Notes [Smith, Sweezy]

April 19, 2009

Okay. For purposes of clarification, principally self-clarification, I’m going to be working through the early sections of The Wealth of Nations – the sections that develop Smith’s version of the labour theory of value. This is basically note-taking stuff, so don’t expect scintillating reading.

Here’s the opening paragraph of Smith’s Chapter V:

Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniencies, and amusements of human life. But after the division of labour has once thoroughly taken place, it is but a very small part of these with which a man’s own labour can supply him. The far greater part of them he must derive from the labour of other people, and he must be rich or poor according to the quantity of that labour which he can command, or which he can afford to purchase. The value of any commodity, therefore, to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities.

That “therefore” is, I think, question-begging. There’s a vast argumentative leap between sentences 3 and 4. Fortunately Smith goes on to explain himself.

The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the trouble and toil of acquiring it. What everything is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people. What is bought with money or with goods is purchased by labour as much as what we acquire by the toil of our own body. That money or those goods indeed save us this toil. They contain the value of a certain quantity of labour which we exchange for what is supposed at the time to contain the value of an equal quantity. Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money, that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased; and its value, to those who possess it, and who want to exchange it for some new productions, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it can enable them to purchase or command.

Here we’re getting to the real stuff. The key lines:

1) “The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the trouble and toil of acquiring it.”

2) “Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money, that was paid for all things.”

3) “its value… is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it can enable them to purchase or command.”

We have here, I think, the core of an important emotional/physical truth: what we value is what we are willing to give things up for; and the most basic thing we can give up is ourselves. We give up our lives – and we give up portions of our lives, in the form of time. There is a connection between value and life-time, body-time.

Wealth, as Mr. Hobbes says, is power. But the person who either acquires, or succeeds to a great fortune, does not necessarily acquire or succeed to any political power, either civil or military. His fortune may, perhaps, afford him the means of acquiring both, but the mere possession of that fortune does not necessarily convey to him either. The power which that possession immediately and directly conveys to him, is the power of purchasing; a certain command over all the labour, or over all the produce of labour which is then in the market. His fortune is greater or less, precisely in proportion to the extent of this power; or to the quantity either of other men’s labour, or, what is the same thing, of the produce of other men’s labour, which it enables him to purchase or command. The exchangeable value of every thing must always be precisely equal to the extent of this power which it conveys to its owner.

This is good stuff. Wealth is power. Not political power – though it can often enable access to that too – but economic power, power produced by and deployed through the institution of the marketplace. Wealth, because it is used to purchase commodities, is power over the producers of those commodities. If I purchase a car, then through the many mediations of exchange and production, people are working for me – working to make me a car. Or they have been working – the institutions of money and the market dissociate the command from the obedience: the obedience precedes the command, and this dissociation, this distancing, permits the illusion to arise and be maintained that a power relationship is not, fundamentally, what we are dealing with here. Furthermore, this dissociation of command and obedience must be maintained through power-dynamics that are entirely separate from the ‘abstract’ power of money – from the power-relationship of consumer-producer: a social system of other power-dynamics must be in place for money to possess this power in the first place – for “the power of purchasing” to be a real power, over real people. For my purchasing-commands to be obeyed, pre-emptively, larger social power-forces must create a specific social system, in which this use of power is ordinary, everyday, unremarked.

But now we start hitting the problems:

But though labour be the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities, it is not that by which their value is commonly estimated. It is often difficult to ascertain the proportion between two different quantities of labour. The time spent in two different sorts of work will not always alone determine this proportion. The different degrees of hardship endured, and of ingenuity exercised, must likewise be taken into account. There may be more labour in an hour’s hard work than in two hours easy business; or in an hour’s application to a trade which it cost ten years labour to learn, than in a month’s industry at an ordinary and obvious employment. But it is not easy to find any accurate measure either of hardship or ingenuity. In exchanging indeed the different productions of different sorts of labour for one another, some allowance is commonly made for both. It is adjusted, however, not by any accurate measure, but by the higgling and bargaining of the market, according to that sort of rough equality which, though not exact, is sufficient for carrying on the business of common life.

I won’t keep quoting at length – but Smith goes on to say that “money has become the common instrument of commerce” and that money, not labour, therefore comes to be the intuitive measure of value.

Jump completely now. Jump to Sweezy’s Theory of Capitalist Development, picking up at the start of Chapter III – ‘The Quantitative Value Problem’. Smith has formulated the problem: it is extremely difficult to see how different labouring activities can be compared. Sweezy picks this up:

labour more skilled than average (or ‘simple’) labour must have a correspondingly greater power of producing value. … The quantitative relation between an hour of simple labour and an hour of any given type of skilled labour is observable in the relative values of the commodities which they produce in one hour. This does not mean, of course, that the relation between two types of labour is determined by the relative values of their products. To argue in this way would be circular reasoning. The relation between the two types of labour is theoretically susceptible to measurement independently of the market values of their products.

I do not see that circular reasoning is a problem in economic analysis of this kind. Sweezy is claiming here that labour’s power of producing value is analysable independently of the market value of its products. In other words – economic value is analysable independently of market value.

Okay. Sweezy has established that value is analysable entirely in terms of labour time, and can be analysed through the analytic reduction of all kinds of labour to simple labour. Now we get back to Smith, via Sweezy.

[Sweezy:] Let us first enquire under what conditions exchange ratios would correspond exactly to labour-time ratios. Adam Smith’s famous deer-beaver example, which was also used by Ricardo, provides a convenient starting point.

[Quoting Smith, start of Chapter VI:] “In that early and rude state of society which precedes both the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land, the proportion between the quantities of labour necessary for acquiring different objects seems to be the only circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them for one another. If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer. It is natural that what is usually the produce of two days or two hours labour, should be worth double of what is usually the produce of one day’s or one hour’s labour.”

[Sweezy continues:] Adam Smith’s hunters are what Marx would have called simple commodity producers, each hunting with his own relatively simple weapons, in forests which are open to all, and satisfying his needs by exchanging his surplus catch against the products of other hunters. Why, under these circumstances, would deer and beaver exchange in proportion to the quantity of time required to kill each? It is easy to supply a proof for what Adam Smith took for granted.

A hunter by spending two hours of his time can have either one beaver or two deer. Let us imagine now that one beaver exchanges for one deer ‘on the market’. Under the circumstances any one would be foolish to hunt beaver. For in one hour it is possible to catch a deer and thence, by exchange, to get a beaver, whereas to get a beaver directly would require two hours. Consequently this situation is unstable and cannot last. The supply of deer will expand, that of beaver contract until nothing but deer is coming on the market and no takers can be found. Following this line of reasoning it is possible to show by exclusion that only one exchange ratio, namely one beaver for two deer, does constitute a stable situation. When this ratio rules in the market, beaver hunters will have no incentive to shift to deer hunting, and deer hunters will have no incentive to shift to beaver hunting. This, therefore, is the equilibrium ratio of exchange. The value of one beaver is two deer and vice versa. Adam Smith’s proposition is thus demonstrated to be correct.

To get this result two implicit assumptions are necessary, namely, that hunters are prepared to move freely from deer to beaver if by so doing they can improve their position; and that there are no obstacles to such movement. In other words, the hunters must be both willing and able to compete freely for any advantages which may arise in the course of exchange by shifting their labour from one line to another. Given this kind of competition in a society of simple commodity production, supply and demand will be in equilibrium only when the price of every commodity is proportional to the labour time required to produce it. Conversely prices proportional to labour times will be established only if the forces of competitive supply and demand are allowed to work themselves out freely. The competitive supply-and-demand theory of price determination is hence not only not inconsistent with the labour theory; rather it forms an integral, if sometimes unrecognized, part of the labour theory.

Sweezy’s version of the labour theory of value thus has three pillars.

1) Labour and labour alone produces value. The value of commodities is the amount of simple labour required to produce them.

2) There is a measurable simple given-value-producing labour time, into which all labour can be analysed, and which can be ascertained entirely independent of its products’ market value.

3) Market value will nonetheless tend to converge with labour value, provided the economic structure of society permits free movement of labour between industries.

Or:

1) Value has always and everywhere been produced by labour and only by labour.

2) Only in a form of society where labour can move freely between industries will market value be regulated by actual value.

Why would labour and only labour produce value? Smith provides an explanation for this: labour is the original purchase-money for all things. Everything comes back to the physical human body – and the exchange of this body, or of this body’s activities, for all other human goods.

The only true money is flesh.

Or: Flesh has been re-imagined in the image of money – in the image of the commodity.

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53 Responses to “Notes [Smith, Sweezy]”

  1. N. Pepperell Says:

    This is, I think, the thing that most inflames Marx: the non-necessity of this. Why must the only true money be flesh? Why now, when so many historical reasons for this have been torn asunder? But this, of all things, we still cling to…

    The monstrous images in Capital – of vampires, were-wolves, animated things that arise from the human and are parasitic on human blood – arise from this… Flesh congealed in money – with the talismanic power of setting living flesh in motion, to the end of congealing itself once again…

  2. duncan Says:

    Yes – and then the profound intellectual/historical irony that someone like Sweezy, who’s aiming for an emancipatory critique of political-economic apologetics – who’s aiming to continue and clarify Marx’s legacy – reproduces this most central feature of capitalism’s social coercions, at the level of theory. That production must be based on the using up of human life, that value is inherently the dead labour of the exploited – the stolen, ‘congealed’ life of countless anonymous workers… that for any system of production to function, this category of value must be reproduced not as a contingent social form, but as the true reality of all economic existence, revealed in market competition, in the ‘free’ movement of labour… It’s all too depressing for words.

  3. N Pepperell Says:

    Yes. There are of course a number of theorists who advocate for the abolition of wage labour – picking up on how Marx himself did this, and recognising that the abolition of capitalism would require the abolition of wage labour. But it’s also unfortunately common to mount a critique that instead takes this principle that everything is founded on labour – which emerges in Marx’s analysis as an unintentional and oppressive “is” – as though it should be an actively-asserted normative “ought” that guides revolutionary transformation. Here the critique becomes that capitalism masks something that should structure social life overtly, so that it’s necessary to effect transformations that ensure labour receives its due – rather than transformations that question the centrality of human labour, regardless of how well-compensated, to material reproduction…

  4. duncan Says:

    Yes. The fetish character of the labour theory of value. A social relation being naturalised, projected onto one of its component moments – the social relation then seen as derived from that moment, arising out of it. The idea that economic analysis which bases itself on labour inputs – as if input-output analysis is somehow emancipatory – is politically important. This misconception that the thrust of Marx’s materialism is a demand for an objectivity of value, rather than a study of the social behaviours and relations that produce value. The idea that because Marx is a materialist, value itself must somehow be material, the transcendental material signifier to which all the fictions and distortions of the marketplace ultimately refer, labour-as-value grounding capitalism, underwriting its logic… Very frustrating…

  5. N Pepperell Says:

    Yes – this is very nice:

    This misconception that the thrust of Marx’s materialism is a demand for an objectivity of value, rather than a study of the social behaviours and relations that produce value.

    Marx’s “materialist” move is essentially a deflationary one: by demonstrating that it’s possible to analyse the practices that bring about a certain result – value, but many other results as well in his analysis – it becomes possible to convict other approaches, by contrast, of fetishism.

    The fetishism of political economy – in Marx’s account – possesses this peculiar, superficially historicising form. It doesn’t (at its best, at least) “naturalise” its categories naively – by assuming that the categories reflect the way things have always been – or even that the categories reflect, necessarily, the way things are. Instead, the categories of political economy are according a strange ontological status: they are simultaneously empirical and counter-factual. The categories express how things are in an inner essence, but not how things necessarily play out. For this reason, the categories possess a normative valence – they are positioned as “natural” in the sense of expressing some sort of immanent truth, but can also serve as an immanent truth whose historical manifestation must be brought about through some sort of human action, directed toward whisking away “artificial” dimensions of social life that are presented as holding back this shrouded nature. The simultaneously empirical/descriptive and counterfactual/normative quality of core categories is a significant clue, for Marx, that these categories are fetishised – that they reflect a system in which a mystified production has escaped the control of its producers and confronts them as an alien and independent force.

    Marx accepts the notion that capitalism generates immanent essences – but, by providing an account of how such essences are generated in practice (as unintentional byproducts manifest in tendencies unfolding over time), severs the teleological and normative valence these categories have for classical political economy. These categories don’t express immanent possibilities of material life any more than any other configuration of material production: they aren’t a hidden secret of material life as such, at least not to any greater degree than it’s possible to argue that any configuration of material life renders manifest some potential configuration of material life… Their specific qualitative properties and the nature of the collective process that generate them, however, make it socially plausible that they could be interpreted as somehow more intrinsically “material” – more “natural” – less “artificial” – than other forms…

    But here the argument needs more detail than a comment allows…

    Thank you for the chance to associate – apologies for taking your space for this… 🙂

  6. N Pepperell Says:

    Sorry – one more thing – on this:

    The idea that economic analysis which bases itself on labour inputs – as if input-output analysis is somehow emancipatory – is politically important.

    This sort of analysis would be regarded as emancipatory, if what Marx had been after were insurance that labour is properly recognised – that it receives its equivalent for equivalent. If the goal, instead, is more hedonistic – reduce the amount of “necessary” labour as much as possible – then, not so much… ;-P For the latter, you want human labour’s relative unimportance – not its high worth – to be widely recognised – and for this recognition to be the goal of political self-assertion.

    Fading a bit (late here)… So I’ll let Marx finish:

    At the same time, and quite apart form the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system!”

    As long as I’m free associating in the fog before sleep, if you haven’t read him yet, you might be interested in Andre Gorz.

    Sorry for meandering… Not my clearest thoughts… (hopefully ;-P)

  7. duncan Says:

    Yes. Here’s Smith again: “The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable.” It’s property that’s sacred, under catitalism, property the ultimate value – and property is projected back onto the human nature that produces the social relations that in turn produce property. The body’s physical existence – the conscious body that owns itself, and whose consciousness or humanity consists in this relation of self-ownership – this is meant to be the humanist core or heart of Smith’s economic ethics – of some ‘humanist’ Marxism too. But of course the ownership-relation only has meaning if that which is owned can be traded – if it can be loaned. Possessed by another. Used by another. That which is “inviolable” is only produced through its constant violation. Labour is the pure instance of property, the original property, the property to which the meaning of all other property must be referred, for Smith. But this purity is the ‘purity’ of exploitation – the purity or ‘freedom’ of those who own nothing besides themselves. Conceiving this as foundational – whether because we derive all value from this ownership, or because man stripped bare is some ideal political subject – bare property, sacred man – it’s all reification of wage-labour as institution, capitalist exploitation.

  8. N Pepperell Says:

    But of course the ownership-relation only has meaning if that which is owned can be traded – if it can be loaned. Possessed by another. Used by another. That which is “inviolable” is only produced through its constant violation.

    And, in the mix, the self-owning self also becomes its own other – sundered in two, self-objectifying, self-alienating, in order to achieve self-ownership -the capacity of the self as object as the condition of possibility for the self as subject.

  9. duncan Says:

    Not that that Derridean critique of purity functions critically either. The difference between Derrida’s difference from Hegel and Marx’s. Sure – the idea of the body as sacred and inviolable property is ideological, the Hegelian essence that’s produced through contradiction. But if you reify the contradiction you’re channelling capital too – just channelling it a little more accurately.

    “This sort of analysis would be regarded as emancipatory, if what Marx had been after were insurance that labour is properly recognised – that it receives its equivalent for equivalent.” Yes – kvond was reading Marx this way the other day. But even here the project’s dubious, because of course the mechanisms of equivalence that capitalism uses to function aren’t mechanisms of equivalence. The production of exploitative equivalence – this is how economic value functions. It can be suggestive – mobilising ideals of equality, making those ideals common coin, as you say in your thesis – but it doesn’t actually orient towards an equivalence that could be realised, stripped of accidents or violences – at least there’s no reason to think it does, lots to think it doesn’t. Someone like Sweezy takes the value form, sees it as real, something realisable, drops the social conditions, drops the exploitations that make labour function as value-productive, and takes this as his system’s foundation. But it’s not economic value if you’ve dropped those things. Could this be something that works, outside capitalism? Conceivably – but the question can’t be answered if you don’t see the need to ask it because labour just is value-producing, like a law of nature.

  10. duncan Says:

    “sundered in two, self-objectifying, self-alienating, in order to achieve self-ownership -the capacity of the self as object as the condition of possibility for the self as subject.” Yes.

  11. N Pepperell Says:

    Yes:

    But even here the project’s dubious, because of course the mechanisms of equivalence that capitalism uses to function aren’t mechanisms of equivalence.

    I’m going to be too tired to say this properly here (and I suspect I also skitter over this point too quickly in the thesis as well), but… too many critiques of the principle of equivalence as a fundamental principle of capitalism (which then view various steps outside equivalence – to the gift, for example – as resonant with an alternative sensibility) are sort of… over-emphasising exchange – the shift of commodity for money – compared to what I think takes place in Marx’s analysis (and which I find both more interesting and more plausible, given Marx’s obsession with picking out the differentia specifica of capitalism relative to other social forms).

    Marx is concerned with a sort of coercive universal-particular dynamic, far more than he is with what most people seem to mean when they talk about equivalence, visualised in terms of the reducibility of everything to money. Marx is talking more about processes of supply and demand – about the sorts of pressures that flow through objects of a similar sort that find themselves on the market at a similar time – placing those objects under pressures to conform to a common price – rendering those objects, in collective practice, as Marx’s keeps phrasing it (your favourite term ;-P) aliquot parts of a whole aggregate product.

    Since humans are one of those products that happen to find themselves on the capitalist market, humans also become, as individuals, aliquot parts of an aggregate whole – partakers in a common supersensible essence. It is this experience, for Marx, that does a great deal of the work of priming, e.g., fetishised notions of human equality – rather than the much more direct experience of literally entering into wage contracts.

    The thesis doesn’t continue far enough into Capital to draw this point out, but this would be why, by the end of the first volume, Marx is gleefully introducing form after form after form of labouring activity that is not mediated by a classical wage contract (work gangs, parents selling their children into effective slavery, husbands coercing their wives into labour, etc.). All of these forms are perfectly compatible with the equilibration of market forces that establishes the “value” of these human instruments of production – even if these forms break with any sort of direct exchange relation of the sort discussed in chapter 10…

    The perils of not being able to finish my own argument… ;-P

  12. duncan Says:

    Yes – this is very nice. The long reach of capitalism – not because everything’s been commodified – that bugaboo of the consumerist left. (And it’s interesting how this fear of total commodification in the critical-theory academic space moves in parallel with the Becker line of goods – markets in everything: family relationships, love, crime, death – all rational choice and substitution effects; the fear of absolute commodification is a sort of loving capitulation to this ideology). And, also, not because we’ve finally moved from formal to real subsumption, or some such – the ontologisation of capital. No: because capitalism isn’t simply an economic social form – or because it’s perpetuated, as economic social form, through things treated as non-economic in capitalism’s terms. The law of value, finally, not an economic law, but a social law – a set of social activities – that produces a particular kind of economy.

    Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system!”

    I love this. Quoted it at kvond’s the other day. Yes. Yes I said yes I will Yes.

  13. duncan Says:

    That Gorz is interesting. Would be interesting, also, to trace this stuff through – Lafargue, Keynes’s Economic Possibilities… Striking, though, how the diminishment of the working day is understood as technologically driven – as trending – a misunderstanding about how capitalism makes labour central, no matter what the technological / productive circumstances. I’m troubled a bit too by the implicit idea that capitalism basically = developed world capitalism. The problem with capitalism, obviously, isn’t just that we’ve got incredible material wealth and productive resources, but are still working our arses off – the problem’s that we’ve got incredible material wealth and productive resources, are still working our arses off – and there are also billions of people living in poverty…

    But yes, very interesting…

  14. N Pepperell Says:

    Yes – and these two things are related: trends happening in the “developed” core, which look as though they’ll continue in some sort of linear fashion, get undermined and redirected because what’s happening in the “periphery” is, in fact, part of those trends all along – such that the core/periphery distinction itself ends up misleading conceptions of the global system as a whole.

    I’ve been wanting for a long time to teach a course in predictions of the future at different (modern) historical periods – I think it would probably be one of the clearer ways to illustrate the non-linear trends that recur, to confront students with the issue of how recurrent the linear trends appear to be across times, and yet how these trends haven’t played themselves out linearly… (Of course, every time I try to approximate something like this, my students get the point – except not for our own time, where they’ll continue making the same sorts of linear extrapolations I’ve been beating them over the head about in past times. Apparently, there used to be history, but there no longer is any… ;-P)

  15. duncan Says:

    “the non-linear trends that recur” Yes. Gorz or Keynes seeing rising unemployment, seeing the possibility for massive material production without full employment (without the full working week, the consumption of everyone’s lives by work) – thinking – hey, we can bring these two things together… not seeing the trend to unemployment as part of the larger cyclical trend by which the capitalist system enforces full employment, enforces the working day, enforces and reproduces the power of capital over labour… just like The Economist or whatever looking at the poverty stats and saying – yeah, it really sucks, but look how much wealth capitalism generates, wouldn’t it be foolish to give up on it now, just when we’re on the verge of a breakthrough… refusal to see the production of poverty as part of the production of wealth, under capitalism. Seeing the actual non-necessity of this as a non-necessity given the current system. Or looking at the rise in living standards in the UK – saying, look, there’s hardly any sweatshops here now – oh, it’s unfortunate that there’s sweatshops all over the fucking world, but that’s because capitalism gets rid of poverty, those folks are just lagging behind, they’ve not stuck with capitalism for long enough, not been faithful enough, not paid their dues: there’s only one trend really, we’re just seeing different moments in capitalist progress… rather than seeing the same system, repeating itself, reproducing itself, but shifting geographically, ‘globalising’, exactly the same dynamics though, or more or less the same.

  16. N Pepperell Says:

    wouldn’t it be foolish to give up on it now, just when we’re on the verge of a breakthrough…

    …the arrivant…

  17. duncan Says:

    lol. yes. fidelity to the Event of capitalism, to its unbreachable promise. waiting without horizon of expectation for the entrepreneur messiah…

  18. Carl Says:

    So do I understand correctly that ‘value’ and ‘exchange’ are themselves the wrong, or diagnostic problems – that they only come up when sensuous human activity is alienated? So come the revolution, why would we need to compare (our) values or quibble theoretically about what’s ‘fair’ – we’ll each do the things that seem good to us (including late-night critical criticism ;-p) and work out what’s needed together?

    I’ve always taken the opening of German Ideology to define a material fundamental, a humanist sine qua non – humans are critters who make our own lives, consciously (as he says also in Grundrisse when distinguishing us from bees, etc., although the process is conditioned, Eighteenth Brumaire) – which grounds critique by specifying the basis for things being intentionally different. But it is always our work that makes our world, right, however we value that or don’t?

    I like your point about the critical fetishizing of commodification by the fretty consumerist left, but you know that’s pretty directly supported by the rhetorical strategy of the Manifesto – degradation of the family, cash nexus, all that.

  19. duncan Says:

    Hey Carl. “So do I understand correctly that ‘value’ and ‘exchange’ are themselves the wrong, or diagnostic problems – that they only come up when sensuous human activity is alienated?” Well, clearly you’re not going to get any kind of even slightly complex economic organisation of society without exchange – if you’re not Robinson Crusoe stuck on his desert island, you’ve got exchange. (I mean it’s just omnipresent, in ‘gift’ societies too.) Since Marx wants to keep ahold of the productive powers of modern industry and agriculture – as he and we clearly should, because a decent standard of living is after all the goal – you’ve got to keep exchange, you’ve got to keep division of labour, you can’t send everyone to their lettuce patches and ask them to produce food and mobile phones for themselves, so that their labour remains unalienated. What institutions structure the distribution of the products of society is another question, of course, but the fact that I consume what someone else produces, someone else consumes the stuff that I produce – this is just a precondition of a complex economy, an economy not based exclusively on subsistence agriculture, and it doesn’t really connect to alienation in the relevant sense, I don’t think.

    On value: the issue – as my analytic philosophy supervisors taught me to say – is what we mean by the term. There’s obviously good old use value and exchange value. But there’s also the more nebulous and visceral everyday sense(s) – “I value you, my love, more than life itself”. Then there’s the category of economic value, the value that Marx distinguishes from both use and exchange value, the value he in some sense identifies with labour time (and this would be the value that the transformation problem, e.g., is meant to be about – how to join up this value with exchange value, without the use of Samuelson’s eraser.)

    It’s the last kind of value that NP and I are mostly talking about above, I think – the value of “the Law of Value”. It’s an economic category, which needn’t have much connection with other concepts of value. The question of what connection there is is controversial, it’s the main issue here I guess. So Adam Smith says – exchange value is ultimately derivable from labour time – labour time is important because it’s the most basic way we register value in a more general sense: we give up our time for something because it’s important to us. Sweezy basically picks up and runs with this picture – a picture than very very closely connects exchange value, economic value, and everyday valuation. I think this runs together a whole lot of categories and a whole lot of different levels of analysis that need to be kept distinct if we’re going to have a credible account of capitalism. (Or of any other form of economic organisation, for that matter.)

    Sweezy’s version of Smith’s argument only works if you’ve already got capitalism. It’s dependent on the institution of wage labour, even if it doesn’t think it is, and on the possibility of ‘free’ movement of labour between industries. The ease with which labour can move between industries under capitalism is often overstated, imo – one of the reasons you have vast economic convulsions with soaring unemployment levels very regularly, is that people can’t be that easily displaced, ‘reskilled’ etc. But the point is you don’t get a ‘law of value’ in Marx or Sweezy’s sense unless you have an institution a lot like wage labour structuring the activities of production.

    Marx says that wage labour contain’s a world’s history. By that he partly means, imo, that once this institution is in place, it changes how we understand other social and economic categories. There’s a tendency to project back the social forms produced by this institution onto the state of nature they’re meant to arise from – and thereby justify the ‘naturalness’ of those forms. This is what Marx accuses Adam Smith of doing – and I think the critique also applies to Sweezy. Rather than seeing economic value – the value of the Law of Value – as being a highly contingent social product of our specific set of economic institutions – Smith (and Sweezy, I believe) identify this category with real value, everyday value, the value of liking to eat and to love. And once you’ve done that, however good an economist you are [and Smith and Sweezy are both really good], you’re not going to be able to generate an adequate social critique of capitalism [not that Smith’s trying to do that, clearly], because you’ve just gone and naturalised its most central institution.

    The main issue driving the discussion above, then is the status of this category of value. NP and I both think [EDIT: And as you know a lot of what I’m saying is my own take on stuff from NP’s thesis – whether accurate to NP’s intent or not – it’s not that we both think this by pure chance…] that the Law of Value – and the economic category of value it deploys (or rather, the social basis of that category) – are the object of Marx’s critique; that the Law of Value would no longer be operative in a post-capitalist society; and that this category of value therefore shouldn’t be applied in the analysis of pre- or post-capitalist economic forms. Sweezy thinks that even though the Law of Value doesn’t actually work in societies without free movement of labour, the concept of value operative here is not specific to capitalism. That’s a bit reductionist or oversimplistic, and I hope I’m not completely misrepresenting either NP or Sweezy through haste – but that’s a broad brush stoke gesture at what I take to be the central issue.

  20. duncan Says:

    “I’ve always taken the opening of German Ideology to define a material fundamental, a humanist sine qua non – humans are critters who make our own lives, consciously (as he says also in Grundrisse when distinguishing us from bees, etc., although the process is conditioned, Eighteenth Brumaire) – which grounds critique by specifying the basis for things being intentionally different. But it is always our work that makes our world, right, however we value that or don’t?”

    Yeah, it’s our work that makes our world, but what kind of work? Or what kind of activity? What happens, too often, is that the emphasis on human activity or praxis gets conflated with the emphasis on human labour as an economic form – as if it’s labour that makes everything, as if wage labour is itself all human agency or activity, pure and simple. Not that there aren’t important political reasons for seeing the actions of wage labour or the proletariat as absolutely central to emancipatory politics – but this is a political thing, it’s not a metaphysical one, it’s not lukacs, it’s not that wage labour is the secret beating heart of all existence.

  21. duncan Says:

    “humans are critters who make our own lives, consciously (as he says also in Grundrisse when distinguishing us from bees, etc., although the process is conditioned, Eighteenth Brumaire) – which grounds critique by specifying the basis for things being intentionally different.”

    Yes – but we’re critters whose conscious making of our lives can also make our lives unconsciously – there are effects produced by our actions that aren’t those actions’ goals – and they can be very important effects, devastating effects. This can be straightforward, the stuff of undergrad textbooks – all the capitalists pile into a booming market, they all do it because they want to get filthy rich (and keep their creditors at bay), no one plans to overproduce, saturate the market, make profit impossible – but this is the effect. That’s easy – but there are more subtle ways in which we do things ‘behind our own backs’ – capitalism’s a hugely complex thing, we’re its moving parts, it reproduces itself through our actions, it is our actions, or some of them. So clearly there are people with huge power, with huge vested interests in keeping the whole thing running more or less as is. But since we are part of the system, our actions are part of its reproduction. Part of the emancipatory critical point of Capital is meant to be to show us which of our actions are important to the reproduction of capitalism, how they’re important, what changes would be changes to that constant reproduction, attacks on it, and what actions are part of its reproduction – what actions are (perhaps unintentionally) part of capitalism’s self-perpetuation. So yeah, we make our lives consciously, but the intentionality, as it were, doesn’t have to be central to the making. Not so different from the beasts.

  22. duncan Says:

    Hmm… should probably say more… but have to go to work now… take care…

  23. Nate Says:

    hey y’all,
    This is a great post and discussion. I’m too tired to say anything of substance. There’s a Marx quote someplace in his discussions of money where he says that at some points in time humans have served as the commodity that fills the function of money, general equivalent. I remember stumbling across this when I was doing reading about slavery and I nearly fell out of my chair. I can’t recall where it is and what the exact wording is just now but I can dig for it if you like.
    take care,
    Nate

  24. duncan Says:

    Oh, excellent, thanks Nate. Don’t go to any trouble, please, promise me, but if you remember where that is I’d be really interested.

    Thanks for the kinds words, hope you’re well…

  25. duncan Says:

    Possibly this?

    Money – the common form, into which all commodities as exchange values are transformed, i.e. the universal commodity – must itself exist as a particular commodity alongside the others, since what is required is not only that they can be measured against it in the head, but that they can be changed and exchanged for it in the actual exchange process. The contradiction which thereby enters, to be developed elsewhere. Money does not arise by convention, any more than the state does. It arises out of exchange, and arises naturally out of exchange; it is a product of the same. At the beginning, that commodity will serve as money – i.e. it will be exchanged not for the purpose of satisfying a need, not for consumption, but in order to be reexchanged for other commodities – which is most frequently exchanged and circulated as an object of consumption, and which is therefore most certain to be exchangeable again for other commodities, i.e. which represents within the given social organization wealth [par excellence] which is the object of the most general demand and supply, and which possesses a particular use value. Thus salt, hides, cattle, slaves. In practice such a commodity corresponds more closely to itself as exchange value than do other commodities (a pity that the difference between denrée and marchandise cannot be neatly reproduced in German). It is the particular usefulness of the commodity whether as a particular object of consumption (hides), or as a direct instrument of production (slaves), which stamps it as money in these cases. In the course of further development precisely the opposite will occur, i.e. that commodity which has the least utility as an object of consumption or instrument of production will best serve the needs of exchange as such. In the former case, the commodity becomes money because of its particular use value; in the latter case it acquires its particular use value from its serviceability as money.

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch03.htm

  26. N Pepperell Says:

    Hey Nate – your memory reminded me of this passage from volume 1:

    But with the development of exchange it fixes itself firmly and exclusively to particular sorts of commodities, and becomes crystallised by assuming the money-form. The particular kind of commodity to which it sticks is at first a matter of accident. Nevertheless there are two circumstances whose influence is decisive. The money-form attaches itself either to the most important articles of exchange from outside, and these in fact are primitive and natural forms in which the exchange-value of home products finds expression; or else it attaches itself to the object of utility that forms, like cattle, the chief portion of indigenous alienable wealth. Nomad races are the first to develop the money-form, because all their worldly goods consist of moveable objects and are therefore directly alienable; and because their mode of life, by continually bringing them into contact with foreign communities, solicits the exchange of products. Man has often made man himself, under the form of slaves, serve as the primitive material of money, but has never used land for that purpose. Such an idea could only spring up in a bourgeois society already well developed. It dates from the last third of the 17th century, and the first attempt to put it in practice on a national scale was made a century afterwards, during the French bourgeois revolution.

  27. Nate Says:

    hi Duncan, NP,
    Yeah it was the one NP found, that one from the Grundrisse’s interesting too. I’m not sure how to connect this directly relates to your point about it all being flesh at bottom but I think the connection’s there. There’s also the remark about capitalists coining children’s blood. (Still not able to say anything of substance…. somday!)
    🙂
    take care,
    Nate

  28. Carl Says:

    Thanks very much, Duncan, a great read and I think everything got covered, although it looks like if I’d said what I meant more clearly the answer would have been something more like: “Yes.” But I appreciate you giving me credit for a more complicated question than I actually asked. ;-p

    It’s a bit hard to signify “the intellectual and physical activity humans engage in to make our world” without using language like ‘work’ or ‘labor’ that seems to implicate a specific historical mode of production, that is, among other things, a regime of valuation, exchange, and exploitation / alienation. If I remember correctly Marx sometimes uses the phrase ‘sensuous human activity’ for this purpose.

    What we do, all of it, consciously or unconsciously, is indeed the secret beating heart of all existence for Marx, which is the basis for the critique of one way we do things (work/labor) and the revolutionary leverage for another – in which there will be no need to value anything or fuss about conditions of exchange because we’ll all be doing our doing together in unalienated ways.

  29. Carl Says:

    …or so we imagine.

    I note in the paper today that Ursula LeGuin, author of that magnificent communitarian / anarchist novel The Dispossessed, has discovered people have appropriated digital copies of her work for internet distribution. “I thought, who do these people think they are? Why do they think they can violate my copyright and get away with it?”

    Hm. Who would they need to think they are? It looks like her sense of personal property is strong and prickly. She seems to be quite the crusader on the issue. However, I don’t read her as being concerned with ‘exchange value’ in the bling sense so much as credit and control. She’ll take the money, but more centrally she thinks of the products of her creative effort as morally hers, and any unauthorized transfer of control to be an alienation, perhaps as a matter of etiquette (courtesy and respect).

    I smell rubber hitting the road here. What sort of thing is LeGuin?

  30. duncan Says:

    Thanks Carl. “What we do, all of it, consciously or unconsciously, is indeed the secret beating heart of all existence for Marx” – yes – or of social / political / human existence – yes. [Only adding the pedantry because there seem to be lots of anti-correllationists running around, who read these sorts of sentences and think we’re denying the reality of dinosaurs. But yes.]

  31. duncan Says:

    I haven’t read that LeGuin novel. I remember reading her Earthsea books years back when I was a kid – I enjoyed them, though I’m not so impressed remembering. But I’m told her books for grown ups are really good.

    Perhaps the operative principle here was – ‘If I can’t tell Cory Doctorow to piss off, I don’t want your revolution’?

  32. duncan Says:

    But I’m quite tired now, sorry, being silly. Copyright’s interesting – though I know fuck all about it – because it’s a sort of presently-obvious example of how the norms and – more importantly – the legalities and power relations surrounding property rights are often really complex and specific. There’s not just this thing, or this relation, property, which gets applied to houses and texts and people and land and so on. The way in which something gets made into property – and then subsumed under the general heading property – is really specific to the thing, or kind of thing, or place, etc., and could go lots of ways, potentially, depending on the social and power dynamics surrounding the construction.

  33. duncan Says:

    On alienation – I haven’t read much of Marx’s early stuff, clearly I should, and I’m certainly not capable of tracking how the concept’s deployed and how its meaning changes across his corpus – but personally I’ve never found it all that useful. (Not that I’m pissing on people who do – like I say, I’m hugely underinformed.) It often seems, as I sense it’s often used, a little metaphysical, to me, and a little vague – the content usually capturable by stuff that’s a whole lot more concrete/specific. The flip side of that is that if we see a communist society as one in which alienation is eradicated – and if alienation is meant in a perhaps somewhat vague and metaphysical way (not that it necessarily is) – things can start flirting with an unrealistic utopianism. (And for the record, I don’t think Marx is without his utopian moments – often important and inspiring moments – but I don’t think that’s the dominant aspect of his work.)

    So you talk of a society “in which there will be no need to value anything or fuss about conditions of exchange because we’ll all be doing our doing together in unalienated ways.” But what does this mean? Any complex society is going to be packed to the gills with stuff to fuss about w/r/t how to distribute the output of production, how to manage production, political structures and disputes, plus all the usual stuff of agonising human life, you know? There’s still going to be pettiness, bitching, people screwing each other over, violence, cruelty, murder, resentment, coercive use of institutional power, no matter how good the economic/political structure is. If Ursula LeGuin being prickly about Cory Doctorow posting a short story to bOINGbOING looks like a counterexample w/r/t the communist ideal, we probably have an unreasonable expectation for what an egalitarian society would achieve, no?

  34. duncan Says:

    And – I should add – that unrealism lies, imo at least, mostly on the side of the critics of radical politics. Not always. But the poltical/economic goals are really quite straightforward. An economic system that doesn’t produce poverty as an ineradicable feature of its production of wealth. A system of production oriented more towards human needs, and involving a whole lot less destruction of people and their environment. A decent standard of living for as many as possible. More political freedom. None of this need involve any kind of unrealistic expectations about how people will interact, if we can collectively get in place institutional, economic, political structures that are capable of realising this stuff.

  35. duncan Says:

    Not forgetting the small scale battles of course, everything being small scale in one way or another, everything coming down to our daily lives in the end. But I’ve bent your ear for long enough.

  36. N Pepperell Says:

    Hey Carl – This is neither here nor there, really, and it’s been quite a long time since I’ve read The Dispossessed (although I quite like LeGuin), but one of my memories of the work – one of the things that impressed me about it – was actually how profoundly nonutopian it was about the communitarian community. LeGuin’s good in a number of works on this – on the qualitatively specific downsides of the downtrodden, so to speak…

    Not sure whether this has much to do with copyright one way or the other… 😉 And it’s possible my impression of The Dispossessed is quite mistaken… Just associating…

  37. N Pepperell Says:

    If I could just add – Duncan’s comment here rather reminds me of what I remember LeGuin showing about the communitarian society:

    There’s still going to be pettiness, bitching, people screwing each other over, violence, cruelty, murder, resentment, coercive use of institutional power, no matter how good the economic/political structure is.

  38. N Pepperell Says:

    And this, as well:

    But the poltical/economic goals are really quite straightforward. An economic system that doesn’t produce poverty as an ineradicable feature of its production of wealth. A system of production oriented more towards human needs, and involving a whole lot less destruction of people and their environment. A decent standard of living for as many as possible. More political freedom. None of this need involve any kind of unrealistic expectations about how people will interact, if we can collectively get in place institutional, economic, political structures that are capable of realising this stuff.

  39. Nate Says:

    re: alienation, I’ve seen folk argue both it existing across Marx’s whole corpus and it being an early concept he abandons later. I don’t have an opinion either way, though I will say I find the term a bit confusing when the later Marx is doing critique of political economy – sometimes he uses “alienate” just to mean “sell”, like in quotes from Brits who pre-dated Hegel and really didn’t mean “estrangement from species being” etc. It’s hard not read that meaning back into those passages, which I’m not sure is helpful.

  40. duncan Says:

    Thanks Nate, NP…

  41. Carl Says:

    I’m among those who thinks alienation is the critical humanistic core of marxism, without which it just becomes a particularly cranky version of classical political economy and a playground for control freaks like Plekhanov, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Althusser. It’s not foregrounded in Capital because that’s not what Capital is for. But that’s a long, long discussion and well-covered in the literature; a point of departure might be Gouldner’s Two Marxisms.

  42. N Pepperell Says:

    Hey Carl – That’s sort of a strange choice to present: one is either a critical humanist, or… the gulag… ???

    There are a number of variants of Marxism that don’t fall into the choices you’re presenting. I suspect the discussion that started this off was quite a ways downstream from Gouldner – not sure whether your comment was aimed at Nate, me, or Duncan, but I doubt any positions being articulated here are arising from ignorance of his work.

    The question is what one means when saying something like “alienation is the critical humanistic core of marxism”. There are some understandings of “alienation” that I think are quite deeply problematic. There are others that would probably be consonant with various things I’ve tried to do – although I’ll agree with Nate that the term itself, in Capital, often just means to sell.

    But this change in terminology is not so much, I would think, that Capital has suddenly become a “political economy” and thus leaves behind broader anthropological concerns in Marx’s earlier work – which may not be a position you hold, but which is the position often associated with the stark Althusserian dichotomy between Marx’s purportedly “humanist” and “scientific” works…

    I tend to think that Capital is very much for achieving a critical understanding of the emergence and reproduction of particular forms of human-ness – on the level of concepts of the human, political ideals grounded in specific understandings of what it means to be human, but also forms of embodiment and affect – specific enactments of self. This yields, however, a very different sort of “critical humanism” than, say, the common position that capitalism grates up against some intrinsic essence of the human – which points toward a more romantic conception of critique. And there are obviously other sorts of “critical humanisms” running around in addition to these – some of which would have a use for the terminology of “alienation”, and some of which would not…

    But the core issue isn’t the term, but how it’s used, to what ends, and what is opened up by it – I think some caution and a number of additional steps might be needed before narrowing our options quite as starkly as you’ve suggested above…

  43. Carl Says:

    NP, fair enough. I agree with your reading of Capital. And I’ll play with theoretical subtleties all day long, that’s my idea of a good time and you lot are my idea of good playmates. But I didn’t invent the humanism/gulag dichotomy, the history of the 20th century did. If it’s a bad one, so was actually-existing marxism’s history in the last century, and ongoingly. The bloom of human liberation is off that rose, and if that remains the project what we’re doing now is picking through ashes.

    Look, I’m happy enough to have Marx be so smart that it took the better part of 200 years for you to come along and figure out what he really meant. But in the meantime all kinds of people tried to turn the theory into practice. Every time, what got jettisoned in the interests of that great leap forward was that sense of embodied humanity you’re talking about. Alienation is a pretty straightforward way of talking about that and romantic/essentialist though it may be without some care (it’s actually as good a term as any and better than most to talk about exactly what you’re getting at), it’s the pin in the hand grenade. So until there’s a really, really robust substitute for it, I’m going to keep defending it.

    (Incidentally, I agree wholeheartedly with the “economic system that doesn’t produce poverty as an ineradicable feature of its production of wealth. A system of production oriented more towards human needs, and involving a whole lot less destruction of people and their environment. A decent standard of living for as many as possible. More political freedom” project. Bernstein got called a liberal and thrown out of the party for that project back in the day. As for the big picture, if capitalism burns through its options twice as fast as ‘feudalism’ we’ve still got a couple centuries to go on a transition that doesn’t require risky forcing.)

  44. N Pepperell Says:

    Hey Carl – We may have different things in mind by “humanism”: I wouldn’t, for example, personally characterise my reading of Marx as a “humanist” one – or say that this is where history draws the line within actually existing Marxisms. It’s not really the case that it’s taken 200 years to work out the sorts of things I write about Marx: some of the readings closest to mine, are also those put forward much closer to when Marx wrote – and there’s been “positive” work (reinterpretations of Marx) pointing in directions similar to mine for at least 40 years, and more “negative” work (critiques of Marxist orthodoxy) almost continuously. Some of the historical patterns in reading will have to do with the social history unfolding around the reading – with what is more likely to strike people as a current concern, which they then take with them when they set about interpreting the text. Some of those patterns will have to do with the barbarism of orthodox Marxism itself – with the murder and suppression of alternative interpreters. I’m not trying to hide the horror of what was done with Marx’s work and in Marx’s name through the 20th century – but I’m also not convinced that any specific theoretical vocabulary offers us protection from that history…

    The point isn’t to assert Marx’s cleverness or to try to preserve some sort of pure, untainted image of his work. The point is to come up with better ways of understanding historical possibilities – including the possibilities for specific kinds of barbarism. Romantic/essentialist ideals have been and almost certainly will continue to be historically important – I’m not critical of this, certainly not in a social movement context. But romantic and essentialising moves within /academic/ theory can be associated with a reluctance to tackle the multifaceted character of social and economic phenomena – it can help reinforce a sense of a massive /qualitative/ gap between where we are now, and what sorts of changes we might want to make politically. If we want to make some contribution toward averting “risky forcing”, developing a better understanding of practical potentials generated in everyday ways within current practice – nonessentialising understandings of where our ideals and desires might find a very mundane, practical, everyday, experiential ground – seems like a useful contribution.

    But this isn’t a dispute about the horrors of what’s been done in the name of Marx, or an attempt to protect Marx’s good name from that history. It is an attempt to suggest that “actually existing Marxism” has a more diverse history that doesn’t need to be edited out of our awareness in a flattened memory of the 20th century. I’d generally rather we help history become citable in more of its moments – intellectually, economically and socially – to increase the range of what becomes available to be turned into practice.

  45. duncan Says:

    Thanks all. There’s a lot here, and I’m spending the weekend with family so I don’t have as much time as I’d like. But quickly and somewhat randomly. [turns out this comment only addresses carl, and incompletely at that, will say more when i’ve got time.]

    1) “I didn’t invent the humanism/gulag dichotomy, the history of the 20th century did.” Well sort of. Obviously the history of the 20th century made the possibility that radical left dreams of liberation can turn into the exact opposite of liberation very and viscerally clear. But the historical facts didn’t establish or validate a humanism/gulag distinction – interpretation of the facts did, and those interpretations are generally extremely dubious. There’s a huge huge ideological, capitalist-apologistic discourse constructed around exactly this kind of opposition. I don’t see any reason why summoning that opposition should be taken to invoke the facts and not such ideology.

    2) “a particularly cranky version of classical political economy”. I agree with NP that Capital isn’t just political economy. But I’m also quite happy to defend cranky political economy – or, rather, accurate political economy. I think it’s a really good idea to have an intellectual discourse (i.e. a discourse that needn’t be politically engaged) that just accurately describes and analyses the functioning of capitalism. Such a discourse is, in practice, probably going to be informed by a highly politicised space, because there are huge institutional/social pressures on orthodox academic economics that push it towards apologetic falsehood. But there’s nothing wrong with political economy as such – and the virtue of Max’s work as political economy lies not in the crankiness but in the correctness.

    3) “a transition that doesn’t require risky forcing”. But what risks are being imagined here, and how do they stack up against other much more immediate risks? The question of the possible dangers involved in attempting to realise political ideals can only legitimately be asked if we also consider the violences and crimes of other so-called ‘realisations’. Actually existing humanism – or actually existing liberalism, or actually existing capitalism – have also perpetrated countless atrocities, are also bloodied with mass murder. [I like the way dsquared (no kind of Marxist) puts it in this old post: “It really is hard to see what qualitative difference one might draw between the way in which the World Bank and IMF have fucked around with the food security systems of third world countries in the name of “free markets”, and the way in which Stalin and Mao did more or less the same thing in the name of “collectivisation”…. The great thing about the market mechanism, of course, is that when it kills a million people, it doesn’t leave fingerprints.”]

    There’s a double innacuracy in much discussion of this stuff (talking more generally now, and not addressing myself to your comments, Carl). First it’s assumed that Stalin is the principal heir of the radical left (a ‘corrupted’ heir, in some ways, sure, perhaps in some ways a distant one, but still the real heir, the truth of communism, finally made manifest, the inevitable and only true result of incautious political optimism – whereas the welfare state, say, has no lineage to speak of in radical politics – once something becomes mainstream, accepted, it loses all connection to the radical left, even historically, the radical left is by definition unsuccesful… and even if there is some lineage, grudgingly conceded, this has no bearing on how we should judge radical politics today, in its unrealistic demands for stuff that’s currently not mainstream.) (“Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form.” This isn’t really part of the communist manifesto, because it’s too obvious, we all agree with that, Marxism really means the bad consequences, and only those.) Second, the reality of actually existing liberalism is repressed or ignored or lied about. There’s a very crude slippage between liberalism as ideal and liberalism as actually existing political/economic form. I think we can probably all agree that liberty is a central political goal. So: we’re all liberals. And: we’ve got liberalism now, CNN says so, so everything must be fine. But, of course, we don’t have liberalism in the relevant sense. Or most of us don’t. Most of us are living in poverty.

    So, coming back to the actual thread, sorry (the above could be improved for coherence, but I’m rushing…) 4) “Alienation is a pretty straightforward way of talking about that and romantic/essentialist though it may be without some care (it’s actually as good a term as any and better than most to talk about exactly what you’re getting at), it’s the pin in the hand grenade.” Without getting into alienation – because of the stuff upthread – my point is that the hand grenade is already going off. It’s not going off in our front yards, probably – we’re lucky, we’re in most respects the beneficiaries of the system – but the choice isn’t between pin in hand grenade and violence. It’s what political choices are wise given the already-existing violence.

    I’ve got more to say, some of which is probably jollier, and I want to reply to NP too, but I’ve got to run.

    Take care all…

  46. Nate Says:

    hey y’all,

    This is awesome.

    Carl, I’m not sure what to make of your remark that “what got jettisoned in the interests of that great leap forward was that sense of embodied humanity you’re talking about.” I mean, yes, definitely horrible stuff happened and I’m inclined – as I take you to be – to say something like “no one could do that while having a sense of embodied humanity,” that to do that stuff was deeply anti-human and that humanism is important to cut against that tendency. I’ve got those same moral impulses. The problem is, there’s little in those moral impulses and even less within talk of alienation that is proof again atrocity or at least proof against support for atrocity. That is, I don’t see alienation as the pin in the hand grenade, as you put it. One example – I’m told that part of Althusser’s aims in his anti-humanist marxism was to undermine the humanist (and hegelian, drawing on the alienation stuff) marxism of Roger Garaudy within the PCF, who was ardently pro-Stalin. Along similar lines, there are passages in the 1844 manuscripts where Marx suggests that despite the deaths and misery of individual workers the working class as a whole is better off etc etc. Given that Marx is in that text steeped heavily in this critical humanist sensibiltity, and yet in the same text engages in a calculation which cuts against the really important moral impulse expressed in the vocabulary of alienation which you associate with humanism. Arguably, the many atrocities committed by committed Marxists are just using a similar logic to that one used by Marx in those passages.

    All which is to say, I don’t know that the alienation stuff and the sensibility you’re talking about has force except always retroactively, as important as the retroactive judgment feels, and I don’t think there’s much of a strong connection between the presence or absence of alienation-talk and the absence or presence of atrocities/willingness to commit atrocities. As NP put it, “I’m also not convinced that any specific theoretical vocabulary offers us protection from that history.” It seems to me that political content is contextual and is at most underdetermined by theoretical contents. (Not really related: the stuff on alienation also repeats – aufhebungs? – Feuerbach on religion, religion as alienation and so on, which I find totally convincing and satisfying as an atheist given to vitriol but which I think is really insufficient for understanding religious people who in practice have been communists, in a good sense of the term, and whose communism and religiosity have been closely related, at least as understood by those people.)

    Two more thoughts…. r

    Re: Capital v1, I do think Carl has an important point which is that a fair bit of Marx’s critical analyses require some sort of moral sensibility for their prescriptive force. If one thinks that it’s perfectly okay to consign a fair bit of humanity to misey, as have/do many capitalists including ostensibly Marxist state capitalists, then a lot of Marx’s writings will mostly amount to decent descriptions of capitalism’s dynamics. I don’t think one needs alienation as a category or the early Marx to have the requisite moral sensibility.

    And, Duncan – your point about Stalin as heir really strikes me. I find arguments along the lines of their being a short road from Marx to Stalin really offputting for all kinds of reasons, one of which is that it ignores a long tradition of Marxisms which were different from and often opposed to the Bolsheviks, and of course to Stalin. More simply, that stuff always really gets to me because from what little I know about Stalin and the USSR, many of the victims were themselves convinced Marxists. It seems to me in bad taste as well as inaccurate to then hand Marxism to Stalin – why make the murder the real representative of the body of ideas and the victims just deluded? Seems a bit of retroactive adding insult to injury, not to mention flattening out the diversity of actually existing marxisms, which as NP puts it “has a more diverse history that doesn’t need to be edited out of our awareness.” I’m not saying Carl’s doing anything like this, but I’ve run into this sort of argument a lot so your comment really hit home.

    cheers,
    Nate

  47. Carl Says:

    Mmm, where to start. Once I’ve written 800 pages I’ll know… :]

    You’re all right, ‘alienation’ won’t do and never did do the work I’ve assigned to it. So what would? The problem is that in the heat of transformative struggle the people with the most serious boundary issues are the ones who will not scruple before that next step, and the next and the next, so it is not an accident that good scrupulous marxists like Bukharin or even slightly less good, slightly less scrupulous marxists like Trotsky end up in front of the firing squad or with the ice-pick up the cerebellum. The revolution eats its own, as they say.

    I agree completely that when bad people make the Marx/Stalin/(Mao, Pol Pot) move in one lazy step it’s offputting, in bad taste, and just plain wrong. There are a series of contingent mediations in between. Speaking of bad taste, Gramsci tosses off this horrible analogy at some point in talking about revolutionary process, about people who look at a little girl and say ‘she’ll have babies one day’, then rape her as if it could happen now. Ew, but it’s the same point that the in-between is of some importance and the outcome is not immediately immanent in the initial conditions.

    It’s a little better when marxists understand that revolution is not a dance party (Emma Goldman, clever old thing), may go really badly, and so far has. The ‘break some eggs to make an omelette’ argument has a long and distinguished history (Machiavelli’s a favorite), with Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours and Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror as high points within marxism. In my dissertation I spent some time arguing that Lenin’s approach to revolution was basically a gambler’s throw, based on a theory that didn’t show him how to get there from here. The problem is that the means are only retrospectively justified if the ends concretely transcend them. Otherwise “hunger is hunger,” dead is dead, miserable is miserable so comparison of the costs of failed revolution to the crimes of capitalism gives no comfort.

    In my work I preferred Gramsci for two reasons – because I read Italian and French but not German or Russian; and because he wasn’t a gambler and he wanted like NP “to make some contribution toward averting ‘risky forcing’, developing a better understanding of practical potentials generated in everyday ways within current practice – nonessentialising understandings of where our ideals and desires might find a very mundane, practical, everyday, experiential ground….” The Prison Notebooks are thousands of pages of him doing just that, across a whole range of culture and political economy, breaking hegemonic processes (from another optic the durkheimian functions, the ‘normal’ workings of society) down into their contingent, changeable microphysics – subject to a long, intricate, undermining ‘war of position’ before conditions for a more comprehensively transformative ‘war of maneuver’ would be mature. A danger here is that effort gets hopelessly fragmented and exhausted by fighting every little hegemonic fire.

  48. Carl Says:

    Duncan, I really like your point about the victories of the left, both on its own merit (you’re right) and because it points at narrative conventions, as you say about the humanism/gulag trope. NP’s point about helping “history become citable in more of its moments – intellectually, economically and socially – to increase the range of what becomes available to be turned into practice” is also in play here.

    The welfare state was as much as anything the brainchild of Bismarck, that crafty old elitist who thought (with some accuracy) that he could bleed off the left’s critical mass by extracting some of the key practical proposals from the SPD’s programme and offering them as largesse of the state. Mass democracy, same thing. Socialism and the welfare state in 19th C Italy, the calculus was the same. Every time the left got too strong, the gov’t elites expanded the suffrage and spread welfare bones around to dilute the disciplined left electorate. There’s evidence that women’s suffrage worked the same way in the U.S. and would have even moreso if not for the Depression. Of course it’s well known by all but textbook authors and movement wonks that women’s liberation and the civil rights victories had at least as much to do with expanding / diversifying the consumer base and flexibilizing / deprivileging the workforce, all to the benefit of capital. And the story of mass education is the story of controlling labor market participation and producing educated / disciplined workers for the expanding capitalist division of labor; not to mention the legitimation services public education performs. And so on.

    If social welfare, democracy, equal rights and public education are good things, why doesn’t capitalism get credit for them?

  49. Carl Says:

    (Just throwing some lollipops here in between the lawn mowing, cheese eating and other bourgeois suchlike.)

  50. duncan Says:

    Thanks everyone, this is a great discussion, I really want to comment now but I also really need to sleep. Will jump back in soon, I hope. Best…

  51. Nate Says:

    Carl, just a quick comment in response – these concerns about marxism and all that are a big deal for me too. It’s part of why I’m an anarchist, and part of why I’m attracted to old U.S. marxists like some of the people in the IWW early on, of a syndicalist bent and other folk in the broadly libertarian communist tradition(s) – whatever the program is, it isn’t seize the state then use it to finish the revolutionary transition.
    cheers,
    Nate

  52. duncan Says:

    Thanks all. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond – and that this comment is so inadequate. I feel that a comment which adequately addressed the content above would take us into subtleties that are not just boring, but also probably obvious to all of us here, so with apologies for gesturing:

    I think the central thing is probably this – “If social welfare, democracy, equal rights and public education are good things, why doesn’t capitalism get credit for them?” And I think that the answer to that is too nuanced to be quickly typed up by a tired me. Very quickly though:

    Capitalism does of course get credit for these things – these are aspects of aspects of capitalism, as it were. And this is fine – we don’t have to hate on capitalism all the time. The problem with saying this though – and this isn’t, to be clear, a problem I’m attributing to you Carl (I’m worried I’m too tired to say things in a way that picks out the distinctions) – is that it can also serve an ideological function. Only sometimes. But 1) these things are aspects of capitalism because they’ve been fought for, through intense anger at the violences of capitalism, turned into militant action. Again, I’m absolutely not attributing the position I’m about to gesture towards to you, Carl – but there’s often a pernicious move when this sort of argument is invoked. First: capitalism has done all these lovely things. Second: so how dare you complain about capitalism? (Blair was a master of this. We‘ve got all these freedoms, granted by the state; how dare you complain about the state‘s assault on them?) Answer: capitalism only did these things because of our anger – or, rather, our militant action. We got where we are today (even in all its horrors) through centuries of struggle. If you attack the continuing struggle – a struggle which isn’t just about achieving more (though it is about achieving more), but also about preventing the fresh (or even greater) ascent of exploitation, violence, bigotry, fascism – on the grounds that certain aspects of capitalism have various virtues, you’re misunderstanding why those aspects of capitalism have these virtues.

    Then 2) if we just gesture towards these positive aspects of capitalism, without understanding how they fit into the system as a whole, we’re in danger of failing to see how these virtues are achieved (under capitalism) via the simultaneous reproduction of opposite of these virtues. Like I think I said upthread somewhere – there isn’t much child labour in the UK any more. Terrific! Where is it? All over the fucking world – it’s been outsourced. So if, for instance (and again, obviously obviously not attributing this position to anyone here) we see the history of capitalism in the UK as demonstrating that, given enough time and slack, capitalism gets rid of child labour, we’re being culpably myopic.

    Which connects to 3): that if we see these things as good (as I think we should, mostly), we should also be able to conceive of an economic and political system that’s able to produce these things without also producing their opposite – at least without producing their opposite so massively, pervasively, inevitably. This is one of the areas in which Marx is strongest, and in which he’s most frequently misunderstood: the point isn’t to abolish every aspect of capitalism – it’s to see how capitalism opens up economic and political possibilities which can then be taken up, taken out of a system that only produces them as one of the moments of a larger system of exploitation, and as it were re-inscribe these things – reproduce them through alternative political/social/economic means – as part of a system that doesn’t also inevitably exploit and kill fuckloads of people. This ‘making history [including capitalist history] citable in all its moments’ thing is, I think, one of the most important aspects of NP’s work.

    On the whole ‘the welfare state is a means of bribing possible dissenters’ deal – gah. Not nearly enough energy and time. On the one hand clearly yes; on the other hand that doesn’t make it bad; on the third and very capacious hand, this opens onto the whole issue of revolutionary versus reformist politics. I’m not nearly enough informed or confident w/r/t this, but my provisional intuitive sense is that 1) there are serious on-the-ground issues about where individuals or organisations invest their time and energy; 2) these kinds of choices are sometimes justified through an unhelpful denegration of alternative choices which are, on a larger scale, entirely compatible with quite dramatically different specific choices. 3) the ‘bribing’ of potential dissenters via capital’s production of a middle class with something to lose from radical social transformation notwithstanding, the to-my-mind-too-frequently-invoked idea that things need to be shitty for serious change to take place is an unhelpful error. Nate’s written a lot of really good stuff on this, imo. In this thread I totally endorse and admire what Nate says about the idea “that despite the deaths and misery of individual workers the working class as a whole is better off”.

    * sigh *. I know there are a ton of other things I wanted to say. But I’ve a feeling the conversation was winding down anyway, so perhaps I should wind down with it. :-). If things are concluding, then thank you everyone for an extremely illuminating discussion.

    Take care…


  53. […] On the other hand, the force of the poem is not just in the equivalence from blood to money. It works the other way as well, from money to blood. Money is actually flesh, to paraphrase Duncan. […]


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