October 2018:An exchange prompted by the essay 

The Precariat: Today’s Transformative Class? 

A headshot of Bill Fletcher

Bill Fletcher
Taking a long view of precariousness as an inherent feature of capitalism can shed light on the contemporary debate on “the precariat.”

A headshot of Nancy Folbre

Nancy Folbre
The focus on “the precariat” is useful but limited: the fight over distribution isn’t just between labor and capital.

A headshot of Azfar Khan

Azfar Khan
A universal basic income is key to delivering security and autonomy to people in a precarious world. 

A headshot of Alexandra Köves

Alexandra Köves
Beyond policies like a universal basic income, a transition to a equitable and sustainable society requires the redefinition of well-being, needs, and work itself.

A headshot of George Liodakis

George Liodakis
There is no “precariat,” per se—the working class as-a-whole remains the necessary agent for transformation.

A headshot of Ronaldo Munck

Ronaldo Munck
Work in the Global South has always been precarious, but the resurgence of global labor organizing offers a way forward.

A headshot of William I. Robinson

William I. Robinson
The “precariat,” rather than a new class, is part of the global proletariat, on whose struggle with transnational capital our fate depends.

A headshot of Pritam Singh

Pritam Singh
A basic income alone is not transformative, but a feature of a broader ecosocialist vision of dismantling capitalism. 

A headshot of Eva-Maria Swidler

Eva-Maria Swidler
Workers in the Global North have a lot to learn from the past struggles of workers in the Global South (as well as in their own countries). 

A headshot of Evelyn AstorA headshot of Alison Tate

Alison Tate and Evelyn Astor
Labor unions must continue to play an important role in the fight for economic justice and against precariousness. 

A headshot of Guy Standing

Author’s Response
Guy Standing addresses points raised by the contributors to this roundtable. Read

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Hegemony | Marxism | Organizing | Strategy and Tactics | Theory | Working Class | Youth | Blog

By Guy Standing

October 2018

Since 1980, the global economy has undergone a dramatic transformation, with the globalization of the labor force, the rise of automation, and—above all—the growth of Big Finance, Big Pharma, and Big Tech. The social democratic consensus of the immediate postwar years has given way to a new phase of capitalism that is leaving workers further behind and reshaping the class structure. The precariat, a mass class defined by unstable labor arrangements, lack of identity, and erosion of rights, is emerging as today’s “dangerous class.” As its demands cannot be met within the current system, the precariat carries transformative potential. To realize that potential, however, the precariat must awaken to its status as a class and fight for a radically changed income distribution that reclaims the commons and guarantees a livable income for all. Without transformative action, a dark political era looms.


We are living in a painful time of turbulent economic change. A global market system continues to take shape as the United States petulantly threatens the international order that it helped to create and from which it has gained disproportionately. This era, which began around 1980, has been dominated institutionally by American finance and ideologically by the economic orthodoxy of “neoliberalism.” A hallmark of this transformation has been the increasing redistribution of wealth upwards as rents to those owning property—physical, financial, and “intellectual.” As “rentier capitalism” has risen, working classes have foundered, as those relying on labor have been losing ground in both relative and absolute terms.

In brief, during the past forty years, the global economy has been shaped by neoliberal economics, which, accentuated by the digital revolution, has generated two linked phenomena: global rentier capitalism and a global class structure in which the precariat is the new mass class. Rentier capitalism is making the hardships borne by the precariat much worse.

Industrial capitalism produced a property-owning bourgeoisie and the proletariat; contemporary capitalism is roiling this class structure. Today, the mass class is the precariat, characterized by unstable labor, low and unpredictable incomes, and loss of citizenship rights. It is the new “dangerous class,” partly because its insecurities induce the bitterness, ill-health, and anger that can be the fodder of right-wing populism. But it is also dangerous in the progressive sense that many in it reject old center-left and center-right politics. They are looking for the root-and-branch change of a new “politics of paradise,” rather than a return to a “politics of laborism” that seeks amelioration within dominant institutions and power structures.

The precariat’s needs cannot be met by modest reforms to the existing social and economic system. It is the only transformative class because, intuitively, it wants to become strong enough to abolish the conditions that define its existence and, as such, abolish itself. All others want merely to improve their position in the social hierarchy. This emergent class is thus well-placed to become the agent of radical social transformation—if it can organize and become sufficiently united around a shared identity, alternative vision, and viable political agenda.

The key to understanding the precariat’s transformational position lies in the breakdown of the income distribution system of the mid-twentieth century. To succeed, a new progressive politics must offer a pathway to an ecologically sustainable system that reduces inequalities and insecurities in the context of an open, globalizing economy.

The Rise of Rentier Capitalism

Between 1945 and 1980, the dominant socioeconomic paradigm in industrialized countries outside the Communist Bloc was social democratic, defined by the creation of welfare states and labor-based entitlements. Although there were modest falls in inequality coupled with labor-based economic security, this was no “golden age,” as some historians label it. The period was stultifying and sexist. Putting as many people as possible (mainly men) in full-time jobs under the banner of Full Employment was hardly an emancipatory vision worthy of the Enlightenment values of EgalitéLiberté, and Solidarité.

As the social democratic era collapsed in the 1970s, an economic model emerged now known as “neoliberalism.” Its advocates preached “free markets,” strong private property rights, financial market liberalization, free trade, commodification, privatization, and the dismantling of all institutions and mechanisms of social solidarity, which, in their view, were “rigidities” holding back the market. While the neoliberals were largely successful in implementing their program, what transpired was very different from what they had promised.

The initial outcome was financial domination. The income generated by US finance, which equaled 100% the size of the US economy in 1975, grew to 350% in 2015. Similarly, in the UK, finance went from 100% to 300% of GDP. Both countries experienced rapid deindustrialization as the strength of finance led to an overvalued exchange rate that, by making exports uncompetitive and imports cheaper, destroyed high-productivity manufacturing jobs. Financial institutions, most notably Goldman Sachs, became masters of the universe, their executives slotted into top political positions in the US and around the world.1

Finance linked up with Big Pharma and Big Tech to forge a global architecture of institutions strengthening rentier capitalism, maximizing monopolistic income from intellectual property. The pivotal moment came in 1995 with implementation of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), in which US multinational corporations helped secure the globalization of the US intellectual property rights system. This shift gave unprecedented rent-extracting capacity to multinationals and financial institutions.

Patents, copyright, protection of industrial designs, and trademarked brands have multiplied as sources of monopolistic profit. In 1994, fewer than one million patents were filed worldwide; in 2011, over two million were filed; in 2016, over three million. By then, twelve million were in force, and licensing income from patents had multiplied sevenfold. Growth was similar with other forms of intellectual property.

The rent-extracting system was enforced by over 3,000 trade and investment agreements, all entrenching property rights, topped by a mechanism (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) that empowers multinationals to sue governments for any policy changes that, in their view, negatively affect their future profits. This has had a chilling effect on policy reform efforts, notably those seeking to protect health and the environment.

Rentier capitalism has also been bolstered by subsidies, a financial system designed to increase private debt, privatization of public services, and a plunder of the commons. But it contains two possibly fatal flaws. First, the rentiers have been winning too much by rigging the system, raising questions about social and political sustainability. Second, the architects proved mistaken in thinking this framework would bolster the US economy, along with other advanced industrial economies to a lesser extent, at the expense of the rest of the world.

In particular, they underestimated China. When TRIPS was passed, China was inconsequential as a rentier economy. After it joined the WTO in 2001, it started to catch up fast. In 2011, China overtook the US in patent applications; by 2013, it accounted for nearly a third of global filings, well ahead of the US (22%). In 2016, it accounted for 98% of the increase over 2015, filing more than the US, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the European Patent Office combined.

The main outcome of rentier capitalism, exacerbated by globalization and the digital revolution, is an inexorable erosion of the income distribution system of the twentieth century—the implicit sharing of income between capital and labor that emerged after the Second World War, epitomized by the 1950 pact between the United Auto Workers union and General Motors known as the Treaty of Detroit. Now, all over the world, the share of income going to capital has been rising; the share going to labor, falling. Within both, the share going to forms of rent has been rising.

The social democratic consensus was based on implicit rules. When productivity rose, so did wages. When profits rose, so did wages. When employment rose, so did wages. Today, productivity and employment are rising, but wages remain stagnant or falling.

One factor depressing wages has been the growth of the global labor force, which has expanded by two billion during the past three decades, many of whom have a living standard that is a tiny fraction of what OECD workers were obtaining. Downward pressure on real wages will continue, especially as productivity can rise faster in emerging market economies and the technological revolution makes relocation of production and employment so much easier. Meanwhile, the rentiers will be protected. Antitrust legislation will not be strengthened to cut monopolistic rent-seeking, since governments will continue to protect national corporate champions.

Without transformative changes, those relying on labor will continue to lose; no amount of tinkering will do. Average real wages in OECD countries will stagnate, and social income inequalities will grow. Progressives must stop deluding themselves. Unless globalization goes into reverse, which is unlikely, trying to remedy inequality by forcing up wages, however desirable, will not do much. Raising wages substantially would merely accelerate the displacement of labor by automation.

A Global Class Structure

Just as industrial capitalism ushered in a new class structure, so, too, has rentier capitalism. The emerging structure, superimposed on old structures, is topped by a plutocracy, made up of a small group of billionaires who wield corruptive power. Although mostly in the West, a growing proportion of plutocrats are in Asia and other emerging market economies. Under them is an elite, who serve the plutocracy’s interests while making substantial rental income themselves. Together, these comprise what is colloquially known as the 1%, but, in fact, is much smaller than that.

Below them in the income spectrum is a salariat, a shrinking number of people with labor-based security and robust benefits, from health care to stock ownership. In the post-1945 era, economists predicted that by the end of the twentieth century, the vast majority in rich countries would be in the salariat, with growing numbers in developing countries joining them. Instead, the salariat is shrinking. It will not disappear, but its members are increasingly detached from those below them in the class spectrum, largely because they too gain more in rentier incomes than in wages. Still, their politics may be shaped by what they see happening to their sons and daughters, as well as their grandchildren.

Alongside the salariat is a smaller group of proficians, freelance professionals, such as software engineers, stock traders, lawyers, and medical specialists operating independently. They earn high incomes selling themselves frenetically, but risk early burnout and moral corrosion through excessive opportunism. This group will grow and are influential beyond their number, conveying an image of autonomy. But for the health of this untethered, hard-driving group—and society’s—they need social structures to enforce moral codes.

Below them in income terms is the proletariat, the epitome of the “working class” in the European sense, the “middle class” in the American sense. In the twentieth century, welfare states, labor law, collective bargaining, trade unions, and labor and social democratic parties were built by and for this group. However, it is dwindling everywhere and has lost progressive energy and direction.

Those who pine for the proletariat should reflect on the downside of the proletarian life and what most had to do just to survive. There should be respect for what it achieved in its heyday, but nostalgia is delusional. In reality, many are falling into the emerging mass class, the precariat, which is also being fed by college graduates and dropouts, women, migrants, and others.

Understanding the Precariat

The precariat consists of millions of people in every advanced industrial country and in emerging market economies as well.2 It can be defined in three dimensions: distinctive relations of production (patterns of labor and work), distinctive relations of distribution (sources of social income), and distinctive relations to the state (loss of citizenship rights). It is still a “class-in-the-making” in that it is internally divided by different senses of relative deprivation and consciousness. But in Europe at least, it is becoming conscious of itself as a coherent group opposed to the dominant power structure (a “class-for-itself”).

The distinctive relations of production start with the fact that the precariat is being forced to accept, and is being habituated to, a life of unstable labor, through temporary work assignments (“casualization”), agency labor, “tasking” in Internet-based “platform capitalism,” flexible scheduling, on-call and zero-hour contracts, and so on. Even more important is that those in the precariat have no occupational narrative or identity, no sense of themselves as having a career trajectory. They also learn they must do a lot of work-for-labor, work-for-the-state, and work-for-reproduction of themselves.3 The need to adapt capabilities in a context of uncertainty leads to the precariatized mind, not knowing how best to allocate one’s time and thus being under almost constant stress.

The precariat is also the first mass class in history in which their typical level of education exceeds that required for the kind of labor they can expect to obtain. And it must work and labor outside fixed workplaces and standard labor hours as well as within them.

The precariat exists in most occupations and at most levels within corporations. For example, within the legal professions, there are elites, a squeezed salariat, and a precariat of paralegals. Similar fragmentation exists in the medical and teaching professions, with paramedics and “fractionals” (i.e., those remunerated for only a fraction of full-time). The precariat is even spreading into corporate management with a concept of “interim managers,” some of whom are well-paid proficians (depicted by George Clooney in Up in the Air), others of whom fall in the precariat.

Along with the rise of unstable labor, the second dimension is distinctive relations of distribution, or structures of social income.4 The precariat relies mainly on money wages, which have been stagnant or falling in real terms for three decades, and which are increasingly volatile. The precariat’s income security has fallen correspondingly. Also, as many must do much unpaid work, the wage rate is lower than it appears if only paid labor time is taken into account. This trend will only intensify with the spread of “tasking” through online platforms.

Further, the precariat has been losing non-wage forms of remuneration, while the salariat and elite have been gaining them, making the growth of social income inequality greater than it appears in conventional income statistics. The precariat rarely receives paid holidays, paid medical leave, subsidized transport or accommodation, paid maternity leave, and so on. And it lacks the occupational benefits that came with belonging to a professional or craft guild.

The precariat has also lost entitlement to rights-based state benefits (welfare). The international trend towards means-testing and behavior-testing has hit them hard and engulfed many in regimes of workfare. Means-testing creates poverty traps, since benefits are withdrawn when earned income rises. Going from low state benefits into low-wage jobs on offer thus involves very high marginal “tax” rates, often over 80%. The precariat also faces “precarity traps”: obtaining benefits takes time, so if you succeed in obtaining them, it would be financially irrational to leave for a low-paying short-term job alternative.

The precariat has also been losing access to family and community support, as well as to commons resources and amenities, all of which have been underestimated sources of income security for low-income groups throughout the ages. For the precariat, they are just not there. Instead, many are driven to food banks and charities.

Key to the precariat’s income insecurity is uncertainty. Uncertainty differs from contingency risks, such as unemployment, maternity, and sickness, which were core focuses of welfare states. For those, one can calculate the probability of such events and develop an insurance scheme. Uncertainty cannot be insured against; it is about “unknown unknowns.” The social security part of the distribution system has also broken down, and social democrats should stop pretending it could be restored.

The precariat also suffers from an above-average cost of living. They live on the edge of unsustainable debt, knowing that one illness, accident, or mistake could render them homeless. Needing loans and credit, they pay much higher interest rates than richer folk.

The third defining dimension consists of the precariat’s distinctive relations to the state. The proletariat went from having few rights to having a rising number—cultural, civil, social, political, and economic. By contrast, the precariat is losing such rights, often not realizing so until need for their protection arises. For instance, they usually lack cultural rights because they cannot belong to communities such as occupational guilds that would give them security and identity. They lack civil rights because of the erosion of due process and inability to afford adequate defense in court; they often lose entitlement to state benefits on the whim of unaccountable bureaucrats. They lose economic rights because they cannot work in occupations they are qualified to perform.

The loss of rights goes with the most defining feature of the class: the precariat consists of supplicants. The original Latin meaning of precarious was “to obtain by prayer.” That sums up what it is to be in the precariat: having to ask for favors, for help, for a break, for a discretionary judgment by some bureaucrat, agent, relative, or friend. This intensifies uncertainty. To be in the precariat, it has been said, is like running on sinking sand.

Experience of supplicant status leads to the precariat’s growing consciousness. Chronic insecurity induces anxiety, but as with all emerging classes, there are different forms of relative deprivation. The precariat is split into three factions, which has hindered its becoming a class-for-itself and is challenging for those wishing to develop and organize a progressive response.

The first faction is the Atavists. They have fallen out of the proletariat, or come from old working-class families or communities whose members once depended on full-time jobs. Some are young; many are older, looking back wistfully. Their deprivation is about a lost Past, whether real or imagined. Having relatively little schooling or education in civics, history, or culture, they tend to listen to the sirens of neo-fascist populism.

They have been voting for the likes of Trump, Putin, Orban, Marine Le Pen, Farage and other Brexiteers, and the Lega in Italy. It is not correct to call them the “left behind,” since they are expected to function inside a new labor market. But they are bitter, eager to blame others for their plight. Those they demonize comprise the second faction of the precariat, the Nostalgics. This group is composed of migrants and minorities, who feel deprived of a Present, with nowhere to call home. For the most part, they “keep their heads down,” doing whatever they can to survive and move forward.

The third faction is best described as the Progressives, more educated and mainly young, although not exclusively so. Their defining sense of deprivation is loss of a Future. They went to university or college, promised by their parents and teachers that this would lead to a defining career. They emerge without that, often with debt stretching into that future. Beyond their own future, more and more despair about the planet’s ecological future.

A challenge for aspiring politicians is to build a broad policy strategy for bringing all three factions together in common cause. That is beginning to happen, so it is unnecessarily pessimistic to think a new progressive politics cannot be forged for the precariat as a whole.

The Dangerous Class

The precariat is today’s “dangerous class,” because it is the part of the emerging class system that could carry forward social transformation. For Marxists, the term “dangerous class” is associated with the “lumpen-proletariat,” those cut off from society, reduced to crime and social illness, having no function in production other than to put fear into the proletariat. But the precariat is not a lumpen. It is wanted by global capitalism, encapsulating new norms of labor and work. continue

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Strategy and Tactics | Theory | Working Class | Youth | Blog

Panagiotis Sotiris and Thomas Goes

Viewpoint Magazine, May 7, 2018


Thomas Goes: Why should we, today, study the work of Nicos Poulantzas, a theoretician who died almost 40 years ago? Or to put it differently, what can activists, organizers, and cadres within the anti-capitalist left learn from his writings that could be useful, indeed, even necessary to build a strong, promising left?

Panagiotis Sotiris: The work of Nicos Poulantzas is one of the most important contributions to a possible Marxist theory of the state and of class antagonisms within the state. His was a highly original, relational conception of the state — the state as not simply an instrument in the hands of the ruling class but as the “condensation of a class relation.” He offered invaluable insights into the complexity of state apparatuses, articulating multiple relations between the state and the terrain of class struggle including the realm of production, and the myriad ways that the state functions as a crucial node in the (re)production of bourgeois class strategies.1

Poulantzas’s final book, State, Power, Socialism, offers one of the most sophisticated conceptualizations of how the state plays a crucial role in the production and reproduction of repressive measures and ideological interpellations, but also shapes discourses, strategies and technologies of power, to borrow Foucault’s term. This approach is reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci’s integral state, the “entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules.”2 In this sense, Poulantzas’s theory is a tool to help militants understand what they are up against.

At the same time, Poulantzas’s relational conception of the state offers a way to theorize the effectiveness of class struggles. It is true that there has been a tendency to interpret this relational conception as a form of reformism, that it points toward a gradual transformation of the state by means of the struggles that are “interiorized” within it. I disagree with a reading that would turn Poulantzas’s work into something like Eduard Bernstein’s reformism. According to Poulantzas, state apparatuses are the “materialization and condensation of class relations.” So, we are talking about a class state inscribed with the strategic and tactical interests of the bourgeoisie.3 In any case it is neither fortress nor instrument but a terrain of class antagonisms. Subaltern classes can induce ruptures, openings, and gains as part of a strategy for hegemony, which in the end will also need a confrontation with the very materiality of the repressive apparatuses of the state (what in classical Marxist theory was described as the necessity to smash the state). This is yet another useful reminder for militants: radical politics is neither a long march through institutions nor a simple preparation for a final confrontation with the state. We might think of it instead as a complex dialectical process: of changing the class balance of forces in favor of the subaltern classes, creating conditions for working class hegemony and preparing for the confrontation with the class strategies materially inscribed in the state.

Lastly, I want to emphasize the importance of Poulantzas’s theorization of authoritarian statism. Poulantzas was one of the first Marxist theorists in the aftermath of the capitalist crisis of 1973-4 to suggest that the reaction of the capitalist classes and their political representatives in the state was the result of extensive capitalist restructuring (and the first signs of the neoliberal turn) along with an authoritarian transformation of the state. I think that this dual tendency has since been a constant feature of social and political power. On the one hand it is exemplified in developments within capitalist states e.g. the expansion of repressive surveillance, the move of the center of power from the legislative to the executive, insulation of the decision processes against any form of intervention by the popular classes, and reduction of the scope of political debate with important strategic choices presented as simply technical. On the other hand, it is evident in the authoritarian institutional framework of the European Union, in some ways the model par excellence of authoritarian statism in Europe.

TG: Maybe we can move on to Poulantzas’s class analysis. What is its importance for our activism today? Why should we distinguish between a working class and what he called the “new petty bourgeoisie” composed of different layers of wage earners?

PS: Poulantzas offered a theory of class structures grounded in three key points.

First, he suggested that social classes are unthinkable outside of the terrain of class struggle. He wrote that “social classes involve in one and the same process both class contradictions and class struggle; social classes do not firstly exist as such, and only then enter into a class struggle. Social classes coincide with class practices, i.e. the class struggle, and are only defined in their mutual opposition.”4

Second, he argued that relations of production are not simple relations of legal ownership but rather complex relations of power and control of the means and process of production.

Third, he said that when we deal with the relations of production and the formation of class we are not simply talking about “economic” aspects but also political and ideological ones. In this sense, we avoid both the narrow economism of many traditional Marxist approaches and, at the same time, the underestimation of the centrality of relations of production that characterizes neo-Weberian theories of class stratification.

Poulantzas’s insight into the new petty bourgeoisie was essential.5 It was based upon a conception of the primacy of the social division of labor over the technical division of labor (which is the reflection of the primacy of the relations of production over the productive forces). For Poulantzas, “it is the social division of labor, in the form that this is given by the specific presence of political and ideological relations actually within the production process, which dominates the technical division of labor.”6

Consequently, he stressed the fact that the emergence of contradictory class positions that represent at the same time aspects of the collective laborer and of the collective capitalist was not a “neutral” technical evolution, but the expression of a deepening of the capitalist character of the labor process and of the political and ideological relations within the terrain of production. Despite certain shortcomings, such as Poulantzas’s tendency to identify the working class with productive labor (a choice that leaves out important working class segments), I think that this is an important contribution to any Marxist theory of social classes.

Moreover, I think that Poulantzas’s analysis can help us understand why treating these social strata as “working class” would mean taking for granted this form of the capitalist labor process and of the capitalist division between intellectual and manual labor. Moreover, it would also mean the incorporation of important elements of the petty-bourgeois ideology.

This does not mean that these strata could not be a part of the “people” as the alliance of the subaltern classes. Indeed one of the most important challenges today is gaining these strata in such political direction. In our time, contemporary capitalist restructurings tend at the same time to expand such positions but also to worsen their working conditions, thus polarizing them towards the working class. Organizing such strata, incorporating them in trade unions, engaging them in collective practices and demands and breaking the ideology that they are “middle class” or “professionals” is indeed one of the most important stakes of class struggles today.

TG: Poulantzas argued for a class alliance between the working class and the old and new petty bourgeoisie. He named it “the people.” So, first, how did he assume such a “people” develops? And what was, in his understanding, the role of the state and the party within this process? My impression is that his understanding of the party’s role was quite traditional.

PS: Poulantzas attempted a reconstruction of a theory of class alliances based upon his conception of the people as an alliance under the hegemony of the working class. In this sense, he offers a class-theoretical perspective of the people in contrast to current positions such as the ones associated with reading of the work of Ernesto Laclau that tend to treat the people as a form of interpellation and as a discursive construction.

It is true that Poulantzas treated the Communist party as the main terrain for the creation of the political conditions of such an alliance. He had in mind both the experience of the Greek communist movement, how the KKE became the leading force of the people in the Resistance and the Civil War, and the experience of the titanic Communist parties of Italy and France. He therefore also had in mind the idea of an alliance of the forces of the Left.

However, it is important to note that he did not restrict his view to the Party or parties. He also underscored the significance of autonomous social movements. In his last interventions, shortly before his suicide, we can find elements of a deeper apprehension of a certain crisis of the Western mass workers’ parties and an even stronger emphasis on autonomous social movements.7

Unfortunately, because of his untimely death, we cannot say to which direction his work would have gone. Nowadays, we know that we cannot deal with these questions simply within a traditional party-form. Social movements, especially new forms of political intervention also based upon the reclaiming of public space, such as the Movement of the Squares in Greece or Indignados in Spain, have enabled exactly this coming together of the different social classes and groups that the “people” is comprised of. However, I still think that the question of working-class hegemony within the articulation of such an alliance still requires a common political project and the organizational form that can support it, namely a novel form of the radical left front in its encounter with autonomous initiatives from below.

TG: How would you judge Poulantzas’s theoretical and political trajectory? One can easily recognize a Maoist inflection to his work, especially in Fascism and Dictatorship and in Classes in Contemporary Capitalism. What was the precise influence of Maoism on Poulantzas?

PS: Poulantzas’s theoretical and political trajectory began with his experiences as a youth in Athens, within the Greek Left (the illegal organizations of the Communist Party and the legal organizations of the EDA) and then by his close experiences of the French developments surrounding May 1968. It also included a series of theoretical influences beginning with Jean-Paul Sartre and Lucien Goldmann before his turn to Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. Another important experience for Poulantzas was the particular way he experienced not only May 1968 in France, but also the split in the Greek Communist Party in 1968 and his participation in the Communist Party of the Interior.8

The traditional approach is to describe the rupture in the Greek Communist movement in terms of a split between the pro-USSR hardliners of the KKE and the more “eurocommunist” or “right-wing” approach of the Communist Party of the Interior (KKE-Es). However, many militants that sided with KKE-Es were looking for a radical or even revolutionary renovation of the strategy and tactics of the Communist movement, and did so in opposition to the more traditional and bureaucratic approach of the KKE.

The local organization of KKE-Es in Paris, of which Poulantzas was an active member, was far to the left of the leadership. At the same time, it is obvious that Poulantzas was also influenced by both the radical critique of economism and reformism not only by his experiences with May 1968 but by the Chinese experience, by Mao and also the Cultural Revolution. For example, his insistence on not treating the hierarchies within the labor process as “neutral” and “technical” echoes the Cultural Revolution’s critique against the capitalist social division of labor.

However, later, particularly in the second half of the 1970’s we see a different political approach by Poulantzas. He opts for what he defined as a Left Eurocommunism and he seemed to be sympathetic towards both a strategy of left unity and democratic road to socialism. This is more obvious in the last chapter of his last book where he defended such an approach, where he insists on the possibility of combining a parliamentary majority with strong autonomous movements from below.9 This is indeed a contradictory position. Still, it is an attempt to think thoroughly about an important problem. Since we have the benefit of hindsight, we can say that at that particular moment he was overly optimistic about such possibilities. At the same time he did not discern how the socialist parties of that period (such as PS in France or PASOK in Greece), in the end, would end up implementing capitalist restructuring from the 1980’s onwards.

It is important to stress that this debate with the interventions of Poulantzas, Althusser, Balibar, the replies by Henri Weber or Daniel Bensaïd, the interventions by Christine Buci-Glucksmann, and the parallel Italian debate (see for example the texts by Ingrao) all represent the last major debate on questions of strategy regarding socialist transition as a real, not simply theoretical, question.10

TG: You mentioned Poulantzas’s critique of economism and reformism. What was his criticism exactly about? And how did it influence his own theoretical and strategic thinking? For example, in Fascism and Dictatorship we find a constant argument that the parties of the Third International had an economistic approach. But his only strategic suggestion is that a more mass line politics would have been necessary. For example, how did it influence the politics of the local group of the KKE-Es in Paris?

PS: Poulantzas’s critique of economism is evident in many aspects of his work. First of all, the very idea of attempting to elaborate on a complex theory of the state and its role is in contrast to any instrumental conceptualization of the state. Second, the critique of Third International economism is a crucial aspect of the argument he attempts to present in Fascism and Dictatorship. Third, his theory of social classes, which includes political and ideological determinations and insists on the primacy of social division of labor to the technical division, also represents a rupture with economism.

Regarding his critique of the Third International, it is very interesting how Poulantzas attempted to draw a line of demarcation with both “third-period” sectarianism but also a reformist conception of “popular fronts” and political alliances with “democratic” bourgeois parties. Having said that, I would like to draw attention to his interventions in the debates within the Greek Communist Party of the interior.

I would like to draw attention to a text he wrote under an alias in 1970, in Agonas (“Struggle”) the organ of the Paris local organization of the KKE-Es.11 This is an answer to an article by L. Eleutheriou, a member of the leadership of the Party who suggested a strategy of alliances from above with democratic parties (such as the parties of the center), based on the idea that these parties represented the petty bourgeois strata.

Poulantzas opposed this conception of political representation, rejected the idea of alliances only “from above” and insisted that the United Front tactic required work from below and an attempt from the communist parties to also work within the peasantry and other petty bourgeois strata. Since Eleutheriou evoked the 7th Congress of the Communist International and Dimitrov’s positions, Poulantzas uses his critical approach to these positions that we also find in Fascism and Dictatorship, to suggest that a different approach to political alliances was necessary.

I would like to stress here that the question of political alliances was very crucial in the debates of the Greek Left in the period of the 1967-74 dictatorship and the challenges that the Left faced such as how to create unity in struggle against the dictatorship while avoiding giving the bourgeois forces the hegemonic role in the anti-dictatorship struggle. This was also evident in his interventions after the dictatorship, in the debates around the strategy of KKE-Es where Poulantzas criticized “national anti-dictatorship alliance” that promoted, again, an alliance with bourgeois forces. In this sense, we can say that, in his interventions, Poulantzas was always to the left of the leadership of KKE-Es.

On the other hand, Poulantzas always referred to the communist movement, not to some form of heterodoxy. His positions were, by all accounts, to the left of European communist parties, and we can find, in his work, many positions that were critical of what we might call “communist reformism.” However, he never opted for a form of gauchisme [ultra-leftism] and his focus was on the communist parties. He never seemed to suggest that the solution was to adopt the positions of Maoist or Trotskyist groups of that period, whose positions he treated as one-sided; he stressed the importance of autonomous and radical mass movements.


Category : Marxism | Strategy and Tactics | Theory | Blog

Base-Superstructure Theory (BST) is Marx’s guiding general theory, but is long misunderstood.  Deeply embedded in a monumental corpus of system-challenging analysis, it has become lost in secondary interpretations with partial takes and opposed propagandas militating against coherent comprehension. Within the last 35 years, there has also been a sea-shift of global culture to anti-foundationalist relativism which has uprooted the very idea of a common base or ground, Marx’s ‘economic base’ most vehemently of all.

By Prof. John McMurtry

MR-Online via Global Research

December 23, 2017

The Productive Base as the Ground of Society and History

One basis for life and another basis for science is an a-priori lie -–Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1845.

Within a dominant post-1991 cultural assumption that ‘Marxism is dead’, the BST has been essentially abandoned even by Marxists as ‘postmodernist’ and ‘identity politics’ tides sweep across the West. Yet Marx’s overall historical materialist principle remains intact within the academy – that the material conditions of historical societies – opposed to God or human concepts – determine human affairs. This first ontological step of Marx’s general theory repudiates the conceptual idealism of philosophy from Plato to Hegel which supposes that disembodied Ideas determine material reality, rather than the other way round.  Marx introduces this foundational principle of the BST (emphasis added as henceforth):

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, religion, or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.

This is Marx’s ‘productive base’, usually referred to as Productivkraften or ‘productive forces’.  This production beyond Nature’s available provisions increasingly “subjugates Nature to its sway” (Capital, “On the Labour Process”). Yet Marx’s work takes on the revolutionary political edge for which he is most famous in the iconic Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848. Here his philosophy of society and history moves to a sweeping 10-Point social program, much of it instituted within the next century – extension of existing industrial development to state ownership, graduated income tax, free education for all children by public schools, and a national bank.  Marx’s theory has been in this way largely proven in practice against the standard assumption to the contrary.

Yet it is not until his 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, that Marx defines his general theory with his base-superstructure model as “the guiding thread of my studies”. Since this canonical statement carried through in Das Kapital is widely misconceived as a mechanistic determinism in which all elements of society are uniquely determined by the ruling economic system, it requires close inspection.

In the social production which men carry on”, Marx begins his paradigm statement, “they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will.

While this is usually thought to be a statement against humanity’s free will, it is more modestly a statement of unacknowledged fact about the ‘free society’ capitalism is assumed to be. Wage or salary work must be done by the great majority to stay alive “independent of their will”. Their “definite relations” are materially determined by the employer who must achieve the lowest costs with ‘no choice in the matter’. And behind this “wage slavery”, Marx emphasises in Capital, lies the further unacknowledged horrific historical fact of the “great expropriation of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the means of labour – [by] violent  and painful methods”. They must sell their labour into servitude, or they do not survive. This servitude, Marx documents, is enforced by mass hangings, mutilations, floggings, pillories, and deprivation of children.

Yet Marx acerbically rejects any kind of voluntarism as an alternative.  The mode of production that produces a society’s means of life must, he argues, be developed to a stage where the direct producers are effectively organised to historically replace the ruling capitalist system of social production.  This is why he asserts as the guiding framework of his work:

production relations must correspond to a definite stage of development of men’s material powers.

This is ‘the productive base’ on which slave-owning, feudal or capitalist social systems are raised in their turn, but which ruling cultures assume as ‘everlasting’. Marx summarizes in this central statement of his general theory that the “the totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society– the real foundation [or base] on which the legal and political superstructurearises”.

Marx is opposed to the ruling determinism, but organises the facts as they are against ‘ideological illusions’ – the essential method of his base-superstructure theory. While many claim Marx denies the autonomy of individual consciousness, or free choice, or democracy, or all at once, his master verb for superstructure determination by the economic base is entsprechen- to correspond to or comply with. This means that the state and legal institutions of a society must comply with the ruling ownership structure society’s forces of production, or be selected out as materially unviable. This is why Marx says in his Preface to Capital,

My standpoint can less than other make the individual responsible for relations for whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them (emphases again added as elsewhere).

Marx insists against most philosophy that subjectivism is incapable of understanding the real world or changing it. This is why he ridicules Kant’s ‘moral will’ as an impotent deontology that excludes consequences a-priori; and why he mocks Max Stirner’s ‘Omnipotent Ego’, neo-Hegelianism, and all commentary which revolves within “consciousness in itself”. Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach is the iconic expression of this unprecedentedly activist ontology and epistemology and the philosophical ground of his base-superstructure theory:

The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a merely scholastic question (Thesis II).

Marx would be hard on most postmodernism, analytic theory, and academia in general today, and this may be why they are all inclined to pooh-pooh Marx. Yet his BST is most easily de-mystified when reading attends to its straightforward material model – a building foundation and a superstructure raised upon it. No superstructure can stand without a foundation, and this could be called an ‘inexorable law’. But this does not mean the superstructure conforms to the base by ruling out all alternatives within its range of permission.  Nor, conversely, does it mean that the base will change in virtue of those alternatives in the mind, even if socialist.  Superstructural phenomena must, in Marx’s BST, comply with the underlying mode of production, or face strong selective pressures to extinction. Thus Marx argues that the laws, policies and state in a society correspond to the productive base to survive, and why he disparages those who think a legal proclamation will change social reality if there are not the material conditions to enable it to occur. In logical terms, Marx’s meaning may be summarized without his militant mood: legal, state and ideological phenomena must be consistent with the society’s material reproduction at the established level of society’s productive provision of means of existence, or go under.

Social Being Determines Consciousness

Marx continues his BST ‘guiding thread’ to write that “definite forms of social consciousness correspond to a society’s mode of production”. This has led to many competing interpretations, dogmas and denunciations. Yet to test it, one may ask: where is there not correspondence in global capitalism between ‘ruling forms of social consciousness’ and ‘the economic structure’?  More specifically, do we find that the dominant meanings of “freedom”, “responsibility”, “productivity”, “and “justice” are do not comply with  the capitalist system? An easy refutation would be any published conception of these anchoring normative concepts which opposes, say, the rightness of private profit, or rejects the assumption that citizens must sell their services to employers as their duty to society.

Marx continues his explanation with perhaps the most controversial sentence of his base-superstructure theory.

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.

For this, Marx is held to be declaring a materialist reductionism, or the epiphenomenal nature of human thought, or denial of moral choice, or undialectical simplification, or a soulless doctrine. In fact, Marx only repudiates any theory which excludes material foundations from its understanding. Thus received philosophers and press commentary, for example, are ridiculed by Marx and more specifically, religio-moral certitudes reflecting ruling-class interests. Yet since all words and languages are social constructions, Marx’s claim is obviously true in a now accepted way. The most studied philosophers of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, declare language as the “home of Being” and “the limit of thought” respectively, and contemporary etymology usually presupposes language’s social and historical nature. Marx’s claim that “social being determines consciousness” is hardly controversial today except that Marx’s BST further argues that the social is y determined by the capitalist economic structure that must and will be overthrown. In Marx’s BST terms without his militance, this line of thought is rejected by official society as unacceptable. This is how, as Marx provocatively describes it in many different contexts, a realm of illusory cover stories and concepts blinker out the capitalist system’s oppressive exploitations while purporting the highest moral motives. Consider Marx’s bitingly witty asides in this light:

The Church of England will more readily pardon an attack on its Thirty-Nine Articles than 1/39th of its income.

This is the same Marx that in The Holy Family talks of religion as the “spirit of spiritless conditions, the heart of a heartless world” – thus resonantly affirming the spirit and the heart that he is said to deny. What he is in fact castigating is the capitalist church and its rich investments, rents and hypocrisies exploiting the populace and grinding the poor. Marx’s BST analysis also lays bare the institutionalised veils of doctrine masking the cupidity of the Conservative Party and its Lords: 

“The high Tory hymns the beauties of the British Constitution, the Crown and the Law until the day of danger snatches from him the confession that he is interested only in – Ground Rent.”

Marx’s base-superstructure method of laying bare private capital gain underneath moral pomposity and the robes of religion, the constitution, and the law still applies to, say, US politicians’ invocation of ‘God’s blessing’ and ‘our sacred Constitution’ – why Marx may be so abhorred by establishments across the world.

Freedom in Marx’s Base Superstructure Theory

Long the primary reason for repudiating Marx’s base-superstructure theory has been its alleged denial of individual freedom. Yet his work from the beginning is devoted to freedom as of ultimate value, preferring Epicurus to Democritus in his doctoral thesis solely because the theory of Epicurus allowed freedom into an arbitrary “swerve” of atoms against the “far more scientific” Democritus who is a mechanist.  Yet there is an implicit principle of ‘technological determinism’ as the ultimate regulator of Marx’s base-superstructure theory.  Few understand that this position rules out the success of state seizure for socialist revolution without a developed productive base to sustain it – as history since Marx has significantly confirmed. Marx also predicts social transformation to a “many-sided” working class “ready and able to meet any change of production;” as well as technological replacement of labour to allow “free time” from “the realm of necessity” – opposite positions to a denial of human freedom.

In spite of Marx’s failed prediction of ‘inevitable revolution’ in advanced industrial societies, Marx is rather prescient in anticipating the material possibilities of freedom by technological and worker development, and how they are ‘fettered’ by the capitalist economic structure within which all lower-cost benefits of technological advances like labour-saving machinery go to capitalists  as the working day increases. Marx’s evolving productive base is throughout grounded in humanity’s distinguishing feature as a species and the origin of human freedom: “the capacity to raise a project in the head before it is constructed in reality”. (Capital, “On the Labour Process”). A socially self-directing mode of production with socialist plan is the meta version of this built-in human freedom.

This distinguishing ground of historical materialism is brought into revealing alliance with Darwin’s classical Origin of the Species when Marx connects “nature’s technology” to human society’s “organs of technology” as the ultimate basis of historical development:

Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature’s Technology i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments as of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organization, deserve equal attention? (Capital, “The Development of Machinery”).

In his still under-theorized evolutionary theory, Marx goes beyond Darwin in arguing that:

the forces of selection are increasingly social, not natural, and organic instruments are evolved by creative cooperative production, not instinctual repertoires or genes.

Marx’s base-superstructure theory is the framework within which historical as opposed to natural evolution develops, and human capacity self-realization not species reproduction numbers is its logic of advance.

Economic Determinism, Darwinian Selection and Social Revolution

Marx’s implicit principle of economic determination by extinction of what does not fit the ruling property order is evolutionary biology at the historical level, As Marx says in his Preface to Capital,

the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history. 

In fact, however, history is not a natural process as its laws are made not found in nature, and Marx’s own theory implicitly seeks human society’s supersession of nature’s ultimate law of dominance by physical force.

Yet both evolutionary and historical materialist theories recognise selection and extinction of life forms that adapt or not, survive, flourish or die, in the struggle for continued life. Marx, however, argues for the revolutionary necessity of surpassing the brutality of natural evolution by working-class overthrow of the ruling class system of “hitherto existing society” which always “pumps out surplus labour from the direct producers” to enrich masters, lords or capitalists” (Capital III, “Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent”). Marx’s ultimate goal is liberation from capitalist class rule, in his theory the last to rule society against its common interests with productive development the material base of this revolution. For Marx’s BST, however, species liberation only becomes historically possible with industrial mass production to organise it. Human survival and extinction, class domination and overthrow are based on technological development which eventually outgrows the old form of control and appropriation of society’s means of production to bring about a higher stage of society led by the direct producers themselves.

Marx’s revolutionary theory is the most controversial element of his explanatory model, and has so many versions that it helps to define its inner logic in dispassionate terms:

a social revolution in a society’s law, politics and ideology is propelled by
ever more open class struggle to
achieve a higher stage of development of the productive base of society
than the prior ruling-class economic structure can manage
without forfeit of society’s stage of material production.

In the rare periods of successful social revolution, Marx offers an original causal explanation: Only when productive force development goes beyond the fetters of the established ruling-class relations of production can a social revolution occur.  Marx’s guiding framework is concisely stated by his ‘guiding thread’ (with possible application to contemporary society in square brackets:

At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production [think of the Internet] come into conflict with the existing relations of production – or – what is but a legal expression for them – with the property relations within which they had been at work before [private -profit copyright, patent and control over published meanings]. From forms of development of productive forces, these relations [of corporate ownership profit] turn into their chains. Then occurs a period of social revolution [the creators of knowledge deciding on commons publication and open access in cumulative transition from the for-profit ‘information economy’ to the ‘knowledge commons’].

At the macro level of interface with evolutionary biology, Marx’s BST suggests new technologies as the ‘organic extensions of human society’ outgrowing the ruling ownership ‘anatomy’ to necessitate society’s transformation to a higher and more productive form.  A society, he writes in introducing Capital, is an “organism always changing” while the “birth-pangs of revolution” presuppose a long process in “the natural laws of its movement” which “can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments the obstacles involved – – but can shorten the and lessen the birth-pangs”. The underlying common ground of both disjunctive and cumulative-transition understandings of this social transformation is that any uprising social organisation of material forces must be more efficient and productive than the one now ruling . This is an understanding that has, ironically, been seized upon by counter-revolutions across the world since wherein external capitalist powers deliberately destroy socialist life bases by armed and financial means – the converse of Marx’s revolutionary theory.  Marx asserts in his definitive BST explanation:

No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions have matured in the womb of the old society.

Counter-revolutions prevent this evolution of the ruling mode of production ever succeeding.

Self-Maximizing Growth and Marx’s Aporia of Productive Object

Marx’s base-superstructure theory implicitly recognises that the ultimate value base and driver of capitalism is the “fully developed shape [of] the money form” in terms of which all decisions of what commodities to produce and how they are produced are made solely to maximize revenue returns to private capital owners in cycles of increasing accumulation: in general formula Money-Commodity-More Money or M-C-M1 . As Marx also argues, capitalist investors are “personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests”, and so are a-priori indifferent to what life is degraded, exploited and destroyed in multiplying private money profits with no cumulative limit (Marx’s Preface, Chapter I, and Chapter  XXV of Capital).

While Marx’s BST is confirmed by capitalist history, a deep-structural issue emerges. How can Marx or his followers believe that the results of this totalizing system of life oppression, immiserization and life capital rundown must “inevitably” result in a completely opposite outcome of “social revolution”, “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?  There is no clear definition of any step of this historical vision. Most deeply, there is no answer to the question: what is the criterion of the life needs that production is ultimately for?

Marx focuses rather on the socialist logic he sees built into competing large scales of capitalist production  – “an ever-expanding scale, the co-operative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour in instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and with all this the international nature of the capitalistic regime” (Capital, Chapter XXXII). Marx’s  analysis here is breathtaking in scope, but what remains absent is the underlying life base and laws of any productive force development and exponential growth. That this development must be consistent with the universal needs and capacities of humanity, its natural biosphere and fellow creatures does not enter into Marx’s base-superstructure theory as an issue (nor mainstream theories today). As with the capitalist epoch in general, technological development seems to be a secular Providence that can solve any problem.

In Capital, Marx restricts the parameters to be considered to the technology used and collective wage labour as historical agency.

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails”, he writes in his first sentence of Capital presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities.

The commodities of which all wealth consists in capitalist society are always produced in accordance with the master organising principle of their production and profit, M-C-M1 , the capitalist value-system Marx first defines. This ‘immense accumulation  of commodities’ are the values of this system in whatever form they take, and are defined in the same first page of Capital as material use-values for wants – – – whether they spring from the stomach or fancy makes no difference”. Marx underlines this criterion of commodities by his approving footnote citing Nicholas Barbou’s subjectivist principle:

Want is the appetite of the mind and as natural as hunger to the body.

It is this commodity base – and all capitalist productive forces are commodities – which constitutes the productive forces to drive the ‘inevitable proletarian revolution’.  

Since all these productive and consumer commodities are driven ex hypothesi by systemic compulsion to sell anything to moneyed desires for the lowest inputs costs and highest profits over generations, there is a problem of transition to socialism that is not met. The depredatory effects on organic and ecological life systems of these capitalist productive powers and consumables across generations are not recognised or regulated to prevent them in theory or practice. With no defined  life standards or criteria to distinguish life-destructive from life-enabling productive forces and products, how can the cumulative looting and polluting of humanity’s and other species’ life support systems by global capitalism be reversed when they are conceived as “development” even by Marx?

Marx envisions in his Grundrisse notebooks to Capital a future state in which “once the narrow bourgeois form is peeled away”, there can be “the evolution of all human powers as such unmeasured by any previously established yardstick”. But what if the ‘bourgeois form’ cannot be peeled away because it built into the productive forces themselves? The life-base standards definable at every level do not exist. In Capital Volume II, Marx is poignantly unaware of the problem when he says (emphases added):

Regardless of whether such a product as tobacco is really a consumer necessity from the physiological point of view, it suffices that it is habitually such.

We see here the relativization of life necessity to habitual wants which can drive productive forces through the human organism and the biosphere with no life-carrying capacity limits defined in even Marx’s BST.

Re-Setting Base-Superstructure Theory to the Life Ground

Marx’s base-superstructure theory begins with humanity distinguishing itself from other animals by production of the means of life. Yet ‘means of life’ disappears as a category after 1847 in Marx’s corpus, and is replaced on the first page of Capital by commodities serving desires not needs. Productive forces since increasingly mass-manufacture commodities which are disabling and addictive in their consumption – even in a communist-party society moving from mass bicycle riding to fossil-fuel motors toxifying the air and environment. Marx conceives commodities as values because they embody labour hours. Yet if we take into account the life and life capital effects of industrial commodities from extraction through processing to product through consumer bodies to wastes through the biosphere  – all in motion in Marx’s day – a darker picture emerges than ‘productive force development’ and ‘‘immense wealth of commodities’ to ground socialist revolution. Nowhere does any measure of life capital enter into theory or measure. True productive value measured by the yardstick of life capacity gained versus lost is not conceived.  As in capitalism before and since, the “precision of natural science” Marx attributes to “the material mode of production” lacks any criteria which we may call life capital standards to meet this fatal problem.  Life-degrading commodities and machines cannot be selected against even by revolutionary socialism if there is no regulating principle whereby to recognise them. It seems that Marx’s first principle in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts has dropped out of view:

One basis for life and another basis for science is an a-priori lie.

The Missing Life Capital Base of Marx’s Base-Superstructure Theory

Re-set of Marx’s base-superstructure theory to principled consistency with life capital standards is the missing foundation, and the measure of life capital necessity is undeniable once defined. Any material need or necessity is that without which life capacities of any kind are reduced or die – from oceans to songbirds to human brains. While Marx’s BST abstracts out this life base of the productive base, it seems implicitly presupposed in both his attacks on the capitalist system and his revolutionary alternative to it. One may test the italicised principle by seeking any denunciation or affirmation of Marx’s analysis which does not conform to it. So can Marx’s BST be re-set to include this life base and measure?  There is only way do so, and that is by comprehension of the following three moments of any coherent value system that

(i) produces more life value

(ii) without loss and

(iii) with cumulative gain.

The sole concept which comprehends these three moments is life capital – what may also be called true capital – whose collective form includes every social asset through time from the sciences and arts to stable hydrological cycles to a public healthcare system to pollution-abating and recycling technologies to regional biodiversity and arable lands to aquifers, rivers, sewers and filter systems. In fidelity to Marx’s method which understands social systems in terms of social relations rather than atomic aggregates, this missing concept may be modified as ‘collective life capital’.  In onto-axiological terms, any life capital at all is only coherent if it reproduces and gains consistently with other life capital: as follows from Marx’s principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

The Productive Agency of Social Transformation 150 Years after Capital

Marx believed that industrial workers (the proletariat) would rise up around the world (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the heart of Marx’s base-superstructure theory, the concluding pages of Capital contend that the industrial working class or proletariat is “disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself” to revolt against it.  Yet a logical slippage occurs here. For within “this very mechanism of capitalist production”, no purpose is allowed but to serve the M-C-M1 “law of motion of modern society” which, by Marx’s own description, operates solely to lower money costs for capitalists to pump out maximum profit. What has gone unnoticed is a fallacy of equivocation between the production process of workers bound to strict servitude within the industrial workplace and workers joining together outside this workplace on the basis of their collective life interests. As Marx himself says in Wage Labour and Capital,

Life only begins for the labourer where his bought labour ceases.

Marx further claims in this signature passage that the industrial proletariat is “growing in revolt” and “always increasing in numbers”. Here the error is not logical, but historical. The industrial proletariat since Marx’s Capital has been increasingly replaced by automated systems which in the last half century have multipled industrial job reduction, separation of work functions into globally scaled assembly-lines, and deprivation of collective worker leverages of strike, union association, local market demand, and job security. Here again Marx’s base-superstructure theory of social transformation needs to be re-set to remain applicable. The class most superseding and displacing the industrial proletariat is one of knowledge workers who emerge everywhere that symbolic practices replace physical inputs in production. Yet Marx’s First Preface to Capital where his general theory is most evident as in his previous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (bear in mind that a Preface is a traditional location for a work’s lodestone of meaning to be generically defined) is far-seeing in a way that has not been recognised. Marx implicitly conceptualises the leading edge of the knowledge class and its public- sector economic base as a transformative agency of developed industrial society across life domains:

where there are plenary powers to get at the truth (Marx’s emphasis): if it was possible to find for this purpose men as competent, as free from partisanship and respect of persons as are the English Factory inspectors, her medical reporters on public health, her commissioners of inquiry into the exploitation of women and children, into housing and food”.

Observe how encompassing these ‘plenary powers to get at the truth’ are. Observe how even in a capitalist society Marx supports the knowledge-formation capacities of public servants to be competent, free from bias, and respectful of persons. Observe how he exactly endorses their existing capacities to seek the facts across the most basic domains of human life production and reproduction of the working class. Little known in contemporary culture, Marx’s base-superstructure theory implicitly calls for life-capital knowledge evolution as the ultimate species advantage led by public authority with ‘plenary powers to get at the truth’.

John McMurtry Ph.D (University College London) is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Professor (emeritus) of Philosophy.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. 1975-2004. Collected Works.  Lawrence and Wishart Ltd./Progress Publishers: New York/Moscow.

The original source of this article is Global Research
Copyright © Prof. John McMurtry, Global Research, 2017

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Theory | Blog