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.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The robots have (finally) arrived

The New York Times recently published an article with content and arguments straight out of the 1820s.

OMG! Robots are replacing labour-power! I cannot believe it. What are these new fantastical devices? Quoting Karl Marx, the NYT declares that you can make a profit by replacing people with robots:
In one example, a robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000 and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in labor and productivity savings.
Quoting John Stuart Mill, the NYT proclaims, when you think about it, no jobs are really lost. Think of all the new jobs being created!
Moreover, robotics executives argue that even though blue-collar jobs will be lost, more efficient manufacturing will create skilled jobs in designing, operating and servicing the assembly lines, as well as significant numbers of other kinds of jobs in the communities where factories are.
Don't Panic! Robots are kinda human and they're even fighting against the division of labour:
But the arms seem eerily human when they reach over to a stand and change their “hand” to perform a different task. While the many robots in auto factories typically perform only one function, in the new Tesla factory a robot might do up to four: welding, riveting, bonding and installing a component.
This brave new world - a beautiful symbiosis between man and machine - is a worker's paradise!
Mr. Graves wears headsets and is instructed by a computerized voice on where to go in the warehouse to gather or store products. A centralized computer the workers call The Brain dictates their speed. Managers know exactly what the workers do, to the precise minute.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Reading Capital Politically, Part 2

My last posthad a selection of quotes from Reading Capital Politically. There were so many that I retained some quotes until this blog entry.

[...] the overwhelming majority of the people are put in a situation where they are forced to work to avoid starvation. The capitalist class creates and maintains this situation of compulsion by achieving total control over all the means of producing social wealth. The generalized imposition of the commodity-form has meant that forced work has become the fundamental means of organizing society - of social control. It means the creation of a working class - a class of people who can survive only by selling their capacity to work to the class that controls the means of production.

Most fundamentally, the view of the commodity as use-value is the perspective of the working class. It sees commodities (e.g., food or energy) primarily as objects of appropriation and consumption, things to be used to satisfy its needs. Capital sees these same commodities primarily as exchange-values - mere means toward the end of increasing itself and its social control via the realization of surplus value and profit.

The preoccupation of the working class with exchange-value and the preoccupation of capital with use-value, however, are both the outgrowth of capital's success in imposing its social system.

Because of our need for this use-value of food, capital understood early on that its control over food as a commodity gave it control over workers. This was why the most basic means of production stripped from workers in the period primitive accumulation was land - the traditionally necessary precondition for producing food. Thus the fundamental use-value of food for capital is the power to force the working class to work to get it.

One way in which the old dichotomy between politics and economics has often been posed has been to label as "economism" struggles by workers which are deemed solely quantitative, for example, more wages, shorter workday, and so on. These struggles are said to be within capital, which is itself essentially quantitative. "Political" struggles are only those that challenge the "quality" of capital itself, that is, that threaten the "revolutionary" overthrow of capital via the seizure of state power. From what we have seen already, it should be apparent that struggles over the length and intensity of the workday (how much the commodity-form is imposed) are at once quantitative and qualitative: quantitative because they concern the amount of work that will be done for capital, qualitative because they put into question the realization of enough surplus value to maintain capital's control

[Quoting Marx:] ". . . the idea held by some socialists that we need capital but not the capitalists is altogether wrong. It is posited within the concept of capital that the objective conditions of labor -- and these are its own product -- take on a personality toward it, or what is the same, that they are posited as the property of a personality alien to the worker. The concept of capital contains the capitalist."

Men do benefit from women's work; whites do benefit from blacks' lower status; local workers do benefit from immigrant workers' taking the worst jobs. Therefore, the struggle to destroy the divisions generally finds its initiative in the dominated group, since the other side cannot be expected to always work to destroy its privileges. The efforts to overcome racism, sexism, imperialism, or the exploitation of students in the 1960s were led by the struggles of blacks not whites, women not men, peasants not Americans, students not professors or administrators.

[...] to conceive of the value of a commodity as being the direct result of the work of producing that individual commodity is to lose the social character of value and to see it instead as some metaphysical substance that is magically injected into the product by the worker's touch.

[Quoting Marx:] ". . . the real level of the overall labour process is increasingly not the individual worker. Instead, labour-power socially combined and the various competing labour-powers which together form the entire production machine participate in very different ways in the immediate process of making commodities, or, more accurately in this context, creating the product. Some work better with their hands, others with their heads, one as a manager, engineer, technologist, etc., the other as overseer, the third as manual labourer or even drudge. . . . If we consider the aggregate worker, i.e., if we take all the members comprising the workshop together, then we see that their combined activity results materially in an aggregate product which is at the same time a quantity of goods. And here it is quite immaterial whether the job of a particular worker, who is merely a limb of this aggregate worker, is at a greater or smaller distance from the actual manual labour."
These very important concepts should lead us once and for all away from any tendency to try to grasp value in terms of individual cases.

When Marx wrote, for example, in Chapter 15, Section 3, on the employment of women and children, he saw these persons being drawn ever deeper into the industrial machine to be chewed up daily and left to recuperate at night in the same fashion as male workers. There was no need for any special theory about the family, housework, or schoolwork, because these constituted negligible parts of the day. But later, with the expulsion of women and children from the mines and the mills and the factories, with the creation of the modern nuclear family and public school system by capital, such a theory is vital. Today, we must study how capital structures "free time" so as to expand value. We must see how housework has been structured by capital with home economics and television to ensure that women's time contributes only to the reproduction of their own, their husbands', and their children's labor-power. We must see the desire for the reproduction of life as labor-power behind capital's propaganda that it is in the interest of the individual or the family to have a "nice" home or a "good" education.

Both housework and schoolwork are intended to contribute to keeping the value of labor-power low. The more work done by women in the home, the less value workers must receive from capital to reproduce themselves at a given level. The more work students do in the school, the less value must be invested in their training and disciplining for the factory (or home).

[...] the labor an "average person" can perform, say, in the United States of 1775 and in the United States of 1975, or in the United States of 1975 and in upland Papua of 1975, is quite different. When put concretely this way, the vagueness of the notion vanishes. Workers of all these periods and places could be trained to perform "average labor" today in a New York City factory or office. But the amount of training our 1775 farmer or our 1975 tribesman would require would be substantially more and of a different order, involving not just linguistic, mathematical, or mechanical skills, but regularity and discipline.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Civil War in France

I recently read Karl Marx's The Civil War in France. It's about the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, 1870-71. This was the book that really began Marx's rise to infamy - accused of plotting the whole uprising from London. It was written during the war and subsequent revolution in Paris.

If, like me, you're not overly familiar with the history of 19th Century France (and Prussia), here is a short description of the main characters you'll encounter reading this book:
Large chunks of this book aren't very interesting for a modern reader. These sections are largely concerned with military strategy and the criticism of various personalities (mostly Bonaparte and Thiers). At the time, revealing these people for what they were was an important thing to do, but they're now long dead.

There are six chapters. I've summarised them below:

Chapter 1 is amazing in that it contains communiques from French and Prussian workers opposing the war.
The English working class stretch the hand of fellowship to the French and German working people. They feel deeply convinced that whatever turn the impending horrid war may take, the alliance of the working classes of all countries will ultimately kill war. The very fact that while official France and Germany are rushing into a fratricidal feud, the workmen of France and Germany send each other messages of peace and goodwill; this great fact, unparalleled in the history of the past, opens the vista of a brighter future.
Chapter 2 is mostly concerned with military tactics, towns of Germany and France and a history of the two nation's conflicts. The chapter ends with an extremely ominous (and prophetic) warning:
Let the sections of the International Working Men’s Association in every country stir the working classes to action. If they forsake their duty, if they remain passive, the present tremendous war will be but the harbinger of still deadlier international feuds, and lead in every nation to a renewed triumph over the workman by the lords of the sword, of the soil, and of capital.
In Chapter 3, Marx gets stuck into Thiers, describing him as a "monstrous gnome" and elucidating the build-up to the massacre. I thought chapters 3 and 4 were the least relevant to anyone reading nowadays.

In chapters 5 and 6 Marx writes about the events of the Paris Commune; its successes and its destruction.
In spite of all the tall talk and all the immense literature, for the last 60 years, about emancipation of labor, no sooner do the working men anywhere take the subject into their own hands with a will, than uprises at once all the apologetic phraseology of the mouthpieces of present society with its two poles of capital and wages-slavery (the landlord now is but the sleeping partner of the capitalist), as if the capitalist society was still in its purest state of virgin innocence, with its antagonisms still undeveloped, with its delusions still unexploded, with its prostitute realities not yet laid bare. The Commune, they exclaim, intends to abolish property, the basis of all civilization!

To find a parallel for the conduct of Thiers and his bloodhounds we must go back to the times of Sulla and the two Triumvirates of Rome. The same wholesale slaughter in cold blood; the same disregard, in massacre, of age and sex, the same system of torturing prisoners; the same proscriptions, but this time of a whole class; the same savage hunt after concealed leaders, lest one might escape; the same denunciations of political and private enemies; the same indifference for the butchery of entire strangers to the feud.

If the acts of the Paris working men were vandalism, it was the vandalism of defence in despair, not the vandalism of triumph, like that which the Christians perpetrated upon the really priceless art treasures of heathen antiquity; and even that vandalism has been justified by the historian as an unavoidable and comparatively trifling concomitant to the titanic struggle between a new society arising and an old one breaking down.

All the chorus of calumny, which the Party of Order never fail, in their orgies of blood, to raise against their victims, only proves that the bourgeois of our days considers himself the legitimate successor to the baron of old, who thought every weapon in his own hand fair against the plebeian, while in the hands of the plebeian a weapon of any kind constituted in itself a crime.

Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.
Engels, in his 1891 Introduction, makes some very interesting comments about the state and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, especially relevant in light of the horrors done in his and Marx's name in the 20th Century.
From the outset the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against it itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.

Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
I read the edition at I've re-formatted it as an e-book (including the bulk of the appendix) and made it available at: The Civil War in France.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reading Capital Politically

I have recently re-read Reading Capital Politically by Harry Cleaver. It's a book that injects contemporary discussion (until 1979) and class analysis into a reading of the first chapter of Karl Marx's Capital, Vol 1. I re-read an e-book edition (below) that I put together from Harry Cleaver's university webpage (which currently - Dec 2012 - no longer contains the files).

My edition is generally not as good as the PDF edition. The main disadvantage is that the footnotes aren't hyper-linked. However, it has the advantage of containing all the prefaces to the various editions that Cleaver has written over the years. It is current as of the preface to the German translation of November 2011. (I excluded the 2011 Polish preface as it is very similar to the German preface.) In that respect, it's the most complete version. I've also done some minor editing.

The formats that you can download are:
Below are some quotes that I found illuminating:

[...] the continuing spread of Taylorist and Fordist deskilling produced such an alienation of young workers from work that, by the 1960s, the desire to take over work and make it less alienating was being more and more replaced by its simple refusal. They didn’t want control; they wanted out.

For Marx, value was only understandable within the context of surplus value. It was not just a form, separable from its content. Value does have a form, exchange value, but it also has a content: imposed labor and the link between value and surplus value is that in the normal course of capital accumulation, the capitalists only impose labor when they can impose surplus labor.

The capitalists are capitalists, not when they consume the surplus, but when they invest it, i.e., when they impose more work. And this is exactly what the socialist critique of capitalist development fails to deal with. By focusing uniquely on the question of who owns or controls the surplus and demanding workers' control, it fails to come to grips with the substance of value and surplus value: endlessly imposed work.

Why did Marx hate money so much? Because it is the quintessential distillation of homogenized labor, of the reduction of all of human life to labor.

Rather than the usual Marxist image of the capitalist with a whip, better the image of would-be managers riding the tiger's back trying to coerce or cajole their mount along different lines of development, frequently coming within a hair's breath of falling off when the tiger rears or comes to a sudden halt, always in danger of the tiger turning around and ripping these upstarts from its back.

To the degree any group of people ruptures capitalist command and carves out their own space, capital responds by doing its best to isolate that space, to sever its connections with the rest of the system, to prevent it from drawing on the productivity of global social production and forcing it to rely on its own limited resources.

[...] the wage is not the only form through which the reduction of humans to abstract labor under capital is accomplished. Not in the Third World, not in the First. In all worlds where it holds sway the central problem for capital is the imposition of work, how it manages to do that is purely secondary.

But what, some may ask, of the peasants who produce a surplus they sell on the market? Are these not petty bourgeois producers and outside the working class? The answer is that they are still very much part of the working class if the result of their work is only self-reproduction. It does not even matter if they hire waged labor, if they are only earning subsistence. These peasants are essentially piece workers for capital and the per-unit price they obtain for their agricultural products is their piece rate.

It quickly becomes apparent to anyone who has read Engels and Stalin that Althusser and friends have added almost nothing to the original discussions of historical materialism except a more obscure vocabulary and a deeper scientific gloss. We are still left with a lifeless sociological taxonomy of modes of production, the unresolvable problems of the interactions between the base/superstructure dualism, the mystery of the articulation of modes, the absence of class struggle, and a fetishism of production that justifies contemporary socialism.

[...] despite the originality and usefulness of their research into the mechanisms of capitalist domination in both the economic and cultural spheres, and indeed precisely in the formulation of those mechanisms as one-sidedly hegemonic, Critical Theorists have remained blind to the ability of working-class struggles to transform and threaten the very existence of capital. Their concept of domination is so complete that the "dominated" virtually disappears as an active historical subject. In consequence, these philosophers have failed to escape the framework of mere ideological critique of capitalist society.

As Tronti pointed out, under the conditions of the unskilled mass worker, work itself could only be seen as a means of social control to be abolished, not upgraded. This understanding led directly to the realization that the basic characteristic of working-class struggle in this period is not only an escape from capital but also an escape from existence as working class. The aim of the mass worker is to cease to be a worker, not to make a religion of work.

[Quoting Marx:] "Bourgeois economy thus provides the key to the economy of antiquity, etc. But it is quite impossible [to gain this insight] in the manner of those economists who obliterate all historical differences and who see in all social phenomena only bourgeois phenomena. If one knows rent, it is possible to understand tribute, tithe, etc., but they do not have to be treated as identical."