Thursday, March 7, 2013

Luce Irigaray - “Women on the Market”

It's been a while since I ridiculed a post-modernist. I thought I'd have another go. This time I've picked on Luce Irigaray.

In “Women on the Market”, written in 1978, Irigaray attempts to meld ideas from Karl Marx with feminism. The result is not good. In fact, it's terrible. She gets some of Marx's critique correct, but a lot of it is completely wrong. The connection between her interpretation and how it relates to women is almost entirely nonsensical. Her essay is almost devoid of substance, with an utterly conservative, pro-capitalist conclusion.

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Irigaray's first sentence is:
The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women.
A contemporary capitalist society is generally not based on the exchange of women. Slavery, especially sex slavery of women and girls, is a very important component of modern capitalist society. These women, millions around the world, are living as slaves. They are exchanged in the market. However, billions of women aren't slaves - they aren't exchanged as commodities.

It's true that women exchange their ability to work (labour-power) for money. They are generally paid atrociously for their time. Their wage is frequently below its value (meaning they must rely on other sources of income to survive). It's true that women have to do large amounts of unpaid work in a house. This is a horrible, never ending grind that destroys women's physical and mental health. But neither of those situations mean that women themselves are being exchanged. Sure, there is bride price for marriage, but this is not enough to go on.

Therefore, Irigaray's first sentence is false. Not a great start.

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Later, she says:
[1] In this new matrix of History, in which man begets man as his own likeness, [2] wives, daughters, and sisters have value only in that they serve as the possibility of, and potential benefit in, relations among men.
I broke this sentence into two parts. [1] I entirely do not understand this. What could "man begets man as his own likeness" possibly mean? Irigaray gives no explanation. [2] This part of the sentence is correct. Women are forced, by men, into roles of subservience. They are forced to find a life as sex worker or unpaid house-worker. If they go off by themselves they're attacked as being too masculine, or worse, lesbian. Women have been, and still are, persecuted for not filling their gender role - they are violently forced to do so.

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In other words, all the social regimes of “History” are based upon the exploitation of one “class” of producers, namely, women. Whose reproductive use value (reproductive of children and of the labor force) and whose constitution as exchange value underwrite the symbolic order as such, without any compensation in kind going to them for that “work.”
The first sentence is correct. Since the beginning of class society, women have had the worst of it. The second sentence throws in some Marxist terms, use-value and exchange-value. It's ambiguous, but it appears that Irigaray is suggesting that exchange-value exists in all class societies. It doesn't. Exchange-value only exists in commodity economies. Furthermore, exchange-value is compensation for work! In a capitalist economy, if you don't receive your exchange-value for your labour-power, you die.

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Commodities among themselves are thus not equal, nor alike, nor different. They only become so when they are compared by and for man.
If a tree fell in forest and no-one was around, would it make a sound? If there are no humans around to turn things and actions into commodities, they aren't commodities. Commodities can't be "among themselves." Things and actions (products and services), regardless of whether they are commodities or not, are never equal nor alike.
the commodity obviously cannot exist alone, but there is no such thing as a commodity, either, so long as there are not at least two men to make an exchange. In order for a product - a woman? - to have value, two men, at least, have to invest (in her.)
This appears to contradict the above, though at least Irigaray is correct this time. But she's really not saying anything new. Yes, you need (at least) two men (or women) for an exchange of commodities.

Why does Irigaray keep trying to reduce women to mere commodities?! Commodities are empty vessels with no power to change the world. Irigaray is espousing an anti-feminism. Women can, and have always, resisted; as commodities (slaves), as serfs, as waged workers, as unpaid servants of fathers and husbands. Admittedly, women's role over the past hundred years has often come extremely close to slavery, in practical terms it was/is, but women don't generally take the form of commodities on the market - except when they literally are slaves like in the illegal sex industry and mail order brides, etc. If Irigaray was making an analogous argument, I wouldn't mind. But she isn't. She is literally saying that women are exchanged as commodities. That's just not true.

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The price of the articles, in fact, no longer comes from their natural form, from their bodies, their language, but from the fact that they mirror the need/desire for exchanges among men.
The price of articles have never come from their natural form, they have always come from their value form.

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The general equivalent of a commodity no longer functions as a commodity itself.
Irigaray throws in some Marxist jargon with no definition of her terms. That's fine for Marxists, no good for everyone else. The general equivalent is (basically) money. She's also completely wrong in her conclusion. The general equivalent is a commodity and it always will be. If it weren't a commodity, it couldn't be used in exchange. If it ever ceased to be a commodity, the entire capitalist economy would immediately collapse because there would be no equivalent to exchange for the relative.
We must emphasize also that the general equivalent, since it is no longer a commodity, is no longer useful. The standard as such is exempt from use.
Therefore, money is no longer useful? Okay...

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This means that mothers, reproductive instruments marked with the name of the father and enclosed in his house, must be private property, excluded from exchange.
 [...]
Once deflowered, woman is relegated to the status of use value, to her entrapment in private property; she is removed from exchange among men.
Is Irigaray suggesting that private property is excluded from exchange? It appears so. Either way, these sentences are nonsensical.

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Mother, virgin, prostitute: these are the social roles imposed on women.
Agreed. But what about violence against women? What about the culture of rape, domestic abuse, honor killings and slut shaming? What about old women being ignored in society? Irigaray only scrapes the surface of women's oppression and exploitation.

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For, without the exploitation of women, what would become of the social order? What modifications would it undergo if women left behind their condition as commodities - subject to being produced, consumed, valorized, circulated, and so on, by men alone - and took part in elaborating and carrying out exchanges?
This paragraph, right at the end of the essay, is where Irigaray reveals her true colours. It's only here that her utterly conservative approach to political economy is exposed. What would happen if women "took part in elaborating and carrying out exchanges?" Exactly what was already happening in 1978 and what is still happening today (2013). Women were and are an integral part of the economy. Women are slaves, unpaid labourers and wage slaves in capitalist society. They are not and never were mere commodities exchanged among men. They have no need to become full citizens of exploitation because they are that already.

Instead of joining the market (that they've already joined), women need to: 1) refuse their gender role to end their oppression and 2) refuse to be workers to end their exploitation. Both refusals are interconnected. To fight against one is to threaten the other. But they're not the same thing and women need to deal with both issues. Men, on the other hand, only really need to deal with their exploitation as workers. Men clearly materially benefit from women's gender role. If men want all humans to be free, they will have to completely change their relationship with women and in doing so, give up a substantial component of what it is to be a man. In effect, they'll have to stop being men. They're not going to do this willingly.

By horribly mangling Marxism and feminism, Irigaray's essay, if it reflects the rest of her work, suggests that she is a poor critic of patriarchal society and doesn't understand the critique of capitalism, let alone have any sort of anti-capitalist politics.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Essays on Marx's Theory of Value

Essays on Marx's Theory of Value by Isaak Illich Rubin is one of the best books I've read on Marx's critique of capitalism. It contains a very detailed explanation of many aspects of Marx's critique of political economy.

The book is available here.

Fetishism

The most important aspect of this book is Rubin's reintegration of the fetishism of the commodity as underpinning Marx's entire critique of capitalism. In this way, political economy becomes
not a science of the relations of things to things, as was thought by vulgar economists, nor of the relations of people to things, as was asserted by the theory of marginal utility, but of the relations of people to people in the process of production. (Introduction)
This is not necessarily easy to understand, nor does it seem initially particularly convincing (or perhaps it appears to be uselessly obvious?) but it enabled Marx to look behind the veil of money, employment, interest and rent, work-time and industrial production; to expose these interactions as ideological constructions that we have created between each other. Our day-to-day lives are lives where we act out our roles in a capitalist society as though these relationships between commodities and people are really existing categories rather than socially constructed phantoms of our consciousness.
One can only wonder why Marx's critics did not notice this inseparable connection between his labor theory of value and his theory of the reification or fetishization of the production relations among people. They understood Marx's theory of value in a mechanical-naturalistic, not in a sociological, sense. (Chapter 8)
Since Rubin's time - he wrote these essays in the 1920s - it hasn't just been Marx's critics that didn't notice the inseparable connection, but the bulk of his biggest fans: Marxists.
Since the things come forth with a determined, fixed social form, they, in turn, begin to influence people, shaping their motivation, and inducing them to establish concrete production relations with each other. Possessing the social form of "capital," things make their owner a "capitalist" and in advance determine the concrete production relations which will be established between him and other members of society. It seems as if the social character of things determines the social character of their owners. Thus the "personification of things" is brought about. (Chapter 3)
Economists

Rubin's ability to summarise economists is superb. He does so in one paragraph:
Vulgar economists commit two kinds of errors: 1) either they assign the "economic definiteness of form" to an "objective property" of things (C., II, p. 164), i.e., they derive social phenomena directly from technical phenomena; for example, the ability of capital to yield profit, which presupposes the existence of particular social classes and production relations among them, is explained in terms of the technical functions of capital in the role of means of production; 2) or they assign "certain properties materially inherent in instruments of labor" to the social form of the instruments of labor (Ibid.), i.e., they derive technical phenomena directly from social phenomena; for example, they assign the power to increase the productivity of labor which is inherent in means of production and represents their technical function, to capital, i.e., a specific social form of production (the theory of the productivity of capital). (Chapter 3)
According to Rubin, Marx's approach is the inverse to how economists analyse the world:
Starting with the social forms as given, the Classical Economists tried to reduce complex forms to simpler forms by means of analysis in order finally to discover their material-technical basis or content. However, Marx, starting from a given condition of the material process of production, from a given level of productive forces, tried to explain the origin and character of social forms which are assumed by the material process of production. (Chapter 4)
Value

Rubin links value with prices, in a way that all the Klimans, Bortkiewiczs, Cockshotts, and Sraffas persistently fail to do:
The basic error of the majority of Marx's critics consists of: 1) their complete failure to grasp the qualitative, sociological side of Marx's theory of value, and 2) their confining the quantitative side to the examination of exchange ratios, i.e., quantitative relations of value among things; they ignored the quantitative interrelations among the quantities of social labor distributed among the different branches of production and different enterprises, interrelations which lie at the basis of the quantitative determination of value. (Chapter 8)
The deviation of market prices from values is the mechanism by means of which the overproduction and underproduction is removed and the tendency toward the reestablishment of equilibrium among the given branches of production of the national economy is set up. (Chapter 8)
The average prices do not correspond to the actual movements of concrete market prices, but explain them. This theoretical, abstract formula of the movement of prices is, in fact, the "law of value." From this it can be seen that every objection to the theory of value which is based on the fact that concrete market prices do not coincide with theoretical "values," is nothing more than a misunderstanding. Total agreement between market price and value would mean the elimination of the unique regulator which prevents different branches of the social economy from moving in opposite directions. (Chapter 9)
This "moving in opposites directions" is the result of the uncontrolled overproduction and underproduction in the anarchic commodity economy.
In a commodity economy, no one controls the distribution of labor among the individual branches of production and the individual enterprises. No clothmaker knows how much cloth is needed by society at a given time nor how much cloth is produced at a given time in all cloth-making enterprises. The production of cloth thus either outruns the demand (overproduction) or lags behind it (underproduction). (Chapter 8)
Prices

Chapters 17 and 18 were the most challenging for me. Chapter 17 explains how supply and demand relate to value. Chapter 18 concerns the relationship between production prices and average profits, on one side, and value, on the other. This is more famously described as the transformation problem (the linked Wikipedia page needs a complete re-write, by the way.) Rubin provides no mechanistic transformation of value to production prices, but links them as layers in a general scientific theory.
The increase of productivity of labor, expressed in the labor-value of products, cannot influence the distribution of labor any other way than through its influence on the distribution of capital. Such influence on the distribution of capital is in turn possible only if changes in the productivity of labor and labor-value cause changes in costs of production or in the average rate of profit, i.e., influence the production price. (Chapter 18)
The labor theory of value is a theory of simple commodity economy, not in the sense that it explains the type of economy that preceded the capitalist economy, but in the sense that it describes only one aspect of the capitalist economy, namely production relations among commodity producers which are characteristic for every commodity economy. (Chapter 18)
This layering works in much the same way as the theory of the cell gives way to organs, systems and organisms in biology. Perhaps a better analogy is the distinction between the matter of the brain and the formation of human consciousness. We know that human consciousness stems from chemical and electrical impulses in the brain, but we'll probably always be clueless as to how that manifests as what we experience as consciousness. In a similar sort of way, there is no mechanical transformation of value into price. However, we know the sociological truth that workers have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Workers are employed in a system that is so productive that they can easily out-produce what they need to survive, as workers, from day-to-day. This excess produce is captured and shared (between those that own everything) via an intellectually sophisticated and enforced social relationship, money. The only thing different between this - capitalism - and slavery or serfdom is that the excess produce isn't completely consumed by those that own everything, but used to expand this way of life.

NB This is not to suggest that the value-price relationship suffers from the same issue as the brain-mind relationship, an explanatory gap. The relationship between value and price is fully explained. It's merely that the relationship cannot be fully explained solely in economic or mathematical terms.

Rubin

Rubin's life in soviet Russia appears to have been especially traumatic. From his Wikipedia page:
Rubin was arrested on December 23, 1930, and accused of being a member of the All-Union Bureau of Mensheviks, a fictitious secret organisation. [...] On January 28, 1931, Rubin was brought to another cell, where he was shown another prisoner and told that if he did not confess, the prisoner would be shot. Rubin refused and the prisoner was executed before him. The process was repeated the next night. After the second shooting, Rubin negotiated a "confession" with his interrogators, who insisted that he implicate his mentor David Riazanov as a member of a secret Menshevik conspiracy.
Rubin served most of his prison term in solitary confinement, during which he continued his research as best he could. When he fell ill with a suspected cancer, he was removed to a hospital and encouraged to make further confessions in return for favourable treatment, but declined the offer. He was released on a commuted sentence in 1934 and allowed to work in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan, as an economic planner. Rubin was arrested once more during the Great Purge in 1937. After this arrest he was never seen alive again.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Old Age Marxism

The following is a response to Paul Cockshott's review of Michael Heinrich's Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, New Age Marxism. Read Cockshott's review first.

Biology

Cockshott begins his review by criticising Marx's and Heinrich's biological metaphor:
The anatomy of man is a key to the anatomy of the ape. On the other hand, indications of higher forms in the lower species of animals can only be understood when the higher forms themselves are already known
I'd agree with Cockshott that to suggest humans are better than other apes is ridiculous. There are no higher and lower forms of life, just ones that are successful (extant) and unsuccessful (extinct). However, other than using sloppy language, I'm not sure that Heinrich and Marx are saying anything controversial. If one replaced "lower" with "less complex" and "higher" with "more complex," there wouldn't be an issue. They're not actually suggesting that humans are better than other apes and they're not even really talking about evolutionary biology.

Value Theory

It's when discussing value theory that Cockshott goes awry:
The establishment of capitalist industry went hand in hand with the development of artificial sources of power: coal then oil. We also all know that in today’s world the owners of oilfields are fabulously wealthy, so might energy not be the source of value?
There are a couple of problems with this:
  1. It appears as if Cockshott is suggesting that value only came into being at the beginning of capitalism. But value relates to commodity exchange, not capitalism as such. There were commodities before capitalism and therefore there was value before capitalism. Since coal and oil use, at least in any generalised form, came after commodities, how could they be the source of value?!
  2. Cockshott makes a logical jump from oil/coal to energy. Oil/coal is not the same thing as energy. There have been lots of different sources of energy throughout human history with vastly different uses. E.g., burning wood for heat and food; burning candles for light; oil/coal for industrial production. Can one really jump through wood-candles-coal-oil to energy, from there to a value theory, without any theoretical complications?
Cockshott's argument is that the labour theory of value is lacking, so we must look to what science does.
If one adopts the normal method of science, the answer is simple. You see what price structure would be predicted by the labour theory of value, what price structure would be predicted by the energy theory of value, and see which theory gives the better predictions. Such tests have been done, and they show that actual prices correspond much more closely to what the labour theory of value predicts than to what the energy theory predicts. But as we will see in the next section Heinrich’s approach prohibits this sort of scientific test.
Does science really work like this? It's true that empirical measurements are essential to science, but it's at least misleading, probably downright wrong to apply empirical results to a poor theory. For a scientific theory to be accepted, it needs to make coherent, logical arguments in a purely abstract form that then fits fairly well with reality. If the theory is faulty, the evidence is irrelevant.

As an example, I could propose f = mac (force = mass * acceleration * crap). Most of the time c is 1, but occasionally I decide that it's 1.5 or .5 for masses that I have a peculiar distaste. Now, it could be, with God's favour, that the world really does agree with my formula, f = mac. Or it could be the case that we never come across masses that I don't like (e.g., invisible pink elephants). (My formula would be essentially f = ma.) Neither of these possibilities have anything to do with the fact that this formula is logically inconsistent with other physical laws.

My point: you have to sort out your theory, regardless of the evidence! Cockshott suggests you can "go through the passage from Marx above and wherever there is a reference to labour substitute energy or power and the essence of the argument would be unchanged." If that were true, Marx's labour theory of value would be wrong. It would not be theoretically sufficient. It would need to be revised or abandoned.

I do not agree for a moment that you can substitute terms in Marx's theory. For a start, Cockshott missed a crucial section, the fetish of the commodity. This grounds Marx's value theory as part of the social consciousness of humanity. The commodity, abstract labour, value-form, etc. is a psychological trick.

Abstract Labour

Cockshott truly breaks with my reading of Marx in the notion of abstract labour:
So abstract labour is the abstract expenditure of human physiological effort and society has only a certain amount of this effort available to it which can be expended in different concrete forms.

This concept is indeed ‘naturalistic’ and ‘a-historical’. It is naturalistic in that it depends on our adaptability as a species, our ability to turn our hand to any task. It is a-historical in that any society with a division of labour has abstract labour.
Marx's theory is the opposite of this view. It is concrete labour, actually doing stuff in the world, that is the only transhistorical, ahistorical or naturalistic conception of labour in Marx's theory. Concrete labour existed before capitalism, before class society. Abstract labour is vastly more modern and arises with commodity exchange. Abstract labour did not arise with the division of labour because many societies - those based on slavery or serfdom, for example - hardly measured and compared work at all. To the extent that they were not based on the exchange of commodities, they were not societies based on value and abstract labour. The key thing lacking in Cockshott's theory in these paragraphs is a clear understanding of the history of social production.

I.I. Rubin sorted out the issue of abstract labour and physiological effort long ago:
Marx never tired of repeating that value is a social phenomenon, that the existence of value (Wertgegenstandlichkeit) has "a purely social reality" (C., I, p. 47), and does not include a single atom of matter. From this it follows that abstract labor, which creates value, must be understood as a social category in which we cannot find a single atom of matter. One of two things is possible: if abstract labor is an expenditure of human energy in physiological form, then value also has a reified-material character. Or value is a social phenomenon, and then abstract labor must also be understood as a social phenomenon connected with a determined social form of production. It is not possible to reconcile a physiological concept of abstract labor with the historical character of the value which it creates. The physiological expenditure of energy as such is the same for all epochs and, one might say, this energy created value in all epochs. We arrive at the crudest interpretation of the theory of value, one which sharply contradicts Marx's theory. (Essays on Marx's Theory of Value, Chapter 14: Abstract Labour)
Cockshott's theory becomes incredible problematic when we bring in temporal concerns. If abstract labour is physiological effort, what can you say about that effort when the value of the commodities you've already produced halve in value because a competitor produces the same commodity for much cheaper? How does your physiological effort - that you've already expended - suddenly disappear into the ether? As abstract labour is the substance and measure of value, you've got a problem explaining where it went to.

Cockshott says:
On the other hand there is no doubt that were we to accept Heinrich’s reading we would have to abandon any claim that Marxian analysis of value was scientific. Science rests on the testability of its propositions and has to be wary of hypothesising causal entities which are in principle unmeasurable. If we say with Heinrich that the labour time that creates value can not be independently measured, can only be inferred from the price at which things sell, then you no longer have a testable theory.
Yes, it's true, we don't have a testable theory in the same way that a lot of the physical sciences do. If you tried to measure every aspect of commodity production, concrete labour-time, physiological equivalents, prices, etc. you would not arrive at Marx's critique of political economy. You would arrive at the tools of appearances that we already have: supply/demand curves, employment rates, economic statistics, etc.

Marx's critique has many complexities and subtleties that does not make it appropriate for empirical measurement as proof in the way Cockshott would prefer. One huge issue, for example, is moving from value to production prices and average profits. (See: Value and Production Price)

Finally, possibly the worst part of Cockshott's review, is a comment on a quote from Marx to Kugelmann:
“It is self-evident that this necessity of the distribution of social labour in specific proportions is certainly not abolished by the specific form of social production; it can only change its form of manifestation. Natural laws cannot be abolished at all. The only thing that can change, under historically differing conditions, is the form in which those laws assert themselves.” One can scarcely have a more explicit assertion of the natural and a-historical basis of abstract labour than that.
However, Marx was not talking about abstract labour in slightest! He was simply talking about the necessity for humans to work. Humans, from the time when we developed self-awareness, have had to work to survive. We need to gather, sow, reap and kill for food. We need to bring-up the young, collect water and dispose of waste. We need to look after the old. We will have to do this until we cease to exist as a species. Nothing, not pre-class society, slavery, serfdom, mercantilism, capitalism or communism is going to prevent this necessity for work. All that changes is how we organise work in society, as the most social species on the planet. What does abstract labour have to do with it? It is nothing but the form of how we are choosing to work at the present time, under capitalist conditions.

To suggest that abstract labour is going to be the form of society, not only of capitalism, but also communism, brings nothing but horrible images of totalitarian monsters into our mind.

Down with measurement!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Critique of the Gotha Programme

The Critique of the Gotha Programme (text) was written by Karl Marx in 1875 as a response to a document by the nascent Social Democratic Party of Germany. It was one of Marx's last writings (he died in 1883). The Wikipedia page describes the SPD as "one of the first Marxist-influenced parties in the world." It's difficult to see how that could be true given Marx's deep criticisms of the Gotha Program (which was adopted by the party). It is not until the Gotha Program was eventually replaced by the Erfurt Program (text) in 1891 that the statement on Wikipedia starts to have some truth to it. Engels wrote a critique of the Erfurt Program.

As usual, I've made the text into an e-book: http://sdrv.ms/10zf70H

Wealth, Value and Labour

I remember reading this document ten years ago and being immediately confused by Marx's distinction between wealth and value. I remember Anthony patiently trying to explain it to me. I kind of half got it, but not really. It's taken fifteen years for me to understand the entire scientific critique of political economy that Marx presents. Even a year or two ago I still refused to accept it on scientific grounds. I could not fully grasp the basic distinctions and categories. Turns out that Marx was correct.
Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The above phrase is to be found in all children's primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning.
I'm not alone in my failure to understand Marx's critique. The SPD didn't understand it in 1875. They don't understand it today. Most Marxists don't understand it. To the great misfortune of millions of people, the pre-existing communists of the USSR, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc. didn't understand it either. Marx is clear, but it is difficult to understand, especially if you grow up in a world almost entirely dominated by the bourgeois mode of production. To make matters worse, there are a lot of people who don't want to understand it or don't want you to understand it.
The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.
The only other modern scientific theory that has come under sustained attack is the theory of evolution. That attack, almost entirely by religious forces, continues into the 21st century. Nevertheless, even at its most ferocious, the scale of the attack on evolution barely registers compared to the scale of the attack on the scientific critique of capitalist society.

Higher and lower stages of communism

The Critique of the Gotha Programme gets you thinking about a future communism. One of the notable things Marx discusses is the lower and higher orders of communism. I used to find this splitting of the idea of communism problematic, but I don't think I do anymore. Marx's justification is:
What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.
Lower order communism is best described as "To each according to his contribution."
[...] the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.
Marx described higher order communism as:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Of course, money needs to be abolished immediately. However, there is no longer a need for labour vouchers. We have these wonderful machines - computers and the Internet - that we could use to track peoples' contributions and ensure necessities are distributed correctly. The logistics of this isn't trivial; keeping track of billions of people wouldn't be easy. However, Facebook already tracks one billion accounts. It isn't a monumental effort to extend this infrastructure so we could record vital information on the entire population of the planet. A new form of distribution needs to be quickly realised. A disruption to distribution (or a failure to transform existing distribution) is where there is a huge risk to lives from starvation and disease.
If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution.
The state

There are some interesting comments on the state in The Critique of the Gotha Programme. Marx is very critical of the idea of the "free state." Engels, in his letter to August Bebel, sums it up really well:
All the palaver about the state ought to be dropped, especially after the Commune, which had ceased to be a state in the true sense of the term. The people’s state has been flung in our teeth ad nauseam by the anarchists, although Marx’s anti-Proudhon piece and after it the Communist Manifesto declare outright that, with the introduction of the socialist order of society, the state will dissolve of itself and disappear. Now, since the state is merely a transitional institution of which use is made in the struggle, in the revolution, to keep down one’s enemies by force, it is utter nonsense to speak of a free people’s state; so long as the proletariat still makes use of the state, it makes use of it, not for the purpose of freedom, but of keeping down its enemies and, as soon as there can be any question of freedom, the state as such ceases to exist. We would therefore suggest that Gemeinwesen ["commonalty"] be universally substituted for state; it is a good old German word that can very well do service for the French “Commune.”
Marx has some good stuff on the state and education:
"Elementary education by the state" is altogether objectionable. Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfillment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people!
Ultimately, Marx seals the fate that the SPD succumbed to.
The German Workers' party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Happy Australia Day!

Every year, on this day, Australians celebrate the discovery and settlement of their country. Such a beautiful gift that God bestowed on us - an unsettled land for our enjoyment. And we have enjoyed.

1788 marks the end of one dreamtime and the beginning of a new dreamtime - the time to dream of work, commodities, debt and infinite growth. Here is a short list of some of the wonderful memories.

From Wikipedia pages:

Black Line

After many years of conflict between British colonists and the Aborigines known as the Black War, Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur decided to remove all Aborigines from the settled areas in order to end the escalating raids upon settlers' huts. To accomplish this he called upon every able-bodied male colonist, convict or free, to form a human chain that then swept across the settled districts, moving south and east for several weeks in an attempt to corral the Aborigines on the Tasman Peninsula by closing off Eaglehawk Neck (the isthmus connecting the Tasman peninsula to the rest of the island) where Arthur hoped that they could live and maintain their culture and language.

Stolen Generations

The Stolen Generations were the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by the Australian Federal and State government agencies and church missions, under acts of their respective parliaments. The removals occurred in the period between approximately 1869 and 1969, although in some places children were still being taken until the 1970s.

Australian referendum, 1967

This gave the Commonwealth parliament power to legislate with respect to Aborigines living in a State as well as those living in a federal Territory. The intent was that this new power for the Commonwealth would be used beneficially, yet despite several opportunities, the High Court has never resolved that it cannot also be used detrimentally. 

Section 127 was wholly removed. Headed "Aborigines not to be counted in reckoning population", it had read:
In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.
Prison

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showed that Indigenous people accounted for 25 percent of Australia's prison population in 2009. The age-standardised imprisonment rate [...] meant that the imprisonment rate for Indigenous people was 14 times higher than that of non-Indigenous people.

Land rights and 10 point plan
 
The Wik Decision in 1996 clarified the uncertainty. The court found that the statutory pastoral leases under consideration by the court did not bestow rights of exclusive possession on the leaseholder. As a result, native title rights could co-exist depending on the terms and nature of the particular pastoral lease. Where there was a conflict of rights, the rights under the pastoral lease would extinguish the remaining native title rights.

The decision found that native title could coexist with other land interests on pastoral leases, which cover some 40% of the Australian land mass.

[The "10 Point Plan" of 1998] provided security of tenure to non-Indigenous holders of pastoral leases and other land title, where that land might potentially be claimed under the Native Title Act 1993.

The Intervention
 
The measures of the response which have attracted most criticism comprise the exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, the compulsory acquisition of an unspecified number of prescribed communities (Measure 5) and the partial abolition of the permit system (Measure 10). These have been interpreted as undermining important principles and parameters established as part of the legal recognition of indigenous land rights in Australia.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Communist utopia in Spain?

While browsing the Interwebs, I came across a book about a small town called Marinaleda in Andalucía, Spain. The town was described as a communist utopia. Intrigued, I found a copy of the book to see what it was like.

“If you work it with your hands and water it with your sweat, the earth is yours, worker”

The book, Utopia and the Valley of Tears, written by Dan Hancox, an English author and journalist for the Guardian, is an account of the Hancox's trip to Seville, Marinaleda and nearby towns. It contains a sizable interview with Sánchez Gordillo, where the content of the communist experiment is revealed.

The town is no utopia, but I was a little deflated to discover that it's old-school communist too - not the communism I'm looking for. It could best be described as a "workers' paradise."

I got the impression that things in Marinaleda started out okay. First, they had to secure land:
We saw that the Duke of Infantal had the most lands – 17,000 hectares between Andalucía and Extremadura. So we fought the Duke for twelve years! We occupied his land, we cut off roads, and at the same time we pressured the government.
[...] the Marinaleños kept going and going – occupying, protesting, disrupting; direct action gets the goods, as the saying goes. After 12 years of struggle, with 1992’s Sevilla World Expo just round the corner and the authorities’ resolve finally weakening, incredibly, they won, securing 1,200 hectares of the Duke’s land.
Every communist movement has to secure land. Their method of expropriation seems entirely appropriate. It's what happened next that concerns me:
With the land they had won through occupation, they began planting, deliberately choosing crops that would need industrial processing, to create more work back in the town, in the factory. “Our aim was not to create profit, but jobs, so we created a complementary industry to transform our agrarian products: peppers, artichokes, favas, broccoli, olive oil and olives”. The idea, he says, is that “la tierra es de quien la trabaja” – the land is for those who work it. The town co-operative does not distribute profits: any surplus is re-invested to create more jobs. Everyone in the co-op earns the same salary, 47 Euros a day for six and a half hours of work (which they try and keep equivalent with public service wages) [...]
[Quoting Sánchez Gordillo:] our goal is to make jobs. Instead of pocketing the profits we reinvest them back into the project. That’s why we believe the land should belong to the community that puts it to work, and not in the dead hands of the nobility.
There are quite a few things wrong here.

1) Why would you want to deliberately increase the amount of work that Marinaleños had to do? The whole point of communism is to take the massive surplus generating power of machines to reduce work to the absolute minimum. What the Marinaleños are doing is the exact opposite. Though perfectly in line with (pre-)existing communism, it isn't a good approach. A better approach would have forged a path where machines are used and the work-day reduced.

2) What about the so-called non-workers? I assume they don't receive the salary. Some may say that "if you don't work, you don't earn" but have they really investigated what work is? Does the category of non-work extend to house-work? Do women house-workers only earn via their husbands? None of this is discussed, neither in the book nor other articles I've read.

3) "Land for those that work it" has been the catch-cry for colonists for the past five-hundred years, displacing indigenous populations and killing millions of people. Do you really want to be associated with that history and present day reality? Instead, what about "land for those who need to live from it"? In that way you include primitive, peasant, and industrial workers and can exclude those who don't need it (i.e., the nobility).

4) The fact that the co-operative re-invests profits to create more jobs is the very definition of capitalism, not communism. It is hardly a distinguishing feature of their form of organisation. If capitalists didn't re-invest their profit they wouldn't be capitalists. By doing the same, the Marinaleños are in no way distancing themselves from capital social relations.

As for the rhetorical "dead hands of the nobility" phrase, what is that supposed to mean? That because the nobility don't work, their hands are figuratively dead? Isn't that the same argument that the bourgeoisie use to seize power from the aristocracy?

Content of the work

A friend raised a good criticism of the type of work. It's not only tedious, but gruelling labour.
We walk over to the farm’s olive oil processing plant, where four or five men in blue overalls are working the machinery. The olives are stripped from the branches by the first machine, then cleaned by the next, then smashed into pulp, filtered, and filtered again. They produce 300,000 litres of olive oil a year.
Not only have the Marinaleños chosen labour intensive work, but generally fairly unappealing work.

Undoubtedly, whether capitalist, feudal or communist, dull and tedious work needs to be done. Thankfully, a lot of people like doing a lot of different things, we shouldn't all have to do horrible work all the time. What separates communism from other highly organised societies is the idea that we can reduce this labour to a minimum. We have seen that quantitatively and qualitatively, the town of Marinaleda are not attempting to do this.

“This is how we’ve built 350 homes.”

I don't like how Marinaleda works, but there is a definite attraction to the way they create housing for the community. Land is assigned and houses are collectively built. There are no mortgages.
The new houses have been built on land on the fringes of the town which was municipalised, made public property for just this purpose. “Once we had this land, we prepared it, negotiated with the Andalucían government to obtain materials, and then we called the people who needed housing. We give them land, materials, and architects for free, and they put in their labour from the beginning of construction to the end.” Each plot consists of 90 square meters for construction, and 100 square meters for a patio or garden – normally three bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, kitchen and courtyard.
Bourgeois houses, to be sure, but it's nevertheless an impressive feat, and appears to be a genuinely communist moment.
The rub: to prevent people from profiting, residents cannot sell their houses. (A Job and No Mortgage for All in a Spanish Town)
You can't sell your house? Good.

“You know you have to work on Sundays?”
One Sunday a month in Marinaleda is designated a Domingo Rojo (Red Sunday), where the townspeople work for free for the mutual benefit of the town [...]
[...] the dream that housing should belong to everyone, because you are a person, and not a piece of merchandise to be speculated with. The dream that natural resources, for instance energy, shouldn’t be in the service of multinationals but in the service of the people.
Why Sundays? Why not have every fourth Friday for collective projects? That you have to work on Sundays goes to the core of their form of communism. It is a workers' paradise, not an attack on work and the role of being a worker. And they go against two hundred years of working class activity on this. God may have given us Sundays (or Saturdays/Fridays depending on the god), but it was the working class that gave us the weekend and the eight-hour day. Why haven't the Marinaleños given themselves a three-day weekend yet? I guess, with a 6.5 hour work day (as opposed to the 7.5 hour Spanish standard) they have effectively done this. But the psychological effect of an extra day without work is much greater than one less hour a day.

Bourgeois criticism

I've read a few bourgeois criticisms of the Marinelda, none of which actually attempt to engage with the content of the project, but nit-pick with holier-than-thou hypocrisy claims, such as:
Analysts and political opponents dismiss Mr. Sánchez’ populist bluster, noting that while he portrays Marinaleda as a Communist oasis, it depends heavily on money from the regional and central governments it decries. The materials for each house, for example, cost the regional government about $25,000. (A Job and No Mortgage for All in a Spanish Town)
Where do these "analysts" (un-named, un-analysable) think a project like this is going to come from? Who cares where they get their money? Money has that wonderful property of leaving no smell. Maybe money comes from the forced labour of billions, yet it leaves no trace. Oh, guess what? The people living there are also labour-power created and nurtured under modern Spanish capitalist conditions. What hypocrites - they can't even attempt communism without having first come from a communist society!

The end

The book covers more than Marinaleda and Sánchez Gordillo. It touches on the economic crisis in Spain and the 15-M Movement and the Indignados. The author clearly has a sympathy with some sort of an idea of communism. It was enjoyable reading about his youth and engagement with communist ideas - reading Homage to Catalonia, distancing himself from Stalinism and all existing communism, etc. It was an enjoyable read about an aspect of Andalucian life that I was completely unaware of.

As for Marinaleda, I don't want to be overly critical. I think in some ways they've entirely missed the point. In other ways, they're attempting an inspiring communist experiment. The self-reduction they've done in supermarkets is certainly a critique of capital in practice. However, they must drop the 20th century ideology of workerism if they want to genuinely contribute to the movement of communism.

What the town of Marinaleda does is allow us to imagine how to create a new way of living. It'll need to be different from what the Marinaleños are doing, but it's an interesting point of departure.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Reading Capital Politically, Part 3

This blog entry contains the final set of quotes from Reading Capital Politically. These quotes are generally concerned with the money-form of value. Overall, a very quotable book, it would seem.
We can see now that just as the relative value form finds its meaning only in the equivalent form so it is that the working class recognizes itself as working class only through its relation to capital. Indeed, it is working class only within that relation. The relative form thus expresses the perspective of the working class. Destroy capital and there is no more working class as such. And, conversely, the refusal to function as working class (i.e., to work) acts to destroy capital. Put in the language above, the mass of workers have their joint condition as working class reflected to them through capital acting as a mirror which mediates this recognition.

Children work for capital to the extent that they produce their labor-power for future roles as workers (waged and unwaged), but they are not directly waged. They, like housewives, are supported by the resources (money) obtained by their waged father or mother. The relation with capital is mediated directly for the father by the money wage, but for the children and housewives there is also the father/husband. In these circumstances the fact that children and women in the family work for capital is hidden by their condition of wagelessness. They appear to stand only in some private relation to the male wage earner but not to capital.

This was one of the main aims of colonialism - the creation of a world-wide reserve army. And poverty continues to be the tool by which vast millions are kept alive but (it is hoped) easily available when it suits capital's purpose. These reserves are then drawn upon either for immigration into areas where their cheap labor can be used to hold down the wage demands of more powerful workers (e.g., Mexican and Caribbean labor drawn into the U.S.; workers from Mediterranean countries brought into northern Europe) or for employment in their own areas when runaway shops seek out their cheap labor locally. Of course, time and again things have not worked out so well and the struggles of the unwaged have made them unfit for capital's factories.

Another way the class struggle refuses the mediation of money is the refusal of price. This is the essence of direct appropriation and includes not only the price of labor-power but also the prices of other commodities. It involves self-reduction of utilities or housing prices, changing labels in a supermarket, using 15-cent slugs instead of 50-cent tokens in the subway, or total elimination of price through shoplifting, employee theft, or Black Christmases where commodities are seized. This refusal of price is a refusal of capital's rules of the game. The refusal to accept the role of money is the refusal to accept everything we have seen going into the determination of money - the whole set of value relations. This is the working-class perspective with a vengence.

Inflation means rising prices due, not to increases in labor input, but to monetary deflation. Prices are the money equivalents of the value of commodities which are expressed in the price form. To raise prices means to increase the amount of money (gold or paper) being exchanged for goods. If the amount of money the working class holds is fixed, then the amount it can buy decreases accordingly. In this way, the amount of value the working class receives for its labor-power is reduced, and the amount of surplus value that capital gets is increased.

[...] it is easy to raise prices simply by circulating more paper so that a given quantity of commodities, being represented by an increased quantity of paper, has higher prices (assuming velocity of money constant, etc.). This was just the idea of Keynes, then Lewis and others. The state could print more money, or expand money via the credit system, and thus raise prices, which would decrease the value of each unit of money and thus undercut working-class wages. This undercutting could be done whether working-class wages were constant or increasing.