Sectarianism prevents sectarian agreement

So do we have yet another political crisis in the North of Ireland, with the failure of talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein to bring back the Stormont Executive?  No one is really calling it a crisis since things remain as they were, and we simply have the now default position of no devolved administration.  And neither is it exactly causing panic in the streets.  So is there really nothing new then?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, the failure of the ‘peace process’ to process us some peace is not new.  From the start it has been sold on the lie that it brought an end to political violence, asking everyone to ignore and forget that the ceasefires happened before the sectarian deal, and that political violence remains, although at a much reduced level.  However the claim remains a vital illusion, since opposition to the process from any progressive standpoint must be painted as anti-peace.

The Stormont Executive has collapsed so many times I’ve lost count.  Talks between the parties have ended in failure even more times; while this latest failed agreement follows that of the ‘Fresh Start’, and the St. Andrew’s Agreement before that, which itself was supposed to sort out the problems with the Good Friday Agreement.  The Holy character of the last deal was sanctified by the forever peerless referendum that endorsed it in 1998.  It is fast becoming an imperialist version of the last all-island vote in 1918, that for some Irish republicans will forever legitimise armed struggle to impose its result against imperialist denial.

The latest crisis however reveals once again that the Good Friday solution cannot bring a settled peace or reconciliation and cannot bring an end to sectarianism.  This cannot be a surprise, since It is based on pacification by the militarily force that was most powerful; and it must hide or disguise the truth about what we have to be reconciled to, which accounts for the more and more open acknowledgement that there will never be any truthful accounting for the past.   And it cannot bring an end to sectarianism because we are asked to accept one sectarian outcome because it is claimed to be acceptable, as opposed to all the others that are not.

The claim to popular endorsement of the peace process deal is also becoming increasingly threadbare, as the reasons for the collapse of the latest talks make clear.

The local journalist Eamonn Mallie described DUP politicians dancing on the head of a pin in denying there had been a deal with Sinn Fein, one subsequently sunk by the DUP and its grassroots.  The British Broadcasting Corporation has danced on the same pin in the gyrations required to deny openly reporting that there was a deal and the DUP had killed it.  Impartiality and balance for it are the same as fairness and truth, so the good ship was sunk by the DUP was and was not sunk; it is both simultaneously dead and still breathing – everyone just needs to take a rest, and then go back to breathe new life into the stinking corpse.

But it is now widely accepted that the deal collapsed not because of the leadership of the DUP, who were willing to endorse it, but was collapsed because the rest of the DUP political class and its grass roots were opposed to it, including the unionist ‘NewsLetter’ newspaper – reflecting wider opposition to the Irish Language among the unionist population.  What sank the deal was the sectarianism expected to simultaneously deliver a settlement and also somehow be undermined by it.

The myth peddled by the media, British Government, certain politicians and by the most naïve sections of the population – that only a small minority oppose agreement – ignores the obvious fact that the vast majority of people mean very different things when they say they are for an agreement.

By its very nature, how sectarianism is to be shared is not something that can ever actually be agreed. By its nature, it identifies differences that must be maintained and defended; it identifies separate interests that are mutually exclusive and antagonistic, and it compels its expression through privileges that must be continually asserted.

There is therefore no such thing as the common good.  At most it can exist as the fair division of exclusive and opposing rights based on a division that, because it does not express the deepest interests of either section of the people concerned, can never be settled in a fashion that meets either’s deepest needs. Since sectarianism cannot ultimately meet the requirements of Protestant and Catholic workers there is potentially no end to the struggle to make it otherwise.

The current extreme of false sectarian rights is the demand for equality with Irish for the non-language that is Ulster Scots, which has become a totem for Protestant rights in general, and which a lot of Protestants regard as something of a joke.  However, such claims are true to the unionist tradition, a tradition that claims to stand for civil and religious liberty but which is less about claiming rights than denying those of others.

A rational recognition of interest would produce unity and not division, a unity based on the class interests common to both Protestant and Catholic workers.  However, the structure of society, including the most powerful political forces, presents sectarian answers, even when wrapped up in non-sectarian garb. So, resources must be ‘shared’ separately on a sectarian basis and sectarian interests are not to be eradicated but respected.

This prescription approaches absurdity when individuals must be assigned a sectarian identity even when they reject it, all in the name of equality.  For employment purposes what matters is what “community background” you come from.  As the old saying goes, or rather to paraphrase, you can take a man out of the Shankill but the state will not allow you to take the Shankill out of the man – your sectarian ‘community’ background will eternally define you.

That the latest deal was sunk by sectarianism is obvious.  Opposition to a ‘stand-alone’ or separate Irish Language Act was the declared reason for unionist opposition, but the ‘justification’ given for this shows that the language is but the latest hook on which to hang sectarian hostility.

You will look in vain for any rationale why the Irish language must be opposed.  Opposition to the Act, given what appears its modest objectives, might be seen to be opposition to the language itself, but the vehement opposition that has been expressed is such that it prevents agreement on  everything else.  It can therefore only denote opposition to something other than the language.

Arlene Foster’s walk-away statement said that “I respect the Irish language and those who speak it, but in a shared society this cannot be a one-way street.”  In other words, I can’t say what is wrong with the Irish language, or an Act to give it some recognition, but I’m going to oppose it anyway.  Since the Irish language must be a sectarian attribute of the Catholic population, Protestants must get something in return, something that isn’t defined but which is needed in order to accept something which otherwise there is no reason to oppose.

The DUP’s Nelson McCausland opposes an Irish language Act because it is simply a part of republicanism’s “cultural warfare”.  So he can’t say what is offensive about the language or an Act to promote it either.  The rationale for opposing it is simply that the other side want it, and that’s not only a necessary but also a sufficient reason to oppose it.

The real opposition to an Irish language Act is best expressed by DUP MP Gregory Campbell who replaced the Irish greeting in the Assembly “go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle” with the English words approximately sounding like it – “curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”.

This of course is not an insult to the Irish language and it is not even an insult to those who speak it, it is a sectarian insult that manages to even be offensive to some not otherwise disposed to be sympathetic to Irish language rights.  While no one has the right not to be offended most recognise a deliberate offense based on bigotry when they see one.

From a socialist point of view, we are in favour of Irish language rights and the real capacity of its speakers to practice their language, and without insult or intimidation.  The key question is not that it furthers division, as some unionists hypocritically claim, but that its recognition would be an acknowledgment of what is now a minority cultural practice. In this way, a tolerance might be built up to such differences, not that these differences may be held up as the end objective in themselves, but that they become less and less important as markers or carriers of division.

The real gain would not be the bureaucratisation of the Irish language and its movement, which will not in the end help it but will place the dead hand of the capitalist state upon its shoulders, suffocating the voluntary impulses that make it so attractive to many.  Rather its free expression would help demonstrate that the language is but one facet of existence and that real freedom and human flourishing is not synonymous with language rights.  I remember listening to a young political and language rights activist, who thought the language was the most important issue and was the central element of liberation.  I would have been happy to tell him that you can be exploited and oppressed in any language.

However, responsibility for the failure to have a language Act lies more widely than with the narrow bigotry of the DUP.  The commitment to introduce one was given by the British Government, and the responsibility to ensure this commitment was delivered has rested with Sinn Fein.  That one does not exist is their failure.  Ian Paisley junior has claimed that republicans never pushed for one, and this is one unionist claim that has a bit more credibility.

Foster has now stated that there is currently no basis for a return to Stormont and both the DUP and Sinn Fein have said this round of talks are over.  For the DUP this means direct rule by Westminster in all but name.  For Sinn Fein it means that the input from the Irish Government must be increased.  Otherwise it becomes obvious that the North of Ireland remains completely under British rule, without any Irish input whatsoever, making any claims to have made progress in weakening this rule obviously hollow.

In the past socialists have dismissed nationalist claims that the Irish Government has either any separate interest or the power to enforce any separate interest on the British in relation to the North.  Brexit changes this, or rather modifies it.

The DUP have claimed they want a soft Brexit with no return to a hard border but they wanted Brexit and they want a hard border – in the same way that some Tories want Brexit in the manner of having your cake and eating it.  Unionists are very keen on an identifiable border that has real meaning, while the more intelligent understand that the conveniences of the current internal EU arrangements are important.  It’s doubtful they have any more clue about how these conflicting wishes can be accommodated than the Tory Brexit ejects now in Government.

The Irish Government however has strong reason for seeking as soft a Brexit as possible, and in this case have not only a separate interest but have potentially European Union support for this objective, as it is one that the EU shares, if not to the same degree.  For both, an arrangement whereby trade between North and South continued to be carried out under current rules would be preferable.  However, the EU can also accept strict border controls inside the island in order to defend the integrity of the Single Market in a way that the Irish State would find more damaging.

The unionist pursuit of Brexit, alongside the reactionary support for it in Britain, is a response to decline and a misguided attempt to reverse history in order to return to a past glory that has gone and is not coming back.  Like unionist intransigence and bigotry, it denotes a movement that has no other understanding of the way forward because it does not want to go forward.  It wants the past, but the past, as they say, is another country.

Unionist demands for untrammelled sectarian supremacy are not sustainable.  The Catholic population is too large, and although it is not politically active in the sense of any mass political movement, it is not completely passive and brow-beaten either.  The demands of unionism are ultimately too extreme, and if given freedom to implement them would provoke reaction.  The current impasse is the result – the British Sate cannot allow unionism the freedom to do what it wants, even while it continues to conciliate its more amenable demands.  And this is the case whether the DUP props up a Tory administration or not.

The impasse is however obviously unstable, and as nothing continues forever it is especially true that this instability will not last forever.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 22 – forces and relations of production 5

In Capital Volume 1 Marx provides an example of how the productive powers of society have come up against restricted relations of production, how they have further developed and in so doing have consequently revolutionised the economic foundation of society.

This involved the movement from what Marx called the formal subsumption of labour under capital to real subsumption.  At first, the existing labour process, including the workers labour power, their technology, means of production, and markets, are taken under ownership by a capitalist; where previously individual workers’ families produced and sold (or not) on their own behalf.   This latter activity is, of course, not capitalist because no worker is exploited (except perhaps that they exploit themselves) and it is impossible to define a workers’ wage separately from any consideration of profit that the family may be considered to have made.

This, Marx calls “formal” subsumption, under which the whole labour process continues much as before, with previously independent workers now working for a capitalist, perhaps using the same methods, with the capitalist now monopolising the means of production and ownership of the product.  The typical example given is of hand-loom weavers, who continued working as before but did so on behalf of a capitalist who puts out the raw material to be worked upon and will take it back in finished form to sell, while the worker and their family carries out their labour in the home.

Considered at this stage, the workers’ means of subsistence may or may not be produced wholly or partly by the workers’ family itself, which if it is, may either give the worker some freedom to refuse demands from the capitalist if they are considered too onerous; or may entail very low wages which on their own would not be enough to maintain the subsistence needs of the worker and family without their own domestic production.  In either case the capitalist must be able to make a profit and may be greatly empowered to do so if he can compel the worker to submit to wage-labour through total reliance on it for his or her livelihood and that of the family.

This is therefore capitalism, or rather capitalism in a very limited and undeveloped form, because in its early forms it can either involve the workers’ reliance on their own production of subsistence needs and/or is based upon existing production techniques that are not developed by the capitalist to extract more surplus labour.

We do not yet have the social forces of production in the form of capitalism.  Such wage labour has existed for centuries without what we could recognise as something called capitalism as a system in existence. Indeed, pure wage labour has gone further than this without being generalised.  It is not therefore the case that we have prior or newly created and fully capitalist relations giving rise to capitalism itself.

Capitalism as such cannot develop on the limited basis it finds in the already existing forces of production. The pre-requisites for capitalism as a system, as a form of truly social production as we now know it, is a capitalist labour process that is the real subsumption of labour under capital, where the instruments of production can only be operated cooperatively and not individually as before.

Only when the forces of production, including the type of division of labour and its organisation, have been radically developed beyond the restrictions of the purely formal subsumption of labour can the whole social relations of production within society become thoroughly imbued with the nature and requirements of capital.  Only then does capitalism become generalised, obligatory and a totality.

Only when labour is combined together, and the potential technology appropriate to such combinations developed, can the productive power of capital be unleashed and we can move from more or less isolated, primitive and undeveloped forms of capitalist exploitation to a whole society of commodity production in which the vast mass of potential labour power is dependent on employment by capital.  In the words of Marx only then do capitalist relations achieve their “adequate form” and they gain their “totality and extent”.

The superior productivity – productive power – of the developing capitalist forces of production can then destroy less efficient methods of production (if it is allowed to) or it uses the state to enforce ‘free trade’ on less efficient productive arrangements. We then have a society in which every need of the worker and capitalist is provided by wage labour working for capital, and gone are the days when such needs were met by the product of one’s own labour or the trading by oneself of one’s own products for those not self-made.  While the latter limits the organisation and division of labour including the application of technology, the employment of wage labour cooperatively together in one place opens up an enormous vista of expanding productivity.

With the real subsumption of labour the expansion of capital involves enormously increased accumulation of labour and the instruments of labour; a previously inconceivable increased division of labour; the centralization and concentration of capital on an gigantic scale and the development of specifically capitalist forms of crisis, which no longer involve a shortage of production but are the result of too much production, overproduction of commodities that cannot be sold profitably.

Before long the exploitation of labour increases not because the working day is extended and its intensity increased, although tendencies to this never cease to be the case under capitalism, but because the division of labour and technology increases labour productivity, so cheapening the products of labour consumed by the worker and therefore reducing the time the worker must labour to reproduce her own wage while increasing the time in which she works to create profit for the capitalist.

By such a process new products and methods of production are created, adding to workers’ needs and the means by which these needs are satisfied, with the latter determining the former.  The versatility required of the working class is much increased and the ‘civilising’ process of capitalism can be seen to operate, while the exploitation of labour increases at the same time. In fact, within the massive increase in the productivity of social labour they are aspects of the same process.

The productive forces are developed enormously under the spur of the prevalent relations, these relations having been given full reign by the power of the productive forces corresponding and adequate to their particular form.

But it is Marx’s contention that such correspondence and adequacy is historically limited, just as the previous relations of production were adequate to a certain level of productive forces, but which had to give way when these subsequently became fetters.

Previous isolated wage-labour relations were limited because the productive forces were not sufficient for any further development and/or the production based on wage labour was not for profit but for the increased consumption of the ruling classes.

A society based on generalised commodity production requires productive forces more powerful than were then employed.  It is not therefore possible to consider internal contradictions within relations of production as adequate to an explanation of historical development and certainly not of historical progress.  The contradiction in feudalism between feudal lord and peasant did not develop a new mode of production (peasant or otherwise); when this new mode did arise it involved development of productive forces that neither class could become the bearer of.

A theory of historical development that considered only relations of production, and subsumed what may be considered the forces of production within them, would efface the reality that production is a result of material processes and constructions that social relations assume but do not define.  It leads to a view that the social relations of capitalism are embodied in the material elements of production so that what is materially required for production is already assumed to be capitalist in nature.

So, capital for example, becomes machines and equipment, and people have ‘human capital’, when capital is really a relation between capitalist and worker in which the latter works for the former and the former owns what has already been assumed to be ‘capital’ – the machines and equipment, product of labour and use of labour power.  Such a view distorts the fact that worker ownership of this ‘capital’ does not necessarily mean they also become capitalists. A society in which the means of production are owned by those who work it is a socialist one, in which the working class ceases to be a class because they no longer work for capitalists.  Incomplete development of such a society may be one considered to be in transition and considered just such a transitional society.

Neither should workers be confused that the skills and knowledge they acquire and with which they may acquire higher wages makes them in any sense a capitalist, earning any profit on their skill – this skill does not allow them to make any money out of other people’s work.

The distinction between forces and relations of production are therefore necessary to understanding capitalism and the possibility of an alternative to it.

Back to part 21

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 21 – forces and relations of production 4

I noted in part 18 of these posts that different views exist on the relationship between the forces and relations of production.  For some, the forces of production have primacy in explaining historical development and changes in the relations of production arise from the development of the productive forces, in the manner Marx describes in the 1859 Preface.

An alternative view is that it is the relations of production, in capitalism the capitalist ownership of the means of production and the competition among them, that is the motor of development.  Yet another view considers that it is contradictions within the relations of production alone that drives historical development, and not between these relations and the forces of production.

The latter two views lend themselves to the possibility that overthrowing of capitalist relations, no matter what the level of development of the productive forces, can lead to socialism, and the last can even encompass the view that simple changing from capitalist relations involves socialism in toto.  This is not a purely theoretical view but is one advanced by various varieties of Stalinism and left nationalism.

This still leaves us with the necessity of showing that Marx is correct to advance the argument the forces of production have primacy in explaining historical development and change in the relations of production arise from the development of these forces.

We have already defined the forces of production and stated that they always exist in a particular social form, that is, always exist within and as part of certain relations of production.  Marx says that these relations, that include the drive to exploit labour more intensively and in greater quantities, driven also by the requirements of capitalist competition, show that these relations of production are forms of development of the forces of production.  However, relations of production do not fetter themselves even if in certain senses they could be considered to develop themselves.

This can be seen for example in a geographical sense – through the growth world-wide of capitalism in previously non-capitalist societies, but also to the degree to which commodity production has penetrated previously non-commodity labour – pre-cooked food and restaurants replacing unpaid domestic labour for example.

These however also require productive forces that allow the practical and material possibility of the massive geographical spread of capitalism, including transport and communications, and the technology for the production of massive quantities of pre-cooked food, itself relying on a level of development of the productive forces that allows significant numbers of workers in many countries a standard of living that allows consumption of food not prepared by themselves.

Neither can it be said that the forces of production fetter the relations – the material forces of production, including division of labour, does not act to restrict commodity production or limit the exploitation of workers.  Rather technological development, modes of labour organisation and division of labour are restricted in their existence due to their employment in commodity production or as aspects of the exploitation of workers as wage labour.  How this evidences itself will be shown in a later post.

So, the contradiction in the mode of production cannot lie solely within the relations of production.  The contradictions within capitalism cannot be understood as purely involving unintended consequences both positive and negative, but as immanent and inherent in the system.  For example, the civilising function of capitalism that has been extensively discussed in these posts is not a by-product of some essentially reactionary character of capitalism.  “The simple concept of capital has to contain its civilising tendencies etc. in themselves; they must not, as in the economics books until now, appear as external consequences.  Likewise the contradictions which are later released, demonstrated is already latent within it.” (Marx, Grundrisse)

The alternative translation of what we have denoted as ‘productive forces’ – Produktivkräfte – is that of productive powers (not forces). Whereas a ‘force’ can be conceived as a thing, independent and standing alone, a power is always an attribute of something else and for Marx, the power in question is specifically that of social labour. Productive forces are thus an attribute of human beings in association, their collective capacities, not merely a set of things such as machinery, raw materials, technology or buildings.  It is the human being itself which is the main productive force and concrete labour (as opposed to labour in its exchange value creating role) that expresses this productive power, most powerfully as the cooperative labour of the whole working class.

The mode of cooperation that labour always involves, including the division of labour, is therefore itself a productive force that can be considered to be developed or fettered by the relations of production.  Marxists insist that the nature and scope of conscious cooperation between the direct producers in society, the working class, is retarded and restricted by capitalism in such a way that the productive powers of society are fettered and limited.

In capitalism, the mode of cooperation of labour and the application of technology are closely tied together so that technology can set the requirements for, and limits of, the division of labour.  This is true not just within the workplace or even between different workplaces:

“The relations of different nations among themselves depend upon the extent to which each has developed its productive forces, the division of labour and internal intercourse. This proposition is generally recognised. But not only the relation of one nation to others, but also the whole internal structure of the nation itself depends on the stage of development reached by its production and its internal and external intercourse. How far the productive forces of a nation are developed is shown most manifestly by the degree to which the division of labour has been carried. Each new productive force, insofar as it is not merely a quantitative extension of productive forces already known (for instance, the bringing into cultivation of fresh land), causes a further development of the division of labour.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology)

Back to part 20

Remembering or forgetting the Kingsmill massacre?

News in the North of Ireland for over a week has been dominated by the controversy created by Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff, who posted a tweet of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill sliced bread on his head in the shop at a service station.  He’s regarded as the Sinn Fein clown but nobody was laughing, at least not publicly, as he posted his video at 5 minutes past midnight on the 42nd anniversary of the killing of ten Protestant workmen by the IRA, at Kingsmill in Armagh.

He was roundly condemned and Sinn Fein suspended him from his post for three months, which was generally regarded as a weak admonition.  Unionists roundly condemned the photo and the punishment and contrasted one republican’s behaviour and the party’s mild rebuke with the recent Sinn Fein demand for equality and respect.

McElduff complained that he had not been aware that there would be any link between his tomfoolery and the massacre but some argued that it was too much of a coincidence.  My own view was that it was crass but couldn’t see the point of a republican drawing attention to something Sinn Fein would wish forgotten and which the IRA at the time would not admit.

What was more important was that the killings had actually taken place and had not been politically accounted for by those who carried it out and who are now claiming the mantle of reconciliation.

The sectarian slaughter was so appalling there was no admission of responsibility and, despite years of demands by republicans for a truth process, they still haven’t done so and aren’t going to.  Six members of two Catholic families had been murdered by loyalists the day before the Kingsmill massacre, and Kingsmill was carried out and widely seen as retaliation.  A classical tit-for-tat killing designed to deliver a message that we can also do what you can.

I remember that, perhaps five years later, a republican supporter defended the massacre to me on the grounds that it stopped the sectarian tit-for-tat killings.  This was the view of republicans at the time and no doubt still the view of most of those old enough to remember it now.

A also remember a comrade of mine once saying that the IRA fought a campaign that sometimes involved sectarian killing while loyalists fought a campaign that was sectarian killing. That many of the unionist politicians today complaining about the behaviour of McElduff are still today collaborating with loyalist paramilitaries up to their necks in criminality and with a record of sectarianism no republican could match makes their protest and grievance easy for many to dismiss.

The media controversy didn’t die, partly because it suited unionist purposes, and partly because it really does put a big pall over the republican ‘equality and respect’ agenda, with the video conjuring up the view that sectarian killing is a joke.  In the North the controversy will not significantly dent Sinn Fein support, but it just adds to the cynicism and/or calculated ignorance required to continue that support.  While always stating their republicanism could not be compared to loyalism, the retreat to what-about loyalist hypocrisy admits of such comparison. It is a defence, but only at the expense of embracing your enemy and sharing the same unwanted spotlight.

In the South, things are different.  It is now being argued that the resignation of McElduff after the mild rebuke of suspension has not been voluntary but demanded by Sinn Fein, especially Sinn Fein in the South, for whom association with the past deeds of the IRA really is a shackle they seek to escape.

This might seem the worst of all options for republicans – refusing to take strong action that might demonstrate they have changed and recognising  their responsibilities, while losing their colleague anyway.  But this is not how it works.  He’s gone; they can welcome his decision and move on.  Just like the original massacre – admit nothing, while sending a message, and hope to move on.

Like seemingly every major atrocity during the ‘Troubles’ the spectre of the British state’s involvement has also been raised by the controversy and as usual relegated in importance.

Police failure, seeming incompetence in investigating the case and suspicions of collusion, with no one charged over the killing, has raised again the issue that the IRA and loyalists seemed often to be almost puppets of agents working in the bowels of the British State.  That this was the case for much of loyalism can hardly have been doubted, though seldom admitted, but the state penetration of republicanism has been much more surprising.

In truth, there is little new in the episode because nothing has been revealed that we didn’t know already.  It will not affect the current political stalemate in the North and in the South every step away from its past renders the new Sinn Fein closer to a pale imitation of the rest of staid Irish nationalism.  Those coming from a republican tradition are devout in their remembrance and commemoration of the past but they seem incapable of learning from it.

Far from facing its history and learning its lessons they forget nothing and learn nothing because they either seek to repeat the same strategy today or defend the strategy applied yesterday. In any circumstance it would be a failure today as it was before.

The episode is seen as showing the barriers to reconciliation existing in the North but the columnist Brian Feeney of the Northern nationalist paper ‘The Irish News’ is right when he says that reconciliation is a religious notion that is a chimera, one that hasn’t, isn’t and won’t exist.  What is actually being demanded is reconciliation of incompatible claims coming from different sides while the respective validity of these different sides is also paradoxically affirmed.  The complete incoherence of the equality of sectarianism that passes for political progress here is on show once more.

What is required is not reconciliation of two sectarian sides but unity across sectarian division that through this unity dissolves it.  Irish republicanism has failed this task, which it once set itself over two hundred years ago, and no one really expects it to have much to do with achieving it now.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 20 – forces and relations of production 3

History develops through the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, the forces representing the material, including human, organisation of productive powers and the relations representing the social relations between the classes entailed by the productive forces.

Socialists have always recognised that socialism will have more developed and powerful productive forces than capitalism and will have radically different relations of production, within which classes themselves will disappear.

So, in general terms, Marx identifies human progress in history as the development of individuals and society’s productive powers, their productivity.  At any point in time these productive powers take on a particular form, with a particular configuration of classes corresponding to the historical development of the productive forces.

In general terms, it can also be said that humanity seeks to reduce the burden of labour while securing its reproduction with the highest possible quality of life, in other words there is an incentive to develop the forces of production.  This however is constrained, or rather is developed, through the relations that humans have with each other, as we have said – all human labour is social labour – and this social labour gives rise to particular classes.  The form that these classes take determines the “forms of development of the productive forces”, as Marx says in the 1859 Preface.

In capitalism, the capitalist class seeks to maximise profit through the extraction (as exploitation) of surplus labour, and in so far as this means maximising production it has been a powerful spur to the development of humanity’s productive powers.  Capitalism strives to develop the social surplus, the surplus of production over and above that consumed by the direct producers, the working class, so that this can be accumulated as profit.  As the capitalist class exists as many fractions and individual units, this drive to maximise the surplus is also driven forcefully by capitalist completion which, on pain of extinction by their rivals, the different units must accept and follow.

Contradictions arise from production for use and production for profit, as the commodities produced are both useful to their purchasers, being use values, and have exchange value, that is they have commensurate values, which different use values do not, that allows their exchange with each other on account of their all being the products of human labour.

Marx in Capital explains how this contradiction lies at the heart of the development of the capitalist system and its contradictions.  It is therefore clear that this contradiction at the level of society is expressed in the contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production, in production for use and production as a consequence of the capitalist nature of society and pursuit of profit.  So also it is clear that this can be understood as the conflict between the different classes that inhabit these relations of production, or rather embody these relations.

It’s therefore also clear that criticising Marx for saying in one place, like The Communist Manifesto, that history is the history of class struggle, but saying in another place, the 1859 Preface, that history is the history of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, is to fail to recognise how these concepts arise and relate to each other in historical development.

Understanding that they are all aspects of a Marxist understanding of historical development is important and it is my argument that, for many Marxists, history understood as the history of class struggle has made them at least partially sighted as to the import of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production.  For example, while it is correct to see class struggle between workers and capitalists as a battle simply to be won, it is also clear that the development of the forces of production, i.e. the development of capitalism, is not something to be deplored, or more often ignored, on the basis that this might signal acceptance of some still progressive content to capitalism.  To recognise this progressive side would be no more than continued recognition that capitalism produces not only for profit but also for use, since commodities must have both a use value and an exchange value.

This is also reflected in the tendency to see crises at every time and everywhere, when by definition the forces of production are not developing as they could, while failing to appreciate what has developed, what has “matured within the framework of the old society”, and that heralds not simply crisis but the ready potential of an alternative.  In my life time Marxists have gone from disseminating their ideas through typed-up, ink-smudged duplicated leaflets produced on Gestetner machines to internet blog posts created on powerful laptops stored in massive data servers, all the while proclaiming capitalist crisis and stagnation!

The simple focus on class struggle and political revolution, without stating how the contradiction between the forces and relations of production also signals the end of capitalism, has encouraged a failure to look reality in the face, to ignore the continuing growth of capitalism, in favour of a reactionary dismissal of actual progressive developments in society, understood in the way Marx did and as explained above i.e. the continuing development of the forces of production.  For those who like their politics and theory orthodox, one attraction of such recognition is to accept that Marx’s analysis in the 1859 Preface retains its validity.

The corollary of this is that the relations of production still act as “forms of development” of the productive forces” in the words of Marx, with all the attendant civilising achievements and barbarism that this has entailed for the last two hundred or so years.  As stated a number of times, capitalist progress is still progress, even if we understand as Marxists that it can only be through exploitation, inequality, violence and destruction, and that the full potential of humanity can only be realised through its supersession, which is not its simple destruction.

The alternative is to see capitalism as a system in stagnation, and for a longer or shorter future period – permanently in such a condition.  Beside this not at all corresponding to Marx’s analysis – which of course can be considered out of date if one wants to hold this view – this alternative implies that history has in some sense either halted or gone into reverse.  At the very least, the understanding by Marx of the drive to increase the forces of production contained within capitalism would have had to have been drastically impaired.  The stagnation of capitalism would, according to Marx, also imply that its progressive features, including the development of a class conscious working class, could not be expected either.  There is, after all, no reason to expect a stagnant capitalism, with attendant degenerating social relations, to be the herald of socialism.

Since the development of the productive forces that undoubtedly has occurred has taken place in a certain social form, a certain set of productive relations, it is understood by most people in the world that the economic development that we have witnessed historically is the growth of capitalism and due to it.  To believe that the material gains that workers have achieved over the past 100, 50 or 25 years is due only to their own struggles or through (in certain countries where it exists) a welfare state, is to entertain unconscious belief in the efficacy of reform of the system and the potential beneficence of the capitalist state. Above all, in this context, it misses the dynamic development of capitalism upon which the Marxist conception of socialism rests.

Of course, Marx said the relations of production can retard the forces of production; that these forces can “come into conflict with the existing relations of production”, which become a “fetter’ on the forces.  We still have to understand what these forces are, how they come to be fettered, if they do, despite the massive growth of capitalism, and how in this process we can still hold to the view that within capitalism, within this fettering, there develops the alternative to capitalism, one that does not simply arise more or less out of nothing from a purely political revolution, but one developed within the base and heart of the system.

Back to part 19