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Sunday, March 07, 2010

What did the bourgeoisie ever do for us?

XERXES: Medicine.
COMMANDOS: Huh? Heh? Huh...
COMMANDO #2: Education.
REG: Yeah, yeah. All right. Fair enough.
COMMANDO #1: And the wine.
COMMANDOS: Oh, yes. Yeah...
FRANCIS: Yeah. Yeah, that's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.
COMMANDO: Public baths.
LORETTA: And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.
FRANCIS: Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it. They're the only ones who could in a place like this.
COMMANDOS: Hehh, heh. Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.
REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Marx never wrote a romance about the future. Not for him the Icarias, the Fourierist tract, the utopias of the Saint-Simonians. Not for him Robert Owen’s communes. All those infinitely detailed plans. The scheduling. The inversion of society. At Menilmontant, Enfantin designed the shirt with buttons on the back, so that the principle of association would be obeyed even when dressing – for it required two to button the shirt. And by such easy uses we dissolve egotism...

Marx’s comments on the future communist community are sparse, and often ironic – as when he writes in the German Ideology, a work that criticizes the critical critics, that that abolition of the division of labor will allow each to fish, hunt, and criticize during different parts of the day. That many have not seen the humor in devoting a part of the day to the critical critique is not Marx’s fault. This vision of utopia as a grand hobby shop seems massively below the level of the revolutionary impulse.

Still, the Communist Manifesto breathes a science fiction air. If Marx did not fantasize about the future communist community, he did draw a fantastic – if accurate – projection of history’s revolutionary class up to then – the bourgeoisie.

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between the different corporate guilds vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop.
Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacturer no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry; the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.
Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.
We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange.

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune(4): here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany); there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France); afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general, the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. [From Samuel Moore’s translation]

Many of the world historical actions of the bourgeoisie in the Manifesto are, at most, in the seed. The industrialization of agriculture, for instance, really doesn’t get on its feet until the 1870s, and even then Europe’s population, in 1914, was predominantly rural. In Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the narrator, Zeitblom, choses 1914 as the date when the ancien regime really collapsed – and there is a lot to say for that position.

Given the most revolutionary part allotted to the bourgeoisie by Marx, what are we to say of the proletariat? In the manifesto and in the German Ideology, the proletariat play a puzzling role. They are, Marx assures us, the class that, secreted by the industrial system of capitalism, will be its undertakers. But when we get down to it, the bourgeoisie does all the creative work here. To be Nietzschian about this, the proletariat seems to exist solely as a reactionary body – a body of labor and a victim of history. How is such a reactive force supposed to become an active force? We know that the bourgeoisie developed an incentive structure that not only made feudal inhibitions unbearable, but that also served as a weapon to overthrow the feudal structure. Why, though, should we believe this is true about the working class?

Up to now, I’ve been pressing on the seeming contradiction between Marx’s assumptions about the laboring class uniting and his vision of the absolute penetration of the commodity relationship into all spheres of the worker’s life. My point has been twofold: on the one hand, if capitalism has truly stripped the worker of any form of association except through the cash nexus, than the sense of solidarity that Marx is appealing to in the Communist Manifesto is doomed. Workers cannot unite, because they have no vision of themselves as united, and no medium through which to be united. If their interest is in pure cold cash, their association is extremely friable: having done away with the protocols that would justify sacrifice, they are more likely to make patchwork treaties with the bosses than to sacrifice their immediate interest for the sake of international solidarity as workers. On the other hand, this picture of the worker is simply wrong. Too often Marx uses his macro sense of historical development to analyze the microworld of family, friendship and association. Far from being outside of economics, emotional and social life is dependent on a vast and intricate structure of reciprocities that are not “feudal” but are as modern as money. We can’t leave the household, the kin system, etc., in the shadows, so to speak, but we should see it connected to the social whole. Modernity, in my view, is an intrinsically heterogenous system in which social relations defined under the regime of capitalism are not only juxtaposed with systems of barter and giftgiving, but are interpenetrated with them down to the factory floor itself. This doesn’t mean they are equally weighted down at the factory or in the stock market – it does mean that the compliance of the working population upon which capitalism depends is, itself, dependent on the working of these other reciprocities.

As we see with emotional labor, that by no means that there is a truce between the different systems. Emotional labor – looked at as one way of explaining what Elias called the civilizing process – and commodification form a fault line in the social whole. From such fault lines, massive earthquakes come.

However, suspending for the moment the issues resulting from that fault line – we are left with the question of the working class as a reactive class, shaped by the productive forces of history rather than shaping it. I think Marx was well aware of this question, and that it was partly to respond to this problem that the First book of Capital was written.

Kautsky, summing up the achievement of Marx and Engels, divides it between achievement in the world of thought and achievement in the political sphere. The latter achievement was in bringing together socialism and the worker’s movement – for, as he points out, they did not begin as one thing.

Socialism had arisen earlier. But in no way in the proletariat. Really it is, as is the worker’s movement, a product of capitalism. The former as the latter arises out of the pressure to work against misery, that capitalist exploitation imposes on the working class. Meanwhile, the defending forces of the proletariat in the labor movement arise autonomously wherever a numerous working population is gathered against which socialism premises a deep insight into the nature of modern society. Every socialism rests on the knowledge, that on the basis of civil society, there will not be an end to the capitalist misery, that this misery rests on private property in the means of production, and can only disappear with it. In this are all socialistic systems united, they only deviate from one another in the ways that they have suggested in order to achieve the anullment of this private property, and in the ideas, that they elevate of the new social property that they want to put in its place.”


duncan said...

"his vision of the absolute penetration of the commodity relationship into all spheres of the worker’s life"

I'm going to give up on this soon, I promise - because I don't know how to convince you that Marx doesn't believe that the cash nexus has replaced all other forms of social relationship. I understand that on more than one occasion Marx writes sentences - hyperbolic sentences! - which if read out of context (the context of the works in which we find them, and the context of Marx's immense life-long analysis of the multitudinous social forms of capitalism) would suggest that Marx believes this. One such notable passage occurs in The Communist Manifesto, which is a world-historically great piece of writing, but which is also (as you'll have noticed) a manifesto, a piece of propaganda, rather than Marx's considered and fully elaborated views on the complex and varied social relations that make up capitalism. (He wrote a whole other book about this, where he discusses at length his views on the subject.) Another such passage occurs in Marx's notes to himself for a lecture he's going to deliver to a workers' club in 1847. Even in the context of these works, I believe it is a misreading to take the cash nexus stuff in the way you are, as if there really were no relations but exchange relations under capitalism in Marx's view. This becomes overwhelmingly clear, however, if you situate these remarks in Marx's corpus as a whole, which is extensive. I don't know how else to make this case. Marx does indeed believe that capitalism dissolves feudal social bonds. He doesn't think capitalism does this by dissolving all social bonds other than the exchange of money and commodities. Because that's stupid! It's one of these misreadings he doesn't bother to protect himself against adequately, because he thinks it's obvious that this isn't the case!

But we may have reached a differend here.

Roger Gathmann said...

Duncan, you and I remind me of the blindfolded lovers in Magritte. We even differ about whether we differ!

Cause I am not disagreeing with your general point about Marx. Marx doesn’t think the cash nexus has penetrated into every pore of private life.

However – here’s I think where our divergence comes in – Marx is willing to consider this an open possibility in the system of exploitation. If it is a possibility that is unrealized, then I think he wants to know: why?

This is very much connected with the image of the working class in the forties texts. As I said, the image is of a reactive class. If History were Richard III, the bourgeoisie would get the Olivier part, while the working class gets to be the two assassinated princes.

But of course if this were true, revolution would be foreclosed. My firm view of Marx is that throughout his work, revolution is the major thematic.

The experience of 48 and the research Marx does in the fifties gives him a much richer view of the working class.

Now, where you see Marx as being hyperbolic, I see Marx as being bold enough to consider that perhaps the system of capitalism is impermeable to revolutionary overthrow. He doesn’t want to take on some Proudhon-like notion that there is an iron law of necessity that will nicely take care of capitalism – rather, he wants to know more about how the working class is made, about the limits of the ‘bearable’, about how union, or association, happens, etc.

duncan said...

Hey, I want to be the dude with the birdcage belly!

"Marx is willing to consider this an open possibility in the system of exploitation."

He isn't, though. What would this even mean?

Because Marx doesn't understand capitalism as just the exchange relation, it also doesn't make sense to read him as seeing the encroachment of / resistance to capitalism along an axis of greater or lesser infiltration of exchange into other spheres of life.

The problem here (I think) is that you're understanding Marx as understanding capitalism as commodity-money exchange. Total triumph of capitalism would therefore be: everything becomes exchangeable. Site of resistance to capitalism would be: areas (specifically working class ones) where other kinds of social relation operate.

But it's a faulty theory of capitalism: capitalism is not just exchange, and Marx doesn't think it is.

Roger Gathmann said...

Well, there we certainly disagree. Marx is pretty clear about how he wants to analyze capitalism - at the beginning of the second book of Capital, he divides his analysis into three parts, two of which have to do with money-commmodity exchange. It is a very good summary, I think.

"The circular movement [1] of capital takes place in three stages, which, according to the presentation in Volume I, form the following series:

First stage: The capitalist appears as a buyer on the commodity- and the labour-market; his money is transformed into commodities, or it goes through the circulation act M — C.

Second Stage: Productive consumption of the purchased commodities by the capitalist. He acts as a capitalist producer of commodities; his capital passes through the process of production. The result is a commodity of more value than that of the elements entering into its production.

Third Stage: The capitalist returns to the market as a seller; his commodities are turned into money; or they pass through the circulation act C — M.

Hence the formula for the circuit of money-capital is: M — C ... P ... C' — M', the dots indicating that the process of circulation is interrupted, and C' and M' designating C and M increased by surplus-value.

The first and third stages were discussed in Book I only in so far as this was necessary for the understanding of the second stage, the process of production of capital. For this reason, the various forms which capital takes on in its different stages, and which now assumes and now strips off in the repetition of its circuit, were not considered. These forms are now the direct object of our study."

Your view of Marx is wholly wrapped up in "understanding of the second stage, the process of production of capital." But I think that abridges Marx in such a way that, in fact, it excludes most of Marx, in order to get a thinker who wants to abolish wage labour. I don't think that is Marx's central want - it is only part of his central wants.

To me, Marx is evidently setting up a problem in the 40s, but to you, he seems to have already solved it - the elimination of wage labor - and spend the rest of his career deriving his system from that want. So I suppose we do have a fundamental difference here.

Roger Gathmann said...

Ah, your Marx and my Marx remind me of this other painting by Magritte, Liaisons dangereuses, here:

duncan said...

Roger -

I really am going to wind this down, I think, because diminishing returns have set in with something of a vengeance. (A general crisis of discursive profitability, perhaps?) But quickly:

My view of Marx is, imo, absolutely not wrapped up in understanding just the second stage in the schema quoted above. When I said in the other thread that Marx wants to abolish wage labour, I did not therefore mean that this is the only focus of Marx's analysis or politics, or that Marx is only interested in the site of production. I took it for granted that we both know that this is not the case; I therefore didn't bother to spell it out. In truth, I find the opposition between 'circulationist' and 'production-oriented' interpretations of Capital (much present in the literature, though I'm not saying that's where you're coming from) to be highly unfortunate, because it precisely misses the point of Marx's macro analysis, which is (as he says very explicitly in the intro to the Grundrisse, but it's presupposed all over the place) that circulation and production can't be analysed independently of each other if you want to understand the dynamics of the system as a whole (which of course Marx does). And capitalism isn't just about ostensibly separable spheres of production & circulation anyway.

So: yes, capitalist dynamics cannot, for Marx, be understood simply in terms of wage labour. Neither can they be understood simply in terms of circulation, or the circular movement of capital. Capital does have a distinctive movement of circulation, whereby it transforms itself from one form to another - money capital into commodity capital into money capital - where the commodity capital can often be human labour power, in the site of production, temporarily breaking the circuit in a distinctive way. But that doesn't mean that capitalism is just circulation of money and commodities! If this were the case Derrida would be right, and we would always have had capitalism, as long as exchange existed!


duncan said...

Rather, capitalist society is a mode of social organisation that produces, as one of its aspects, this movement of circulation, but that also has various other features besides such circular movement - Marx believes that without awareness of these other features we cannot even understand what's driving commodity-money circulation - certainly we can't understand what's driving its expansion (into non-capitalist areas of the world, for instance). Capitalism is oriented towards accumulation, for example - hence the M' - and to understand why one needs to have a decent analysis of the credit system - specifically, I'd argue, international credit: capitalism only really historically gets properly up and running once you get sovereign debt, because this places the state machinery at the service of general economic growth. You also need proletarianisation, because otherwise you probably won't have adequate coercive structures to produce the level of workplace social control necessary to feed growth (this is one reason why, in the absence of a capitalist wage-labour system modern societies tend to move towards totalitarianism - alternative coercive structures are required). And you need a host of institutional structures to manage recurrent crises and curb the forms of rapaciousness that would be destructive of the general dynamic. These are just obvious economic things - there's a bunch of more subtle stuff too.

Exchange is an important moment of all this, obviously. As is wage labour. But all of this stuff needs to be part of a broader analysis. My general objection to the way in which you seem, to me, to be foregrounding exchange - and specifically the vision of exchange presented in passages like the cash nexus one - is that I think this obscures the broader picture, to which Marx is in fact extremely attentive. Marx certainly invites such reading on occasion - usually when he's writing polemically or situationally. But his major theoretical texts obsessively situate the moments of the capitalist system he's interested in within a much larger dynamic - and insist that individual moments cannot be adequately understood without also understanding that dynamic, and how that dynamic is in turn produced by those more micrological practices.

Obviously this stuff can't be fully spelled out in an introductory text (still less in a comment box!). But it is important for having an accurate perspective on Marx, in my opinion.

But enough, enough... our own exchange is certainly becoming circular.

duncan said...

Anyway - useful factoid: I'm sure I saw somewhere that in the handwritten draft of The German Ideology, the fishing and the hunting are in Engels' hand, and the critical criticism is added by Marx :-P. I should probably try to source that, but hey...

Anonymous said...

"Workers cannot unite, because they have no vision of themselves as united, and no medium through which to be united." - No, the peasantry cannot unit because they have no vision and no media. The media for the workers were factories and cities. Within the class, the workers' associations they organized and accompanying those, the democratic and socialist press.

Chuckie K

Anonymous said...

"his vision of the absolute penetration of the commodity relationship into all spheres of the worker’s life" - at any point in his lifetime a horrific vision of the future.

Feudalism was of course very much alive, and dominant everywhere, with the partial exception of Britain and France.

Thus the hope that workers' movements could develop enough strength in the bourgeois revolutions to force the 'Revolution in Permanenz,' maintaining the momentum of revolution straight through the bourgeois republic to the socialist republic.

Chuckie K