Brendan M Cooney Talk at Left Forum in New York on Marx's Capital
Brendan M Cooney' Talk at Left Forum talk
As leftists we’ve all had the experience of being told “Hey man, that’s just the way things are.” In the middle of some brilliant analysis of how lame Obama is, or how much the prison industrial complex sucks someone says to us “Hey man that’s just the way things are.” Is this not the essence of any dominant ideology? The point of a dominant ideology is the idea that the present is eternal and unchangeable- that the existing institutions, power structures and injustices are as natural as making babies, that any attempt to critique them or change them is futile. [Though ideologues may try to dress up the message with fancy theories of Pareto Optimality, or fancy algebra, the message is still the same: "Hey man, that's just the way things are."]
In order to do this ideology has to paint the present as something static and unchanging. The feudal landlord had the catholic church which imbued the class relations of society with an eternal christian mysticism. Today we have mainstream economics which projects its own categories backwards and forwards in time to create the illusion that there is nothing unique about modern capitalism and that there are no alternatives to the present.
There is a great, unfinished task before us- not just of how to understand this crisis, but how to understand capitalist crisis in general; and then, specifically to understand the future of capitalism, the openings that will arise for radical breaks from the present order, and the sort of new social orders that might emerge. This task of understanding capitalism also must be a radical critique of dominant ideology- bourgeois ideology. This is why Karl Marx subtitled Kapital “A Critique of Political Economy”. He was very clear that alternative ideas develop in relation to hegemonic ideas. When we aren’t clear about how our ideas relate to dominant ideology we run the risk of allowing bourgeois ideas to subtly influence our own thinking. And I think this is why a lot of leftist takes on the current crisis fall short of being truly radical- that they are not fully conscious of the master narrative and its influence on their ideas.
How does ideology paint the present as eternal? It does this by misusing the process of abstraction. It must abstract away from its description of the present anything which is historically specific, leaving only those vague categories that transcend time.
For instance, take the modern, neoclassical definition of capital which basically says “Capital is stuff that you use to make more stuff.” Now it is true that we can observe throughout human history the phenomenon of people using (stuff) tools to increase the productivity of their labor. According to this vague bourgeois definition there is no real distinction between the bows and arrows wielded by the Iroquois Nation and a Ford Motor plant. And so this definition passes the test of ideology: it makes capital seem universal, timeless, natural and stable. And it does this by abstracting away all historically specific production relations.
By such a definition there is really nothing in capital that could cause a capitalist crisis. How can there be a crisis between a man and his tool? And this is why bourgeois economics must always paint crisis as something external to the system: famine, drought, or maybe malevolent manipulations of the market by governments or unions. But rarely do we hear anyone dare suggest that capital itself might be causing the crisis. (Even some self-proclaimed Marxists are hesitant on this point.) Such an explanation would suggest that there was something historically unique about capital. And after all, what could go wrong between a man and his tool?
The problem is that in a capitalist society those tools are not the property of the people who wield them. The means of production are privately owned by the capitalist class. Class relations are basic to the way production is organized. We might also note that work is a social process mediated through wage labor, not just a relation between individuals and tools. But now we are talking about people in groups, something bourgeois economics avoids at all costs.
Bourgeois economics treats society atomistically in a souped-up version of supply and demand: demand is the product of isolated individuals interacting with commodities; supply is the product of isolated individuals relating to tools. And because people have always wanted stuff, and because there has always been a limited amount of stuff on the planet this is considered all we need to know to understand the economic universe. Mainstream economics substitute some eloquent algebra for what should be the fundamental question: what determines demand and supply? Demand is a function of one’s income from working and socially conditioned preferences from a consumer-driven culture. Supply is determined by the amount of labor apportioned to various tasks and the productivity of this labor. So we see how quickly the image of the atomistic individual falls apart and is replaced by a vast mode of social regulation all regulated by the class relations of a labor process. The picture of the individual, atomistic consumer/producer can only be sustained by abstracting away all mention of these social relations.
This is Marx’s starting point in Kapital: this world of individuals interacting with commodities conceals a deeper world of social relations. By ignoring these relations ideology paints a picture of an eternal world of people interacting with objects in perfect equilibrium. All other factors are considered an external interference. [When a union organizes for better wages, this is not seen as a a direct result of the antagonisms of private ownership of property, but instead as something external to the picture which interferes. When the state intervenes to open markets, or protect capital from itself (like it is currently doing) this is not seen as an inherent reality of a crisis-prone capitalism, but as an external interference.]
Let’s take a look at an actual society with no internal crisis: the primitive hunter-gatherer society. Here work was a collective effort with little or no differentiation of activity. [This undifferentiated form of social labor was probably the simplest of economic systems.] It was immune to internal crisis because, as a large undifferentiated whole, there were no different internal parts to go awry. Crisis then was purely external- drought, famine, earthquake.
The productivity of capitalism is such that we rarely have to worry about an external threat causing a crisis. Hurricane Katrina was horrible but it didn’t make global stock markets tank. In our ability to store up enough social surplus to survive against these external shocks the crisis has been internalized. Now crisis is a problem with the internal mechanisms by which social labor and its surplus is apportioned.
In a capitalist society social labor is wage labor. The ability to work is bought and sold in the market as a commodity as are the products of that labor. Those commodities have value to the extent that they are part of the social labor process. It is in studying this value that we can begin to understand the way capitalism works.
The goal of the capitalist is to amass value, measured in money, for the sake of amassing value. The capitalist wakes up in the morning with money and at the end of the day has accumulated more money. And he doesn’t need to perform any labor at all in order to do this, nor does he care what kind of or how many commodities he has produced. The only question for the capitalist is “Tomorrow what will I do with all this money?” And the answer is always “Try to turn it into more money.”
Thus the total amount of value in society is expanding, by some estimates an average of 3% a year. This is growth for the sake of growth, regardless of the social consequences. Here is where the absurdity of the conspiracy theory becomes clear. The basic idea of a conspiracy theory is: “There is such an amazing coincidence of messed up stuff in the world. This can’t be an accident. There must be some evil will behind it all.” But the conspiracy theorist misses the point. The motor of society, growth- blind, inanimate capital accumulation- doesn’t happen for a reason. There is no will behind it. It’s growth purely for the sake of growth.
But how far is bourgeois economics from the conspiracy theorist? Surely, this is what was most fascinating about the Ron Paul phenomenon: how Ron Paul fused the libertarian and conspiracy causes. If we take libertarianism to be the basic ideological distillation of modern economics isn’t it revealing how close the bourgeois theories of crisis coincide with the conspiratorial notion of an evil, outside force destroying the fabric of society- governments, the FED, jews, aliens. Neither can see that capitalist crisis is indistinguishable from capitalism itself.
When we ask if crisis is internal to capital we are asking if there is a limit to this growth. Clearly capital can only grow at the expense of the laborer. We, the laborers, are the active agents in a vast field of capital comprised of the products of past labor- machines, tools, raw materials, partially finished commodities. Marx called this ratio of past labor to living labor, of machines to man, the “organic composition of capital” and he observed that over time the composition of capital becomes more and more dominated by machines- all intended to improve the productivity of labor. But just because more widgets roll off the conveyor belt doesn’t mean that more value is being produced.
You may know those beautiful Diego Rivera murals in Detroit- his homage to the American industrial worker. In the murals there is a busyness of motion, of swirling gears and conveyor belts, the clanging and rumbling of great industrial machinery. And in the middle of it all, their bodies falling in to rhythm with the machines, are the the muscular forms of the American proletariat. Here is a brilliant illustration of several of Marx’s key insights about capital. In its explosive growth, capital flows through more and more of our reality until everything around us takes on the rhythm of accumulation. In the acceleration of turnover time, the construction and reconstruction of physical space, the gyrations of the stock market and the interest rate, we are always in the presence of the thumping rhythm of “the machine” that is capital. But we are the solitary living ingredient in the equation. As our bodies fall in with the rhythm of the conveyor belt we breath life into the machine.
The bodies in Rivera’s mural are totally dependent on capital for their survival and capital is totally dependent on the exploitation of those bodies for its survival. Yet despite their mutual dependence the two sides are antagonistic. What happens if we perform that careless abstraction of the bourgeoise economist- if we wave our magic wands and make one of the two elements disappear?
If we were to make capital disappear the wage laborer would cease to exist. Yet, human beings would still exist and they would still labor. In fact humans have labored without capital before and hopefully they may again one day. Thus the self-negativity of the worker is that (s)he can say “no” to being a wage laborer. This is what gives a union power- it’s ability to say a collective “no” to capital. This is also why labor creates value in the first place- the ability to say no is the essence of a social contract. The ultimate “no”, the ultimate self-negativity of labor is revolution. This is when we transcend wage labor.
If the human species were raptured this very minute, imagine the world we would leave behind: Diego Rivera’s mural falls silent, the still machines rusting in dark factories; empty schools and prisons, money lying in dark vaults, oil lying still in its barrels- a dead, motionless world. Capital is nothing without the laborer. Thus the self-negativity of capital is that to the extent that it eliminates labor it eliminates itself.
If we were to paint a dozen more machines into Rivera’s mural, the physical output might double. Perhaps we might erase the workers altogether and replace them with machines. What could be better for capital? A machine increases physical output and frees capital of its reliance on labor. But while this may create short-term competitive profits for the individual capitalist it comes at a high price. The less workers we have in our mural, the less value we produce. The more we spend on machines the higher our costs. This is why efficiency is the self-negating part of capital: efficiency destroys the very thing which creates value in the first place.
This may seem intuitively puzzling. If we erased all the workers from Rivera’s mural, wouldn’t cars still be produced? Wouldn’t people still buy them? Wouldn’t profit still be made? This is precisely the argument of those who maintain that profit is physically determined- that an increase in efficiency/productivity must mean more profits. But this is counter to the tenants of value theory: that only labor can produce value and that to the extent that capital accumulates at the sake of labor it is self-negating.
The debate over these rival concepts of productivity, capital and value is crucial. It is important not to dismiss this debate as mere scholasticism. When the bourgeois economist looks at those great murals of Diego Rivera’s he sees only people using stuff to make more stuff, existing in static equilibrium, besieged on all sides by hostile external forces. From the perspective of value theory the roaring machines conceal a social relation which pervades our reality and is contradictory at its core. Those “hostile external forces” are caught up in the gravitational field of capital and become internal to capital. Capital subsumes money, the state, culture and physical space and leaves its mark on all of them forcing them to express its contradictions.
Bourgeois economics may project its categories back and forth in time to create the illusion of a timeless capitalism in equilibrium. But in times of crisis the veil is torn. In a crisis it becomes clear that all things are in flux, that nothing is certain, that social systems don’t grow on trees- that they must be reproduced. We see motion and change all around us. When capital can’t reproduce itself, anything can happen. A crisis is a horrible time for people, but it’s also a great time for radical theory