The redundancy of the capitalist class

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 40

While the socialisation of the capitalist mode of production, associated with the centralisation and concentration of capital, requires unprecedented cooperation in production, alongside the massively increased division of labour, it not only makes the potential for the working class to control such forces manifestly easier, it also progressively demonstrates the increasing potential redundancy of the capitalist class for the direction and management of this production.

The scale and scope of production becomes too big for individual capitalist owners to finance and manage.  Marx refers to the “enormous expansion of the scale of production and of enterprises, that was impossible for individual capitals.” (All quotations from Capital Vol III).

“Capital, which in itself rests on a social mode of production and presupposes a social concentration of means of production and labour-power, is here directly endowed with the form of social capital (capital of directly associated individuals) as distinct from private capital, and its undertakings assume the form of social undertakings as distinct from private undertakings. It is the abolition of capital as private property within the framework of capitalist production itself.”

This means that there is a “transformation of the actually functioning capitalist into a mere manager, administrator of other people’s capital, and of the owner of capital into a mere owner, a mere money-capitalist . . .  (the salary of the manager is, or should be, simply the wage of a specific type of skilled labour, whose price is regulated in the labour-market like that of any other labour) . . . total profit is henceforth received only in the form of interest, i.e., as mere compensation for owning capital that now is entirely divorced from the function in the actual process of reproduction, just as this function in the person of the manager is divorced from ownership of capital.”

“This result of the ultimate development of capitalist production is a necessary transitional phase towards the reconversion of capital into the property of producers, although no longer as the private property of the individual producers, but rather as the property of associated producers, as outright social property. On the other hand, the stock company is a transition toward the conversion of all functions in the reproduction process which still remain linked with capitalist property, into mere functions of associated producers, into social functions.”

 Marx describes this process as “the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself, and hence a self-dissolving contradiction, which prima facie represents a mere phase of transition to a new form of production.” 

For Marx, this whole process demonstrates that profit is not the reward for the labour and skills of the capitalist but makes it more obvious that it is the result of the appropriation of surplus value derived from the labour of workers, including its managers in so far as these are exploited.

Individual capitalists, indeed the whole capitalist class, commands capital that they no longer actually own, the property of others, so that all justifications of profit as the reward for risk (with other peoples’ money) or, even more ridiculously, abstention and saving (through a finance industry notorious for excess consumption!), is exposed as absurd. 

Also created is “a new financial aristocracy, a new variety of parasites in the shape of promoters, speculators and simply nominal directors; a whole system of swindling and cheating by means of corporation promotion, stock issuance, and stock speculation. It is private production without the control of private property.”  “Conceptions which have some meaning on a less developed stage of capitalist production, become quite meaningless here.”

Today these phenomena are reflected in the widespread contempt for corporate executive pay and the culture of greed, incompetence and arrogance of bankers and others engaged in the finance industry. 

The sacred principle of private ownership of capital and associated caricatures of the heroic self-made entrepreneur less and less reflect any reality in the system, which itself carries out the crime of expropriation that is supposed to damn socialism:

“Success and failure both lead here to a centralisation of capital, and thus to expropriation on the most enormous scale. Expropriation extends here from the direct producers to the smaller and the medium-sized capitalists themselves. It is the point of departure for the capitalist mode of production; its accomplishment is the goal of this production. In the last instance, it aims at the expropriation of the means of production from all individuals.”

“With the development of social production the means of production cease to be means of private production and products of private production, and can thereafter be only means of production in the hands of associated producers, i.e., the latter’s social property, much as they are their social products. However, this expropriation appears within the capitalist system in a contradictory form, as appropriation of social property by a few; and credit lends the latter more and more the aspect of pure adventurers.”

“The credit system accelerates the development of the productive forces and the establishment of the world-market. It is the historical mission of the capitalist system of production to raise these material foundations of the new mode of production to a certain degree of perfection. At the same time credit accelerates the violent eruptions of this contradiction – crises – and thereby the elements of disintegration of the old mode of production.”

Over-expansion of credit is often blamed for the periodic crises of overproduction or financial crises, including the construction boom in Ireland when it became the predominant element of the Celtic Tiger, and the 2008 financial crash centred on unsustainable credit and its extension through derivatives.  For Marx such events are simply the aggressive manifestation of the essential dynamic of the capitalist mode of production which, as such, has a two-sided result requiring more than simple condemnation.

“The two characteristics immanent in the credit system are, on the one hand, to develop the incentive of capitalist production, enrichment through exploitation of the labour of others, to the purest and most colossal form of gambling and swindling, and to reduce more and more the number of the few who exploit the social wealth; on the other hand, to constitute the form of transition to a new mode of production. It is this ambiguous nature, which endows the principal spokesmen of credit from Law to Isaac Péreire with the pleasant character mixture of swindler and prophet.” 

All these developments have the potential to provide a transitional form out of capitalism and towards socialism:

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.”

“They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage.”

 “Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale.”

“The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.” 

“Cooperative factories provide the proof that the capitalist has become just as superfluous as a functionary in production as he himself, from his superior vantage point, finds the large landlord.”

Back to part 39

The socialisation of capital

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 39

Marx notes that a certain accumulation of capital is a precondition for the capitalist mode of production that it then develops accumulation enormously:

“The continual re-transformation of surplus-value into capital now appears in the shape of the increasing magnitude of the capital that enters into the process of production. This in turn is the basis of an extended scale of production, of the methods for raising the productive power of labour that accompany it, and of accelerated production of surplus-value.” (Marx Capital Volume 1)

This involves an increasing division of labour inside and outside the workplace; the introduction of machinery and development of large-scale industry; the application of science and knowledge to production; and the increasing transformation of the natural world, all of which can only be the work of many workers combined together.

While many Marxists have prioritised regard to the underdevelopment of imperialist dominated countries and the remaining industrial backwardness of many, they have been loath to also recognise the growth of capitalism which is a necessary feature of its existence. Instead of capitalist development being the grounds for socialism its relative lack of development is often considered to be the warrant for revolution.

This increasing accumulation of capital results in its concentration and centralisation, the former “only another name for reproduction on an extended scale.”  Centralisation of capital on the other hand allows the greater extension of capitalist accumulation: “a more comprehensive organisation of the collective labour of many people, for a broader development of their material motive forces, i.e. for the progressive transformation of isolated processes of production, carried on by customary methods, into socially combined and scientifically arranged processes of production.” (All quotes from Marx, Capital Volume III).

This centralisation accelerates accumulation and allows the creation of forces of production hitherto beyond the capacity of previous numerous smaller capitals, with Marx noting the example of the construction of railways in the 19th century.  These in turn add to the productive power of any particular capitalism, raising the standard of productivity required by any newly aspiring capitalist power; requiring it to match the already existing scale, division of labour and technology in order to successfully compete.  New capitalist enterprises or countries must aim to at least match this level of development in order to survive, even allowing for temporary protectionist measures it may adopt in then meantime.

The concentration and centralisation of production is but one aspect of the centralisation of capital, with capital in its money form also concentrated and centralised; through its expansion it becomes an enormous means for further development of production and accumulation.

As this accelerated accumulation becomes ever more powerful it heightens the contradictions of capitalism, including the elimination of smaller, or even larger, capitals by competitors, which becomes less and less acceptable to such capitals.

Cartels are formed that predetermine the level of production in order to support the prices and profitability of participating firms, and when even this is not enough socialisation goes further with the creation of monopolies.

“This is the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself, and hence a self-abolishing contradiction, which presents itself prima facie as more a point of transition to a new form of production.”

Marx notes that expropriation as the starting point of capitalism – through depriving of peasants etc. of their means of production by severing their ties to the land so that they must sell their labour power to capital – becomes the expropriation of other capitals and the creation of monopolies.

The scope and scale of capital no longer allows for the great productive powers created to be the product of individual capitals but the combined power of socialised capital.  The financial system becomes one mechanism through which this socialised capital is concentrated, centralised and distributed.

The scale of production – including huge monopolies – and the power of the financial system require the intervention of the state to secure and regulate their workings, while the monopolies and financial system in turn intervene into the state to defend and advance its collective and specific interests.

This socialisation of production comes more and more into contradiction with the appropriation of production by individual capitals and tiny class of capitalists at its apex.  The massive planning of huge companies with internal economies larger than many countries stands in contrast to the uncontrolled gyrations of the economy as a whole.  The product of socialised labour is inimical to capitalist appropriation of its product, resulting in greater or lesser, but nevertheless permanent, inequalities due to class distinctions. 

The socialisation of production continues today, reflected in the growth of the concentration and centralisation of capital in monopolies and growth of the capitalist state.  Even after decades of ‘neoliberalism’ that supposedly relegated the importance of the state, in the US government spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product has reached around 40%, having been 34% in 1979 and 7% before World War I.

The expanding role of the state includes vital support for production as noted in the book of economist Mariana Mazzucato:

“Mazzucato lists twelve crucial technologies that make smartphones “smart “: (1) microprocessors; (2) memory chips; (3) solid state hard drives; (4) liquid crystal displays; (5) lithium-based batteries; (6) fast Fourier transform algorithms; (7) the internet; (8) HTTP and HTML protocols; (9) Global Positioning Systems (GPS); (11) touchscreens; and (12) voice recognition.  Every last one was supported by the public sector at key stages of development.” 

The extent of the concentration and centralisation of capital is recorded in a database of 37 million ‘economic actors’ from 194 countries (the Orbis 2007 marketing database reported on by New Scientist).  The socialisation of capital is illustrated by the 13 million ownership links involving ownership of shares etc. between these agents.  The study of these identified 43,000 transnational companies in 116 countries, plus an additional 500,000 other corporations and 77,000 individual shareholders to which the transnational corporations have direct or indirect ownership relations.  A core of 147 firms controls 40% of the value of the transnational corporations while 737 companies or individuals control 80%.

Such integration is also illustrated by the chance that any two firms in the S&P 1500 US stock market index will have a common owner holding at least 5% per cent of shares in both is 90 per cent, up from around 20 per cent only twenty years ago (People’s Republic of Walmart

In another academic paper (from 2018) the authors find that:

“In the last two decades, over 75% of U.S. industries have experienced an increase in concentration levels. We find that firms in industries with the largest increases in product market concentration have enjoyed higher profit margins and more profitable M&A deals. At the same time, we do not find evidence of a significant increase in operational efficiency, which suggests that market power is becoming an important source of value.”  The paper thus appears as another example of the view that monopolisation is at variance with the essential operation of capitalism.

This growth of the forces of production has relied upon the development of the labour of the working class, even if its powers have been turned against it; illustrated by notoriously anti-worker companies such as Amazon that are to the fore in developing unheard of levels of planning in their operations.

Nevertheless, the growing concentration and centralisation of capital, with its increased planning and networking of production and distribution, makes the potential for the working class to control such forces manifestly easier.  As Engels notes in an addition to Volume III of Capital, when speaking of the chemical industry, “competition has been replaced in England by monopoly, thus preparing in the most pleasing fashion its future expropriation by society as a whole, by the nation.” 

Back to part 38

Forward to part 40

Capitalist cooperation and Socialism

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 38

recent book on how capitalism, through the socialisation of production, is preparing the ground for socialism makes a point made by many – that Marx left no blueprint for a socialist economy.

“Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels may have expertly described the political economy of the capitalist mode of production, but they left few specific descriptions of what their hoped-for replacement would look like.”

Not only is it just as well that they did, given the specific way capitalism has developed, but had they done otherwise it would have contradicted their view that socialism would be the creation of the working class, not the elaboration of ideas sucked out of the thumb of great thinkers.

In fact, the authors of the book do not repeat the error of others, who rebuke Marx for not leaving a ready-made solution, because their book is all about how modern capitalism provides the foundation for socialism (as Marx first described in his critique of the political economy of capitalism).  As the great man said, the task of socialists is only to make workers conscious of what is going on in front of their eyes in order to move forward.

Their criticism of lacking a blueprint is made more against the Bolsheviks in 1917, but then the Russian empire did not have the preconditions for socialism.  The development of the socialisation of production possible under socialism, made possible by prior capitalist development, wasn’t achievable because the latter’s development was insufficient. Other more advanced capitalist powers could not assist because they did not also succumb to revolution.  The fault was not in the heads of the Bolsheviks or the gaps in their programme but the gaps in reality between what existed and what had to be achieved.

The socialisation of production under capitalism that paves the way for socialism can be considered in a number of aspects – the concentration and centralisation of capital and production, created by the increase in cooperative labour arising from the expansion of the division of labour.  The first two provide the grounds for the fully cooperative labour of socialism just as the increase in cooperative labour has entailed centralisation and concentration.

As Engels said, quoted in the previous post, “Before capitalistic production . . . the instruments of labour – land, agricultural implements, the workshop, the tool – were the instruments of labour of single individuals, adapted for the use of one worker, and, therefore, of necessity, small, dwarfish, circumscribed. But, for this very reason they belonged, as a rule, to the producer himself.  . . . But the bourgeoisie . . . could not transform these puny means of production into mighty productive forces without transforming them, at the same time, from means of production of the individual into social means of production only workable by a collectivity of men.”

The point of socialism is for these means of production to become not only the product of the labour of the collective worker but also to come under its ownership and control.

Capitalism, properly speaking, only really begins with this enlarged scope and scale of production.  As Marx writes in Capital Volume 1:

 “Capitalist production only then really begins, as we have already seen, when each individual capital employs simultaneously a comparatively large number of labourers; when consequently the labour-process is carried on an extensive scale and yields, relatively, large quantities of products. A greater number of labourers working together, at the same time, in one place (or, if you will, in the same field of labour), in order to produce the same sort of commodity under the mastership of one capitalist, constitutes, both historically and logically, the starting-point of capitalist production.”

Marx notes that: 

“When numerous labourers work together side by side, whether in one and the same process, or in different but connected processes, this form of labour is called co-operation . . . Not only have we here an increase in the productive power of the individual, by means of co-operation, but the creation of a new power, which is intrinsically a collective one.”

It is this collective economic power that must become conscious of its role and its interests, which necessarily must entail political consciousness.

Of course, with this development of capitalism, it is capital which combines the many workers, the social labour, that makes cooperation the productive force that it is, requiring greater and greater amounts of capital with person(s) whose sole role it is to wield this capital.  The technical division of labour is subsumed within a social division of labour marked by an increasingly hierarchical division of power between owners, Directors, managers and workers, within which there are other numerous lesser gradations of division.  Cooperative labour thus presupposes a capitalist class that grows in power as the scale of cooperative labour also grows.

This class performs the necessary tasks of directing, superintending and adjusting the performance of this cooperative labour.  This class also imposes the discipline and domination of labour which unavoidably arises, and suppresses the resistance that workers instinctively feel in response to external discipline and control.  Capitalist ideology then identifies the necessary role of direction of cooperative labour with the capitalist and its role of domination.  It does this even when the individual capitalist owner has been replaced by Directors and senior managers who might however be ‘incentivised’ by share options etc. and thus see a material basis for their role of enforcing the requirements of capital.

How easily this is done is demonstrated by Marx when he says that “it is not because he is a leader of industry that a man is a capitalist; on the contrary, he is a leader of industry because he is a capitalist.”

This ideology does not grant that the cooperative workers might carry out the direction of their labour themselves.  Marx quotes the ‘philistine’ Spectator magazine, unfortunately still with us, saying of workers’ cooperatives that:

“They showed that associations of workmen could manage shops, mills, and almost all forms of industry with success, and they immediately improved the condition of the men; but then they did not leave a clear place for masters.” As Marx says – ‘Quelle horreur!’.

The individual workers are only in the workplace because capital has employed them to be there and directs and controls their actions.  Their collective power appears as the power of capital and the capitalist and/or management.  While they understand that they do not ‘belong’ to either they also understand that they only perform their work because they have been hired to achieve both the objective of the company and the means to achieve it, neither if which is theirs.  This alienates them from their work and is a barrier to their understanding that their labour, like that of the rest of the working class, is the collective foundation of all production, and this being the case, they should both direct and control it.

Again, Marx notes the confusion created: that the power of cooperative labour created by capitalism is not seen as a particular form of such labour but only as the power of capital and its system. Capitalism is nevertheless necessary to bring this particular power of social labour into the world – “the capitalist mode of production is a historically necessary condition for the transformation of the labour process into a social process . . .”

Of course, cooperation has been a feature of all human society and often comes to the fore in particular circumstances, such as natural disaster, giving the lie to crude propaganda that people are naturally or spontaneously selfish or greedy.  Only the capitalist mode of production however raises this cooperation to unprecedented scope and sophistication and does so regardless of the subjective motivations of individual members of each class. 

It is capitalism which brings about the socialisation of production through increased division of labour allowing the concentration of capital, the application of machinery and development of large scale industry, requiring the most developed cooperation to make it work.

The ideologues of capitalism constantly assert the virtue of competition in its creation but fail to acknowledge and recognise the associated requirement for cooperation.  At best they seek to determine the limits of cooperation to within firms, in order to assert the primacy of competition in relations between them, but which even here is only partially true.

The unacknowledged role of cooperation can often be seen in references to Adam Smith’s famous pin factory, which required no new techniques or technology but simply required a single worker to devote herself to one of the eighteen tasks required to make a pin, as opposed to each worker completing all of them.  Where previously 200 could be made in one day by ten workers, this specialisation allowed production of 28,000 pins in a day.

No pin was therefore the product of a single worker, so we cannot measure output by adding up the number created by each worker as we would have before.  Labour has become a social activity requiring the cooperation of each worker so that every pin is wholly the product of all.

When we consider the incredible division of labour today, in order to create such things as cars, ships and computers, it has extended beyond a single workshop to a division of labour between thousands if not tens of thousands of production sites across the globe.  Even ‘simple’ commodities, that are usually taken for granted in the most advanced countries, are the product of tens of thousands of factories and offices.  Water requires treatment works, which requires cement, steel, computers and chemicals etc., which each require their own enormous separate production processes.  Electricity requires power stations and wind farms with thousands of separate components and an electricity transmission and distribution system to deliver it.

All these elements involve a massive division of labour both within production units and between them.  We can no longer even conceive how any of this could be the product of one worker or even single group of workers.

Such is the achievement of capitalism in creating the collective worker.  Its socialisation of production requires the cooperation of millions of workers across the globe, yet rather than unite to advance this cooperation to the benefit of all those involved we have drummed into us that we must compete with each other.  Not to develop the best products or techniques, but to crush and kill off competitors and potentially destroy the jobs of others.

As the division of labour has advanced so has the necessity for cooperation and so are the preconditions for socialism more and more established; all driven by capital’s own thirst for surplus value and profit.  The full potential of such cooperation can only be realised through its conscious extension by all those involved in the process of production, distribution and consumption, and the political arrangements that preside over it.  All aspects of it, including competition, then become the conscious and purposeful activity of the collective worker.

Back to part 37

Forward to part 39

The preconditions for socialism

Utopian socialism, such as this imagined image of Robert Owen’s short lived utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana was based on ideas. Karl Marx’s was based on existing reality and its development.

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – Part 37

Marx said that “new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”  (1859 Preface). So what are these material conditions that must have matured?

We have already seen that these involve sufficient development of the forces of production so that society is potentially productive enough to abolish the inequalities upon which class relations rest.  Such relations before the development of capitalism resided within and supported productive forces that hitherto could not be held in common, therefore providing the grounds for a class that owned the means of production and a class that did not.  In capitalism it is capitalists that own the means of production as private property, which is always the right to exclude others from ownership, and the working class that is so excluded. However, as we have also seen, capitalism provides the grounds to go beyond this division.

Ownership and exclusion in production necessarily entails ownership and exclusion of the products of that production, of consumption.  The growth in the mass of profit, distributed as profit of enterprise or as dividends, interest, rent etc. is obviously conditioned by ownership just as salaries and wages are also so conditioned.  The means of consumption cannot be equitably distributed because the ownership of the means of production entails ownership of what is produced. Insufficient development of production imposes constraints and restrictions on the distribution of consumption so that common ownership of the means of production is equally not possible.  

Such inequalities have developed historically through different forms of class society and utopian schemes to wipe the slate clean and impose a more equal society have been doomed to failure unless the material grounds for such equality can be created.  This involves a sufficient level of productivity of labour that everyone can have their consumption needs met, and that these needs can be developed without also developing gross inequalities in their distribution.

So what level is this?

While it is clear that pre-capitalist and early capitalist societies could not provide the grounds for common ownership of production and growing equality of consumption, it is also clear that capitalist development now offers such a prospect. ‘Clear’, not just because of the level of the productive forces already achieved in a growing number of countries but also because of the waste generated by capitalism and its potential for more rational organisation (and the fact that this more rational organisation is also taking place, albeit also disfigured by its own continuing capitalist irrationality).

It would however be unhistorical to state some absolute level, since needs develop historically as a function of the development of the forces of production which create them.  It is therefore the latter development that determines this level.

For Frederick Engels in ‘Anti-Dühring’ this level had been reached by the late 1870s:

“The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialised production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here.”

The appropriation of the means of production is therefore key to the satisfaction of needs and its equitable distribution.  Appropriation by society as a whole, by its associated producers – the working class (those who work) – provides the grounds for the appropriation of the fruits of that production. 

As Frederick Engels again pointed out in ‘Anti-Dühring’:

“Before capitalistic production, i.e., in the Middle Ages, the system of petty industry obtained generally, based upon the private property of the labourers in their means of production; {in the country,} the agriculture of the small peasant, freeman or serf; in the towns, the handicrafts. The instruments of labour – land, agricultural implements, the workshop, the tool – were the instruments of labour of single individuals, adapted for the use of one worker, and, therefore, of necessity, small, dwarfish, circumscribed. But, for this very reason they belonged, as a rule, to the producer himself.”

“To concentrate these scattered, limited means of production, to enlarge them, to turn them into the powerful levers of production of the present day – this was precisely the historic role of capitalist production and of its upholder, the bourgeoisie. . . But the bourgeoisie . . . could not transform these puny means of production into mighty productive forces without transforming them, at the same time, from means of production of the individual into social means of production only workable by a collectivity of men.”

“The spinning-wheel, the hand-loom, the blacksmith’s hammer, were replaced by the spinning- machine, the power-loom, the steam-hammer; the individual workshop by the factory implying the co-operation of hundreds and thousands of workmen. In like manner, production itself changed from a series of individual into a series of social acts, and the products from individual to social products. The yarn, the cloth, the metal articles that now came out of the factory were the joint product of many workers, through whose hands they had successively to pass before they were ready. No one person could say of them: “I made that; this is my product.” 

Capitalism has thus developed the forces of production in such a way that they can be appropriated by society as a whole; in fact it has started this process itself:

“On the one hand, therefore, the capitalistic mode of production stands convicted of its own incapacity to further direct these productive forces. On the other, these productive forces themselves, with increasing energy, press forward to the removal of the existing contradiction, to the abolition of their quality as capital, to the practical recognition of their character as social productive forces.” 

“This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognised, forces the capitalist class itself to treat them more and more as social productive forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions. The period of industrial high pressure, with its unbounded inflation of credit, not less than the crash itself, by the collapse of great capitalist establishments, tends to bring about that form of the socialisation of great masses of means of production which we meet with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies.”

“Many of these means of production and of communication are, from the outset, so colossal that, like the railways, they exclude all other forms of capitalistic exploitation. At a further stage of evolution this form also becomes insufficient: the official representative of capitalist society – the state – will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into state property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication – the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.”

“If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first the capitalist mode of production forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.” 

“But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces.” 

Of course, legions of socialists are able to see capitalism as wholly reactionary, of being in decline and permanent crisis while failing to recognise that through these crises and renewed periods of accelerated accumulation capitalism continues to play the role of preparing for socialism in this ‘positive’ fashion.

They sometimes make the further mistake, inconsistent with their first, that state ownership is not only positive in this sense but progressive in the sense of being the germ of socialism that only needs to continue its growth.  This is best summed up in demands to nationalise the top monopolies or whatever capitalist enterprise is currently failing.

But as Engels immediately goes on to say in Anti-Dühring:

“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers – proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.” 

So the technical elements of the material conditions for the new superior relations of production have matured within the framework of the old society.

This leads Marx to say that:

“This result of the ultimate development of capitalist production is a necessary transitional phase towards the reconversion of capital into the property of producers, although no longer as the private property of the individual producers, but rather as the property of associated producers, as outright social property” (Capital Vol 3 Chapter 27)

Capitalism is thus transitional to socialism but this is also, like capitalism before it, the creation of human beings, and not just human beings as agents of some disembodied socialisation of capitalism.  For Marx, ultimately these material conditions require workers themselves being agents of socialisation of production and agents of political change that guarantees the new relations of production.

Future posts will look at this working class agency but the next posts will look in more detail at the socialisation of production and how it heralds the potential of socialism.

back to part 36

Forward to part 38

The Internationalism of Capital and Class

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – Part 36

Whether we like it or not, the development of the capitalist mode of production has shaped the working class, its organisation and its movement.  It has done so in ways that, in a more or less immediate fashion, assists or retards the organisation of the working class.

In general, however, it is the argument of Marxism that the increasing socialisation of capitalism gives rise to a materially strengthened working class that needs to become conscious of its objective role, and of the potential alternative arising from it that reflect its objective interests.  In all these aspects the process is international, a global one that brings workers of the world together more and more and which must make conscious this mutual dependence through international organisation. 

So today we should be asking ourselves – would the increasing organisation of capitalism on an international basis, today called globalisation, not also be the grounds upon which the working class created should unite? Would workers unity across Europe be assisted or hindered by the increasing international organisation of European capital and its associated political development?  Would workers unity be easier or harder if faced with more and more similar economic, social and political conditions, including laws, institutions and common enemy?  In other words, for example, inside or outside the EU?  Does accepting the international development of capitalism not provide the basis to also organise workers internationally so that the EU similarly can be ultimately replaced by a workers’ alternative?

Far from ‘cosmopolitan’ workers, immigrant workers, young employees of tech firms, working class students who have travelled, part time ‘precariat’ workers etc. etc. being neglected, or worse, in the name of a ‘traditional working class’; these working class fragments are products of the constant reformation of the working class that has always been generated by capitalism and from which previous components of the working class movement have been built.

Only those who want to divide the working class will seek to pose this working class against a separate working class that is supposedly more authentic.  In some countries this ‘authentic’ class will be manual workers. In others those leftists professing such views will only have such workers as a historical reference, their movements in fact based on white collar state employees, for whom widespread state ownership is most congenial to their economistic view of socialism.

So, in digging up the commonplace notion – for a socialist – of internationalism it is not simply a question of ‘returning’ to Marx and Engels but of turning to face the development of contemporary capitalism through the understanding they gave of its laws of development.  This allows us to orient to the political choices, challenges and perspectives that face us.  It is necessary to quote Marx and Engels etc. in order to convey their general approach and remind those who consider themselves Marxists of what this was, while attempting to convince those who do not of its relevance. 

Marx and Engels explained in the fragments of their studies that have become known as ‘The German Ideology” that:

“ . .  this development of productive forces (which at the same time implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which on the one side produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the “propertyless” mass (universal competition), making each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally puts world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones.”

“Without this, 1) communism could only exist as a local phenomenon; 2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence unendurable powers: they would have remained home-bred “conditions” surrounded by superstition; and 3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them.”

While we can question the precise meaning of the demand for “simultaneous” and “all at once” acts to establish communism, it is clear that it can only be the product of international struggle and international success, while it can only be posed given a high level of the productive forces that can only exist at a global level.

“Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production. (Marx, Capital Vol. 3 Chapter 15).

‘The productive forces of social labour’ is the working class and the mass of fixed and circulating capital it works with.  These must be international so that they can reach the required level that makes a new society without the ‘old filth’ possible.  This therefore means that the relations of production also exist within an international framework, that capital and the working class are both international.  You cannot have international forces of production and purely national relations of production.  Globalisation is not therefore something from without but is a creation within capitalist development, including of its capitalist and working class.

This existence as an international class is not simply a question of workers having a political consciousness of their solidarity with the workers of other countries; consciousness of this as with anything else must reflect their material existence and not simply the apprehension of liberating ideas.  Marxists don’t believe that ideas in such a form can be generated simply out of people’s heads or from accepting the entreaties of others.  They must come out of their lived experience, or as is put in the paragraphs above – it must come from workers who are already ‘empirically universal beings’ and not merely ‘local’ ones.

Since such workers must exist within capitalism in order to overthrow it, its overthrow is not in the first place something to be taught to workers by socialists through ideas, propaganda or programme.  As we all know, the current system is oppressive and exploitative, but just as we need capitalist development before socialism can be a real possibility, so we need this capitalism to be international in scope and organisation before we can expect the working class equivalent.

This means, since the state reflects the dominant form of property relations, that the political organisation of international capitalism will also be oppressive.  However, to believe that we can have international production relations without capitalism seeking international political bodies is obviously wrong, which is why belief that we must destroy such institutions to go back to purely national ones is not only mistaken but reactionary.

The traditional reformist programme of most of the Left, adopted by many calling themselves Marxist, has no traction in these conditions.  Taxation of corporations for example, or of the wealthy, cannot be carried out on a purely national basis.  The current programme of Joe Biden and the OECD recognises what the Left does not – that this can only be carried out internationally.  Without this the resources required by the state to carry out the redistribution of income championed by this reformist perspective becomes impossible.

The idea that socialism is grounded on state ownership is equally adrift from the reality of international capitalism.  The role of multinationals and their operation in many countries with their global production and supply chains, makes seeking any sort of meaningful control at a national level impossible.  Seizing authority over one link does not give control of the whole chain.  At most it is simply destructive of this international division of labour: an ironically appropriate result of a programme that some may consider anti-capitalist but which is not thereby socialist.

The international development of the forces of production does not therefore give rise to merely historical theoretical questions but determines the potential for, and general perspective of, socialism.  Marx of 150 years ago has more to guide us than many of today’s left that claim his legacy.

Back to part 35

Forward to part 37

The International Organisation of the Working Class

Stating that Marx’s alternative to capitalism is an internationalist one should hardly be controversial were it not for the history of the movement laying claim to his legacy.  Unfortunately, this history includes ‘socialism in one country’ a la Soviet Union; national ‘roads to socialism’; ‘anti-imperialism’ that champions those opposed to (mainly) US imperialism but excuses its opponents regardless of their anti-working class character, not forgetting support for such reactionary projects as Brexit.

Quite happy (most of the time) to recognise that only capitalism creates a working class; that this has involved the organisation of workers in large factories (and now offices etc.) and that therefore that the shape of the class is determined by the particular shape of capitalism at any time or place, these ‘followers’ of Marx will oppose the EU and support Brexit despite the internationalisation of capitalism laying the groundwork for an international working class and therefore the potential for creation of an international movement.

The internationalism of Marxism should mean that opposition to national division of the working class is a cardinal principle, reflected in the history of the organisation of the Marxist movement, and as a precursor of the movement of the working class itself and the social system it seeks to create.

The First International, which Marx played such a vital role in, sought to organise the working class internationally and, despite its coalition of many political tendencies, established a political legacy much of which is applicable today.  It has been argued that this international movement had its basis in the particular nature of the working class, or at least a part of it, created by the stage of capitalism achieved at that time:

‘If we ask: what were the social bases of this International—and of the wave of popular urban insurgency in 1848—the answer is pretty clear. They did not lie in any factory proletariat, but overwhelmingly in a pre-industrial artisanate. This was a class in possession of its own means of production—tools and skills; which enjoyed high levels of literacy; was typically located close to the centre of capital cities; and, last but not least, was geographically mobile—a mobility symbolized by the famous tours of young apprentices within or beyond their own countries. In 1848 there were some 30,000 German craftsmen in Paris—Heine said you could hear German spoken on every street corner; in London, Marx and Engels were writing their Manifesto for German artisans working in England; Berlin had its scattering of Polish or Swiss craftsmen, Vienna of Czechs or Italians.’

This is, of course only partially true, as the International also had representation from British trade unions but it is much truer of the German workers’ movement in the 1848 revolution.

The Second International succeeded in building a mass working class movement on the back of a common expansion of capitalist industry, at least in parts of Europe, but its destruction by war was not just a reflection of the betrayal of a leadership that had abandoned Marx’s revolutionary politics, it also faithfully reflected the nationalist ideas that dominated the vast majority of the working class.  Since we understand that ideas are derived from the material reality of workers’ lives, we can see the basis of the dual character of working class consciousness in workers’ solidarity within the nation state offset by weakness of its equivalent at the international level.

The consciousness of being workers led not only to militant trade union consciousness and limited political consciousness but also nationalism that reflected the mainly national character of the capitalism that existed at that time; national capitals that were in rivalry and competition with other national capitals and states, which dragged their workers behind them.

The Third International regrouped the most militant and politically radicalised workers repelled by their common suffering in the world war, the experience of shared austerity and political reaction following it, and by the example of the Russian Revolution.

The isolation of the Russian revolution led to its degeneration, a degeneration experienced by the Third international as a whole, which became isolated from the rest of the working class movement.  The isolation of the Third International objectively needed to be repaired – the working class movement could not achieve its aims divided. One attempt was the policy of the united front, the unity of Social Democrat and Communist workers, which was an acknowledgement that a socialist programme was impotent without a working class to fight for it.

The division reached its tragic nadir when both stood separate in front of the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany.  The defeat led to no regeneration of either Social Democracy or the Third International and both eventually ceased to exist for any practical purposes.

Many of those who continued to defend Marxism rallied to what became many versions of Trotsky’s Fourth International but these too became evidence of the paucity of programme separated from the working class.  The world-wide capitalist boom after World War II was not the grounds upon which a movement singularly fixed on the immanence of political revolution could build a mass organisation, except in displacing its hopes onto non-socialist revolutionary upheavals.

It can be no surprise that the degeneration of the Second and Third Internationals into nationalist and statist conceptions of socialism reflected the growth in the number of, and the role of, capitalist states in capitalism, or that this too infected many currents of the Trotskyist movement.  It too was a product of the capitalism in which it lived; reflected in its transfer of hope to the ‘third world’ and its ‘national liberation’ struggles, and accommodation with the growing role of the capitalist state through preaching nationalisation, state redistribution and general Keynesian policies as all key elements of the socialist programme.   It reached further extension in support for left-talking Latin American regimes that rely mainly on state mobilisation and support for Brexit or various ‘progressive’ nationalisms such as Scottish separation or Catalan independence.

In all these cases the Left has rallied behind what Marx called a ‘transitional form’ of the capitalist mode of production in which the ‘antagonism’ contained in the private ownership of the means of production is ‘resolved negatively.’ So, while its demands may be an advance on private capitalism, its demand for nationalisation is not a demand to positively overcome capitalism but to bring its forms of ownership more into line with its increasing socialisation. However, because such transformation of ownership does not supersede capitalism but merely extends its development those claiming it is socialist leave themselves caught up in unresolvable contradictions, such as demanding widespread state ownership as well as destruction of the same state.

However, even this programme increasingly became an ossified relic of 1930s protectionism and internationally agreed national-level capital controls.  As capitalist accumulation grew in Europe and further afield these controls were subverted by the changing role of the US dollar and relative US industrial decline.  The capitalist state itself, led by Britain and the US, led the way in openly deregulating and de-nationalising control of money capital while structures like the EU pointed the way to international industrial restructuring and a new international currency.  Freedom of movement, across the EU for example, opened up an important route by which an international component of the working class could grow and influence its wider national sections, undermining nationalist division.

State ownership became a step backward from the growth of global companies and the increasing international division of labour that lay behind these developments.  Much of the left however clings to the capitalist state as potential saviour and finds itself tailing behind various political expressions of the petty bourgeoisie, whether supporters of Brexit or of other fractions seeking new avenues for their advancement in the bureaucracies of newly created states.

State ownership is not a call to the working class to impose its own resolution to the antagonism of the property question through workers’ ownership as one preliminary step towards the whole economy becoming the activity of the working class constituted as the ‘associated producers’.  It reflects an increasingly outmoded mode of capitalist development for which an outmoded nationally limited socialist programme is redundant. It was not Marx’s alternative 150 years ago and there is even less reason to consider it one today.

Back to part 34

Forward to part 36

Is socialism only possible when the forces of production stop growing? – KMAC part 33*

The growth of the capitalist system involves the development of new needs – we did not need the mobile phone until it was invented and many didn’t consider getting one until it got small enough in size and price.  This will be true of the new needs we are currently unaware of, that will also arise from the capitalist development of the forces of production.

The productive forces that create these new needs are primarily “the accumulation of the skill and knowledge (scientific power) of the workers themselves . . . and infinitely more important than the accumulation – which goes hand in hand with it and merely represents it – of the existing objective conditions of this accumulated activity.  These objective conditions [machinery, equipment, infrastructure etc.] are only nominally accumulated and must be constantly produced anew and consumed anew.” (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value Vol 3)

This process is a fundamental feature of capitalism and thus to the development within it of the conditions for its supersession. It evolves through antagonisms, and in the 1859 Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ Marx states that ‘at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production.’ At this point there ‘begins an era of social revolution.’

For Marx the creation of these conditions, the promise of a new non-exploitative and non-oppressive society, can no more avoid the antagonisms of capitalism, and all its ills, than humanity could avoid belief that the world it inhabits is the creation of a divine being.

“An oppressed class is the vital condition for every society founded on the antagonism of classes. The emancipation of the oppressed class thus implies necessarily the creation of a new society. For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself, it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side. Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organization of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society.”  (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847)

This was written early in Marx’s career and, if the last sentence is to be understood strictly, implies that the organisation of the working class supposes that the productive forces have grown to such extent that they cannot grow further within capitalism.  While some Marxists believe this stagnation or absolute retardation of capitalist development is the case, or rather repeatedly declare that this must be the case, or is impending, this is very hard, in fact impossible, to defend.  The working class continues to grow massively across the world and could not do so, by definition, if the productive forces of the capitalist system were not also growing.

Marx may be thought to repeat this understanding twelve years later in the 1859 Preface to ‘The Critique of Political Economy’ quoted above, and which we looked at over a number of posts in this series as a succinct published summary of his views on these decisive questions.

Here he says that:

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

G A Cohen in his celebrated book ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of History, A Defence’, rewords the first part of the sentence to read “No economic structure (set of production relations) ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. . .”

We will leave aside his replacement of ‘social order’ by the narrower ‘economic structure (set of production relations)’ and we will come back to his translation of ‘sufficient’ as ‘for which there is room’.

Cohen is right to note that this does not say that once all the productive resources have been developed an economic structure (or social order) perishes; it may ‘fossilise’, or decline or end in ‘ruination’ as Marx once alluded to in ‘The Communist Manifesto’.  The second part also does not mean that if the material conditions sufficient for a new society have developed within the old one this new society will emerge.  It may not, and this will depend on concrete historical circumstances.  Marxists have good grounds for believing that the material conditions for a new socialist society that develop within capitalism will engender its emergence.

These grounds include the earlier statement, noted above, that

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

These grounds are verified not only by an understanding of the dynamics of capitalism, which have been verified empirically (repeated economic and political crises caused by the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production within it) but also by the history of class struggle, confirmed by the continued existence of that struggle.

What is ‘up for grabs’ is that these changes “lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”  Given the perennial optimism of many Marxists, which unfortunately (?) I don’t share, I consider this might now better be rephrased by taking out the words ‘sooner or’; although given the relative brevity of mature capitalism’s existence this might only be a reflection of a perspective from a human lifespan that is nearer departures than arrivals.

For Marxists, as opposed to analytical philosophers like Cohen, the real issue here is that the productive forces continue to be developed by capitalism and that this might imply two things.  First, that the idea that previous attempts at socialist revolution could have been successful is mistaken, and second, that current ideas that socialist revolution is on the agenda (in some historical as opposed to immediate sense) are mistaken for the same reason.

As we have seen, it will not do to avoid this potential difficulty by claiming that capitalism is not developing the productive forces.  There are political organisations which have repeated the idea that capitalism has been in crisis more or less the whole period of their own existence but, as I have already noted, the working class has grown enormously in the last period, which means the growth of wage labour, exploitation and the creation of masses of new surplus value upon which capitalist accumulation takes place.

I said I would return to Cohen’s translation of “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed” into “No economic structure (set of production relations) ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. . .”

This passage has been translated in a number of ways but it is undoubtedly better that it be understood to mean that the social order of capitalism is insufficient for the development of the productive forces rather than the stage must be reached where there is simply lack of room for these forces to develop.

That latter suggests an absolute barrier which, when reached, will mean that the productive forces will cease to develop.  Since we have not, and do not, appear to be approaching such a stage, this would seem to argue that the destruction of capitalism is not on the historical agenda and certainly has not been in the century in which Marx lived or in the twentieth century either.  The idea that capitalism could have been overthrown at any point during this time would have been illusory – capitalism had the potential to develop the forces of production massively.  It certainly ‘had room’ for them.

The possibility of the overthrow of capitalism rests not on the existence of some absolute obstacle which ceases to provide room for its development but from the contradictions it contains that make capitalism insufficient for the development of the forces of production within it.  This is expressed in crises of overproduction, in which the relations of production impose on these forces the necessity for an expansion based on the realisation of massively increased amounts of surplus value.  In other words, the expansion of these forces is continually thrown into crisis because the need for this to involve a suitable expansion of profit.

When this doesn’t happen crises of overproduction lead to interruptions in the development of these forces through the typical symptoms of crisis – unemployed labour and instruments of production, and unsold commodities that cannot satisfy the consumption needs of workers or of capitalists for continued and expanded production.  The development of capitalism means that this contradiction increases and the capitalist mode of production becomes more and more insufficient for this development.

Each crisis trends towards a greater mass of capital unable to contribute to its own expansion, whether it is expressed in larger and larger numbers of workers unemployed, greater means of production unused or devalued through bankruptcies and reduced capacity utilisation, and a greater number of commodities unsold or sold at reduced prices.

It is not that each crisis must register a successively greater percentage of unemployment or fall in levels of production.  We should not seek confirmation of Marx’s analysis through expecting every crisis of overproduction to be worse in these relative respects, as if industrial production must fall more, and unemployment must always be higher, than the Great Depression of the 1930s etc.

It is that capitalism means the accumulation of greater and greater amounts of capital, and the crises that its contradictions create thus tend to throw back, and tend to the destruction of, absolutely greater amounts of capital.  The grounds for socialism do not arise from only one pole of this contradiction but also from the development of the forces of production that precede crises and subsequently follow them.

This is what demonstrates the fettering of the forces of production by the relations of production.  These relations imply unceasing competition between different capitals and the states they both support and rely upon.  This means economic crises become political conflicts, not just involving suppression of subordinate classes but also war between rival capitals and states.

The bloody history of capitalism, especially in the first half of the twentieth century shows the absolute devastation that the contradictions of capitalism can inflict, as the international development of the forces of production runs up against capitalist relations of production centred on national states and Empires.  Rival capitalists stand behind these states as they seek through alliances and opposition to advance at the expense of others.

*KMAC: Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism

Back to part 32

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism 32 – what’s morality got to do with it?

Most, if not all, people will oppose capitalism on moral grounds, or will at least be motivated by concerns for what they consider fairness and justice.  Marx however was famously contemptuous of morality; it was said by someone who knew him that he ‘burst out laughing every time anyone spoke to him of morality.’

‘The communists do not preach morality at all’, Marx and Engels wrote in the German Ideology, which were early notebooks clarifying their ideas. In the published ‘Communist Manifesto they describe ‘Law, morality, religion, are . . . so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.’

In the editorial quoted in the last post, the Financial Times states that ‘it is a moral imperative to help the neediest.’  But as Trotsky said of it in ‘Their Morals and Ours’, ‘morality is a product of social development . . . it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.’  The FT editorial confirms both Marx and Trotsky right by stating that ‘lifting people out of economic precariousness is also greatly in the self-interest of the better off,’ this being a euphemism for the capitalist class and its senior management.

Obviously for Marxists and for workers generally it is not the interests of ‘the better off’ that is their concern.  For the working class their interest lies in determining their own needs and their ability to determine how they may be met.

Moral precepts may exist at a very general level but as Trotsky also says – at this level their extent of application is limited and unstable. The real world does not lend itself to abstract moral imperatives as a guide to conduct in situations of change and conflict, the world that actually exists.  Even looking at a paradigmatic case, in which one thirsty person has a bottle of water and requires all of it to survive, but is joined by an equally thirsty second person.  Should the water be shared equally, kept by the first owner or given to the second in order to satisfy a moral imperative?  Or rather, does any moral consideration arise from examination of the actual circumstances of the case; and what exactly is the moral option to be taken in this one?

Such an example demonstrates that what should be done is very much determined by what is, which constrains what can be done.  Each of these is not subject to timeless moral imperatives but to the concrete interests of individuals in society.  Since society and the individuals within it are made up of classes, these classes will have different interests and different moral perspectives.

To attempt to envelope all of them in an all-encompassing morality that is more than abstract generalisation will involve denial of divisions and contradictions, which can therefore only involve denial of the struggle between classes that expresses these contradictions. This necessarily leads to denial of any requirement to discuss how the class struggle should be conducted, since no legitimate class struggle is admitted. Instead, we have appeals from the newspaper of the capitalist class (price £2.90/€3.20 on weekdays) for that class to take a moral stance to avoid class struggle.

For Marxists, the alternative is not to seek some imposed satisfaction of needs as determined by another class but to fight for the separate and independent needs of the working class, as determined by itself.  When discussing the precariousness arising from ‘economic change’ and ‘globalisation’ the ‘Financial Times’ reaches for moral imperatives imposed on the capitalist class.  When Marx discusses the same, in the Communist Manifesto he does so in a very different way and addresses a very different audience:

‘The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.’

‘Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.’

The moral imperative is not therefore to ‘help the neediest’ but for the ‘neediest’ to help themselves.  And in this, It is not a question of removing what is bad from society with a set of policies and actions that makes it more perfect, or of ‘polishing off the rougher edges’ as the FT would have it.  It is not seeking a solution based on some moral imperative standing above a flawed, defective or broken society that needs fixed.

When faced with the contradictions of capitalist society and the antagonisms arising from it Marx stated that:

“What constitutes dialectical movement is the coexistence of two contradictory sides, their conflict and their fusion into a new category. The very setting of the problem of eliminating the bad side cuts short the dialectic movement . . . from the moment the process of the dialectic movement is reduced to the simple process of opposing good to bad, and of administering one category as an antidote to another, the categories are deprived of all spontaneity; the idea “ceases to function”; there is no life left in it.”

This is not so much an indictment of the ideologues of capitalism but of those who oppose it with blueprints, plans or policies to make from it a good or just society, rejecting the contradictions within it that they think of as only a problem.  For those who see only the bad aspect of capitalism and seek to remove it, through whatever means, Marx says this:

‘So long as they look for science and merely make systems, so long as they are at the beginning of the struggle, they see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary, subversive side, which will overthrow the old society.’  (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)

So, what should be done is very much determined by what is.  The contradictions contained in what is determines social development (of which morality is a product) and determines what can be done.  It is not the application of moral judgements lying outside existing social development but imperatives that arise from the contradictions within it that determines what can be done.

The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and their further development can be understood in terms of the contradiction between the development of the forces of production and the associated relations of production.  These have been the subject of previous posts and will be elaborated further in the next.

In the meantime, it would be well to note how Marx perceives what is, what should and what can through repeating the quotation above:

‘This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes.’

It was no answer in Marx’s day to simply denounce the exploitation of ‘modern industry’ and call for a return to purely local development, just as it is no answer for the editor of the Financial Times to do so today.  If we slightly reword what Marx said we can see something else:

‘This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different nations in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous national struggles, all of the same character, into one international struggle between classes.’

Only three words are changed; but it shows how mistaken it is to oppose, and try to reverse, the current development of ‘modern industry’ because it breaks the bounds of the nation state and seeks to draw closer into an international union purely national economic and social development.

We refer, of course, to those who supported Brexit on the grounds that it would do exactly this and who did so because modern international economic development was bad and exploitative of the working class.  Action by the nation state, or within its confines, was the supposed solution to this particular expression of the development of modern industry.

In Trotsky’s pamphlet on morality much of the discussion revolves around the idea that the end justifies the means, lazily taken to imply that moral ends cannot justify immoral or amoral means.  It is however difficult to see what could justify adopted means other than the ends pursued.  For a Marxist the ends and means are mutually determining and what are means can be considered ends and what are ends are just further means.  As Marx said

‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.’

Some on the Left supported Brexit, though the means by which it was achieved was a catalogue of ignorant propaganda over many years; an ever more right-wing Conservative and wider reactionary movement; and a base of support centred on nationalism, xenophobia and racism.  That the purported ends and the actual means were out of kilter is demonstrated by this Left’s inability to tell anyone, including themselves, what is progressive about what has been achieved and how it has propelled the working class forward.

The EU was capitalist, was therefore bad, and so had to be opposed, by what turned out to be nothing much more than good intentions, or at least for some.  Such imperatives have the abstractness of moral absolutes and are certainly not derived from Marxism.  This Left can get its books out and recall its Marx but doesn’t understand what he said and cannot apply it.

Forward to part 33

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 31 – what would Marx have thought?

In a recent book ‘The Marx Revival’ one contributor writes of Marx that:

‘it is highly unlikely that he would ever have supported any of the critiques of capitalism that centre on exorbitant profits, soaring inequalities of income and wealth, perennial insecurity, uncontrolled power of money and finance,  growth without limits, rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds, or ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom.’

Since this series of posts is about Marx’s alternative to capitalism, why not kick it off again by giving our own answer to this question.

The answer is that the writer is correct.  Let’s see why.

Profits that are too high?  Well, what constitutes too high?  There is hardly an objective answer to this.

Perhaps it could be said that Marxists should – by arguing that profits are the result of surplus value (labour for which no payment has been received by the worker) and therefore of exploitation – regard any level of profit as ‘too much’.  Except that even under a collective cooperative economy a surplus, not immediately distributed as wages, would have to be achieved to provide for investment in further accumulation and for social insurance purposes.

Even under capitalism, bigger profits should lead to more rapid accumulation of capital, including buildings and equipment etc. (constant capital) and employed workers (variable capital).   The latter should increase employment and contribute to the growth and potential power of the working class, including reducing unemployment and facilitating the organisation and fighting capacities of the class.

Of course, additional profits may lead to unproductive speculation and accumulation, but that is a further and different point; except that it raises the issue of who owns and disposes of the surplus (profit) produced.

“Soaring inequalities of income and wealth” are a common objection to capitalism, and there is no doubt that a society ruled by the working class would have much, much reduced inequality.  However, as is well known, in the first stages of the development of such a society inequality would remain.

So what constitutes unacceptable inequality?  Like the level of profits there is no objective answer.  In fact, it has been argued that the perception of unacceptable levels of inequality is at least partially determined by the level that already exists:

“Even though income inequality has increased, popular concern with inequality (for example, agreement with the statement that inequality is too high) has not grown. In comparative perspective, public opinion in more unequal countries is not systematically more concerned about income differences and does not exhibit stronger demands for redistribution.”

‘The Guardian’ has just reported that “Luke Hildyard, the director of the High Pay Centre, which campaigns for executive pay restraint, said: “Pay for top CEOs today is about 120 times that of the typical UK worker. Estimates suggest it was around 50 times at the turn of the millennium or 20 times in the early 1980s.”

In a society ruled by workers the level of need will play a greater role in determination of the level of income to be received, which will therefore still give rise to income inequalities.  Until more fully developed, this society will still have income inequalities at least partially determined by skill, knowledge and effort, determined not only individually but also by productive unit and industry etc, not to mention country.  Of course, the direction of travel will be very different, and the social, political and psychological effects of inequality will be taken into account in a very different way than the purely constrained economic calculations of the capitalist market.

It has to be recognised however that the greatest and most socially significant inequalities are determined by inequality in wealth; in particular the ownership of capital from which profit and its derivative revenues such as dividends, rent and interest etc are accumulated.  Equality of income can only realistically become an objective given equality of wealth, that is, the common ownership of the resources now commanded by capital through individual capitalists, corporations and states etc.

“Perennial insecurity” is not an affliction for those whose income is determined by the ownership of capital, or at least not in terms of fear of losing one’s livelihood, job, home or (for example if you are a US citizen) access to health care.  It is a real threat to a civilised existence if you work for a wage (and normally don’t receive enough income from capital) and it’s especially a threat if you are on zero hours, in part-time employment or otherwise have terrible employment contract conditions.

But fundamentally social and economic insecurity arises because you are a member of the working class who lives by selling their labour power and are potentially subject to very unfavourable circumstances when you do.

“Uncontrolled power of money and finance” refers to the simple fact, observable to everyone, that power is very often a function of money and money is power in itself, the power to purchase the resources of society. Most importantly, to employ money to control the production of society’s wealth and then partake of exaggerated levels of consumption.

This seems so common sense that the problem appears to be the ‘uncontrolled’ exercise by money and finance, but since possession of money can determine the level of control this is a merry-go-round.  To rob money and finance of its power would mean robbing it of its power to own and control production, to become capital that employs labour power to produce profit.

This is possible if the resources that are employed to produce society’s wealth, and from which incomes are received, is owned and controlled by the majority in society.  The power of money and finance then becomes a function of the decisions of the majority and subject to its direction, putting it under the control of society as a whole and removing the ‘uncontrolled’ power of its ownership and direction by the capitalist class and its most senior hirelings.

“Growth without limits” is hardly a problem if this growth breaks down barriers and obstacles to the satisfaction of human need.  It is a problem if instead it refers to the logic of capitalism, which is the limitless pursuit of profit and the disregard for un-privatised costs to humanity and rest of nature.

‘Rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds’ is also a problem if these traditional social worlds met human need.  But, as Marx argued in the Grundrisse, “needs are originally confined and only develop along with the productive forces”.   Unfortunately, traditional societies have historically only addressed this by massively circumscribing and retarding the growth of productive forces and hence of the human needs that capitalism has developed.

Even more unfortunately, as Marx also says, “the development of the human productive powers is effected “at first at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even of the entire classes.”  “The higher development of the individuality is brought only through a historical process in which the individuals are sacrificed.”  The answer is not to artificially and foolishly seek to thwart the development of humanity’s productive powers and the potential for emancipation they contain.  It is not to seek to prevent capitalism in the name of less developed social systems, or seek to prevent less developed forms of capitalism from developing.

Finally, would Marx have supported a critique of capitalism centred on ‘ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom’?  In so far as this competition is the expression of the development of capitalism “a race to the bottom” in this critique simply expresses outward characteristics of the system.  It paints a damning picture but one, no matter how bright the colours painted, that is a representation of reality and a one-dimensional one at that.  It does not get to the heart of the question and so cannot give rise to an answer.

This is true of all the criticism mentioned.  The critique of capitalism cannot rest on an attempt to restrict profits.  This would simply be an attempt to stop the system working but not to go beyond it.   Inequalities of income and wealth cannot be dissolved through taxation and redistribution since it assumes continuing unequal ownership, while perennial insecurity cannot be eradicated as long as workers have to sell their labour power in the market and own nothing else.

The power of money exists mainly because of its power to command ownership of society’s productive powers without which human civilisation as we know it could not survive.  “Growth without limits, rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds,” and “ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom” are simply the dynamics of capital and the pursuit of surplus value extraction from workers.

This is why for Marx, as explained in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, and after listing the various movements in which his comrades were involved, he said that they “bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”

This means that the concerns that motivate these criticisms are not dismissed; concerns over inequality, insecurity and ‘the rat race’ etc.  It just means that these are not soluble within the confines of capitalism and only a revolutionary alternative can provide a solution.

In the ‘Financial Times’ editorial on the last day of 2020, the paper paid tribute to those who had worked through the Covid-19 pandemic: ‘these unsung heroes are underpaid, over-worked, and suffer unpredictable work opportunities and insecurity . . . and brutalised working conditions – to the point of such grotesque episodes as the woman giving birth in a toilet cubicle for fear of missing a shift.’

The newspaper declares that ‘it is a moral imperative to help the neediest’, as it decries inequality and the existence of a precariat: ‘lifting people out of economic precariousness is also greatly in the self-interest of the better off’.  But it does so mainly because it fears that ‘it is just a matter of time before the pitchforks come out for capitalism itself’; it therefore believes that ‘capitalism’s political acceptability requires its adherents to polish off its rougher edges.’

Many will contend that it is more than ‘rough edges’ that need to be polished off and that polishing off the whole system is required.  It is not therefore, as the FT editorial headline puts it, that ‘a better form of capitalism is possible.’  But what is much less understood is that it is not enough to pick up ‘the pitchforks’ against capitalism; we need an alternative that we can fight for. This alternative is least understood and is the subject of this series of posts.

Belfast meeting discusses Marxism and Brexit

Sixty or so people attended a meeting on Friday night organised by academics and the Slugger O’Toole web site entitled ‘Brexit, Borders and Beyond: Marxism as a guide in turbulent times.’  It was interesting in a couple of respects worth recording.

The first speaker gave a broad description of the Marxist view of the state – “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”  It was an instrument of class oppression.  Unfortunately, at the end the meeting in replying to points from the floor, and in attempting to defend the idea of Brexit, she argued that it would allow the working class more say than continued membership of the EU.

The second speaker was an advocate of Green politics and argued that the ecology of the planet could be saved, but could be done in one of two ways.  Through oppression and exploitation or through a progressive and democratic road.  He argued strongly that important to the second was an emphasis on industrial democracy as well as political democracy.  He was also rather dismissive of the traditional Marxist view of insurrectionary revolution and the necessity of social change coming through violence.

A comrade beside me made a comment to the effect that revolutionary change can only come through violence but this ignores the point made by the speaker that the growth of industrial democracy is important, and this does not necessitate violence.  This is something I have argued in this blog in relation to the importance of the creation of workers’ cooperatives.  While political revolution involving the State often requires violence it also often entails no fundamental social change, which requires a change in ownership of the productive forces.

The Marxist idea of revolution is too often conceived in terms of destroying the capitalist state, leading to a one-sided focus on what is bad for capitalism, while ignoring the much more important concept of revolution, which is a revolution in the consciousness of the working class.  This shifts the focus to what is necessary for the working class and doesn’t assume that what is bad for capitalism must be good for workers.  It also brings to light the importance of the growth of workers’ cooperatives in changing the social life of the working class and thereby its political consciousness.  It addresses the otherwise impossible to answer question how revolutionary politics can be effective in times of peace.

The meeting was in part ill-conceived, since I can’t have been alone in thinking the meeting was about the left case for Brexit.  The third speaker was Costas Lapavitsas, a Greek academic working in London and ex-member of the Greek parliament.  He recently wrote a book entitled ‘The Left Case Against the EU’, which more or less did a reasonable job of achieving the aims of the title but didn’t make a strong case for Brexit.  In speaking at the meeting he argued more forcefully for it.

He argued that the EU was irretrievably neoliberal and could not be reformed since this neoliberalism was enshrined in basic Treaty law, although he did acknowledge, as he did in his book, that the EU was once dominated by a Keynesian approach to economic governance.  Since changes could only be made by unanimity it was impossible to foresee such unanimity and therefore impossible to see how there could be any reform.  He declared that no advocate of ‘remain and reform’ had been able to explain how they could carry it out.  His speech was well received and there was only one intervention from the floor in opposition to Brexit.

This intervention argued that the proof of the pudding was in the eating and that so far Brexit was a disaster. Lapavitsas did reply at the end that Brexit had yet to happen but didn’t go on to explain how the pudding was going to improve on what we had already seen.

The speaker from the floor argued that Costas had come to the wrong country if he wanted to argue that the British State was reformable in a way that other capitalist states were not (otherwise of course we could reform the German and French States and therefore why not the EU?).  It was pointed out that at another recent meeting on trade unions and Brexit one speaker had argued that the EU had held workers back, but that the idea that the EU was the obstacle to workers unity and mobilisation in Ireland was hard to take seriously.

It was the British State that had divided Irish workers and had been responsible for such things as internment, torture, Bloody Sunday etc.  But this was the State that was almost uniquely reformable?  A later speaker from the Socialist Party pointed out that the EU had approved or failed to criticise the actions of the British State in Ireland but this didn’t really answer the point – it hadn’t been claimed that we would or should rely on the EU or that it was in some way expected to have prevented British oppression.

The speaker also argued that the EU did not prevent nationalisation as seemed to be the argument of left supporters of Brexit, and pointed out that, in so far as critical industries were concerned (as argued by Lapavitsas), the energy industry in Ireland was dominated by state-owned companies; the water and sewerage industry was state owned; the banking industry had more or less been nationalised at one point, and the transport industry had a large state-owned presence.

Lapavitsas responded that what was important was not that state industry was allowed to compete with private capitalist concerns but that it was prevented from monopolising an industry. While this is not even strictly true – state ownership enjoys a more or less monopoly position in electricity transmission and distribution, water and sewerage, and railways for example – it avoids the much more central question that ownership by the capitalist state is NOT socialism. This is so fundamental an issue that failure to recognise it shows the complete degeneration and disorientation of the self-styled Marxist left. But we will look at this further in a minute.

This intervention from the floor finished by recalling a debate in which a left supporter of Brexit had mocked the idea of defending the EU’s freedom of movement by stating it showed concern only with the freedom of white Europeans.  It was noted that in that debate, and at the meeting, the participants were mainly white Europeans, and white Europeans had rights too; as did non-white Europeans who had been forgotten about by dismissing free movement in the EU.  It was observed that ‘the free movement of people’ had for some incomprehensible reason become a dirty phrase for some on the left.  And as someone else had remarked – left opponents of freedom of movement in the EU want to extend this freedom beyond Europe by getting rid of it within Europe first.

In relation to this Lapavitsas claimed that open borders was not a socialist position and that the alternative was Marx’s declaration in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ that workers of all countries should unite.  What he seemed to mean was that workers in each country should stay in their country with some sort of fraternity between them, but that the nation state would persist. He claimed that Brexit was not nationalist, but if restricting workers freedoms to within nation states looks like a form of nationalism it is because it is a form of nationalism.  And this nationalism informs Lapavitsas’s and Brexit supporters’ whole conception of socialism.

This involves socialism being ownership by the capitalist state, and since the capitalist state is still primarily a national one it means defending the sovereignty of that nation state. Defence of national sovereignty was another assertion Lapavitsas was keen to make.  But the supreme power, supremacy and authority – sovereignty – of the capitalist nation state is NOT socialism but reactionary nationalism that even modern capitalism is leaving behind.  In this sense Lapavitsas and supporters of Brexit like him are not only wrong about the way forward but are reactionary because they want to take us backwards.  Far from separating the working classes by nationality, as he wishes to do, it is the Marxist view that workers should identify themselves as a class irrespective of nationality.  This is obviously at odds with a political view that the nation state will define their liberation and emancipation.

The true relationship between Marxism, Brexit and Borders is the recognition that the development of capitalism brings socialism closer, that the revolutionising of the means of production ,and society generally, creates the preconditions for socialism, and that the increasingly international character of capitalism creates an increasingly international working class.

Lapavitsas referred to Marx’s remark that “the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie”, but this was written when a world market had begun and world production had not, when capitalism and the capitalist class and its state were purely national.  The working class could not settle matters with the capitalist class of all countries ‘first’.  But the EU is precisely confirmation that capitalism and the capitalist class are now internationally organised.  The failure of the workers movement to keep up has led some of its political representatives to seek to address this failure by seeking to drag capitalism back to the primitive state the workers movement is still in.

The international organisation if capitalism exists and is therefore what the proletariat faces “first”, and must face as an international class by building up its international organisation and programme.  This is precisely the perspective of reform and remain, although Marxists will of course have their own view of what this entails.

More than this, the purpose is not so much to remain in the EU and seek its reform, but to accept the breaking down of national restrictions as the most appropriate framework for the reformation of the European working class more and more into a single class. For Marxists it is the sovereignty and independence of the working class which is the objective of socialist politics not only in relation to the nation state but in relation to the proto-international EU state, and not the reform of either.

As Marx stated before the line quoted above – “though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.”  The existence of the international economic and political organisation of capitalism through the EU shows that increasingly the struggle of the proletariat must not only be international in substance but also international in form.

As Lenin put it in ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’– “The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and all national isolation; not only to bring the nations closer to each other, but also to merge them.”

In seeking to deny this approach the left supporters of Brexit unknowingly deny not only the reality of capitalism but also the possibility of socialism.  No wonder their conception of the latter involves ownership by the capitalist state and not by the working class.