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An excerpt from my forthcoming book: ‘The British Ideology: a critique of ‘beyond left and right’ variations’ (Zer0 Books, 2013)

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I finished John Gray’s latest book, The Immortalization Commission, in a cover to cover reading lasting about four hours. Take this as a compliment if you like. Indeed, by way of getting necessary flattery out of the way, there is no denying that Gray’s impressively free-wheeling prose can with ease keep you turning the pages. His is a digestible literary form, intricately spinning together biographical vignettes in order to build up thematic momentum seemingly on the sly. As one might expect, and as with all of Gray’s post-Hayek-disillusionment works, the guiding motif is of the dangerous deceptions cast by ideas of progress or utopian schemes to bring about change for the better. And to his credit, if only the book ended at the close of part one on page 104, he would have succeeded in presenting his case with the kind of light touch pessimism and sense of wistful tragedy befitting of a card carrying cynic. Yet inevitably, as if unable to resist the force of his even more deeply rooted conservative convictions, in part two the Procrustean labour of forcing the history of the Soviet Union into his cynical worldview throws into question whether Gray is really a man without a faith of his own.

* * *

Gray’s book concerns the ill-fated quest to conquer death.  Its broader theme, however, is that of the responses to nihilistic materialism enjoined by the discomforting revelations of Darwinian evolutionary science – humankind as a purposeless accident – and astrophysics – knowledge of the inevitable extinction of the species. Gray approaches the matter by focusing on a milieu of esoteric thinkers spanning from the late 19th to early 20th century. The first section looks at the donnish British figures connected with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), an organization established for the purpose of scientifically investigating the paranormal. The second section, more loosely, with the Soviet project to remake humanity and conquer death.

For obvious reasons, Gray is at his best in the first section when discussing the gentle lives of Oxbridge alumni and co-founders of the SPR like Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers, blending an evident sympathy for his protagonists’ personal lives with a taste of the spiritual angst and esoterica of the Victorian era. Here, the book skillfully intertwines his characters to build up a sense of the motivations for the Society’s investigations into the afterlife, so that what could have been an easy set of targets for abject mockery, or simply ciphers for the delusions of an era, are instead taken as characters whose responses to the revelations of 19th century science whilst wrongheaded at least demonstrate a sensitivity to the shocks of scientific-materialistic disenchantment unacknowledged by the anachronistic persistence of Christian moral certainties amongst their peers.

In part two of book, on the other hand, Gray loses his way. Without the closely knit intellectual scene which provides a fulcrum for part one, the very terms in which Gray announces his thesis – the success of part one is in some measure because there is no thesis – poses a challenge that his book could not possibly live up to. In Gray’s narrative, Bolshevik ideology was driven by the desire to remake humanity and conquer death, a predictably doomed enterprise “that required killing tens of millions of people.” (p.5) Now, whilst there is certainly an interesting history of cosmism and futurism within Russia, influencing the ideology of the Soviet Union, and contributing the weight it attached to space exploration (see the BBC Storyville documentary ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’), to claim that these ideas assumed an integral part of communist thought, and moreover were responsible for the failings of the Soviet Union in some overarching manner, announces a major project of ideologiekritik which common sense suspects could not be advanced within the sixty or so pages Gray devotes to the subject. These suspicions would be correct. For in fact, there is no real argument advanced in these pages. Rather, the section rapidly degenerates into an anti-communist screed only distinguishable from run of the mill revisionist historiography by its more feckless attitude towards standards of argument and evidence, and its reliance upon tenuous allusions uphold his conclusions.

On Stalin’s White Sea Canal, for example, Gray says: “Like much else in the Soviet Union, this was authentically Marxian. For Marx the natural world had no intrinsic worth. Only by being imprinted with human meaning could the earth acquire value. The White Sea Canal embodied this philosophy. A useless monument was erected (the Canal would in fact be hardly used) while the scarred and poisoned land was filled with the bodies of prisoners. A human meaning was imprinted on the earth!” (p. 148)

One hardly knows where to start with this. A vague allusion to Marx’s Labour Theory of Value (an analytic for understanding the source of capitalist profit) is offered as the driving concept behind Stalin’s ideocratic canal project, with needless deaths labelled as authentically Marxist. This is a type of argument that is difficult to refute precisely because there is no argument; and this is only one example of a persistent tactic Gray employs. On Lenin, particularly, neither quote nor reference is deemed necessary, when conclusions can simply be stated on force of conviction. In terms of his connection with the ‘God-builders’ – Anatoly Lunacharsky, et al. – “He too [Lenin] aimed to realize a myth – the earthly paradise in early Christianity – using the power of science.” (p. 168) A quote? A reference? Not necessary. Assertion is apparently enough to line up the dots of Gray central argument of Bolshevik ideology being in thrall to esoteric philosophy. The claim is repeated on page 181: “from its beginnings Bolshevism was a variant of Gnosticism, a modern rebirth of one of the mystery religions of the ancient world.” A reference this time, surely? Again, no. The entire case for Bolshevik ideology being under the preeminent sway of the immortalist ‘God builders’ comes down to a few letters by Gorky – hardly a pivotal Bolshevik figure – and beyond that solely unsubstantiated assertion on Gray’s part that Lenin was guided by their principles.

What of the more damning charge that it was the Bolsheviks’ Promethean futurism which accounts for the bloodletting in the Soviet Union? After spending many pages relishing in the details of the horrors of the Russian Civil War, in order that these not be considered exigencies of the conflict, Gray remarks, “Actually the Bolsheviks welcomed the Civil War, since it gave them the chance to finish with the old order.” (p. 185) As fragile as the connection with Russian futurism might be, given this represents the lynchpin of his entire argument, here at last we will find the quotes and references to indict the unholy alliance between Russian cosmism and Bolshevism with a criminal hunger for terror. . .right? Unfortunately not. Once more, at what is a critical moment for Gray’s argument, he declines to make the case. We must apparently take his world for it that the Bolshevik’s were itching for a devastating civil war to wipe the slate clean in Pol Pot year zero fashion.

This takes us to the central problem of Gray’s book, and of his mature oeuvre of writing as a whole. For a sceptic and cynic who claims to believe in nothing, as The Immortalization Commission demonstrates Gray clearly does believe in something: that a unique evil was unleashed on our godless earth by the Soviet Union. Gray may not believe in heaven, but like a medieval fire and brimstone preacher, he dangles the threat of communist hell to frighten his readers away from ever diverging from his conservative amalgam of nihilism and reformism.

As we discover reading Marx, money is not just a strange capitalist abstraction, but performs functions which a post-capitalist economy will have to grapple with.

Marx consistently maintained that in transition towards communism exchange of commodities and the use of money would be eliminated. But is this really possible and what are the consequences of eliminating money? Considering his stance that money is not the ‘real’ of the economy, and that communist transition will eliminate it, it is in fact surprising to find that money plays a large role in his analysis in Capital. And not just in the critical sense that money drives the capitalist monster forward; in fact, quite oppositely, when keeping his frame of reference immanent to capitalist mode of production, Marx identifies money’s many positive functions in spontaneously regulating the system into an organic whole (his determination of the necessity of financially induced crises notwithstanding). The question regarding socialist transition is whether these regulative functions can be replaced within a collectively owned economy?And, more specifically, whether Marx’s preferred transitional measure of labour-time schemes (where workers collect paper entitlement to the proportion of the total social product viz. their own hours spent working), implies either utopian assumptions about the new subjectivity of the collective worker in communist society and/or the need for a centrally controlled command economy?

To answer these questions, we have to begin with the role Marx attributes to money. As is well known, Marx considers money as a spontaneous result of the commodity form abstraction, serving as the universal equivalent in the exchange of goods. Marx further sees money developing its higher functions, such as in the credit system, as also spontaneously developing from experience in using the basic monetary form for capitalist purposes. In a lengthy passage he summarises the functions money plays in the circuitry of advanced capitalist reproduction:

The fluxes and refluxes of money which take place on the basis of capitalist production, for the reconversion of the annual product, and which have grown up spontaneously; the advances of fixed capital at a single stroke, to its entire value, and the progressive withdrawl of this value from circulation by a process that extends over a period of many years, i.e. its gradual reconstitution in the money form by annual hoard formation, a hoard formation … as well as the variation in the size and period of the reflux according to the condition or relative size of the production stocks in different businesses and for the different individual capitalists in the same line of business … all these different aspects of the spontaneous movement had only to be noted and brought to light by experience, in order to give rise both to a methodical use of the mechanical aids of the credit system and to the actual fishing out of available loan capital.[1]

Marx contends that money plays only a functional role in the process of expanded reproduction and accumulation within capitalism. “The money on the one side calls into being expanded reproduction on the other only because the possibility of this already exists without the money; for money in itself is not an element of real reproduction.”[2] Yet what does it mean to say money is not an element of real reproduction when Marx has already established the development of money as one of the preconditions of capitalism? This appears to be attributable to his quantity theory of money, where the total quantity of money maintains an identity with the total value of commodities in circulation, and the value of these commodities in circulation is in identity with the labour-time invested in their production. This monetary theory explains why, at an aggregate level, total price = total value[3], since money is a universal abstraction of the value of the commodity form: its universal equivalent. The fact that price and value on an industry-specific or commodity-specific basis fall out of sync with each other lies behind periodic crises of accumulation.[4] At the same time, the disequilibrium between value and price – value being the long-term anchor of price variations – is what tendentially drags profit rates across industries towards one another. The formation of a general rate of profit across spheres of production results from the same process by which value comes to determine the rates of exchange between commodities.[5] Through the price mechanism, supply and demand serve to regulate the amount of socially necessary labour expressed in a commodity’s market value; the process of competition perpetually drives down socially necessary labour to its minimum.[6] The point is, the gap between value and price, or what is much the same thing at a higher level of complexity, the difference between the rate of profit and the rate of surplus value, are tendentially reunified through market competition regulating socially necessary labour time.

Capital withdraws from a sphere with a low rate of profit and wends its way to others that yield higher profit. This constant migration, the distribution of capital between the different spheres according to where the profit rate is rising and where it is falling, is that produces a relationship between supply and demsnd such that average profit is the same in the various different spheres, and values are therefore transformed into prices of production.[7]

This process is crucial so that some spheres of production are not, in the long term, able to extract permanent rent from supplying commodities necessary for production in other spheres. Money, then, should not be seen in any crude way as just a reflective, ideal mirror of the real commodity economy underlying it, but serves a systemic function to regulate across capitalist industries and prevent severe sectoral imbalances. This function of money is thrown into stark relief if one attempts to imagine, as Marx does in places, a collectively owned and managed economy in the absence of money as we know it, with labour tokens issued in place of monetary remuneration for workers.

With collective production, money capital is completely dispensed with. The society distributes labour-power and means of production between the various branches of industry. There is no reason why the producers should not receive paper tokens permitting them to withdraw an amount corresponding to their labour time from the social consumption stocks. But these tokens are not money; they do not circulate.[8]

In the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx makes the same suggestion, only further specifying that (1) these tokens operate in the absence of the exchange of goods and (2) that they are only drawn on the means of consumption (called Department II in Capital).

Accordingly, 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 labour. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labour 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 labour (after deducting his labour from the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labour. The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form he receives back as another.[9]

Significantly, however, Marx qualifies that this process also takes place in the absence of exchange. “Within the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products”.[10] Marx has good reason for wishing to write exchange out of the collectively owned and managed economy.  As he shows in Capital Vol. III when imagining an economy where workers are in control of the means of production, but continue to exchange their goods according to the labour they have expended in production, the values of commodities would fall radically out of sync and so too would profit rates, since there would not be an equalization between the production prices and value forming the constant capital component.[11] Rather unconvincingly Marx nonetheless claims that despite the possibility of sharply diverging profit rates, “Under these conditions, the difference in the profit-rate would be a matter of indifference, just as for a present-day wage-labourer it is a matter of indifference in what profit rate the surplus-value extorted from his is expressed.”[12] I say unconvincing, first because workers in a cooperative or particular sector could exchange their goods by distorting the labour-time they claim to have invested in production, second because there would be no regulative mechanism for correcting false reporting, and third because such imbalances would, after time, lead to serious systematic imbalances in the economy.

Let us explore this problem in more depth. In the paragraph below we are going to analyze two possibilities resulting from implementation of Marx’s labour value token scheme. Since one of which takes place in the absence of a centrally controlled economy, we will discount Marx’s qualification that products are not exchanged and follow the above scenario from Capital Vol. III. We do this for it is not clear how, in the absence of centralised mediation, exchange could be avoided. The Roussauian-influenced idea that through the revolutionary process a new humanity will emerge around the subjectivity of an altruistic and consistently honest collective worker seems extremely utopian when considered on a national or global scale. Michael Lebowitz, for instance, when describing the birth of the worker subjectivity necessary for the unmediated giving between the network of producer associations, has to resort to the metaphor of unconditional familial love.

Characteristic of the social relation among the producers in this structure is that they recognize their unity as members of the human family and act upon this basis to ensure the well-being of others within this family. Solidarity, in short, is at the very core of the social relation… the productive activity of people flows from a unity and solidarity based upon recognition of their differences.[13]

Granted that the expectation of the  revolutionary process giving birth to new worker subjectivity can be found in Marx’s writings right to the end of his days, it is an idea which remains in conceptual externality to the analysis in Capital. Yes, Capital shows capitalism separate workers and pits them against one another; but, no, it does not show how collective ownership of the means of production will create a new humanity – this has to remain a political wager (and in my opinion, an untenably utopian wager) external to the conceptual analysis conducted in the book.

Therefore, on a technical level, where such issues as not supposed to be overcome by the honesty and altruism arising from new communist humanity, the problem with Marx’s suggestion relates to how socially necessary labour will be measured and regulated. Since socially necessary labour is regulated under capitalism by both real subsumption on the level of manufacturing processes and by money acting as a spontaneous universal equivalent exerting convergence tendencies between industries, directly substituting money with labour-time tokens would have two consequences.[14] Across different cooperatives and/or industries in a decentralised economy, a permanent structural disequilibrium would occur in exchange due to the different organic compositions (and rates of change in composition) resulting in inter-sectoral productivity imbalances. Since the labour-time invested in goods is non-transparent between one industry and the other in the absence of an overarching regulative authority, the amount of labour-time tokens exchanged between productive units for each others’ goods would result in permanent disequilibrium. On the other hand, presuming central planning, an enormous, continuing operation of monitoring the labour time used in the production of goods would be necessary, which while technically possible would contradict Marx’s anti-statist principles as proclaimed after the Paris Commune.

In fact, with regard to the latter approach, Marx himself anticipates the problem of labour tokens and how they would give rise to the need for a command economy in the Grundrisse. While it is important to emphasize that in this text he is forwarding a critique of Proudhon on the basis that his schemes are being proposed in the absence of a demand to radically reconfigure the relations of production, nonetheless, Marx’s critique of Proudhon’s labour money proposal – which involves the problem of establishing equivalence of socially necessary labour time, and the way it implies an omnipotent central bank – is no less applicable for thinking post-revolutionary economic transition if exchange is considered necessary.

A second attribute of the [central] bank [issuing labour-time chits] would be necessary: it would need the power to establish the exchange value of all commodities… But its functions could not end there. It would have to determine the labour time in which commodities could be produced… But that also would not be sufficient… The workers would not be selling their labour to the bank, but they would receive exchange value for the entire product of their labour, etc. Precisely seen, then, the bank would not only be the general buyer and seller, but also the general producer.[15]

It is beyond our capability here to explore in any greater depth the problems implicated by Marx’s analysis of money and economic planning in thinking post-capitalist transition. But what the above discussion should make clear is that even once the abstraction of workers from the means of production is overcome in a collective economy (either centralized or decentralized) then issues related to the formal properties of money persist. In order to circumvent these issues Marx  places another condition on a communist economy – namely, that no exchange will take place – which merely displaces the problem of the money form on to the utopian suggestion that social production and development can take place on the basis of altruistic giving between the different branches of the collective association of labourers.

If we are to develop a post-capitalist economic vision which seeks to build a spontaneous dynamic into the system, monetary theory emerges as essential even if reading Marx’s Capital as the final word on the economic system.


[1] Marx, Capital Vol. II, 555-556.

[2] Marx, Capital Vol. II, 566.

[3] In chapter 9 of Capital Vol. III on the ‘Formation of the General Rate of Profit’ Marx provides an example of 5 capitals in different spheres of production. On the aggregate level, “The total price of commodities I-V would thus be the same as their total value, i.e. the sum of the cost prices I-V plus the sum of the surplus-value or profit produced; in point of fact, therefore, the monetary expression for the total quantity of labour, both past and newly added, contained in commodities I-V.” (Karl Marx, Capital Vol. III, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin Books, 1981), 259.) Therefore, the cost price plus profit of all commodities in the economy is equal to the total value produced: total price = total value.

[4] Marx, Capital Vol. II, 486.

[5] Marx, Capital Vol. III, 281, 293-294.

[6] Marx, Capital Vol. III, 296.

[7] Marx, Capital Vol. III, 296.

[8] Marx, Capital Vol. II, 434.

[9] Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, 21-22.

[10] Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme” In: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, Volume II (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1951), 22.

[11] Marx, Capital Vol. III, 276-277.

[12] Marx, Capital Vol. III, 277.

[13] Michael A. Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 202.

[14] A third option, which we discount for being too utopian, would be the democratic planning of production and consumption and the assumption of honest multilateral reporting of labour productivity across different cooperatives and industries.

[15] (Karl Marx, Grundrisse [1857])

Excerpt from the final section of a chapter on Lenin in my forthcoming PhD thesis

Any critical examination of Bolshevik policies after October 1917 has the problematic effect of opening up a Pandora’s Box of recriminations which, needless to say, this final sub-section could not possibly adjudicate upon to an adequate depth. Let me therefore immediately refute some possible misunderstandings. I want to stress that my intention here is not to take sides with either the anarchists, or left or right communists on debates regarding Bolshevik economic policy in the years immediately following the revolution, concerning disputes over workers’ self management vs. nationalisation, incentives vs. coercion, and ‘war communism’ vs. the New Economic Policy. There is certainly a danger here, I recognize, in using a broad philosophical critique on the level of quite abstract ideas to affirm common prejudices regarding, say,  how the programme of nationalisation, grain requisition and coerced labour during the ‘war communism’ years of the Civil War led to Stalinism. This would then inscribe Stalinism in its protean form into dominant Bolshevik ideas before and after the revolution, effacing the disputes regarding policies in the early years and also the unique historical situation these policies were forged in response to.[1] Leninist readers will also undoubtedly point to the decimation wrought by the Russian Civil War, the failure of communist revolution in Western Europe, imperialist encirclement of the embryonic workers’ state, and the unfortunate, but ultimately contingent, rise of Stalin to power, as all more important considerations than the ontology underlying Lenin’s political thought. And they would not be wrong to argue that no comprehensive appraisal of the fortunes of revolutionary Russia could adequately appraise its subject matter without taking all these events into account. But my aim is rather more modest. I wish to simply demonstrate the conceptual insufficiency of quantity-quality transformations to plan the institution of a disjunctive break into political and socioeconomic forms. My hypothesis operates on two levels, connecting the lack of a properly disjunctive break in the quantity-quality transformation with the problem of the use of Hegelian dialectics to think future oriented novelty. These two hypotheses will not be tied together until the next chapter, so for the time being the task is to simply present examples indicating the intersection between the conceptual shortcomings of the quantity-quality transformation and actual Bolshevik policies. To this end, we first examine the case where Lenin adopted a truly disjunctive policy, that is, when he called for all sovereign power to be transferred to the Soviets. I will indicate how his use of the Hegelian quantity-quality transformation to describe the change makes only limited sense. Second, we turn to his thoughts on economics, which remained beholden to the historical materialist ‘evolutionism’ of the pre-war era. Whilst Lenin’s idea of taking over large scale capitalist businesses and further expanding and socialising them is congruent with a simple base-superstructure conceptual matrix of the transformation, it nonetheless, especially with hindsight, appears a deficient conceptualisation of how to seed a lasting novelty into the system capable of enabling transition to communism. These textual ‘case studies’ precede the final reflections of this chapter on the problematic ontology of Hegelian ‘leaps’.

To reiterate the basics provided in this chapter’s introduction, in State and Revolution Lenin’s aim was to establish the necessity of violent revolution to supplant the bourgeois state with a proletarian state. There was to be continuity of some of the state’s functions, but crucially these would be governed in an entirely novel way. Power over the state would not simply change hands from the bourgeoisie to the proletarians; what remained of the state form would be scarcely recognizable. Lenin emphasized against Kautsky and Plekhanov that “the state must inevitably be a state that is democratic in a new way (for the proletariat and the propertyless in general) and dictatorial in a new way (against the bourgeoisie).”[2] Influenced by Marx and Engels’ revision of The Communist Manifesto in light of the experience of the Paris Commune, this point concerned the correct interpretation (and exposing of distortions thereof) of the new line introduced into the 1872 edition that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”[3] Lenin aimed to fully undermine “the current vulgar “interpretation” of Marx’s famous utterance” which placed “gradual development in contradistinction to the seizure of power and so on.”[4] The new state, the new democracy and the new dictatorship called for as the starting point for transition to communism is nevertheless posed as an unknown. Faithful to the late Marx of the Critique of the Gotha Programme Lenin observes “There is no trace of an attempt on Marx’s part to conjure up a utopia, to make idle guesses about what cannot be known.” This extends to details about the transitionary phase after revolution: “we leave the question of the length of time, or the concrete forms of the withering away, quite open, because no material is available to us to answer these questions.”[5] Yet this is not entirely accurate. Lenin did make some attempt on the broadest conceptual level to schematize how the Bolsheviks intended to smash the state and institute a dictatorship of the proletariat: all power was to be transferred to the Soviets – and the difference between the Soviet state form and the bourgeois state form[6] was explained by reference to “quantity becoming transformed into quality”.[7]

The problem here is that Lenin’s endorsement of Soviet democracy does not exactly fit the model of the Paris Commune, which despite its many innovations such as the possibility of recalling representatives at any time was still just an expansion of the demos’ prerogatives through the representative form. Soviet democracy on the other hand, if it is to be a genuinely new form of democracy, is precisely new insofar as it is not just an expansion of democracy along normal representative lines. It cannot be considered to undergo a qualitative ‘leap’ as a result of quantitative expansion in the sense of the example provided by Hegel of water freezing into ice. The same problem applies with Lenin’s use of quantity-quality transformations to think future oriented change in a number of other examples.  Because in the same way that water freezes into ice in a moment of rapid transformation – yet regardless of the ‘leap’ between liquid and solid is ultimately the same substance – in Lenin’s differentiation between the bourgeois state and the proletarian state, between bureaucratic-reactionary and revolutionary-democratic measures, and between state capitalism under bourgeois rule and state capitalism for socialist ends,[8] the change is one of form and not of substance.[9] What is posited as new is merely an exemplification of what already exists; a change in the form opening up the continuity of the content. The following either/or thus appears unavoidable. Either we accept Lenin’s stress on more democracy provoking a transformation from quantity to quality, meaning that the transformation can be viewed through the dialectic, but only at the expense of a degree of novelty – i.e., there would be a continuity of content or substance passing through the transformation, rather than the unveiling of a spark of political ex nihilo. Or from another perspective, if we take Lenin to be proposing not simply an expansion to universal suffrage but instead a completely new form of Soviet democracy, it would seem to be stretching the dialectic beyond its purview.

Equivocation over the role for the Constituent Assembly, representing the first institution of universal suffrage in Russia along conventional lines (the Bolsheviks first campaigned in its elections and then dissolved it in January 1918), provides some evidence for this theoretical confusion in the moment of practice. Despite the platform of State And Revolution, Marcel Liebman writes than Lenin,

did not cease to be, in many respects, a man of Russian and international Social-Democracy for whom the conquests of the revolution formed part of the classic programme of demands of the labour movement – which included the securing of the constitutional regime … and of universal suffrage … Had Lenin, wholly absorbed in day-to-day revolutionary activity not noticed what, today, with the hindsight of history, seems so obvious—that the very notion of entrusting power, all power, to the soviets, popular institutions which did not provide for the representing of all classes, ruled out all notion of making a Constituent Assembly elected by the population as a whole the sovereign organ of state power in Russia?[10]

The incompatibility which Lenin overlooked in the heat of moment could be seen to reflect the problem of applying the quantity-quality transition when thinking novelty. The Constituent Assembly can aptly be considered such an expansion, and possibly as effecting a quantity-quality leap, whereas according all power to the Soviets cannot – their quantitative ‘representative’ faculty (if they can even be considered in such terms) was in fact less than the Constituent Assembly. The two conflicting institutions also conceptually conflict if thought through the quantitative-qualitative prism.

In economic terms the problem with applying the quantity-quality transformation is even more pronounced. Given Lenin’s overwhelmingly political focus throughout his life, looking at his economic ideas might be considered somewhat unfair when acknowledging that abstract economic thought was not his specialism. Although his most famous texts are all heavily referenced with statistics to prove his point (hence economic in a sense), there are no examples of him engaging with economics on the abstract level beyond the remit of using economic data to make an immediate political point. Indeed, there is even evidence to suggest that Lenin avoided economic questions at times. Lih comments that despite the plan to write a series of economics articles for Iskra only the first of these ever materialised.[11]  Furthermore, the most striking thing about the fifth chapter of State and Revolution, titled ‘The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State’, is the paucity of economic reflections on what is to be done, and, conversely, the continued predominance of discussion of politics and the state.  More tangible finds in terms of economic policy can be located in his 1917 articles on the immediate tasks of revolutionary government. In these Lenin laid out the position that empowering the proletariat to gradually take organizational command of the economy and phasing out small scale proprietorship and commodity production was adequate for introducing the first stage of lower communism.[12] Building upon some of his positive reflections upon the virtues of monopoly capitalism in Imperialism, the massification of production – its concentration and quantitative expansion– was held to be the key to transforming production under socialism. Liebman, a not unsympathetic reader of Lenin, makes a pointed assessment of Lenin’s economic thought worth citing.

Lenin’s ideas about the organization of labour revealed a rigour that was more in line with managerial orthodoxy than with revolutionary enthusiasm… Here, in the last analysis, besides a specific response to functional exigencies, was the expression of  a philosophy which, while not ruling out appeals to the idealistic elements in human nature, was rooted in a materialist view of the world, derived from a positivist interpretation of Marxism.[13]

Andrew Kliman draws the same conclusion: “there is no evidence he [Lenin] understood that something was wrong with workplace relations under capitalism.”[14] And this position was by no means uncommon within Second International and later Bolshevik thought. Socialism imagined as the complete centralisation of production in a well-oiled, rationalised bureaucracy along Taylorist lines was common to Bolshevik thought in this era, finding its most eloquent expression in Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s The ABC of Communism.[15] As such, the economic break proposed by Lenin, focusing on implementing disciplined control of the economy in distinction to capitalist chaos, arguably does not depart from the ‘evolutionary’ schemas of the Second International to anything like the extent that his political thought proposed.[16] His plans involved the expansion of large industrial entities (under communist rule) in order to transform them into a socialist mode of production. From the contemporary standpoint we might be astounded to read statements such as the following from 1917 where the quantity-quality transition is used to affirm that the large capitalist banks are readymade institutions for achieving socialism, only in need of quantitative expansion under proletarian management to alter their qualitative nature.

The big banks are the ‘state apparatus’ which we need to bring about socialism, and which we take ready-made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. Quantity will be transformed into quality. A single state bank, the biggest of the big, with branches in every rural district, in every factory, will constitute as much as nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus.[17]

Such ideas still predominate with Leninism today. But as Kliman observes “A state run bank is still a bank. It still has to obtain funds before it can lend them out, and has to do so, it must provide a decent return to those who supply it with funds. (This is true of a worker-run bank too.)”[18] Notwithstanding the extraordinary circumstances of attempting to implement socialist change in a country ravaged first by imperialist war and second by a devastating civil war,[19] Kliman’s claim is that Lenin’s programme neglects the need for transformation in the underlying mode of production away from capitalist value creation. As he writes on the limits of politics thought on the level of who is in control to effect a change in the economic laws of a dominant mode of production: “Putting different people in “control” does not undo the inner laws of capital …  This simply was not understood by the Marxist of the Second International, including Lenin.”[21] In another article Kliman seeks to lay the blame on an Lenin’s failure to conceptualise a sudden enough change in the underlying mode of production – and contends that really existing socialism’s failure to enact this qualitative shift lies behind its other failures, including the growth of the autarchic state. This he attributes to a misreading of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme:

This [mis]reading of the CGP goes back to Lenin, who conflated the transformation and transition in The State and Revolution, writing that “the transition from capitalist society … to communist society is impossible without a ‘political transition period’ ….” I have come to suspect that the very idea of “transitional society” is incoherent, and seems to stand in the way of thinking things through clearly.  Hegel’s critique of the idea of gradualness in his book [the] Science of Logic seems relevant here.[22]

Pace Kliman, however, who locates the problem in Lenin’s persistent conflation of ‘transition’ and ‘transformation’ and recommends a critique by insisting on the lack of gradualness in Hegel’s quantity-quality transformation, I argue that the problem, at least in some small measure, lies with the deployment of this limited metaphysics taken in either sense. If I am correct in taking Kliman’s critique as fundamentally oriented around the charge that Lenin took too ‘evolutionary’ a view of the necessary changes, then I’m not sure this temporal critique tells us all that much. I claim the limitation rather lies in trying to apply the quantity-quality transformation to the future. As we have seen, by utilizing a conceptual matrix that fills in the categories of ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ with a complex set of determinations, the quantity-quality transformation can make some sense as an abstract representation of change. But given Marxist aversion towards thinking through complex categorical matrices for planning post-revolutionary processes what seems to have happened is a category confusion. When analysing the processes leading to revolution, Lenin fed a complex set of determinations into the quantity-quality relation; whereas when thinking future oriented change, the quantity-quality transformation was mistaken as directly sufficient for conceptualising change. Whereas leading up to the revolution, quantity and quality were just impressionistic placeholders for a dialectical transformation taking place at the level at the level of the concrete determinations contained within the conceptual matrix, when thinking post-revolutionary change the abstract concept was taken to directly describe real processes. Now, the obvious response might be that we cannot know the future and the real processes that will sculpt it, so any conceptual matrix of concrete determinations would be equally speculative, if not fanciful. Yet that did not stop the Lenin from directly relating the abstract concept of quantity-quality transformations for directly positing the massfication of industry as transformation to socialist relations of production. If we were to agree for a moment (and it is not at all this author’s opinion that this is necessarily true) that it is impossible to utilize a complex conceptual matrix for thinking future oriented change, then it must be admitted that there is a problem with concept itself here. If one is to apply the quantity-quality transformation to the future on the condition of prohibiting a complex conceptual matrix, then of necessity one would have to apply the concept as crudely as Lenin did. There is simply no other option. Hence the paradox of how Lenin stresses that Marxists do not idly speculate on future processes, but then almost immediately goes on to describe the expected changes as a quantity to quality transformation, and then further to contradict the first statement by laying out concrete policies for the quantitative expansion of industrial production units as a route to the qualitative transformation to socialism. There are thus only two possibilities here. The first would be to question whether you really cannot devise a flexible enough conceptual matrix to plan post-capitalist transition, which would allow you to retain the abstract and impressionistic slogan of quantity-quality transformations. Or the second would be the properly ontological route of questioning the applicability of these transformations to think future oriented change on the conceptual level. I will follow the second line of enquiry.

Yet if there is a conceptual problem with the Hegelian ontology then we will need to commit more time and theoretical effort than can be provided in this chapter on isolating where exactly that problem lies. We need to know whether the Hegelian ontology of qualitative-quantitative leaps, and the larger system these are embedded in, are adequate as a concept for thinking disjunctive, future oriented change – and if not, why not? This chapter has primarily focused on Lenin’s political thought, with little critical reflection on Hegel’s ontology beyond the political and ideological purposes to which it was instrumentally deployed. The task of the next chapter is to pursue the critical, philosophical line of argumentation in more depth by examining Hegel’s Logic. The focus will rest upon Hegel’s ‘philosophy of mathematics’ in the section on Quantum – crucial to understanding the ‘leaps’ contained in following section on Essence. We will seek to ascertain if Hegel’s ‘leap’ through the qualitative and quantitative double-relation is sustainable, and whether it can genuinely yield a conceptual thought adequate to a notion of a transformative event.Too frequently Marxist fidelity to the Hegel-Marx-Lenin heritage has hindered a more critical appraisal (the Althusserian and Della Volpe lineages excepted) as to whether Hegelian ontology is sufficient for concepts needed to plan post-revolutionary change.


[1] For a good discussion of the illegitimacy of this approach see Lars. T. Lih, “War Communism and Bolshevik Ideals”, The National Council for Soviet and East European Research: Title VIII Program (25 January 1994).

[2] Lenin, “State and Revolution”, 295.

[3] Marx and Engels cited in Ibid., 297.

[4] Ibid., 297.

[5] Ibid., 344.

[6] Lenin’s 1917 writings pursue a consistent theme of grounding abstract principles in concrete evaluations and proposals for action. Part of this process involved advocating some policies that at first glance might appear closer to the status quo than the radical sloganeering of rival groups – e.g. his criticism of the slogan ‘all power to the Soviets’ after July, advocating the use of existing economic control measures from under Tsardom, ensuring that the rich could not circumvent rationing, etc.  – but if actually put into practice, he argues, would mark a break between bureaucratic-reactionary and revolutionary-democratic government. See V.I. Lenin, Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917, ed. Slavoj Žižek (London and New York: Verso, 2002), particularly “On Slogans” and “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it”, 62-105.

[7] Lenin, “State and Revolution”, 301, 347.

[8] In the following text Lenin aims to show how state capitalism under workers control is quite different to under bourgeois control V.I. Lenin, “Report on the Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government to the Session of the All-Russia C.E.C. April 29, 1918” In: On State Capitalism during the Transition to Socialism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), 23-35.

[9] Although written with unsympathetic anti-Marxist intentions, H.B. Acton isolates just this problem in his critique of how dialectical materialism thinks novelty through the transformation. In the case of water freezing to ice and other such natural transformations, these are frequent and repetitive processes in nature that only exemplify chemical properties. The case of a rearrangement of molecules to produce a new compound appears more promising. He stretches too far when he argues that even this would not qualify as genuine novelty since it could be predicated in advance, but nonetheless the critique of the kind of quantity-quality transformation analogous with water turning into ice seems valid. The form changes but the essential content stays stable. See  H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed [1955]. Available online at The Online Library of Liberty:  http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=877&chapter=76759&layout=html&Itemid=27 [Accessed 8 February 2012]

[10] See Leninism under Lenin, trans. Brian Pearce (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 237.

[11] Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 197.

[12] See Lenin, “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it”.

[13] Leninism under Lenin, 338.

[14] Andrew Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (London: Pluto Press, 2012), 205.

[15] Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism, trans. Mathias Bismo (London: Penguin Books, 1969), see particularly chapters XII to XVI.

[16] Lars. T. Lih cites Kautsky in 1917 making the same distinction as Lenin by reference to quantity-quality transition between whether nationalisation, progressive taxation and so forth, can be considered bourgeois reform or a workers programme: “One might call this a bourgeois programme of reform and not a workers’ programme of revolution. Whether it is one or the other depends on quantity. Here too, when quantity is increased accordingly, it must transform into a new quality. It is in the nature of things that the proletariat will strive to use its revolutionary power in the direction I have outlined here as soon as it feels solid ground under its feet, and that in so doing it will meet the resistance of the capitalists and the large landowners. How much it will achieve depends on its relative power.” See “Supplement: Kautsky, Lenin and the ‘April theses’”.

[17] Citation from Lih, “Supplement: Kautsky, Lenin and the ‘April theses’”. Original document available from the following source: V.I. Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” In: Lenin’s Collected Works Vol. 26 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 87-136.

[18] Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production, 195.

[19] Some sobering statistics give a picture of the extent of the collapse following the First World War, the Civil War and the loss of productive regions of the Russian Empire after the signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Soviet Russia controlled only 8% of pre-war coal reserves. Extraction of iron-ore had dropped to 1.6% of pre-war levels. The accumulated effect of famine and war meant that industrial workers in Russia dropped from approximately 2.5 million in 1918 to 1.2 million by 1922. See Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 347.

[21] Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production, 196-205.

[22] Andrew Kliman, The Transformation of Capitalism into Communism in the TCritique of the Gotha Program”, Marxist-Humanist Initiative, Available at: http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/alternatives-to-capital/what-must-be-changed-in-order-to-transcend-capitalism.html (Accessed 15 December 2010)

There is a crisis haunting anti-capitalism, a crisis of aimlessness.

 

At a time when there is an apparent resurgence in anti-capitalist activism across the world it might seem overly obviously, perhaps annoyingly churlish, to ask what precisely anti-capitalism is objecting to? A likely response might go something like this: ‘It’s obvious is it not? One only needs to casually glance at the figures to see the mess we are in: inequality between rich and poor growing year on year, high levels corruption and profiteering in the financial sector, growing unemployment, worsening real average wages, the disappearance of the middle class, governments marching in step to the corporate drum, the increasing militarization of the police, the privatization of public institutions, representative democracy reduced to management for capital, ecological catastrophe looming, the retreat of the commons. . .the list goes on and on. One does not need to have studied all those thousands of pages of Theories of Surplus Value to understand that the system is rotten head to toe. Even if we disagree on the precise nature of this monster called capitalism, we all know what’s wrong with it and what needs to change.’

But do we?

Today there are a plethora of nominations for the object of anti-capitalism, from the insipid Smithian critique of its monopolistic tendencies (not long ago invoked by Business Minister, Vince Cable), to generalised anti-corporatism, to environmentalist anti-growth advocacy. Added into the mix are voguish theoretical reformulations from the continental school, whose anti-capitalism insists upon the way capitalism constrains ‘lines of flights’, suppresses difference, encourages the techno-scientific domination of nature, and so and so on. This ideological stew of negativity against capitalism tends to assume that given the totality of capitalism in the 21st century that there is little point in specifying what the critique of capitalism is – and this pluralistic common sense also warns against insisting upon any one objection against other conceptions. Whether or not this is a legitimate position, though, is open to question. For many of the above concerns could well be contradictory; or worse, certain rejections of capitalism could be merely transitive with more encompassing critiques such as the expansion of disciplinary technologies of governance, modernity, or even science itself. If we cannot agree on what the object of our critique is – what is the specificity of this thing we call ‘capitalism’? – how can there be any certainty that our critiques are targeting the same thing? Moreover, how do we know that the systems we wish to supersede this nebulous object are proximal enough so that given the rise of a new regime of post-capitalism (however construed) it would not be less preferable according to some conceptions than the regime we presently inhabit today?

Of course, one way around this problem would seem to be to return to Marx himself, as it is clearly Marx’s critique of capitalism, no matter whether advocated or derided, that comprises the reference horizon for all alternative anti-capitalisms to this day. Yet, here, to our surprise, things get no clearer, for there seems to be even in Marx’s writings  rather diverse potential bases for anti-capitalism.

Is it the old thesis from The Communist Manifesto that a communist regime would liberate the forces of production once the socialisation of labour is held back from the inhibitions of private property? This conception would imply that anti-capitalism is ultimately tied to the efficiency of production and the cause of eliminating material scarcity. How credible a basis for anti-capitalism this is today in light of the obvious successes of capitalism in ramping up efficiency, agricultural production, and commodity manufacture is not clear. There are certainly areas of the economy where private ownership has inhibited development to eliminate scarcity – one thinks of the UK’s housing crisis – but it does not seem generalizable enough to warrant an overthrow of the entire economic regime. Further, predominant environmentalist critiques might suggest that it is in fact the over-production and wastefullness of contemporary capitalism which is  the problem with it, not the inverse. It appears a dead end is reached this way.

So could it be instead that Marx’s proof from Capital, wherein it is shown that all profit derives from the exploitation of labour, which gives us a more solid, contemporary ground for anti-capitalism? This route would definitely go some way to explaining how vast inequalities develop under free market capitalism. Alone, however, it does not appear enough. Why? Because when Marx was writing the absolute deprivation of the working classes was such that exploitation was synonymous with extremely poor material conditions for workers. At least in most Western countries a combination of welfare statism and the rise in the overall levels of production has shifted the objective referent somewhat. Exploitation and inequality lose some of their material bases for stimulating and necessitating a comprehensive overthrow of the system and they then, in contemporary conditions, need to be supplemented by moral appeals to justice. Yet history tends to show that as long as people see overall standards of living going up they will tolerate exploitation and inequality. If, following the present crisis, this no longer remains the case then perhaps this critique will regain some of its potential, and people will want a post-capitalist world that eliminates exploitation and reduces inequality. But that remains to be seen. I wouldn’t bank on it.

Is anti-capitalism just a call for 'real' democarcy?

Could it be the more political argument then? This would focus on the working classes taking power and instituting a properly democratic regime like the Paris Commune. The point here would be avowedly political: the bastards at the top do not represent us, we want real, direct democratic participation of the working classes (or 99% – why not?) in government. Yet is an argument for more democracy a necessarily anti-capitalist one? In a context which presumes that the real enfranchisement of the masses would be of necessity anti-capitalist like in the 19th century it makes sense, but today? Is it not just more likely that a political anti-capitalism based on true democracy would just result in a fairer, more distributive capitalism, but at the end of the day still capitalism nonetheless? For me this is the shallowest interpretation of Marxist anti-capitalism.

The final candidate for Marxist anti-capitalism would work from Vol. III of Capital, and is probably the most unpopular one today. With Marx’s theory of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, the corollary prediction is that this leads to economic crisis, and furthermore that the only possible resolution to these crises is the destruction of capital allowing the accumulation process to begin afresh – either that or long term economic stagnation. Because the decline of the rate of profit is also premised on an increasing percentage of capitalist investment going into technological means of production (i.e. automation) this would imply growing unemployment too. So anti-capitalism, thus conceived, would be based on doing away with crisis, unemployment, and finding a new motor for development other than the profit motive. It is an appealing thesis, but one that hinges on its central prediction being true. If it is true, the options are stark: its stagnation, crisis and decline or a new system. The problem is short memories. Capitalism can recover after the crises, and what’s to say people won’t just accept these awful periods as necessary evils for the least worst economic system on offer?

So it appears that even Marx under contemporary conditions cannot give us an unequivocal basis for anti-capitalism. Hence the recent appeal amongst the left for invoking the objective possibility for ecological catastrophe. Here, at last, we seem to have in our hands an undeniable, scientifically proven imperative for instituting a new socio-economic regime. Capitalism is premised on growth and unrelenting expansion, ergo if we want to solve the ecological crisis we need to be anti-capitalists. What’s wrong with this argument? It’s flawed because it works by proxy. Sure, given the current supremacy of capitalism there is no doubt there is some responsibility, but capitalism is not carbon emissions. Carbon emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels because they are easiest way to extract energy from the earth and this energy is necessary for the development of material well being. It seems likely that any technologically advanced civilization would have had to go through a period of fossil burning to raise general living standards as a first source of energy extraction. Therefore, there is an implicit transitivity of this critique a critique of science and development per se.

To compound the woes of ecological anti-capitalism, what does the communist future look like that says to people, ‘capitalism can’t do it, only we can make the tough choices to keep your material standards of living the same or worse?’ Probably a communist future that never comes to be. Or alternatively, a communist future that ends up the exact opposite of the optimistic vision Marx originally laid out in The Communist Manifesto. It seems incredibly unlikely that people would commit to major economic and social change for the purpose of institution of ecological austerity, even if complemented with eliminating exploitation and reducing inequality.

So where am I going with all of this? I want to argue that, quite the opposite, what post-capitalism needs is an imaginary that intersects the above justifications with a positive vision of the future that capitalism has failed to deliver. And part of this means rescuing the most lasting merits of the Soviet experiment. For while everyone can agree that the USSR had many failings, it remains the case that the artistic, architectural and technological development it stood for was in many cases a widely recognized concrete achievement. No one can deny the quality of their space programme. Even recently in London there has been two major exhibitions showcasing some of futurist ambitions of Soviet communism: Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Red Skies season of Soviet science fiction at the British Film institute.  There is an element of aesthetics here as well as actual ambitions. The primitivist image of the far left today is more and more beginning to mirror the world of ecological austerity they argue only they can institute. Tents, dogs on a string, soup kitchens – it is not always clear whether the squat aesthetic of activist left is not just a necessary consequence of direct action, or an ambition for the future itself. The point is, how on earth will communist groupings ever hope to attract enough people committed to radical change without some sort of vision for the future which feeds peoples’ desires for something different than capitalism nowadays delivers? And one thing that capitalism today seems particularly poor at is large scale, technological projects. Whilst we clearly have the money and technology – even as a fraction of the social surplus – to develop moon bases and plan a trip to Mars there simply is no will to do so at present because of the absence of a Cold War space race or any profit motive. Whereas small scale gadgetry has developed at an incredible pace with capitalist profit incentives, this has not been matched by commensurable progress with large scale technological developments.

In sum, in order to recapture the imaginary of people, to allow them to associate communism not simply with just, if miserable conditions of equality and ecological austerity, we need to return to the point where the average person on the street would look at the below image and say ‘Beautiful. But it’s just a dream; we would need communism before we ever see that come true.’

Only communism can make the future come true

We all know the police are bastards, but why has the left seemingly settled on fighting police brutality as the final horizon of activism in a time of economic depression? What about fighting for new economic ideas?

A recent post by LSE based International Relations scholar, Nick Srnicek, asked ‘Has the Left given up on economics?‘, arguing that in spite of living through one the greatest economic depressions in history the left has notably failed to incorporate economic analysis or alternatives into its program for change. What we have, instead, is the usual focus on racism, police brutality, defending the welfare state, and such like issues – a repetition of the kind of lowest common denominator politics of resistance little different to what the left focused on during the boom time. Of course, the reasons for this state of affairs are just as much political as to do with the collective psychological state of the left. A counter post here makes a few important points on the institutional reasons for the weakness; the most important of which I consider to be the lack of support by union structures for developing and disseminating alternative economic analysis. As a supplement to this, I would also add that the current predominance of (neo) anarchist ideas in activist communities – with the valorisation of sponteneism, horizontal (non) organization, and a focus on means rather than ends (so called prefigurative politics) – serves to reinforce the irrelevance of expert, technical analysis of economics. Ultimately, the end game of this kind of extreme democratic politics cannot tolerate analysis that would privilege the scientific knowledge of a minority. But in any case, the above political argument is not the focus of my present commentary, so I will leave that aside for another day.

Here, I want to present what I believe to be one possible reason for the seemingly minimal influence of economics on left wing politics: the fact that the Marxian economic project has stalled on a number of levels. As a Marxist myself, I feel at liberty to place at least some of the blame for this at Marx’s feet, even if, of course, contemporary Marxists should shoulder most of the weight of responsibility for the state of affairs. In brief, there are two levels at which I think Marxian economics has stalled:

  1. Failing to work through the categories elaborated in Capital to more adequately conceptualise transitionary structures to post-capitalism.
  2. Not bringing Capital up to date in terms of economic model theory, hence leaving it as a limited ‘fundamental structural model’ of the economy, unable to incorporate enough variables and economic objects into its analysis.

1. Capital and post-capitalism

There is a persistent tendency within Marxism to reduce the economic to the political, as if none of the economic laws under one system carry across even during a period of transition to another system. This is reflected in the somewhat endless debates regarding to what extent Capital represents simply a critique of capitalism or a work of positive economics? One could certainly make arguments both ways. My personal view on this matter is that by the time on reaches Vol. III it becomes indisputable that Marx had, whether intentionally or not, created a work of positive economics with tendential predictions unique to the Marxian economic paradigm. That is, the exploitation labour theory of value leads to a theory of tendencies within the profit rates not found elsewhere in other economic theories, dependent upon historically variant relative composition of capitals, and also leading to a theory of tendencies in employment levels.

Now, none of this fits very neatly with Marx’s political philosophy, which is all about the real, historical political movement. One of the mysteries during my research into Marx as part of my PhD thesis is why, if Marx felt his own analysis mostly useless for thinking a post-capitalist society, did he seemingly invest so much time in it? And why, at the end of 20 years study, did he abandon his economic studies to learn Russian and focus almost exclusively on events there, even to the point of ditching the thesis that communism would preserve the best of capitalism to endorsing the populist idea that peasant communes could act as a direct launch pad for communism?

My feeling is that Marx never really resolved these issues intellectually. You see the same thing in his mathematical writings, where he never really reconciled himself with abstract mathematical entities, trying to shoehorn the whole of calculus into the study of variable magnitudes. So the legacy of this Marxian reduction of abstract logics to the real is the presumption – common across most of the left in fact – that a revolutionary political upheavel would be sufficient to create a new historical dynamic to reconfigure the economic. What follows from this presumption is the idea that left wing economics may be able to analyze capitalism and critique it, but – and this ‘but’ is what I want to contest – the categories it uses to do so are no use to us in thinking what an alternative, transitionary structure might look like. Lenin repeated much the same line in State and Revolution where, despite a chapter nominally devoted to economic transition, the focus is unrelentingly political. For two reasons I believe that today such a position is untenable.

Firstly, because after the experience of 20th century communism, post or anti capitalism has been fully associated with the command economy. It may be the case that workers’ self-management is held out as a potential model that never received a proper test, but the fact that this never materialized seems to suggest that it would not, alone, hold out promise for transcending capitalism. Secondly, and surely as a result of the first point, today the left seems to lack any positive economic vision; and this lack of ideas is now part and parcel of the problem the left has drawing people in under a program for radical change. Most of the unpoliticised general population are not willing to put their faith in political upheavel necessarily leading to a better economic state of affairs, and they associate, in the absence of any countervailing evidence, the leftwing economy with simply a return to the state run, command economy. So ideas for post-capitalist changes are needed. Even simple, single policies that would begin a transitionary process would be welcome.

2. Capital out of date?

Marx’s Capital has recieved a rough ride ever since its publication. Even in the late 19th century it must have been percieved as antiquated, relying upon an unfashionable Hegelian mode of exposition and a radicalised Ricardian labour theory of value that would soon be superseded by the marginalist neoclassical thinkers. Things got no better once the critiques of inconsistency rolled in; critiques that only recently seem to have been laid to rest with the TSSI interpretation pioneered by Andrew Kliman, Alan Freeman, and others. So only today, almost over 150 years after Capital Vol. I was published, do we have a workable Marxian paradigm shared by a community of scholars, and used to conduct econometric work – generally focusing on the long term tendency for a declining rate of profit in explaining crisis.

Why do I believe TSSI Marxism is not enough? The most glaring problem seems to be because there is no clear epistemological reasoning as to why this consistent economic set of laws represents reality most accurately. This allows critics to accuse it of being out of date, and solely reflecting a mode of accumulation associated with Victorian era industrial production, of no relevance to IT, finance, the service sector, and immaterial labour in general.  In this context reliance on Hegelian reflection theory as a grounding epistemology is obviously completely inadequate.

Moreover, its dialectical construction seems to leave just too many holes, or residual, undelineated categories. The entire financial edifice, for one thing, is simply lumped into an undifferentiated sphere of exchange. Marxian economics does not seem to extend much further than looking at underlying profit tendencies and capital compositions within a limited, fixed number of categories. The problem thus appears to be how to expand it from simply a posited set of fundamental structural laws to become a complete model able to incorporate more variables and levels of analysis. The impedimenta to this progress appears to be Capital‘s generally dialectical structure (and I write this with a few caveats – for example, I do not believe it is an irrevisably dialectical theory) which makes it very hard to add more variables and levels of analysis. For Capital to become a more serviceable model of the economy it needs to rest on a foundation that would allow it to add more levels of analysis that would ultimately be able to be fed into an econometric model – not, that is, circumscribed to only intuiting very long run tendencies simmering beneath the surface of economic phenomena.

In order to achieve this, I believe a model of Capital needs to focus on its strongest aspects. This would ditch some of the philosophical baggage around commodity fetishism and any unworkable categories, and focus on where it does best – namely on the hypothesis of long term profit tendencies being responsible for more short run economic phenomena such as crisis and financial movements. The model would need to be explicitly a temporal model of how various structures in the economy interact. We also want this model to be revisable to the introduction of new variables and structures. It has to be an open model able to incorporate all relevant structures and phenomena. The axioms of geometry provide a good example here. Euclid’s axioms are consistent, but when placed in an ‘inner model’ on the surface of a sphere they break down, leading to proofs of the independence of some of the axioms and the need for revision. We need to be able to do the same thing for economic theory – we need to be able to test our fundamental structural model to make sure it does not rely on dogmatic assertions.

What I have sketched above is no small task. Indeed, from my initial research into economic models there appears to be very little out there to begin with – there is no off the peg model structure into which Capital‘s categories could simply be dropped. At present it thus feels like something of a tabula rasa effort, and to be successful it will no doubt need to be a collective project conducted amongst colleagues, some of which will have to be more technically and mathematically proficient than I.

The ultimate point of this endeavour is based on the wager that there is a structural truth to the economic crisis to be discovered (in the realist sense), and that a correct diagnosis will help the project to conceive a determinate economic project on the left, and give us tangible ideas to fight for.

The 2005 Hollywood biopic of the life of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, looks at first glance like it does little more than reprise a typical sexist narrative shoehorned into a dialectical dramatic structure. Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) plays the role of the male visionary encumbered by the domestic shortsightedness of his loved one. Following a hasty marriage which leaves him struggling to support his wife and children, against all odds Cash gains a record contract and heads out on tour. Despite now finally gaining financial security through his new rockstar lifestyle the change alienates his wife, and he struggles through the extreme adversity of drug addiction and alcoholism, losing family and friends in the process. The familiar dialectical coup de grace comes when all this negativity is recuperated by way of his relationship with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) who recognises his brilliance and guides him back to sobriety and musical form. When by the end of the film he returns to the life of domestic bliss, for all the apparent similarities with his previous marriage, his return to domesticity in his relationship with Carter is raised to a higher level. Through Carter’s recognition Cash then goes on to record his famous tour of high security prisons. The legend is complete.

Regardless of how closely this narrative conforms to the real factual details of Cash’s life, one can easily get carried along uncritically by the satisfying dialectical structure. Yet what if, like Marx’s great critical operation on Hegel, we were to break down this narrative into it real parts: namely, what is the real abstraction at work that allows us to experience this narrative as so satisfying and unproblematically complete? Because if one introduces the gender divide and examines the narrative along an axis attentive to this divide a slightly less flattering picture comes to light. For the Idea of Cash to emerge in its developed form, the female protagonists in his life have to be reduced to mere supporting roles. His first wife’s role is to provide a constructive barrier of incomprehension to fuel the angst-ridden necessities of his musical innovation. Carter’s role is to recognise Cash, and also to place a barrier between their relationship. Yet in the final accounting, Carter’s role becomes to nurse him back to health and agree to marry him. The concept of Cash comes to fruition over the ruins of his relationships with women and the reduction of them to unconscious actors in the birth of a legend. We might ask how many narratives show the development of successful women through their relationships with men reduced to supporting roles?

Moving from inversion to subversion, one can reverse this narrative in a form of a pseudo negative dialectic. For example, in Lars von Trier’s films the realisation of the male hero concept is rendered cynical and diabolical. Von Trier’s 1996 film, Breaking the Waves, can be seen as a direct reversal of the structure of the likes of Walk the Line. Naïve village girl Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) marries oil rig worker Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård). Bess falls in absolute love with Jan—she is not ‘right in the head’ according to her best friends in the community—and this is expressed through both her uninhibited sexuality and emotional absorbsion in the relationship. When Jan suffers a major drilling accident and is left paralyzed he asks her, against all her wishes, to have sex with other men and tell the stories back to him. This leads to a downward cycle of degradation for Bess, who is inevitably killed fulfilling Jan’s demands. Yet after her death Jan unexpectedly recovers. He organises the capture of her body from the oppressive village community and gives her a sea burial. Bells in the heavens sound in an ironic play on the martyrdom theme. The reversal at work here, then, does not turn the sexist dialectical structure on its head as much as draw attention to the ruins, prejudice and exploitation of women when they are reduced to supporting roles in the psychic realisation of male protagonists.

So why, given all the above, does the relationship between Cash and Carter in Walk the Line nonetheless remain compelling? If anything, the best thing about the depiction of their relationship is the unwillingness of Carter to simply accede to the role of female support figure. Her intransigence in the face of Cash’s relentless advances and desire for her—to not be absorbed into the pre-prescribed role of fading into the ‘fat shadow’ of Cash—that is, where her actions run contrary to the overall narrative structure—is where the film it is at its strongest. Cash’s unrequited desire for Carter during large stretches of the film pushes him right to the edges of self-destruction. And even when she is forced into the conventional nursing position of providing care for him during his drug rehab, she does not agree to marry him afterwards. This is why it feels such a fake when at the close of the film Cash puts her on the spot on stage to ask her to marry him and she agrees. For a structural completeness and archetypal happy ending the film sells out the one dimension of its presentation that bucked its otherwise standard sexist narrative structure.

….But Johnny Cash really did propose to June Carter on stage. And he did keep asking until she said yes. Its not the film at fault; its reality itself.

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