mmunard – thanks for the links.
Billj – thanks for the explanation though I am still a little unsure of the logic.
I have just started reading Marx so please forgive my ignorance.
For me the LTV is an explanation of relative values, I have not yet figured out the political significance of this. Though the controversy surrounding the subject leads me to believe the political significance is not trivial.
The political element of Marx is in his description of the class forces at the heart of the system. The capitalist class expropriating the fruits of working class labour, basically living off the backs of workers productive powers.
That probably seemed very radical in the 19th century but I noticed that during the US election campaign Obama said in one speech that workers create the wealth and they should not pay for the crisis. So if the US president is using Marxist language how radical can it be?
The radicalism I would argue comes from the examples that Boffy talks about – workers successfully producing for themselves. No need for an exploitative class. Workers better off if they own the profits. I.e. Materialistic, bottom line politics, rather than grand visions.
On crisis theory – this serves 2 functions, 1. To counter apologetic theories and argue that crises are an inherent feature of capitalism and 2. To remind people of the failures of capitalism and be an incentive to change. If the current crisis is not the result of falling profit, what is it caused by – purely financial?
On gradualism, is this an empirical fact? Do we have more cooperatives now than say 30 years ago? Is that gradualism linear or punctuated –related to crises or is there a multiplier effect, where say 1 coop inspires the creation of another 5? If no empirical evidence then some breakdown theory is relevant –long term profit decline?
On the idea of Labour money, didn’t Marx make the point that this form of money would not solve the contradictions stemming from the separation of purchase and sale?
Bill J: “He [Kliman] says that capital can only be valued at its historic price, that is the price that it cost when purchased. The problem is that when it is sold commodities are valued at current price, that is the cost of production, what they are worth now. If capital were only ever valued at its historic price then recessions, which see the mass destruction of historic values and their writing down to their current price, could not occur.”
I think this is very confused. First of all, a key aspect of Andrew’s recent writings has been a focus on precisely the destruction of capital values, for example here:
“My next point of in the above theoretical sketch was that this tendency of the rate of profit to fall toward its long-run level persists unless there’s sufficient “destruction of capital.” This is a key concept of Marx’s theory of capitalist crisis. By “destruction of capital,” he meant not only the destruction of physical capital assets, but also, and especially, of the value of capital assets. In an economic slump, machines and buildings lay idle, rust and deteriorate, so physical capital is destroyed. More importantly, debts go unpaid, asset prices fall, and other prices may also fall, so the value of physical as well as financial capital assets is destroyed.” (http://marxisthumanistinitiative.org/2009/04/17/on-the-roots-of-the-current-economic-crisis-and-some-proposed-solutions/)
I think Bill J is confusing Kliman’s references to the “historical cost rate of profit” with the idea of valuing capital at historical cost. Kliman opposes “historical-cost measurement” to “replacement-cost” measurement when discussing the rate of profit, and rejects “replacement-cost” measurement of the rate of profit because, among other things, it “fails to accurately measure businesses’ and investors’ actual rates of return, their profits as a percentage of the original amount invested.” (The Persistant Fall in Profitability Underlying the Current Crisis, 41). This seems a fairly common-sense view to me, as one would expect a rate of profit to measure an actual rate of return on investment.
On the other hand, Kliman also uses the phrase “historical cost” in Reclaiming Marx’s Capital when discussing value transferred to the product in the production process. In this case, he explicitly rejects “historical cost” valuation (as do his opponents) in favor of a “pre-production reproduction-cost” interpretation. He writes, “The continual revaluation of previously produced commodities is an undeniable and essential feature of Marx’s value theory.” (96) Kliman’s repeated references to the destruction of capital values are consistent with this view. Bill J’s interpretation is based on a simple confusion, I think. Capital being “only ever valued at its historic price” is simply not part of Kliman’s theory.
Your first point does not actually address the issue.
The price of the investment is its historic cost. But the price of the output is its current cost, that is the socially necessary labour time required to produce it when it is produced. All National Income Product Accounts data is based on this distinction.
It is not confused it is real. Kliman attempts to resolve this “inconsistency” in the real capitalist mode of production, but demanding that “we” are “consistent” in only using historic that is purchase price costs. But you don’t resolve a real contradiction simply by wishing it away.
Actually in his document on the persistent stagnation of profitability he specifically provides an example of where a farmer cannot have the value of his fixed capital written down as the rate of profit must be calculated on its purchase cost.
Though as you point out, given that a recession is the massive destruction of values, there is a blatant contradiction between the facts of world capitalism and his theoretical architecture for establishing the rate of profit.
So no my interpretation is not based on confusion, and the historic value of capital as the basis for establishing the rate of profit is really what Kliman’s theory is all about. But not Marx’s.
The significance of the LTV is that it answers the question as to what is the source of profit. In Neo-classical economics the total of values must equal the total of prices so there is no profit possible. Indeed Schumpeter says that capitalism is an “essentially profitless system”. Marx explains that one commodity labour can produce more value than it costs to produce. Hence it abides by the rule that everything must be sold at its value, but shows that more value can be created than the cost of inputs.
From this insight Marx then develops Capital as a theoretical explanation of the laws of motion of capitalism. What does that mean? Well we’re still arguing about that!
To answer your question about Co-ops, yes there are more Co-ops today than 30 years ago. The number of Co-ops has continued to grow for more than 100 years. More people are employed globally by Co-ops than by multinational companies. In quite a few countries Co-ops dominate production or distribution of at least one significant commodity. That all despite the fact that the Marxist left has largely, for the last 80 years been hostile to Co-ops, and certainly done nothing to develop them, or to ensure that such development is integrated into a coherent strategy of class struggle.
There are lots of facts on my blog about Co-ops, particularly in the Co-op Facts section of the International Co-operative Alliance. One positive sign is the link up between the US Steel Workers Union, and the Mondragon Co-ops to develop Worker Co-ops across the US and Canada. Search for Co-ops on my blog and there are lots more posts on the economics involved, and the position of Marx, and Marxists advocating the setting up of workers Co-ops.
Is this development gradual? No. There seems to be a surge of Co-op development every 20 years for the last 100 years. Certainly, a coherent international strategy for the development, and to integrate their activities i.e. to begin a nascent workers plan, would facilitate their development, and its likely that any such development would be resisted by the bourgeoisie.
On the other aspect of gradualism, Marx was not suggesting that Capitalism would just gradually disappear, which was the revisionist view. The need to create a Workers party and win political power is indication of that. But, what he was suggesting was that you could not simply get rid of private or state property, and certainly not the market over night even when you had that political power. For one thing he argued in the CGP that Co-ops are only progressive because of them being the indpendent creations of workers. He had no time for the idea put forward by Lassalle and adopted by modern Leninists, that Socialism could be created from above and handed down to workers. Workers themselves had to have the desire to take ownership and control of their workplaces. If they didn’t simply replacing private owners by the State would only result in State bureaucrats fulfilling that role, which is what happened in Russia. Secondly, although its possible to create some kind of broad outline national plan of priorities – even modern Capitalist Governments do that – this is not the same thing as replacing the market. Replacing the market, and comprehensively planning production and distribution is very complex. Lenin found that in Russia, and it was attempting to do that without the appropriate tools, which led ultimately to the collapse of the USSR. The idea that these problems of planning can be overcome simply by sticking the label “democratic” on it, is facile.
The example of a mortgage is not actually what I had in mind, or any other kind of lending for that matter. The mortgage example is interesting, however, because I wonder exactly whose Surplus Value is being reduced? Is it that of the construction company that after a number of potential sales produces the house that the mortgage financed, or is it productive Capital in general that benefits from the availability of spending power by the consumer that has not gone to savings or cash purchase of the house?
Anyway, the point I was really making was not the lending of money, on which I agree with you, but the multitude of other financial service products. For example, to use the mortgage example, what about the mortgage broker who provides advice on, which mortgage is best, and who charges a fee for that service? Similar advice is provided by Financial Advisors on a whole range of similar subjects, and the fees to high value clients can be significant. I don’t see how the provision of this advice as a commodity is different than any other commodity.
Yes, to the extent that someone spends money on such advice they are not spending money on buying say a new TV. But that is true of any commodity. If I choose to spend money on a new Hi-Fi, then I can’t also spend it on the TV! The answer I think is in the Grundrisse, and the implications have not been properly analysed by Marxists, and in fact I don’t think Marx himself realised the full implication. See my blog Labour Power v Horse Power. It comes down to exactly what Exchange Value is, and therefore, what Surplus Exchange Value is. Marx makes it clear that there can be no production of Surplus Exchange Value where Capital exchanges against Capital. That is the case with the exchange between Money Capital or Commercial Capital with Productive Capital. I also argue that it must also be the case where Capital in Dept I exchanges with Capital in Dept II, a fact that Engels also outlines in one of his prefaces to Capital discussing the vulgar economists, and marginalists theories of the source of profits. But, Marx also makes clear that Surplus Exchange Value cannot arise where Revenue exchanges with revenue. A peasant producer, who exchanges at par with another peasant producer does not create Surplus Exchange Value, because the Value of the product determined by the labour-time expended, is exactly the cost in labour-time expended by the peasant. Surplus exchange Value can only arise where Capital exchanges with revenue. Now, of course, the mortgage example shows that not even every exchange of Capital with revenue is productive of Surplus Value, unless we see Capital as a whole rather than segmented into Money, Productive and Commodity Capital.
But, I would argue that the kind of commodity in the form of fianncial advice described above, is an exchange of Capital with Revenue, and is productive of Surplus Value. The Financial Advice given by an IFA, is no different in that sense from the advice given by a firm of Landscape Gardeners on how best to organise your garden.
A debate on co ops: http://libcom.org/library/participatory-society-or-libertarian-communism
Bill J: “The price of the investment is its historic cost. But the price of the output is its current cost, that is the socially necessary labour time required to produce it when it is produced. All National Income Product Accounts data is based on this distinction. It is not confused it is real. Kliman attempts to resolve this “inconsistency” in the real capitalist mode of production, but demanding that “we” are “consistent” in only using historic that is purchase price costs. But you don’t resolve a real contradiction simply by wishing it away.”
I have no idea what “inconsistency” you think Kliman is trying to resolve here. His whole point is that inputs (the investment) should NOT be valued simultaneously with outputs as this SUPPRESSES the changes in values over time. You seem to be saying that Kliman is actually trying to do what he is arguing against!
Bill J: “Actually in his document on the persistent stagnation of profitability he specifically provides an example of where a farmer cannot have the value of his fixed capital written down as the rate of profit must be calculated on its purchase cost.”
You mean the example that begins with the line “Imagine an economy without fixed capital. . .”? That’s the one where he says a farmer cannot write down the value of his fixed capital? He does say the rate of profit should be calculated on the original investment, otherwise you artificially negate the change in the value of corn, which is what actually affects the farmers’ ability to expand their operations.
Kliman’s critique of the “replacement-cost” measurement of the rate of profit says nothing against the writing up or writing down of capital assets! This is what you are confused about. Fixed capital can be written up or down to current market value, and this does not change the fact that the original outlay on the fixed capital is a sunk cost.
Yes I mean the example with the farmer, which is a bit odd as it excludes fixed capital, which is surely what his whole theory is about.
And of course the rate of profit will not be calculated on the original investment if that investment has been written down to its current value. Kliman says it is always wrong to calculate the rate of profit on the current value, his entire theory is about the importance of calculating the rate or profit at its purchase that is historic price, even when it is calculated on the current price, as for example when it has been written down during a recession.
Paradoxically as you have explained his whole theory which tries to correct for the distinction between historic and current costs, ends up doing the opposite. If the value of capital cannot be written down then a recession is impossible, which is, as you have pointed out, the destruction of values, by trying to write out of existence a real contradiction of the capitalist economy, the difference between the historic purchase price and the current production price Kliman ends up proving the impossibility of recessions, which is the very thing that he wanted to assert at the outset. Funny how these things come back to bite you.
Regarding unproductive and productive labour I agree with you these things are not always clear. Take for example Nike. The adverts that make Nike products desirable are a part of the product, the create a use value, the desirability of wearing Nike, and as such are productive. Other costs involved in behind the scenes stuff that don’t enhance the image are unproductive. Marx tossed this stuff around as you say and wasn’t always consistent, that’s fine imo, this stuff isn’t straight forward at all.
What Dave C. says is correct. Bill J’s dishonesty can be seen from his responses, in which he doesn’t get or pretends not to get the point, and tries to make it appear as if he were right in his positions, when in fact he’s evading Dave C’s points.
IMO, there is no use in engaging in a discussion with him. He made a slew of false statements last year about these same and similar matters. Andrew painstakingly exposed the errors in a piece on MHI’s website (http://marxisthumanistinitiative.org/2009/10/23/reply-to-bill-jefferies-and-the-permanent-revolution-organization/#more-477), but Bill J never corrected a single thing, and just diverted the discussion.
His comments on this thread have been diversionary as well. We intend to respond again soon to the thoughtful comments on the original issues (including my and Andrew’s talks!), but there is no use discussing anything with people who refuse to correct their false statements and never admit they were wrong. What’s the point? I suggest that everyone refrain from taking the bait and engaging with such people.
As Rosa Luxemburg said, “The revolution is everything, all else is billj.”
Anne Jaclard, MHI
Dishonesty, yeah right. Its a standard response on the “left” including the “humanist left” it appears to attribute differences to “dishonesty”.
I don’t agree with Andrew Kliman’s theory. That’s my right. I don’t have to be dishonest about it at all. In fact honesty is the best policy, particularly when discussing a theory of Andrew Kliman.
There’s really no need to lie, the facts speak for themselves.
Part of Kliman’s motivation is to “prove” the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, even when his own figures show its not. His own graphs based on his own historic estimates of capital show a phenomenal rise in the rate of profit in the years up to 2007. Kliman wishes this away describing it as “cherry picking”. Indeed he abuses Dumenil and Levy for exactly this point, although their data only goes up to 2002, when the fastest rise in the rate of profit – according to Kliman – was in the years between 2003-2007. Why would they cherry pick data which excluded the years which were most favourable to their argument.
Kliman uses the “historic” purchase price of capital over the current price, as he claims that the historic price is always higher than the current price due to depreciation.
The irony is, that when you go through the US flow of funds data, you find that the historic purchase price of capital is invariably lower than the current price of capital because of the effect of inflation. In other words, the historic price of capital shows a higher rate of profit than the current price.
Just on the article in question and Kliman’s response. We debated the issue at length in the comments on the PR website, the post is still up there if anyone wants to look. Any doubts I may have originally had on reading Kliman’s reply rapidly evaporated through the course of the debate. There really is no need to *correct* opinions, people can judge for themselves whether they are *true* or indeed *lies*.
If bill j insists upon repeatedly misrepresenting what Kliman has written, then I call on him to provide actual quotations that he claims support his allegations, and to include links to any quotations so that the reader can see the context and determine the meaning for herself.
Otherwise, I urge him to stop going on about this and diverting from the discussion of theory and its relation to a future non-capitalist society.
A response to some of the discussion.
I thank c0mmunard for the response to Anne’s and my comment.
c0mmunard writes: “I don’t think it is quite true to say that “the change in consciousness will *be* the solution”; but I think that a) this change in conciousness will be the major component accounting for the solution; and b) that no solution not premised on such a change is possible.”
There definitely need to be changes in “consciousness” (behavior, attitudes) in order for a free, communist mode of production to function. But the issue is, what causes the changes in behavior and attitudes?
You turn them into some kind of prime mover. We, on the other hand, think that most people, most of the time, respond reasonably and realistically to the situations they face. So the problems that you evidently attribute to backward “consciousness” are in fact problems of the situations that people face. If people change the mode of production, then most of them, most of the time, will respond reasonably and realistically to the very different situations they will face.
“That is, any solution which imagines that humans with the subjectivities they have today can be slotted in to (or whatever verb you prefer, however emancipatory its tone) a structure of incentives to produce communism is totally hopeless, no solution at all.”
We said nothing about “a structure of incentives to produce communism.” In fact, we argued the very *opposite*. In my talk, for instance, I said,
“First, ‘individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion,’ as in capitalist society, ‘but directly as a component part of total labor.” … Because the mode of production determines the mode of distribution, new relations of distribution arise on the basis of these new relations of production.”
The main reason people don’t understand what we’re saying is that they’re listening for *recommendations*. But we don’t make any recommendations. People are listening for recommendations because they think that social change is a matter of deciding what you want and then implementing it. But that is just plain wrong–did Stalin plan to be a despicable tyrant? Did the capitalist class plan to have a Great Recession?! So there is a very serious problem of unintended consequences. For this reason, we don’t talk about what we WANT or make recommendations.
Instead, we ask “what is NEEDED in order to transcend capitalism?” Our answer is that labor must become directly social, value production must end, and some related things. If these things occurs, then new relations of distribution will arise on the basis of the new relations of production–not the reverse. The solution isn’t “incentives.” The solution is a new mode of production, and the incentives appropriate to it (and the attitudes and behavior appropriate to it) arise on its basis.
“No reasonable person would be convinced by such an argument”
Right, but it’s not our argument.
“the most convincing arguments are not those which work backwards from the need for an imagined future but which abstract from the nascent, half-made revolutionary attempts which there have been.”
The most convincing arguments about *what*? Arguments about what is needed in order to transcend capitalism–the issue we are addressing? How does “abstract[ing] from the nascent, half-made revolutionary attempts which there have been” tell us what’s needed in order to transcend capitalism? Other than the fact that they were nascent and half-made, there’s the problem that the capitalist mode of production remained intact. So these historical experiences, while valuable when it comes to questions of “what is needed in order to have a revolutionary challenge to capitalism?,” just don’t go to the question of “what is needed in order to transcend capitalism?”–especially not when you take seriously the problem of unintended consequences.
“Think of the passages in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia describing Barcelona when he arrives. These make clear that changes in conciousness are a necessary, empirical, historical fact; as part of revolutionary processes. It seems odd that there is no room at all given to this necessity.”
Well, I made clear above that I think that changes in behavior and attitudes are necessary (but not a prime mover). But again, I think you’re talking about what’s needed to *get rid of* the old society, not what’s needed to *create* a new one (that is viable and doesn’t fall prey to unintended consequences.
“An example from the talk – which isn’t in the online texts. One of you criticised PARECON on the grounds that it didn’t explain how the transfer of technology from first to third world would happen because it didn’t explain why the first world people would have the incentive to do that (I wasn’t that interested in the whole thing about imperialism in the talk, but I think we agree this particular question is an issue, and it’s one you discussed). But this is a totally impossible demand. That there be some carrot or stick to incentivise the first world people requires some superior force to dangle or wield it; and this implies some form of state power. Of course in communism, local centres of decision making could choose not to cooperate with others for unprincipled behaviour. But there’s no general guarantee that this would be effective early on.”
Let me clarify some things. This isn’t in the written talks, because it was an answer of mine to one of the many fine questions/comments about imperialism. My point didn’t have to do with transfer of technology, but with people voluntarily paying more for products than they have to. I said that Albert or Hahnel (or both) think that you can have Parecon in one country. If you have it in the U.S. and Europe, but not in the 3d World (yet), then you still have massive poverty and inequality on a world scale, and there’s also the not-inconsiderable problem that people in the Parecon may well be benefiting from the exploitation of people in the 3d World. I said that, in response to this problem, Albert, Hahnel, or both say, well, people in the Parecon could decide to pay higher prices than necessary for what they buy from the 3d World. Then, I said, it ain’t going to happen, and that you can’t have socialism or Parecon or whatever in one country–words to that effect.
So I definitely was NOT recommending some “carrot or stick to incentivise the first world people.”
Then c0mmunard quoted our comment: “What happens if you’re wrong [when you say that the social revolution will change everything, including people’s consciousness, and to such an extent that the change in consciousness will *be* the solution. So the problem will take care of itself and we don’t need to worry about it]? There’s a “social revolution” and it doesn’t work out like you dreamt it would. The whole thing collapses, or reverts back to capitalism, or something worse like warlordism––precisely because the “social revolution” took place in an unthinking, seat-of-the-pants way, with less forethought ahead of time than people give to what to make for dinner.”
and c0mmunard commented:
“In this conception, it’s necessary not only that such a plan is developed in advance, but that such a plan become widely accepted amongst the pre-revolutionary class; which accords such formal planning a very, very high place in the importance of revolutionary activity. For me, I think it’s mostly enough to establish the negatives: no market, no state, no “production for exchange”. The precise relations holding between different centres of decision making will probably be contingent and specific to productive and distributive capacities.”
This doesn’t answer the question–what happens if you’re wrong? Nor does it answer the question that followed from the first: “The lives and aspirations of billions of people will be crushed, and those who appealed to the magical and mysterious “changes in consciousness” panacea will be to blame. They are the ones who will have caused the lives and aspirations of billions of people to be crushed. Can you live with that?”
Moreover, no one said anything or implied anything about a plan being widely accepted in advance, nor even anything about a plan in the sense of a central plan (there is no central planning in the Parecon idea, and that’s largely the point of it). The phrase “accords such formal planning a very, very high place in the importance of revolutionary activity” seems to conflate two different things, what’s needed to *get rid of* the old society, and what’s needed to *create* a new one that is viable and doesn’t fall prey to unintended consequences.
As for “I think it’s mostly enough to establish the negatives: no market, no state, no ‘production for exchange,'” what about the problem of unintended consequences? You have all the best intentions in the world, but that’s what the Road to Hell is paved with. The whole thing collapses, or reverts back to capitalism, or something worse like warlordism––precisely because the “social revolution” took place in an unthinking, seat-of-the-pants way, with less forethought ahead of time than people give to what to make for dinner. In light of this possibility, how can it be “mostly enough” to say what you don’t want (or do want)?
The issue isn’t one of positives vs. negatives, but one of putting forward goals vs. thinking through what is necessary and possible.
There is so much more to respond to, in subsequent comments, but I just don’t have the time right now.
Bill, the point I was making in my blog I linked to above is wider than just the question of Productive and Unproductive Labour. You say,
“The significance of the LTV is that it answers the question as to what is the source of profit. In Neo-classical economics the total of values must equal the total of prices so there is no profit possible. Indeed Schumpeter says that capitalism is an “essentially profitless system”. Marx explains that one commodity labour can produce more value than it costs to produce. Hence it abides by the rule that everything must be sold at its value, but shows that more value can be created than the cost of inputs.”
But, the point I was making is that the solution he gives in Capital to this question is actually different from the answer he developed in the Grundrisse, and this solution hangs on the question of why some human labour (wage-labour) creates new value, whereas other human labour (slave labour) does not. The former is Variable Capital, whilst the latter is only Constant Capital. As Marx puts it in the Grundrisse, the slave is no different in economic terms than the pack animal, and the pack animal is nothing more than an organic machine. So the solution to this problem of why Wage Labour creates new Value, whereas a slave does not, or for that matter why Marginalist Theory is wrong in assigning the same role to Capital equipment, cannot be based on the idea that Labour (sui Generis) creates New Value, and workers get paid less than the new Value they create (yet equal to their price of production), because they can continue working beyond the point where they have covered the cost of their own reproduction, because that is merely to assert what has to be proved. After all, the slave also continues working beyond the point where they have reproduced the cost of their own reproduction, yet Marx is quite clear that the Slave does NOT produce Surplus Value – a Surplus product yes, Surplus Value no. But, the same is true as Marx says, of the pack animal. If a mule does the same work as that done by a slave – say turning a power wheel – then in terms of work done, the mule will in fact produce a greater suplus product than the slave, but it will not be a Surplus Value. The Peasant in doing Corvee Labour works beyond what is necessary for the reproduction of his own Labour Power, but what he produces is a Surplus product not a Surplus Value, at least not a Surplus Exchange Value.
The only reason that it is only Wage Labour that creates new Value – and therefore, Surplus Value, is that unlike the slave, the Pack Animal or the machine, is that the wage-worker themselves has to engage in a dualled process of exchange. All of the above exchange their productive potential in return for their owner providing them with the basic requirements of reproduction. For all the former, however, it is only the owner who appears in the marketplace as a buyer of these inputs for reproduction of their slave, mule, or machine. That is not the case with the wage-worker. it is not the Capitalist who appears in the market to buy the workers wage bundle, but the worker themselves. And, as I set out in the above blog, the Capitalist like the Slave Owner in determining what is “socially necessary” labour-time for the production of any commodity, only sees the costs they have to lay out to achieve that i.e. the cost of reproducing the slave, the mule, the machine, or the wage worker. The wage-worker, however, just like the peasant producer before them can only view this in terms of the ACTUAL average, simple labour-time required, because that is the cost to them. Of course, no one in a mdoern economy actually makes such a calculation, but that is the basis of the value determination. In fact, even today, if I want to decide whether to employ a decorator to paint my house, I might do a rough calculation of how long it would take me to do the job, and how much I could earn during that time, and make a comparison against his price.
I should have added that the implication from this is that the Marginalist Theory is correct provided you assume a world in which everyone is a Capitalist, or everyone is a worker, and so the only exchanges are between people in the same position. In a world of complete automation with no workers, and exchanges only between the owners of these automated plants, there would be no Surplus Exchange Value, but there would be more than enough Surplus Product, Surplus USE Values.
Great post Boffy, real helpful
A further discussion of these issues, as well as the consequecnes for production of Producer Goods and Luxury Goods, the drive towards vertical integration, and conspicuous consumption is given in my blog Capital Consumes Itself.
I should point out that Andrew Kliman does not allow people to directly quote from his articles without permission. And if I’m being honest I’m not interested enough in his theory to go through all the piles of paper. So I’m not going to. Like I said people can judge for themselves the “truth” or otherwise of the argument, but in general imo its not a good idea to attribute conscious deception as a substitute for political debate, when it cannot almost by definition be proven. It simply poisons the atmosphere and is a good way of closing down debate. As indeed it has on this occasion, as I refuse to discuss with people who carry on in this way.
Just on Boffy, I don’t think I’m disagreeing with you, but was referring to a narrower point as you say.
Given that we share some common perspectives i.e. we both reject the kind of catastrophism or permanent crisis theories of many Marxist economists, and both frame analysis within the context of Long Wave Theory – though we disagree on its timing, and I have a more dialectical view of the Rate of Profit within it, seeing it as both a function and determinant of the conjuncture – I was wondering what your view of the work of Aglietta is, particularly in relation to the above discussion? I was reading a review of his “A Theory of Capitalist Regulation”, by Cieran Driver in Capital & Class 15 from 1981 today, and I was struck by some of the arguments presented in regard of a number of these issues.
For example, referring to the work of Sweezy in relation to this, Driver comments about his and Baran’s comments regarding the tendency to slow down innovation due to Monopoly,
“It is a measure of the isolation of Marxist Economics from any constraining criticism that this nonsense could be accepted at a time when US Capitalism was passing through its greatest expansion ever…”
But, it also appears to me that Aglietta’s “Extensive” and “Intensive” regimes could easily be substitued for the Long Wave Rise, and Decline, and much of the analysis would equally apply. Also, in that regard, and in relation to the above discussion, I find Aglietta’s discussion of the role of the devalorisation of Capital, and the role of the State, and Money and Credit in masking this, with the consequent implications for inflation useful.
Finally, given the current situation in respect of the Public Expenditure cuts, I find his comments there useful too. I find it strange that much of the Left frames its discussion of the actions of Capital in regard to Public Expenditure, and, in particular privatisation, in subjectivist terms, as though Capital has a drive towards privatisation, purely for ideological rather than economic reasons. That seems an odd position for a Marxist to take in my opinion. The whole history of industrial Capital from its coming to dominance in the middle of the 19th Century has been one of attempting ruthlessly to drive down the Value of Labour Power in order to extract Relative Surplus Value.
I would argue that the reason it established a Public Sector in the first place was precisely for that reason, because in relation to many Public Goods this was the most efficient means of achieving that aim. It is the same reason that Big Capital in the US has been pushing for the massive weight of private healthcare insurance to be lifted from its back and transferred to the State. If Capital is looking to privatise some Public Services it is far more likely that it is doing that for reasons of economic efficiency rather than ideological dogma that would hit its profits by raising the Value of Labour Power by increasing the cost of its reproduction. Healthcare is the obvious example. The US seeks to move to a more socialised system, in which the costs of insurance are reduced. The UK looks to move to a more European model. Why? Most analysis shows that private insurance is bureaucratic, inefficient and hugely expensive to administer. However, the European model shows that the actual provision of healthcare by hospitals, clinics etc. operating through an effective market, both drives up quality and drives down costs, through the same processes by which competition leads to innovation, and efficiency for other commodities.
Aglietta, making this point argues that the solution for Capital lies not in cutting Expenditure – if Expenditure is simply cut, and the collective services consumed by workers disappear or deteriorate then this in itself has an important consequence for the reproduction of Labour Power (inferior inputs produce an inferior product, in this case labour power) and subsequent effect on the production of Surplus value, particularly in a highly capitalised, and technological economy. In short it would be a counter-productive strategy for Big Capital – though not necessarily for the small backward Capital which acts upon the Tories and liberals. The soluiton he argues lies in ensuring that these collective services have a commodity form.
Bearing in mind that he was writing before Thatcherism really got going, he says,
“The condiitons of production must be modified in such a way that the value of the social reproduction of labour power is lowered in the context of a process that facilitates the development of collective consumption. Such a process may be in the course of preparation already with the emergence of the labour process we have called neo-Fordism…Pilot studies conducted in hospitals, in the Educational system, in pollution control, in the organisation of Public Transport have confirmed that this is a principle of work organisation capable of effecting a considerable saving of labour power in the production of means of collective consumption while also transforming their mode of use in a far-reaching way” (pp167-8)
Driver refers to Hildebrands work in relation to the switch from Public Transport in Sweden to the use of the private car, as an example of how such a commoditisation can be rapid and extensive.
There are questions that this raises for Marxists along the lines I have raised elsewhere. For instance, surely our starting point in looking at Public Services is to look at what they are. Are they services to be consumed by workers, or are they merely a means of providing jobs for Public Sector workers? The latter answer would seem to me to be a collapse into economism and sectionalism that could only divide the working class response. But, if they are the former then surely for a Marxist we are interested in ensuring that these services are of the best quality, and provided at the lowest price possible, particularly as the existing State Monopoly over them, gives workers no choice in how much they have to pay out of their wages for them. If we are not careful in simply setting oursleves up to oppose Government proposals on the grounds that they are ideological we simply reduce ourselves to a similarly ideological defence of existing State Capitalist provision. In fact, that is already a hallmark of the left’s response to Government Cuts agendas from the 1980’s onwards.
It is surely time that the left rather than simply responding to the attacks of the right with a knee-jerk response to defend the status quo, asserted its own agenda, and ideology beginning with a demand that existing State Capitalist provision be democratised, and placing before the working-class the reasons why the Capitalist State will never agree to any such change, and why, therefore, the answer can only lie in workers establishing the provision of such services under condiitons of their ownership and control.
“It is the same reason that Big Capital in the US has been pushing for the massive weight of private healthcare insurance to be lifted from its back and transferred to the State.”
wait, what? What the hell are they telling you over there in Blighty? This is simply a false assessment of fact.
Moreover, you have what might be an overly direct account of the driving down of labor costs. “Big Capital” wants, far more than it cares about the specifics of medical costs, to be able to discipline labor. If labor has public health care which they do not lose when they lose their jobs, they are less compelled to be obedient to the broad spectrum of pressures by capital to drive down the wage share and increase productivity and generally extract more surplus. So Big Capital, as a matter of fact and theory, continues to desire the effective privatization of medical costs, rigidly tied to employment.
That is not what the auto companies for example have been saying, who have been complaining for the last few years about the huge overhead costs they bear for the Health Insurance costs of their workers compared with their European competitors.
Your argument is contradictory. If it wants to drive down the wage share as you put it – which is a strange argument from a Marxist perspective, because Marx and Engels showed that ultimately the wage reflects the Value of Labour Power and is determined by the demand and supply for Labour Power – not by the ability of Capital to discipline Labour, which was a feature of early Capitalist development based on the extraction of Absolute not Relative Surplus Value – then the cost of providing that Health Insurance, and also the costs of Pensions, form part of that wage share. A look at those costs incurred by companies such as GM or Delphi who went bankrupt, and whose costs for those things even for its retired workers were huge, seems a very high cost, and strange strategy for any company to adopt, simply in order to be able to “discipline” its workers.
Moreover, why if your argument were correct would one of the biggest of Big Capital’s in the US, Wal-Mart, avoid adopting the strategy you outline? Why has it resisted introducing heralth insurance for its workers in order to keep them “tied” to it, in order to discipline them? Why instead has it taken the ire of its competitors who have complained that it avoids those costs by throwing the health care of its employees on to the existing socialised systems of Medicare and Medicaid?
The approach of Big as opposed to small Capital in this regard, and why under Monopoly Capital its interests tend to be better reflected through the lens of Social-Democracy was highlighted by Engels when he wrote,
“The fact is, those tricks do not pay any longer in a large market, where time is money, and where a certain standard of commercial morality is unavoidably developed, purely as a means of saving time and trouble. And it is the same with the relation between the manufacturer and his “hands.”
… And in proportion as this increase took place, in the same proportion did manufacturing industry become apparently moralised. The competition of manufacturer against manufacturer by means of petty thefts upon the workpeople did no longer pay. Trade had outgrown such low means of making money; they were not worth while practising for the manufacturing millionaire, and served merely to keep alive the competition of smaller traders, thankful to pick up a penny wherever they could. Thus the truck system was suppressed, the Ten Hours’ Bill  was enacted, and a number of other secondary reforms introduced — much against the spirit of Free Trade and unbridled competition, but quite as much in favour of the giant-capitalist in his competition with his less favoured brother. Moreover, the larger the concern, and with it the number of hands, the greater the loss and inconvenience caused by every conflict between master and men; and thus a new spirit came over the masters, especially the large ones, which taught them to avoid unnecessary squabbles, to acquiesce in the existence and power of Trades’ Unions, and finally even to discover in strikes — at opportune times — a powerful means to serve their own ends. The largest manufacturers, formerly the leaders of the war against the working-class, were now the foremost to preach peace and harmony. And for a very good reason. The fact is that all these concessions to justice and philanthropy were nothing else but means to accelerate the concentration of capital in the hands of the few, for whom the niggardly extra extortions of former years had lost all importance and had become actual nuisances; and to crush all the quicker and all the safer their smaller competitors, who could not make both ends meet without such perquisites. Thus the development of production on the basis of the capitalistic system has of itself sufficed — at least in the leading industries, for in the more unimportant branches this is far from being the case — to do away with all those minor grievances which aggravated the workman’s fate during its earlier stages. And thus it renders more and more evident the great central fact that the cause of the miserable condition of the working-class is to be sought, not in these minor grievances, but in the capitalistic system itself….
Again, the repeated visitations of cholera, typhus, small-pox, and other epidemics have shown the British bourgeois the urgent necessity of sanitation in his towns and cities, if he wishes to save himself and family from falling victims to such diseases. Accordingly, the most crying abuses described in this book have either disappeared or have been made less conspicuous. Drainage has been introduced or improved, wide avenues have been opened out athwart many of the worst “slums” I had to describe. “Little Ireland”  had disappeared, and the “Seven Dials”  are next on the list for sweeping away.”
Preface to the English Edition of “The Condition of the Working Class in England”
As for the idea that what Big Capital was interested in was still this small change extraction of Absolute Value by “discipline”, Engels comments,
” “The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working-men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation. In a commercial crisis the Union itself must reduce wages or dissolve wholly; and in a time of considerable increase in the demand for labour, it cannot fix the rate of wages higher than would be reached spontaneously by the competition of the capitalists among themselves.”
Engels Condition of The working Class in England p243
In the main, Capital has extracted Relative Surplus Value not as a result of imposing “discipline” i.e. of increasing work intensity, but as a result of higher labour productivity arising from the introduction of more, and more advanced technology, and work processes. Increased work intensity is peripheral at best to that. And the introduction of the kind of Municipalisation of Public Services described here by Engels, was only the beginning of its drive to reduce the Value of Labour Power by such means, to which it soon added the provision of State Education and so on.
The move to other forms of provision of these Public Goods is merely a reflection of the fact that the world has moved on, and the introduction of newer technologies, and work processes has changed what is and what is not an efficient means of production of these Public Goods.
A useful link on why its not just one of the bosses’ parties in the US getting pressured to socialise Health Insurance costs, but both of them is given here.
I would imagine that buying a house that needs to be paid off would be the biggest disciplining measure for labour. I would guess that those with a vested interest in the status quo would see this disciplne as important, I am of the opinion that ideology can transcend material conditions, with the result that classes, individuals, can believe in something that is against their own interests. This fact is obvious when it comes to workers but I suspect capital, big or small is not immune to this.
On the quote from Engels regarding petty theft, I think with the rise of finance we may have come full circle here. It seems to me that capitalists are going back to good old fashioned robbery.
Being relatively ignorant of Marxist economics I am puzzled why there is so much bad natured debate among Marxists. What does that say about the body of work Marx left behind? You can’t even agree how he calculated the rate of profit!
“Being relatively ignorant of Marxist economics I am puzzled why there is so much bad natured debate among Marxists. What does that say about the body of work Marx left behind? You can’t even agree how he calculated the rate of profit!”
I don’t think Marx is to blame. I think the main problems are that (1) a lot of people don’t really care to take the time and effort needed to understand the nuances of his theories and (2) there’s a lot of dishonesty that is considered acceptable. I mean that it’s very common to say “Marx said” when one should say “I think that” or “if Marx had done things my way, he would have.” People want to have their cake and eat it too, i.e. disagree with Marx while at the same time declaring themselves his successors.
The debate can be bad natured because people fight back when (1) and (2) are brought to light.
When there is a bad-natured debate, it isn’t everyone’s fault. Bringing (1) and (2) to light is a good thing. Fighting back against this is a bad thing. One has to look at who is upholding standards of honesty and accuracy, and other standards such as pluralistic dialogue, and who is hindering such things, not just look at the “tone.”
In a recent paper published in Capital & Class (a prepublication version of which is archived on the Writings page of my website; see “Disintegration of the Marxian School”) I note some related things about academic Marxian economics that are also relevant to non-academic debates:
“The first internal determinant of the Marxian school’s disintegration was the fact that it lacked, and failed to develop, a common purpose. As a result, it lacked common standards and criteria of justification, which in turn implies that it was unable to make progress.”
“An atmosphere of ‘every man his own Marxist’ emerged. In efforts to correct Marx’s supposed errors and overhaul their research program, competing approaches and faddish solutions to ‘the transformation problem’ proliferated, as did various attempts to marry Marxian economics with, or subsume it under, one or another variant of bourgeois economics.”
“This history suggests that the internal consistency debates were interminable, not because the underlying problems were insoluble or even difficult, but because of a lack of desire to see them solved. In fact, it suggests that Marxist economists have, to some extent, wanted them to remain unresolved. And this is where product differentiation comes in. The different schools that have arisen in and around Marxian economics since the 1970s—Sraffianism, the New Interpretation, value-form analysis, etc.—are essentially different ways of correcting or circumventing Marx’s supposed inconsistencies and working out the consequences. Much effort has been put into correcting Marx and to pursuing research programs founded on ‘correct’ versions of his work. Indeed, this has been the main preoccupation of Marxian and Sraffian economics, at least in the English-speaking world, since the 1940s. Thus, if the allegations of internal inconsistency are recognized as mythical, what happens to all of the differentiated products that owe their existence to Marx’s inconsistencies and whose main purpose is to refound Marxian economics on a supposedly sounder basis? In such an environment, the effort to resolve the internal inconsistency debate once and for all can seem to be analogous to a merchant who tries to burn down his competitors’ shops.”
“Second, the dominance of an instrumental approach to ideas (common even among proponents of the TSSI) has contributed to the disintegration of the Marxian school. Interest in value theory has largely been limited to using it as a tool in empirical research. There has been little interest in putting Marxian value theory on a solid theoretical foundation (except insofar as “corrections” of Marx have purported to be that foundation). Indeed, the effort to get Marx’s theory right has frequently been disparaged as dogmatism or scholasticism. Put in these latter terms, it is easy to see why the effort to strengthen a field’s theoretical foundations is disparaged in the present case, but the defect of this attitude emerges clearly when we situate it in a more general context. What if an instrumental approach to ideas dominated generally? Where would physics be if everyone was an engineer, and there were no physicists engaged in basic research, working to strengthen the theoretical foundations of the field?”
But the paper concludes on a more upbeat note with suggestions about how to reverse the process:
“I believe that the disintegration of the Marxian school can still be reversed, and that the current economic crisis provides us with a rare opportunity to reverse it. In light of the foregoing analysis, I think the following measures are needed in order to extricate Marxian economics from the mistakes of the past and to avoid repeating them.
“First and foremost, the field needs to greatly reduce its dependence upon the resources of academia. Intellectual autonomous zones need to be created. This will require significant resources. Sustained collaborative research is needed, and this cannot be accomplished by a few individuals doing such work mostly in their spare time. The needed resources will probably have to come from sympathetic political groups and individuals, but they will first have to be persuaded that intellectual autonomous zones are a top priority
“Secondly, cooperative behavior and attitudes, not uncooperative ones, need to be fostered and rewarded. People outside the field can help out by thinking of themselves not only as consumers of its output, but as members of a community it serves who are entitled to demand that it operate in socially responsible manner.
“Thirdly, efforts to solve theoretical problems, not efforts to create and perpetuate them, should be fostered and rewarded. Here again, people outside the field can demand that it operate in a socially responsible manner.
“Fourthly, garden-variety anomalies such as the “transformation problem” should not be allowed to become sources of internal crisis. While no one should take on faith that Marx was right about everything—or anything—it is reasonable and proper to try to resolve apparent inconsistencies and anomalies in a collaborative manner, and to “think outside the box” in order to do so, before jettisoning the foundations of one’s discipline and heading off in every direction at once. This is how things are done in the physical sciences (Kuhn 1970).
“Finally, people outside the field need to appreciate how profoundly the myth of Marx’s internal inconsistencies has damaged it. If Marxist economists will not do their part to set the record straight, people outside the field should take charge—and take them to task. And since a false charge of inconsistency issued knowingly is the moral equivalent of defamation, it would not be unreasonable for the public to ask those who have perpetuated the myth of inconsistency to make restitution. The funds obtained could be used to help re-establish Marxian intellectual work outside of academia.”
Since honesty and accuracy are often contrary to the interests of some parties in these debates, I think the “public” needs to set standards and speak out against misrepresentations, diversions, etc.
It is unfortunate that despite the best efforts of Comrades Andrew Kliman and Anne Jaclard to get Marxists to discuss the problems of what is necessary to transcend capitalism it is still proving so difficult to do so. As Andrew has repeatedly pointed out the left just will do everything to avoid task of conceptualising a communist society. The value theory debate is very important, the disagreements over the question of the falling rate of profit and the current crisis also. But by avoiding the challenge posed by Thatcher ‘That There is No Alternative’ Marxists just continue to strengthen the position of our enemies.
One way out of the problem of future prescription is maybe that suggested by Nicholas Thoburn in his book on Deleuze’s relation to Marx ( Deleuze, Marx and Politics ) : that the proletariat is a class-in-process, and occupies a ‘cramped space’ which is immanent to capital. As the later Althusser suggests, this means that its political action is determined by what he calls ‘ the logic of the fact to be accomplished’, not the ( retrospective) logic of the accomplished fact.
“One way out of the problem of future prescription is maybe that suggested by Nicholas Thoburn in his book on Deleuze’s relation to Marx (Deleuze, Marx and Politics): that the proletariat is a class-in-process, and occupies a ‘cramped space’ which is immanent to capital. As the later Althusser suggests, this means that its political action is determined by what he calls ‘the logic of the fact to be accomplished’, not the (retrospective) logic of the accomplished fact.”
This is an old position (though put in the language of continental philosophy). I think it is a dodge used “to avoid [the] task of conceptualising a communist society,” as Chris put it.
Anne Jaclard and I responded to the position above:
“c0mmunard might be suggesting something like this: ‘The social revolution will change everything, including people’s consciousness, and to such an extent that the change in consciousness will *be* the solution. So the problem will take care of itself and we don’t need to worry about it—we have to deal with _______’ (fill in the blank with ‘imperialism,’ or ‘the need for a green economy,’ or whatever your favorite diversion from the problems is).
“If that is the case, our response is:
“a. You’re dreaming. No reasonable person would be convinced by such assurances about the future. And that has a lot to do with why the Left isn’t taken seriously by a great many reasonable people, especially regular people who don’t like capitalist society at all.
“b. What happens if you’re wrong? There’s a ‘social revolution’ and it doesn’t work out like you dreamt it would. The whole thing collapses, or reverts back to capitalism, or something worse like warlordism––precisely because the ‘social revolution’ took place in an unthinking, seat-of-the-pants way, with less forethought ahead of time than people give to what to make for dinner. The lives and aspirations of billions of people will be crushed, and those who appealed to the magical and mysterious ‘changes in consciousness’ panacea will be to blame. They are the ones who will have caused the lives and aspirations of billions of people to be crushed. Can you live with that?”
Please also see my comment of August 26.
No one has addressed the “What happens if you’re wrong?” question.
Let me suggest the following. It is impossible to disprove stuff like creationism to the satisfaction of creationists, for the simple reason that, to disprove it, one would have to use normal (everyday and scientific) standards of evidence, ideas of causation, etc., but the creationists reject all this.
Because disproof isn’t possible, the only way to discredit their position is to show that they cannot maintain it *consistently*. What they do is euphemistically referred to as “compartmentalizing.” If their wallet is gone, they don’t say that God took it or made it magically disappear.
My point is that the exact same thing goes on in these debates about the future. People don’t say goofy things like:
“Yeah, he never flew an airplane before, and in fact he’s never even been in an airplane. But it’s fine to have him fly 250 passengers across the Atlantic because he’s a pilot-in-process, whose action is determined by the logic of the fact to be accomplished, not the (retrospective) logic of the accomplished fact of having completed a flight-training program.”
But when it comes to the new society, the goofiest stuff is considered reasonable and even profound.
It can’t be disproved. One can only expose the double standard and ridicule it.
Andrew: I think Althusser’s making an important point. The class which may come to be a social subject of change is not already there. It emerges and recomposes according to changing conditions. This is surely what operaismo ( Tronti, Bologna, Negri too .. ) argued for. The CNT was just as reticent as Marx to draw up models of the future.
But then what the CNT did was to concentrate on creating their own autonomous spaces in the present. The union centres became places of education, of mutual support, of social experiment. Maybe you can’t prescribe and model the future, but you can begin to form alternative social spaces in which the future is maybe incubating.
Hey Andrew! Still there? Surely the main drive of operaismo was to make things concrete: to investigate workers actual relations and responses to technological changes imposed by capital. To see where the new moves were coming from.
Also the point about the CNT, reflected in the Social Centres movement in Italy( unsuccessfully copied elsewhere, like Spain ), is that you have to have organised spaces ( in the case of the CNT, syndical branches ), therefore finance, organisation .. places in which the future could develop out of the present.
What working-people do not need is someone like Bakunin sublimating his own psycho-history in the form of some kind of utopian fantasy. Such dreams are dangerous.
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