Saturday, March 27, 2010

accumulation, alienation, and Touch 'n Crawl Minnie

In the last post, I made a first stab at explaining accumulation in Marx’s terms.

In this post, I want to begin with two long quotes. The first is from 2004.

“Li is the fastest worker on a long, U-shaped assembly line of about 130 women who put together Mini Touch 'n Crawl Minnie, a scampering version of the Disney character activated by a baby's nudge.
“Li moves with lightning speed — gluing the pink bottom, screwing it into place, getting the rest of the casing to adhere, tamping it down with a special hammer, pulling the battery cover through its slats, soldering where she glued, testing to make sure the leg joints on the other side still work, then sending it down the line.
The entire process takes 21 seconds.

She generally works 5½ days a week, as much as 10 hours at a time. Her monthly wage — about $65 — is typical for this part of China, enough for Li to send money back home to her poor farming family in Henan province and to afford a computer class in town.
But Li, 20, pays a heavy price: Her hands ache terribly, and she is always exhausted — a situation to which she seems resigned.

"People at my age should expect some hardship," said Li, clad in bluejeans and a pink factory blouse, which she left unbuttoned to reveal a white T-shirt emblazoned with the silhouette of Mickey Mouse. "I should taste bitterness while I'm young." – “Mattel struggles to balance profit with morality” by Abigail Goldman Nov. 28, 2004.

The second quote is a long one in which Marx does some summarizing work. Always the Leo, Marx’s summaries are like the MGM symbol that proceeded its movies: full throated roars:

“The law according to which, thanks to the progress in the productivity of social labor, the growing mass of the means of productivity can be put in a motion relation to the progressively decreasing expenditure of human power, this law expresses itself on a capitalist basis [auf kapitalistischer Grundlage] in which it is not the laborer who applies the instrument of labor, but the instrument of labor who applies the laborer - in the fact that the higher the productive power of labor, the greater the pressure of the laborer on the means of employment, the more precarious become his condition of existence: the sale of his own power to the multiplication of someone else’s wealth, or to the self-valorisation of capital. The quicker the growth of the means of production and the productivity of labor over the productive population capitalistically expresses itself in the inversion, that the working population always grows faster than the valorization needs of capital.

As we saw in the fourth section, the analysis of the production of surplus value: within the capitalistic system are realized all methods to the increase of the social productive power of labor, to the cost of the individual laborer. All means to the development of production are transformed into means of dominating and exploiting the producers, of crippling the laborer into a part-person, in devaluing him to an annex of the machine, in negating with the pain of his labor its content, in alienating from him the intellectual powers of the labor process in the same measure, wherein science has finally been incorporated in it as an independent power; it distorts the conditions, under which he works, subjects him during the working process to the most petty and hateful depotism, transforms his lifetime into his worktime, and throws his wife and child under the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all the methods of production are at the same time methods of accumulation and every extension of accumulation is, inversely, the means to the development of this method. It follows that in proportion as Capital accumulates, the position of the worker [Lage des Arbeiters], whether his pay be high or low, must worsen.” [610 my translation, 798 Fowkes]

This is a high riding bill of indictment. One notices – and I put this down against those who, as Duncan has pointed out, discount alienation as an idea Marx tucked away in his notebooks in the 1840s, never to bring it out again – that the same complex of textual figures [the worker as a living and intellectual being, alienation, and the machine as the image of his doom] – come into play here, in almost the same way they figure in the Economic and Philosophical notebooks. Alienation, far from being about the essence of man, is about an essential structure in the construction of capitalism.

This may seem like a petty debating point in the interminable squabbling among Marx’s interpreters. It is, however, useful to keep in mind – it is something I’ll return to later.

According to the classical and neo-classical criticism of Marx’s economics, it is in evaluating the price of labor that Marx shows that, underneath, the market is fundamental to his interpretation of capitalism after all. Because what does Marx tell us, with his marvelous phrase about the reserve industrial army and his remarks about the surplus labor population, except that it is ultimately supply and demand that determines the labor market?

Again, one must extract Marx from the dogmatic image of Marx. There is no question that for Marx, the realization of value in the market is done under the press of what I would call surface conditions. The competition between capitalists is one; another is the competition among workers. Those surface conditions, of course, can have more profound consequences – they set up incentives that operate up and down the system.

But ultimately, supply and demand come back to the structure of capital – to variable and constant capital, which together make up the organic composition of capital. Thus, Marx does not envision a labor market that tends towards an equilibrium between the demand for labor and its supply – ‘full employment’, in the bogus phrase of the economists. Rather, this is a market that expresses the profound disequilibrium between the power of the worker and the power of the capitalist, expressed in terms of dependence. The power of the capitalist is the power given by the accumulation of capital. When the laborer sells his labor power, he not only commodifies his labor time, but he adds to the accumulation process by which the capitalist acquires a number of powers- for instance, the power to change the organization of production. These powers, in the capitalist system, are considered the natural concomitants of growth. Looking at the workers themselves, they may be getting more prosperous every year. But looking at the position of labor – the Lage – we get quite a different picture, which is of the conditions of the bargaining power of labor. Galbraith’s useful phrase – countervailing power – nicely expresses the positional power of the players in the capitalist system.

Marx’s image of the industrial reserve army again turns us back to the place of alienation. Just as an army is united by its morale – its disposition to go into battle – so, too, is the industrial reserve army. Alienation is easy to spot in the workplace. It comes out in phrases like, well, I guess I’m lucky to have a job. Or Li’s infinitely sorrowful phrase: "I should taste bitterness while I'm young."
Inversely, the position of the capitalist class is structured by a continual effort to liquidate the supply and demand conditions that the classical economists think consider to be so healthy for the working class. The upper management in corporations in America have long formed a kind of guild, in which strange value laden criteria suddenly appear, approved by the economist/theologians of the system as the height of rationality. Thus we are told that x deserves some absurd compensation packet because, under x’s ‘leadership’, the company made a billion dollars in profits over the last ten years. The same economists who would be shocked if x’s secretary or the guys on the loading dock of x’s company demanded pay based on a similar principle find X’s demand almost saintlike in its humble reach for what X surely deserves. One could, of course, create an index of the compensation of the CEOs of the top 500 Fortune companies and tie the pay to the lowest paid – thus shifting the scale downward in a competitive, market-y friendly way – but it is pretty easy to predict that this will never happen. Supply and demand as a surface phenomena determining wages quickly turns into an ideology that is used like the law of gravity over those who lack the bargaining power to fight back – the workers – while it is simply tossed aside when determining the wages of those who own the capital.

PS. Duncan has put up a buncha posts over the last three months about the 25th chapter. Start here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

First stabs at the theory of capital accumulation: the self-perpetuating cycle of wealth inequality

From Esther's Piano

Since starting my Marx rush, I have overheard many interesting remarks exchanged among the coffee drinkers at the anti-union Whole Foods where I type things out. For instance, as I was typing up a post about competition, I was overhearing a young man being interviewed by some special events catering company – which involved the interviewer delicately approaching the fact that the man would fill out a W-9 tax form, or, in other words, would be a subcontractor. However, he was assured, if his subcontracting work met their expectations, they might actually hire him. I have no idea if the young man was secretly amused by this – I was. Marx would have been perfectly at home, listening to that conversation, in which commodifying one’s labor time became, itself, a reward for the piece worker.

Last night, I tried to explain the force of the complex that links ever greater specialization with ever greater routinization of skills to a friend who has an interest in what I am writing – but is not exactly a subscriber to the Daily Worker. More a Texan from the Valley with a sort of Austin liberal outlook – like my own. Anyway, she told me that she found the Escher escalator idea interesting. In her profession – which has to do with a certain branch of medical therapy – she has lately been alarmed by the fact that all the new hires come in armed with masters – in a field which once required, max, a B.A. And she’d been depressed to hear that this field was now being taught all the way to the Ph.d level now.

So I asked if the new hires had some greater skill that they carried with them. She said she really couldn’t see one. She was speaking from 15 years of experience. And she is one of the most fair people I have ever met in my life. I believe her.

In the last post, I promised to approach accumulation – which is dealt with in some of the most entertaining chapters in Capital. Capital is one of those rare books that is both great political economics/social theory and a kind of omnium gatherum like the Anatomy of Melancholy. When Marx explains – beautifully – the stages of the cultural development of the capitalist, from the image of the miser to the bourgeois culture of representation-work – which Veblen will call conspicuous consumption – he leaves a footnote about Balzac that should be put in relation to other of Balzac’s great readers – Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust, for instance.

28 a ‘Thus in Balzac, who studied all the shadings of greed on such a fundamental level, the old money lender Gobseck is already entering into his second childhood when he begins to make a treasury out of piled up goods.”

It was Marx’s philosophical training that allowed him to see that one moment in the system of production could contain not only many aspects, but many related aspects. Instead of going to school with the utilitarians, he went to school with the Hegelians, and emerged with a sense of narrative depth. Thus, the moment in which an Ardeer cartridge girl finishes the wrapping of one cartridge and turns to the next can be taken, by Marx, not only as a primary moment, an entrance into circuit of exchange and use values that takes us to the unpaid labor that permits Mr. Nobel to sell his dynamite for a profit, but as a moment in which all the dead unpaid labor that has accumulated and been objectified in the cartridge house and with the materials that make the dynamite stick is activated – resurrected from the dead – so that, in a real sense, there is a specter haunting the cartridge girl – the specter of capitalist accumulation.

The correlate of that accumulation is inequality. And there was an influential reading of Marx that stopped there. The social democratic impulse was to use the countervailing tools of the state and labor unions to make a ‘fairer deal’ that would chisel away at that margin of unpaid labor. As a result of that deal, the working class would itself be able to accumulate enough not only for its subsistence and its enjoyment of a greater variety of commodities, but enough to become investors. The working class would, in this way, be on both sides of the table.

I myself, over the years at Limited Inc, have criticized this arrangement as, ultimately, doomed to fail because the working class essentially is investing in a bet against itself – that is, it is invested in the increase in the level of profit that depends upon crushing labor bargaining power to increase its wages. Now, if the worker were financially independent, this bet might pay off – her gain in buying and selling stock – or having some representative invest her money in buying or selling a variety of financial instruments – would be greater than her loss from having her wage increases slowed or stopped. But this is, unfortunately, a absolute misconstruction of the worker’s real economic position. Not only do household expenses depend on income, but social welfare goods – for instance, healthcare or education – often require extraordinary out of pocket expenditure. Meanwhile, the representatives of investment money are notoriously slow on Wall Street. Thus, they often miss big gains and are crushed by big losses. This, again, comes down to the real financial situation of the worker – she can’t really afford to take the risks that would lead to big gains. Nor does she have the training. The bubble that just popped, the housing market, is a perfect instance of what happens when income stagnation is “solved” by asset speculation. Not only does it turn out that, unsurprisingly, information asymmetries are exploited by rentseekers – the mortgage brokers and bankers who ran the game – but the very process actually added to the extraordinary out of pocket expenditure needed for a social welfare good – housing.

A nation of investors is a fool’s paradise.

And so we get back, as we always get back, to the question of the historical conditions under which capital is accumulated.

ps. These remarks could be thought of as glosses on this passage.

Since in every year more workers are employed than in the past year, sooner or later the point must be reached, where the needs of accumulation begin to grow [hinauszuwachsen] beyond the normal addition of labor, where, accordingly, the increase in wages enters. During the whole of the fifteenth and the first half of the eighteenth century, complaints about this were sounded in England. The more or less advantageous circumstances, wherein wage labor maintained and increased itself, did not, however, change the fundamental character of capitalist production. As simple reproduction continually reproduces the relations of capital itself, capitalists on one side, wage labor on the other, so is reproduction reproduced on an expanded scale, or the accumulation inherent to capital relations on a widened scale: more capitalists or greater capitalists on this pole, more wage labor on that. The reproduction of the labor power that capital must unceasingly incorporate as a means of valorization, cannot loosen itself from it, and its bondage to capital is only disguised through the changing of individual capitalists to whom it sells itself, and in that act develops a moment of the reproduction of capital itself. Accumulation of capital is thus multiplication of the proletariat.” [577, p. 763-764 in Fowkes translation]

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Abstract labor II - real labor b

Postone writes, with admirable clarity: “ The category of abstract human labor refers to the social process that entails an abstraction from the specific qualities of the various concrete labors involved , as well as a reduction to their common denominator as human labor. Similarly, the category of the magnitude of value refers to an abstraction from the physical quantities of the products exchanged as well as a reduction to a nonmanifest common denominator – the labor time involved in their production.” [189]

Marx, as I have said, was strongly aware that capitalism both freed labor and emptied it, as far as it could, of specificity. This correlate of the ideal interchangeability of the human is the quantity of time. The factory, to Marx, was in a sense the ideal palace of capitalism because there, interchangeability is crystallized, more clearly than in any other economic formation, in ‘putting in time.” They are the palaces of abstract time, and their ruin in the developed countries – for instance, the ruin of the explosives factory at Ardeer, which you can see here – has the air of the ruin of something royal and tyrannical, something that lasted for centuries. And yet, of course, it lasted for 80-100 years. And like the gutted palace of some predatory ruler, when it empties, when the people can rush into it - there is nothing there. Or rather, there is no treasure there.

“If the specific productive work of the worker is not spinning, he wouldn’t transform cotton into thread, and thus would not transfer the value of the cotton and the spindle into threat. If the same worker changes his métier and becomes a cabinetmaker, he would, as before, through a work day add value to his material. He adds this thus through his labor, not in as much as it is spinning or cabinetmaking, but in as much as it is abstract social labor in general, and he adds a specific quantity of value, not because his labor has a particularly useful content, but because it has lasted a particular length of time.”

This, of course, offends our sense of craftsmanship. The flight from abstract labor time is encoded in the system of distinctions that traverses the field of taste.
But I don’t want to get into that here. Rather, I want to return to the sticks of dynamite. Lovely things, dynamite. Their use value makes them allegorically interesting, in as much as it consists in destruction. Of course, in the main course of things, dynamite is usually used simply to destroy geological formations – in mining. Some stray sticks, of course, fell into hands that used it otherwise – the anarchist dynamiters in Colorado in Pynchon’s against the day undoubtedly used Ardeer sticks. As well as the absinthe drinking bombers in Paris in the 1880s.

But in the Ardeer factory, the girls, in Marx’s schema, both created value and preserved old value by completing the end of the process of making the sticks. Doubtless, the discipline of the plant led to the weeding out of slow girls. And thus, inevitably, abstract time was stained by human difference. But if the cartridge girls were rewarded for being quicker, it all, in Marx’s scheme, was subject to the capitalist imperative of seeking the most unpaid work possible – the highest surplus value.

That imperative is folded into another one – the social reproduction of the relations of production. Which I will try to touch on tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Abstract labour II - real labor

“Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.” - Sherlock Holmes

Perhaps we should begin with a description from real labor. This is from McClure’s magazine’s visit to the great Nobel dynamite factory in Ardeer Scotland in August, 1897 by H.J.W. Dam. Dam’s photographer captured many of the workers – 200 girls, and 1,100 men. Dam makes much of the contrast between the tanks of nitroglycerin and the female sex, who are searched by matrons three times a day to make sure they have no pins, shoebuttons or any kind of metal fastener – as the admixture of metal in the dynamite making process creates huge problems. The problem with the men is their habit of sneaking in matches to have a good smoke. The employees from different sections where clothing color coded to reflect their sections – cartridge girls, for instance, wear dark blue.

The cartridge houses are where all the materials – the charcoal, the nitroglycerin, the paper – come together for their ‘appearance’ in the world of commodities:

The hut is about ten feet square with a single door. Four girls are at work. Against the right and left walls are four spring pump handles about the height of a girl's head. Each pump handle when pulled down forces a brass rod through a small conical hopper of loose dynamite fixed to the wall and jams a portion of the dynamite down a brass tube at the bottom of the box. The girl wraps a small square of branded parchment paper around the bottom of the tube, folding it at the lower end. Then holding the paper with one hand and jumping up and down as she works the pump handle with the other, she pushes dynamite down the tube till the paper cylinder is filled to a depth of about three inches. She then removes it, folds down the top of it, drops it through a slide in the wall whence it rolls down into her own special box, a finished cartridge. She replenishes her stock of dynamite with a scoop through a sliding door in the wall from a box of loose dynamite which the runner has placed in a closed chest immediately outside. The girls work with the greatest rapidity. The sliding brass rod is actually lubricated with nitroglycerin. To see this operation, the brass rods flying up and down damp with nitroglycerin, and dynamite being forcibly jammed down a brass tube, entirely destroys your appetite for further knowledge. It is incredible and you want to go away outside the Danger Area and think it over.”

But, as we readers of Marx know by now, there is no area outside the Danger Area to think these things over. Marchons, mes amis!

As Nicole Pepperall has reminded me, in the comments to my last post, and as has been the nail that Moishe Postone hammers at all day and all night in his book, Time Labor and Social Domination, orthodox Marxists have fetishized abstract labor. By this, Postone means that the orthodoxy has lost its grasp on the historically specific character of labor and turned it into an essential and trans-historical entity. This is especially important to envisioning what it would mean to overthrow wage labor – an oppositional dimension that is, as I have been emphasizing, not the point of Marx’s work, but the center that makes his analysis of Capitalism possible.

Okay, I'm going to add more to this tonight.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Approaching abstract labor I

Halbwachs, in his study of the life conditions of the worker (published in 1912), shrewdly pointed to the fuzzy boundary between agriculture and industry. Agriculture, we usually assume, deals directly with nature – but as Halbwachs points out, there is hardly a bit of nature in agriculture as we actually know it – from the soil that has been changed in its chemical and geological composition over generations of work, to the organic products that are themselves constantly being changed and adapted by human ingenuity, to finally finished products like cheese and bread, the making of which takes place in buildings, and through gestures that are essentially no different from those employed in making glue. [See Halbwachs 1913, Vol. 1, 26]

Halbwachs’ emphasis on the “gestes” of labor is a welcome attempt to uncover what is partially mystified in Marx’s ‘materialism’. When Marx speaks of labor, he begins with a direct relationship with nature – although this is, in a sense, a fiction, as he tacitly concedes. What he is really writing about is a regime of routines. Although in some vague sense there is a connection, here, with the materialist tradition running from Epicurus through La Mettrie, in my opinion there is nothing in Marx that is as metaphysically musty as his ‘materialism’, which arose as a counter to an ‘idealism’ that has few real correlates outside of philosophy departments. Marx’s ideas could well be agreed to by, say, a Buddhist who could nevertheless insist that all of life is an illusion. Whether it is an illusion or not does not really affect Marx’s articulation of the capitalist system.

Here, in any case, is Marx on the primary labor scene:

“Labor is firstly a process between persons and nature, a process wherein the person mediates, regulates and controls his metabolic exchange with nature through his own act. He encounters natural matter as a natural force. The natural forces inhering in his embodiment, arms and legs, head and hand, he puts in motion, in ordr to assimilate natural matter in a form useable for his own life. When he effects the nature outside of him through this movement and changes it, he changes, at the same time, his own nature. He develops the powers slumbering within it and submits the play of their forces to his own purposiveness. We have to do, here, not with the first animal instinctive forms of labor. Lost in the circumstances of the primeval background in which human labor had not yet completely discarded its first instinctive forms is the moment when the laborer appears as the seller of his own labor power on the commodity market. We are assuming labor in a form, wherein it is exclusively appropriate to human beings.”

That appropriateness, famously, excludes the labor of animals as labor. Their routines – just like the routines of machines – lack purposiveness – although I don’t want to be too philosophisch here – since when Marx fills out this purposiveness, he is evidently talking about the imagination: “A spider commits operations that are like a weaver’s, and a bee, through the building of its wax cells, shames many a human architect [Baumeister]. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best bees is that he builds the cells in his head before he builds them in wax.”

There are a couple of things to note about this passage. Of course, it maintains an old Western hierarchy of thought over action – but this is not really important for me here. It could, of course, be claimed that the omnibus drivers of Paris, who, in the 19th century, were forced to work 14-18 hours driving their buses were working horses who, similarly, were being worn out – and who similarly assimilated the design of the routes in Paris through which they pulled the buses. Or could claim that if one designs a machine to weave the drapery, the product of that weaving, the drapery, will go to market in the same circumstances as the human weaved drapery. It will still be valorized. This claim has been made to show that the living human labor upon which Marx is basing claims about valorization is a secondary distinction, rather than a primary one.

But this is to conflate Capital and the Robinsonaids he mocks. The weaver who uses a shuttle is already using a machine. Or the ditch digger using a shovel. At some point in the process of production, the machine was actually built from real materials – carbon, steel, etc. – that did not hop out of the ground of themselves – and even in the finest robotic factories in Japan, it is subject to human monitoring. Furthermore – to flip the terms around – the notion of mechanization falls, peculiarly, on the working class. Few economists ask whether, in fact, the capitalist could be a machine. There is, obviously, a lag at the moment in the computerization of upper management services because the upper management has guild like features that fight against the obvious rationality of the move. And it would be an odd economist who would suggest that an expert system computer be granted stock options. Why not?

Work is never going to go beyond its social recognition as such, in Marx. The one tie to a transhistorical property is to the imagination. I will take that reference to the imagination as both the starting point for the distinctly human – which may or may not be shared by animals and machines, but which is recognized, in human society, solely with relation to humans - and the moment against which the capitalist system, in its de-skilling or routinizing tendency, works against. A routine is both an act of the imagination and contains within itself the antithesis to the imagination. And once we have down the fact that the act of recognizing human work is tied to the imaginative capacity of the human, one is equipped with the critical tools to sniff out self-interested social contradictions having to do with how humans are treated in different economic regimes - for instance, in the denial that housework is work. Etc.

Now, let's build on this...

Monday, March 22, 2010

A confusing post about monopoly rents and the level of exploitation

I hear the sounds of the city and dispossessed
Get down and get undressed.

Since the 1970s in America, the radical economists have used the model of monopoly rents to critique capitalism – inheriting the progressive tradition of battling against the giant trusts and restoring competition as a way of cutting down the accumulated economic and political advantages of the capitalist class. This way of thinking cuts across the grain of the (intentionally) naïve Manicheanism of the conservative economists, who like to pit the private sector (which is productive) against the government sector (which is parasitic). The notion that production – say, of education – magically turns into its opposite when done by the state is one of the stranger tics of the economic school that comes out of Chicago. But, as the radical economists like to point out, their liberal opponents, too, hold on to some less mystical version of this story, and ultimately believe that the market is the most efficient way to allocate capital – while worrying about distribution effects. The radicals, though, simply don’t believe in the private market at all – that is, they find that the state and the players in the private sector are always intertwined in some way.

One of the radical ploys, then, is to press on the idea of competition. In today’s NYT, for instance, there is an article by Yochai Benkler that asks the question: why has the U.S. fallen so far behind the rest of the developed world in the number of users of broadband, and in the expensiveness of broadband. The answer is that the government has coddled monopolies:

“IMAGINE that for $33 a month you could buy Internet service twice as fast as what you get from Verizon or Comcast, bundled with digital high-definition television, unlimited long distance and international calling to 70 countries and wireless Internet connectivity for your laptop or smartphone throughout much of the country.
That’s what you can buy in France, and similar speeds and prices are available in other countries with competitive markets. But not in the United States. Prices here are three to five times that much for the fastest speeds — the highest prices among advanced economies.

Affordability is the hard part — because there is no competition pushing down prices. The plan acknowledges that only 15 percent of homes will have a choice in providers, and then only between Verizon’s FiOS fiber-optic network and the local cable company. (AT&T’s “fiber” offering is merely souped-up DSL transmitted partly over its old copper wires, which can’t compete at these higher speeds.) The remaining 85 percent will have no choice at all.
Last year my colleagues and I did a study for the Federal Communications Commissionshowing that a significant reason that other countries had managed to both expand access and lower rates over the last decade was a commitment to open-access policies, requiring companies that build networks to sell access to rivals that then invest in, and compete on, the network.”
Among those disposed to Marxist analysis, monopoly rents operate beyond the unpaid labor of the workers embodied in profit. If competition can work on the surface to lower prices, then, the thought is, monopoly can work on the surface to raise them – or preserve prices from the “cheapening of the commodity” which, according to Marx, is one of the responses to competition between individual capitalists.

Marx was always corrosive about the idea that reform, rather than revolution, would remove the fundamental social conditions that immiserated the working class. This is from the Grundrisse:

“As the division of labor produces agglomeration, combination, cooperation, the opposite of private interests, class interests, competition produces concentration of capital, monopoly, stock companies [Aktiengesellschaften] – purely antithetical forms of the unity that the antithesis itself evokes – so private exchange produces world trade, private independence the most complete dependence on the so called world market, and, with the splittered act of exchange, a bank and credit sector, whose accounting books record the smallest equivalences of private exchange. The private interests of each nation divide it multitudinously into just so many nations as it possesses full grown individuals; the interests of the exporters and importers of the same nation stand here opposed to one another; and the national trade contains merely a semblance of existence, etc. in the rate of exchange Nobody should believe because of this that he might be able to abolish the foundations of domestic or foreign private trade through a reform of the Borse. But so many relations of trade and production are generated within the bourgeois society that depends on exchange value that they are even like so many mines, set to explode it (a mass of antithetical forms of social unity, whose opposed character is never to be exploded through quiet metamorphosis. On the other hand, if we did not find veiled, in society as it is, the material conditions of production and their corresponding relations of intercourse [Verkehrsvehältnisse] for a classless society, all efforts to explode it would be quixotic.)” – Grundrisse, 93-94

The interesting reference, here, is to those salvageable relations of intercourse, or commerce – which, in the standard translation of the Grundrisse, are rendered as relations of exchange. Here, I think, Marx is making a stab at what would later be called relations of reciprocity. Given the idea that there are features within the current nature of capitalism that are proleptic of the post-revolutionary state of society, one has to ask whether this or that feature of reform is a step in that direction or away from it. In any case, the accumulation that makes the capitalists as a class stronger is, as Marx saw, composed of unpaid labor that has the effect of making the working class more and more dependent on the capitalist class.

Marx does see that at any point in time, there are positions within the spectrum of ownership that would cause the capitalists to internally oppose one another – for instance, on the question of export and import. These antitheses can have enormous consequences that can be mapped out in various branches of industry. A very rough overview of the American economy since WWII could be made using two simple variables – the rate at which monopoly rents are exhausted, and the rate at which the working class successfully lowered the rate of exploitation – and you would get a picture of a sort of conjunction in the 1970s. At that point, there was a certain flip as the American capitalist class as a whole saw its interest in raising the rate of exploitation for the reason that the supplement of monopoly rents – in the world economy – had shrunk. In such pacts, the importers and exporters can agree.

Three Sun Kil Moon songs for North


Salvador sanchez

Carry Me Ohio

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Competition: chose your level and make your bets

We don’t know what is preferable for us: to defeat them or to be defeated. The sons of Dhritarashtra are in front of us. In killing them, we will lose the will to live. – 6th verse, 2nd chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, from the French translation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

“Within the social circumstances prevailing by way of capitalist production, even the not capitalistic are dominated by capitalist notions [Vorstellung]. In his last novel, the Peasants, Balzac, through a deep comprehension of real relationships, strikingly represents in general the small farmer who, in order to remain in the good graces of his moneylender, performs all kinds of labor gratuitously, not thinking that he is giving him anything, because his own labor doesn’t cost himself any ready money. The moneylender on his side thus kills two flies with one blow. He is spared spending money himself in wages and entangles the farmer, for whom the lack of working on his own field is more and more ruinous, deeper and deeper in the toils of the web of usury.” Capital, 1904 Book 3, 14 [My translation]

Adam Smith’s theory gave a robust place to competition in the changing but stable composition of the ‘natural order’ of the economy. Partly, this role was dictated by Smith’s polemic against monopolies - they disturb the economy, that ‘disturbance’ being underlined by their deviation from the natural order of competition. Of course, for Smith, monopoly is a state intrusion into the private sphere – and indeed, one could say that is still so, insofar as the frontier of intellectual property has replaced the frontier of ‘fresh’ territories. But that polemic is partly based on the idea that competition will make for the social good, as it would lower the price of goods. This is obviously good for conumsers. For the capitalists, as competitors, this will create an incentive to the most efficient operation of the enterprise, and make any technological innovation welcome, in as much as it displaces rivals.

Now, as I have pointed out, the ideological work of the capitalist system is seen at its most successful in creating the character mask of the competitor for the laborer. In our time, the workers work against each other not only in terms of the price they put, or can put, on their work, but also in as much as they must partake of the treadmill of skilling and de-skilling, which has advanced beyond what it was in the first industrial era - much as Marx predicted. The capitalist system seeks the maximum level of interchangeability among all the members of what I’d broadly call the working class – that is, the class who do not own the means of production. Thus, as members of that class strive to attain a higher price for their skills – investing in education and training – the organizations that hire them strive to devalue those skills by breaking down the peculiarities inherent in their routines. That is, the system strives to make them purely quantifiable. Consequently, we see such things as this: in the white collar world – say, of academia – the ‘uniqueness’ of the academic skill set is continually confronted (and the academic anguished by) the quantitative protocols by which the organization not only judges it, but by which it shapes an interchangeable work force. This is true everywhere there is R and D – the single inventor is replaced with the laboratory worker, the engineer is continually forced to market his labor inside the organization, etc. In the eighties, it became faddish – and still is – to speak of the worker’s “owning” their projects. Now, of course, the workers know that the projects are owned by the company. But the false ownership relation does its ideological work by turning the workers into small entrepreneurs, engaged in rivalry one with the other, or in temporary alliances. In this way, the workers never face the organization as an associated whole. To call the project workers the ‘owners’ of the project is an interesting instance of what Althusser meant by interpellation – that the first ideological act is the identification implicit in greeting, so to speak.

This is almost all I want to say, at the moment, about competition on the level of the relations of the workers among each other.

Competition as the system wide entrance of the capitalist system into world history has a history in Marx that we have been following too. One way of thinking about it –as per Marx’s example, taken from Balzac – is this: wherever the full force of capitalism confronts non-capitalist economic formations, capitalism devises strategies to exploit that formation. Capitalism, in other words, plays to win. The non-capitalist formation – or at least, those formations that might be considered ‘pre-capitalistic’, with different bonds and obligations that shape what can and cannot be exchanged, what the worker is aiming to achieve, how ‘property’ is owned, and in general, what rules govern the reciprocities that make up the non-capitalist economic order – does not, similarly, play to win. It may resist with military force, but it does not expand – that is, it does not expand against the capitalist system. The Apaches may seize the territory of the Navajos, or the Comanches may raid San Antonio, but their sense of purpose does not have any correspondent to the capitalist desire for new markets.

There are 20th century anthropologists who would disagree with this to some extent. Yet I will hold this out as a general rule over the last three centuries. Although within the capitalist system, as I have insisted, there are strong subsystems structured by reciprocities that capitalism has never been able to overturn, and which it even depends on – the transactional order, to use Maurice Bloch’s term, of the non-capitalist French peasant will never win in its contest with capitalism. It will never even become fully conscious that it is competing until the competition is over – hence, the strong nostalgic impulse in the literature of whatever culture in which this competition has been staged.

But how about the Smithian level of the capitalist class itself? How can we rely on the solidarity of that class, as Marx does, to understand the essential features of capitalism, if that solidarity yields, so easily, to competition among the capitalists?

In fact, there is a certain folk believe that this is where Marx was wrong. The story goes like this: although in the first stage of capitalism, it was to the interest of the great industrialists to lengthen the work day and diminish wages to the greatest extent possible, at the same time a sector was emerging that depended on the sale of consumer goods – and thus, allied with the workers to pass government imposed reforms that made mitigated the plight of the workers and made them a market. These consumer goods were peculiar in that they increased return on investment, instead of decreasing it. The basic design of an automobile, for instance, allowed for numerous kinds of automobiles to be made, and through marketing and further design, for the conumer to be continually in the market for a new automobile. Thus, competition of various kinds – between branches of production, and between capitalists in the same branch of production – produced an incentive that, firstly, set the standard level of living above the subsistence level, which meant that the workers were not only able to replenish their life functions and become consumers upon whom capitalists depended, but also actually accumulate assets. Keynes once speculated that rentier capitalism would die in the future, as there was less and less need for the rentier. Instead, it widened to include a considerable portion of the working class.

A variant of this folk story has been the legend under which we have lived for the past thirty years.

More in my next post.

Southern California Death Trip

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