Capitalism

10
Dec

 

Stacy Czyzewski checks a machine that can manufacture complex aerospace components at Pioneer Service Inc. in Addison, Ill. Photographs by David Kasnic for The Wall Street Journal

THE NEW LEFT’S ‘NEW WORKING CLASS THEORY’ FROM 1968 HAS FINALLY SHOWN UP. Within three years, U.S. manufacturing workers with college degrees will outnumber those without

By Austen Hufford
Wall Street Journal

Dec. 9, 2019 – College-educated workers are taking over the American factory floor.

New manufacturing jobs that require more advanced skills are driving up the education level of factory workers who in past generations could get by without higher education, an analysis of federal data by The Wall Street Journal found.

Within the next three years, American manufacturers are, for the first time, on track to employ more college graduates than workers with a high-school education or less, part of a shift toward automation that has increased factory output, opened the door to more women and reduced prospects for lower-skilled workers.

“You used to do stuff by hand,” said Erik Hurst, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. “Now, we need workers who can manage the machines.”

U.S. manufacturers have added more than a million jobs since the recession, with the growth going to men and women with degrees, the Journal analysis found. Over the same time, manufacturers employed fewer people with at most a high-school diploma.

Employment in manufacturing jobs that require the most complex problem-solving skills, such as industrial engineers, grew 10% between 2012 and 2018; jobs requiring the least declined 3%, the Journal analysis found.

At Pioneer Service Inc., a machine shop in the Chicago suburb of Addison, Ill., employees in polo shirts and jeans, some with advanced degrees, code commands for robots making complex aerospace components on a hushed factory floor.

The Factory floor at Pioneer Service Inc.

That is a far cry from work at Pioneer in the 1990s, when employees had to wear company uniforms to shield their clothes from the grease flying off the 1960s-era manual machines used to make parts for heating-and-cooling systems. Pioneer employs 40 people, the same number in 2012. Only a handful of them are from the time when simple metal parts were machined by hand.

“Now, it’s more tech,” said Aneesa Muthana, Pioneer’s president and co-owner. “There has to be more skill.”

How can U.S. manufacturing workers be saved from the spread of robots? Join the conversation below.

Pioneer, which makes parts for Tesla vehicles and other luxury cars, had its highest revenue last year, Ms. Muthana said. The company’s success mirrors that of other manufacturers that survived the financial crisis. continue

Category : Capitalism | Technology | Theory | Working Class | Youth | Blog
29
Aug

The challenge of Amin’s call for an Internationale of workers and peoples

By William I. Robinson
Globalizations

Samir Amin, a leading scholar and co-founder of the world-systems tradition, died on August 12, 2018. Just before his death, he published, along with close allies, a call for ‘workers and the people’ to establish a ‘fifth international’ [https://www.pambazuka.org/global-south/letter-intent-inaugural-meeting-international-workers-and-peoples] to coordinate support to progressive movements. To honor Samir Amin’s invaluable contribution to world-systems scholarship, we are pleased to present readers with a selection of essays responding to Amin’s final message for today’s anti-systemic movements. This forum is being co-published between Globalizations [https://www.tandfonline.com/rglo], the Journal of World-Systems Research [http://jwsr.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/jwsr/issue/view/75] and Pambazuka News [https://www.pambazuka.org/]. Additional essays and commentary can be found in these outlets.

Aug 27, 2019 – Samir Amin’s call for an ‘Internationale of workers and peoples’ could not be timelier. If we are to face the onslaught of the neo-fascist right, the left worldwide must urgently renovate a revolutionary project and a plan for refounding the state. It must do so across borders under an umbrella organization that puts forth a minimum program around which popular and working-class forces can unite, and that establishes mechanisms for transnational struggle. While I concur with much of Amin’s call I also have some significant differences as well as specifications with respect to the call that I will attempt to explicate below.

Global capitalism is facing a spiraling crisis of hegemony that appears to be approaching a general crisis of capitalist rule. In the face of this crisis there has been a sharp polarization in global society between insurgent left and popular forces, on the one hand, and an insurgent far right, on the other, at whose fringe are openly fascist tendencies (Robinson, 2019 Robinson, W. I. (2019). Global capitalist crisis and twenty-first century fascism: Beyond the Trump hype.). Yet the far-right has been more effective in the past few years than the left in mobilizing disaffected populations around the world and has made significant political and institutional inroads. It would seem that Rosa Luxemburg’s dire warning at the start of the World War I that we face ‘socialism or barbarism’ is as or even more relevant today than when she issued it, given the magnitude of the means of violence worldwide and the threat of ecological holocaust. If left, popular, and working-class forces are to regain the initiative and beat back barbarism they need a transnational umbrella organization with a minimum program against global capitalism around which they can coordinate national and regional struggles and transnationalize the fightback.

The international of capital and the specter of 21st century fascism

The theme of transnational struggles from below has been discussed at great length for several decades now. Capital has achieved a newfound transnational mobility yet labor remains territorially bound by the nation-state. In the wake of the structural crisis of the 1970s, emergent transnational capital went global as a strategy to reconstitute its social power by breaking free of nation-state constraints to accumulation, to do away with Fordist-Keynesian redistributive arrangements, and to beat back the tide of revolution in the Third World. continue

Category : Capitalism | Fascism | Globalization | Hegemony | Blog
16
Jul

The Systems We Depend On Are Upside Down

By Ian Angus
Climate & Capitalism

June 25, 2019 – A frequent C&C contributor, Martin Empson regularly reviews new and old books on his blog, Resolute Reader. Recently, he reviewed Barry Commoner’s 1971 classic The Closing Circle, calling it “an important contribution to our understanding of the struggle we need.” He says he wishes he had read it years ago.

My only disagreement is with his statement that Commoner was not a Marxist. True, he did not use the label, but I can’t find much in his work that a serious Marxist could disagree with.

Commoner was a remarkably good writer, a scientist and political activist who had a gift for explaining complex ideas clearly and concisely. The Closing Circle is a classic that every ecosocialist should read. Click here to read Martin Empson’s review.

Reading that review spurred me to re-read another of Commoner’s books, The Poverty of Power, published in 1976 when the capitalist world was being shaken by a recession and soaring oil prices. While much of the data and analysis is specific to that period, it did a wonderful job of presenting a radical critique, in terms that would be accessible to any reader. As the excerpts below show, what Commoner wrote is still very relevant today.

Commoner opened The Poverty of Power (which was a mass market paperback, by the way) with this fine account of a social order that puts first things last.

“In the last ten years, the United States — the most powerful and technically advanced society in human history — has been confronted by a series of ominous, seemingly intractable crises. First there was the threat to environmental survival; then there was the apparent shortage of energy; and now there is the unexpected decline of the economy. These are usually regarded as separate afflictions, each to be solved in its own terms: environmental degradation by pollution controls; the energy crisis by finding new sources of energy and new ways of conserving it; the economic crisis by manipulating prices, taxes, and interest rates.

“But each effort to solve one crisis seems to clash with the solution of the others — pollution control reduces energy supplies; energy conservation costs jobs. Inevitably, proponents of one solution become opponents of the others. Policy stagnates and remedial action is paralyzed, adding to the confusion and gloom that beset the country.

“The uncertainty and inaction are not surprising, for this tangled knot of problems is poorly understood, not only by citizens generally, but also by legislators, administrators, and even by the separate specialists. It involves complex interactions among the three basic systems — the ecosystem, the production system, and the economic system — that, together with the social or political order, govern all human activity.

“The ecosystem — the great natural, interwoven, ecological cycles that comprise the planet’s skin, and the minerals that lie beneath it — provides all the resources that support human life and activity.

“The production system — the man-made network of agricultural and industrial processes — converts these resources into goods and services, the real wealth that sustains society: food, manufactured goods, transportation, and communication.

“The economic system — the recipient of the real wealth created by the production system — transforms that wealth into earnings, profit, credit, savings, investment, taxes; and governs how that wealth is distributed, and what is done with it.

“Given these dependencies — the economic system on the wealth yielded by the production system and the production system on the resources provided by the ecosystem — logically the economic system ought to conform to the requirements of the production system, and the production system to the requirements of the ecosystem. The governing influence should flow from the ecosystem through the production system to the economic system.

“This is the rational ideal. In actual fact the relations among the three systems are the other way around. The . environmental crisis tells us that the ecosystem has been disastrously affected by the design of the modem production system, which has been developed with almost no regard for compatibility with the environment or for the efficient use of energy: Gas-gulping cars pollute the environment with smog; petrochemical factories convert an unrenewable store of petroleum into undegradable or toxic agents. In turn, the faulty design of the production system has been imposed upon it by the economic system, which invests in factories that promise increased profits rather than environmental compatibility or efficient use of resources. The relationships. among the great systems on which society depends are upside down.

“Thus, what confronts us is not a series of separate crises, but a single basic defect — a fault that lies deep in be design of modern society.”

Throughout The Poverty of Power, Commoner brilliantly expanded on those ideas, showing that “our current crisis is a symptom of a deep and dangerous fault in the economic system.” He concluded with these words.

“Here we come to the end of the blind, mindless chain of events that transformed the technologies of agricultural and industrial production and reorganized transportation; that increased the output of the production system, but increased even more its appetite for capital, energy, and other resources; that eliminated jobs and degraded the environment; that concentrated the physical power of energy and the social power of the resultant wealth into ever fewer, larger corporations; that has fed this power on a diet of unemployment and poverty. Here is the basic fault that has spawned the environmental crisis and the energy crisis, and 1 that threatens — if no remedy is found — to engulf us in the wreckage of a crumbling economic system.

“Now all this has culminated in the ignominious confession of those who hold the power: That the capitalist economic system which has loudly proclaimed itself the best means of assuring a rising standard of living for the people of the United States, can now survive, if at all, only by reducing that standard. The powerful have confessed to the poverty of their power.

“No one can escape the momentous consequences of this confession. No one can escape the duty to understand the origin of this historic default and to transform it from a threat to social progress into a signal for a new advance.”

Every socialist with an interest in environmental issues (and that ought to be every socialist!) can benefit from reading Barry Commoner. Although his books are out of print, they can be found in libraries, and used copies are readily available online at reasonable prices.

For more about Commoner’s idea, and an overview of his major works, see Barry Commoner and the Great Acceleration.

 

Category : Capitalism | Climate | Ecology | Blog
6
Jul

Slavery and the Racialization of Capital, from Bottom to Top

The Lehman Durr & Co. offices in Montgomery, Alabama, 1874

New York Review of Books

 

In 2013, the Italian playwright Stefano Massini turned this exemplum into The Lehman Trilogy, an epic five-hour play that was adapted and condensed last year by the director Sam Mendes and playwright Ben Power for the National Theatre in London. The play received rapturous reviews, and further plaudits after a limited run this spring in New York; it has just returned to London’s West End, where its continued success seems assured. The story begins in 1844, when Hayum Lehman emigrated from Bavaria to Mobile, Alabama. He changed his name to Henry and worked as an itinerant peddler before opening a small dry-goods store upriver, in Montgomery. Soon, two of his younger brothers, Mendel (Emanuel) and Mayer, joined him, and the dry goods store gradually evolved, first into a brokerage, and then into a bank. The play presents this arc as a parable of moral decline, from selling “goods,” to selling financial abstractions. “We are merchants of money,” second-generation Philip Lehman declares in Power’s translation: “our flour is money.”

The drama built around this story is an impressive theatrical experience, but also a deeply partial one, as some critics have noted—for the simple reason that some of the “goods” originally traded by the Lehman brothers, before their spiritual decline into mere merchants of money, were human beings. The play acknowledges, briefly, the company’s origins in the cotton markets of the antebellum South—profoundly underplaying not only the firm’s deep entanglement in the slave economy, but also that of the brothers themselves, who held slaves for at least twenty years. When I was invited by the National Theatre to write for its playbill an essay about the Lehman brothers as exemplars of the American Dream, my original draft mentioned the brothers’ connection to slavery, but this was cut from the final edit. When New York’s Park Avenue Armory asked if they could reuse the essay, I inquired if we could restore the issue of slavery, and offered an expanded draft with more detail. They preferred the National Theatre’s version, citing length.

The elision is not sinister, but it is symptomatic. No one involved in editing the playbills is defending or apologizing for slavery; they were doing their jobs, putting together a program of necessarily brief essays about the play as it has been produced, which does not address slavery. But the erasure of slavery from the play matters: it distorts the history of Lehman Brothers’ beginnings in the antebellum South, allowing the play to evade the question of whether making money out of money is really more reprehensible than making money out of slaves. That erasure is, ironically enough, perhaps the most allegorical aspect of the entire story: a history of American capitalism that disavows the central role slavery played in that history.

It was a problem several American reviewers noted, at least in part. The New York Times observed: “By completely omitting something terribly obvious—that the original fortune was made on the backs of slaves—the play suggests that the real evildoers were not the kindly young men from Bavaria who sold cloth,” but the wizards of Wall Street several generations later. For The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, it was an astonishing flaw that the play “fails to mention that Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer Lehman were slave-owners.” No American writer today would make such an excision, Cohen argued: “it would be tantamount to writing a play about Germany in 1933 and not even mentioning what was happening to the Jews.” But The Lehman Trilogy is not merely tantamount to a play about Germany in 1933 that never mentions the Jews; it is a play about a dynasty founded in the Nazi era that thinks the family’s role in the Holocaust doesn’t matter.

For a century and more, the conventional wisdom about the evolution of the financial systems embodied in institutions like Lehman Brothers was that modern American capitalism was built not on the slave economy, but on its collapse. That story retains its cultural grip. “The great rise of Northern industry took place after the Southern slave economy was destroyed,” Jonathan Leaf insisted in an April “Dispatch” for the New Criterion defending The Lehman Trilogy against criticisms of its treatment of slavery, “and after the Confederacy’s wealth was obliterated” (his emphasis). But for half a century and more, historians have shown that this neither accurately describes the cotton economy of antebellum Alabama generally, nor the Lehman brothers’ particular role in it.

Since at least as long ago as 1944, with Eric Williams’s groundbreaking Capitalism and Slavery, historians have debated the complex intermingling of slavery and capitalism, while a wave of recent scholarship has argued for the centrality of slavery to the history of American economic development. Edward Baptist, Robin Blackburn, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, Calvin Schermerhorn, Michael R. Cohen, and others have contended that mid-century Southern slavery was far from the pre-industrial, agrarian economy of popular wisdom, inevitably defeated by the industrial power and modern financial systems of the North. The two systems were considerably more interdependent and mutually advantageous than that simplistic picture allows. Nor was the Civil War the product of a simple conflict between modern and premodern economies, although it was a conflict between wage labor and slave labor. Rather, between 1830 and 1860, the slave economy itself became increasingly modernized, its growing profits leveraged by the economies of scale afforded by new financial systems.

The cotton economy of the nineteenth century, accounting by most measures for more than half of the total goods exported from the US between 1820 and 1860, helped form many of America’s current economic and social institutions: the carceral system, property laws, insurance industry, modern finance systems—all have roots in the Southern slave economy. The profits created by the cotton business helped fund vast empires of trade and industry, including shipping and railroads. They also enriched middlemen: insurers, brokers, investors, and speculators, which is where the Lehmans enter the story.

Henry Lehman came from a farming family, perhaps one reason he chose to settle in the agrarian South; but he also grew up near the city of Mainz, a center of the German textile trade. He knew the value of cotton, and went straight to Mobile, Alabama, then second only to New Orleans as a cotton trading port. Jews settled less frequently in the antebellum South, and those who did tended to assimilate as fast as they could—indeed, the stark racial hierarchy of the South, divided into its ruthless binary of “black” and “white,” made it easier for Jewish immigrants to assimilate as “white.” (That said, antebellum anti-Semitism is another question that The Lehman Trilogy sidesteps.)

The American economy of the 1820s and 1830s was undergoing a transformation thanks to the development of new debt instruments secured by the use of slaves as collateral. The value of chattel slaves could be transferred into mortgages, securities, and bonds, like any other financial asset that could then be sold to investors nationally and internationally. The financialization of slave-assets thus allowed profiting from slavery even in places that had formally outlawed the slave trade—as had the United States, in 1808. The complex, sophisticated commercial systems that had developed along with colonial slave economies did not die when the slave trade was abolished; they merely operated from a greater distance.

All this easy credit helped fuel an American slave-asset and land bubble in the 1830s, driving an economic boom backed by Southern state governments that collapsed in the panic of 1837, the country’s worst financial crisis of the nineteenth century. Between 1837 and 1842, banks failed, credit disappeared, and the economy stagnated. The Lehmans arrived in the 1840s, just in time to capitalize on the cotton economy’s desperate need for investment and credit, quickly establishing themselves as cotton factors, a factotum role that combined brokerage with financial and marketing advice, insurance, transportation, logistics, and sometimes the supply of enslaved laborers. Cotton factors sold to farmers on credit, often accepting cotton as payment, which they could sell directly to Northern manufacturers. Some cotton factors, in turn, acquired financing from Northern banks, recycling profits from the Southern slave system back to those Northern and international financiers. Every link in the financial chain profited.

Between 1840 and 1860, the American cotton crop expanded hugely for several reasons, including improvements in seeds, while the industrial revolution, powered by immigrant labor, was taking hold in the North. By the middle of the nineteenth century, much of the American economy was entangled in networks of capital that were profiting from enslaved people. The prosperity created by enslavement extended far beyond cotton, as world capital markets leveraged the collateral held by enslavers; but so did the financial and commercial structures those markets helped develop and perfect. Slave-traders, for example, as Calvin Schermerhorn has shown, created integrated systems of supply and credit that anticipate concepts like vertical integration and supply-chain management a century later. Small merchants like Lehman Brothers repackaged credit and debt, selling it on to other investors; like plantation owners, they also borrowed against human collateral, thus profiting not only from the slaves they personally owned, but from the system’s shared mortgaging of human property.

The Lehman brothers’ own possession of slaves has long been part of the historical record, though not as central to critiques about the firm’s cultural symbolism after its collapse as it should have been. When, in 2003, descendants of slaves sued Lehman Brothers (and other firms, including R.J. Reynolds) for reparations, Lehmans was “forced to admit,” it was reported at the time, that the founding brothers “bought a slave in the 1850s” named Martha. A further affidavit acknowledged, though only provisionally, that the Lehman brothers “may have personally owned other slaves,” making the firm reportedly the first American bank to admit, however grudgingly, a role in institutional slavery. (Two years later, J.P. Morgan acknowledged that it had accepted some 13,000 slaves as collateral, and taken possession of 1,250 more as capital.) A year before Lehmans’ collapse, the House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing on the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, noting some of the historic companies that had benefitted from that trade, including Lehman Brothers, among others such as Aetna Casualty insurance, New York Life Insurance, Brooks Brothers, and J.P. Morgan Chase.

As far back as 1996, Roland Flade’s study The Lehmans noted that the 1860 census identified Mayer Lehman, the youngest of the brothers, as the owner of seven slaves in Montgomery. In partial mitigation, Flade remarked that people living in antebellum Alabama could not easily oppose slavery, which is quite true. But failing to combat, or even merely censure, slavery is one thing; purchasing one’s own enslaved humans, or trading in their enslavement, is another. The Lehman brothers did both. Two of their former slaves traveled with Mayer’s family when they moved to New York in 1868, a fact sometimes offered by the family’s defenders on the grounds that it would suggest the Lehmans treated their slaves with comparative decency. Not only a low bar for moral exculpation, this also avoids any account of the complex reasons freed slaves sometimes chose to stay with families that had formerly held them in bondage.

The question of how to include slaves in the American record has plagued the nation since its founding. The Constitution’s notorious “three-fifths clause” was a function of the agreed provision for a decennial census, for purposes of political apportionment. Representatives in Congress would reflect “the whole number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons” in each state, excluding natives (who were treated as separate nations). This construction does not, in fact, grant slaves any humanity, even fractionally; it merely counts a proportion of them as bodies for the census. As the size of both slave and immigrant populations grew, so did problems in census-taking. For the 1850 and 1860 decennial censuses, the government decided for the first time to count all slaves held in the United States in separate “slave schedules.” Following the Constitution’s logic, slaves were enumerated—by age, sex, and color (black or mulatto)—but only slave-holders were named.

According to the 1850 slave schedule, “H. Lehman” had already purchased two slaves within six years of arriving in Alabama: a fifty-year-old black man, and a forty-five-year-old black woman. In his 2006 history of the Lehmans, Peter Chapman noted that family archives show the Lehman family also bought a fourteen-year-old slave in 1854 (the one named Martha); the deed of sale, for $900, bound her as a “slave for life.” Six years later, the 1860 slave schedule identifies Mayer Lehman in Montgomery as the owner of four slave houses and seven slaves: two adult males, a fifty-year-old listed as black and a nineteen-year-old listed as mulatto; three adult females, all black, aged forty-five, thirty-five, and twenty-eight; a nine-year-old mulatto girl; and a five-year-old black boy. But even this inadequate record is vexed, implying, as it does, that slaves always knew their ages with certainty; some did, but the system was designed to keep them from all such sense of self-possession. The historical ironies are intense: the slave schedules reflect a society struggling to identify Americans from whom it had systematically stripped identity, while granting new immigrants like the Lehman brothers the status of free citizens.

Slave-holding was the most direct, but hardly the only, way in which the Lehmans were implicated in the slave economy.It was not simply that the Lehmans profited from the labor of those they had enslaved, or that their firm depended on the sale of cotton produced by other slaves, but that their entire business was imbricated in institutionalized slavery from start to finish. Contemporary accounts record the brothers’ accepting profits from slaves traded as chattel in lieu of debts—in 1859, a newspaper in Troy, Alabama, reported that a sheriff had sold “one negro woman, Beckey, about twenty years old, and her child Gus, about two years old,” to “satisfy a fifa in my hands in favor of Lehman Brothers.” (“Fifa” stood for fieri facias, a legal instrument that empowered a sheriff to levy the possessions of a defendant to make good a debt.) From such seemingly routine transactions an entire political economy arose.

Thus, while it is perfectly true that the Lehman brothers’ embroilment in slavery was commonplace in their time and place, that makes it all the more problematic to suggest that slavery can be marginal to their story. The embedded ordinariness of slavery is the point: to efface that, as the play does, is to miss everything. The triumphalism of the classic American immigrant success story here works to occlude the question of complicity in slavery, fashioning a familiar myth of hard work rewarded by social mobility that is superimposed over the actual system, in which the total deprivation of the rights of citizenship and humanity for some enabled others to enjoy precisely the rewards and mobility that slaves were so violently, and absolutely, denied.

Henry Lehman died in 1855, but when the Civil War came, the two surviving brothers were staunchly on the side of the Confederacy. Mayer Lehman was a committed Southern Democrat, friendly with the governor of Alabama, and knew Jefferson Davis socially. In October 1861, Lehman Brothers, “Merchants of Montgomery,” advertised in local papers that they had stockpiled “almost every article of necessity” during the war. Promising to “be reasonable as to prices,” they added that “owing to the hardness of the times, they are compelled to demand the cash.” Cash, appropriately, was italicized. During the war, the firm successfully ran blockades while issuing the Confederacy with free credit; the Governor of Mississippi sent a public note of thanks in 1864 to “Messrs. Lehman & Brothers,” for accepting “Confederate Treasury notes,” while “charging nothing for their trouble,” to supply the army with cotton and wool for uniforms—despite the blockade that “prevented a larger supply.” In October 1865, “Lehman & Brothers, rich Jews, and merchants,” were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson for doing so, one of the raft of pardons Johnson issued to white Southerners after the war in the name of restoring the Union, but in fact easing the cost of defeat for the embittered white South (and contributing to his eventual impeachment).

The latitude Johnson granted the South enabled the outrages of Reconstruction, as “black codes” establishing segregation replaced slavery in all but name. Southern lands and assets were restored to prewar owners; once again, the Lehman brothers benefited along with the system they upheld, their property reinstated after the war. The Lehmans had not only survived the conflict, they had profited directly from it, without paying any penalty for their support of the Confederacy. The moral exemplum about capitalism and the American Dream to be found in the story of Lehman Brothers is primarily the way in which the South’s investment in the cotton economy profoundly shaped American history from the antebellum period onward, particularly in the slave economy’s legacy of white wealth and black impoverishment, white privilege and black disenfranchisement.

Within two decades, the Lehmans had quit cotton factoring and the South, transforming themselves into a Northern finance powerhouse on Wall Street. They continued to broker deals between Southern cotton planters and the merchants and exchanges of the North after the war, while expanding their business to other commodities, before taking a seat on the newly formed New York Stock Exchange in 1887.

It is that process of transformation—leaving slavery behind but banking its profits—that is the story not only of Lehman Brothers, but also of the formation of modern American capitalism. The Lehman Trilogy wants its audiences to agree that an “abstracted” economy is somehow more morally objectionable than a “real” one, but this fable requires actively repressing the source of the “real” wealth. The Lehmans always traded in “derivative” capital; there was no golden age in which they traded innocent “goods” that became degraded by late capitalism into mere financial tools of decadent speculation.

If The Lehman Trilogy holds up a mirror to our moment, it is by registering slavery in a peripheral glance only to look away. Early in the play, Emanuel tells Henry, “I don’t want to sell buckets and spades to slaves.” Henry responds: “We sell to whoever will buy. Here in America, everything changes.” As an instance of the disavowal so often at work in popular accounts of slavery’s influence on modern America, this exchange is staggering. Slaves did not buy and sell; they were bought and sold. In endorsing the great American myth of transformation, the play implies that capitalism itself is emancipatory, that it might magically transform chattel into customers—and just as magically transform a dubious refusal to talk about slaves into a virtuous refusal to sell to slaves. The play thus succumbs to the abstraction it deplores, evading the material conditions that produced wealth to focus on capitalism as a transcendent promise of freedom and empowerment, endorsing the logic of a consumerist political economy.

Similar mechanisms of disavowal run throughout our cultural mythologies. Proslavery propaganda in the antebellum South insisted that Northern wage slaves were worse off than Southern chattel slaves. As wage slavery was conflated with an emerging trope of white slavery, bondage was rewritten as a universal condition. In the nineteenth century, even antislavery white writers were apt to suggest that capitalism made all Americans into slaves, rather than admit that American capitalism was partly made from slavery. Ishmael famously demands in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), “Who ain’t a slave?” Henry David Thoreau agreed, declaring in Walden, “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one.” In 1863, the year in which American slaves were emancipated, Emily Dickinson likened an author in the marketplace to a slave at auction: “Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man,” her poem begins; it ends by urging: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price—.” In Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 The Gilded Age, the slave trade is just another market for the speculator Beriah Sellers to try to exploit, while Stewart Denison argued in his 1885 novel An Iron Crown: A Tale of the Great Republic that monopoly capitalism was trapping all Americans into economic bondage:

When four or five railway kings can steal one hundred and sixty millions in twenty years; when an oil company can pile fabulous millions on millions in ten years; when a Wall-street pirate can steal from the American people one hundred millions in twenty years by wrecking railroads… when the rich daily grow enormously rich, and the poor daily grow poorer; when all these things can occur, under the sanction of law, in a great republic, is it not time to stop and think? Having reflected, is it not time to act, before our slavery is complete and irremediable?

While scholars painstakingly examine the interconnections of slavery and capitalism, showing the complex traffic between Northern industrial and Southern cotton economies, too many of our popular accounts still view slavery as the South’s “peculiar institution” and treat it as a discrete, if horrifying, historical anomaly. This is how disavowal manages cognitive dissonance: it means conceding the existence of slavery, while refusing to believe that it has anything to do with the story you are telling; it means willfully pushing slavery to the edges of your consciousness and being saved by the logic of exception. The musical Hamilton does the same thing in its ambivalent dynamic of denouncing slavery’s iniquities while suggesting that its own protagonists were exempt from them. Anyone who didn’t know better would finish Hamilton innocent of the fact that George Washington owned slaves, much less that Alexander Hamilton himself bought and sold them on behalf of his wife’s family. Such stories try to have it both ways: for their heroes to be representative Americans, while erasing the vicious ways in which they truly were representative. The fact that everyone was doing it is not a defense, it merely measures the scale of the crime.

 

Category : Capitalism | Racism | Slavery | US History | Blog
24
May

More study of the difference between exproriation, exploitaton, and their interplay at the ‘rosy dawn’ of capitalist and everything that followed.

By Nancy Fraser
Policss/Letters On May 20, 2019

Presidential Address delivered at the one hundred fourteenth Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Savannah, GA, on January 5, 2018.

Capitalism has always been deeply entangled with racial oppression. That proposition clearly holds for the slave-based plantation capitalism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But it is equally true of the Jim Crow industrialized capitalism of the twentieth century. Nor can anyone reasonably doubt that racial oppression persists in the deindustrializing, sub-prime, mass-incarceration capitalism of the present era. Despite the clear differences between them, none of these forms of “really existing” capitalism was nonracial. In all of its forms to date, capitalist society has been entangled with racial oppression.

What is the nature of this entanglement? Is it contingent or structural? Did the capitalism/racism nexus arise by chance, and could matters have in principle been otherwise? Or was capitalism primed from the get-go to divide populations by “race”? And what about today? Is racism hardwired in the deep structure of contemporary capitalism? Or is a nonracial capitalism finally possible now, in the twenty-first century?

These questions are by no means new. They form the heart of a profound but under-appreciated stream of critical theorizing, known as Black Marxism. This tradition, which flourished from the 1930s through the 1980s, includes such towering figures as C. L. R. James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Stuart Hall, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, Manning Marable, Barbara Fields, Robin D. G. Kelley, Cedric Robinson, and Cornel West.1 Although their approaches diverged in specifics, each of these thinkers grappled deeply with the capitalism/ racism nexus. At least through the 1980s, their reflections were at the forefront of what we now call “critical race theory.”

Subsequently, however, the question of capitalism’s entanglement with race dropped off the critical-theoretical agenda. With the waning of New Left radicalism and the collapse of really existing Communism, capitalism ceased to be viewed as a topic of serious interrogation in many quarters, while Marxism was increasingly rejected as dépassé. As a result, questions of race and racism were effectively ceded to thinkers working in the liberal and poststructuralist paradigms. Although those thinkers made some impressive contributions to mainstream and critical race theory, they did not attempt to clarify the relation between capitalism and racial oppression.

Today, however, a new generation of critical racist theorists is reinvigorating that problematic. Comprising thinkers like Michael Dawson, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Cedric Johnson, Barbara Ransby, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, this generation is reconsidering the capitalism/ racism nexus anew, in light of twenty-first-century developments.2 The reasons are not hard to discern. The conjoint rise of a new generation of militant antiracist activists, on the one hand, and of an aggressively ethnonationalist and alt-right, white-supremacist populism, on the other hand, has dramatically raised the stakes of critical race theory. Many now appreciate, too, that the broader context for both those developments is a deepening crisis of contemporary capitalist society, a crisis that is simultaneously exacerbating, and rendering more visible, its characteristic forms of racial oppression. Finally, capitalism is no longer a taboo term, and Marxism is enjoying a revival. In this situation, the central questions of Black Marxism have again become pressing: Is capitalism necessarily racist? Can racial oppression be overcome within capitalist society?

Aiming to advance this problematic, I opted to use the occasion of my presidential address to revisit those venerable questions. The approach I propose scrambles the usual, sharp oppositions between structure and history, necessity and chance, which obscure the complexities of the capitalism/racism nexus. Contra the proponents of contingency, I shall maintain that there does exist a structural basis for capitalism’s persistent entanglement with racial oppression. That basis resides, as I shall explain, in the system’s reliance on two analytically distinct but inter-imbricated processes of capital accumulation, exploitation and expropriation. It is the separation of these two “exes,” and their assignment to two different populations, that underpins racial oppression in capitalist society. Contra proponents of necessity, however, I shall argue that capitalism’s exploitation/expropriation nexus is not set in stone. Rather, it mutates historically in the course of capitalist development, which can be viewed as a sequence of qualitatively different regimes of racialized accumulation. In each phase, a historically specific configuration of the two exes underpins a distinctive landscape of racialization. When we follow the sequence down to the present, we encounter something new: a form of capitalism that blurs the historic separation of exploitation from expropriation. No longer assigning them to two sharply demarcated populations, this form appears to be dissolving the structural basis for racial oppression that inhered in capitalist society for four hundred years. Yet racial oppression persists, I shall claim, in forms that are neither strictly necessary nor merely contingent. The result is new set of puzzles for Black Marxist theory and anti-racist activism in the twentyfirst century.

In what follows, I develop this argument in three steps. First, I defend the thesis that capitalism harbors a structural basis for racial oppression given that it relies on expropriation as a necessary condition for exploitation. Then, in a second step, I historicize that structure by sketching the shifting configurations of those two exes in the principal phases of capitalism’s history. In my third step, finally, I consider the prospects for overcoming racial oppression in a new form of capitalist society that still rests on exploitation and expropriation but does not assign them to two sharply demarcated populations.

1.1. THREE PERSPECTIVES ON CAPITALISM: EXCHANGE, EXPLOITATION, EXPROPRIATION

Is capitalism necessarily racist? Everything depends on what exactly is meant by capitalism—and on the perspective from which we conceive it. Three such perspectives are worth exploring. A first approach, taught in economics courses, assumed in business, and enshrined in common sense, views capitalism through the lens of market exchange. A second, familiar to socialists, trade unionists, and other protagonists of labor struggles, locates the crux of capitalism at a deeper level, in the exploitation of wage labor in commodity production. A third perspective, developed by critics of imperialism, puts the spotlight instead on capital’s expropriation of conquered peoples. Here, I suggest that by combining the second and third perspectives we gain access to what is missed by each of the three approaches considered alone: a structural basis in capitalist society for racial oppression.

Consider, first, the perspective of exchange. From this perspective, capitalism appears as an economic system simpliciter. Organized to maximize growth and efficiency, it is centered on the institution of the market, where self-interested, arms-length transactors exchange equivalents. Seen this way, capitalism can only be indifferent to color. Absent interference and left to follow its own economizing logic, the system would dissolve any pre-existing racial hierarchies and avoid generating any new ones. From the standpoint of exchange, the link between racism and capitalism is wholly contingent.

Much could be said about this view, but what is important for my present purposes is this: it delinks capitalism from racism by definitional fiat. By defining capitalism narrowly, as an inherently colorblind, utility-maximizing logic, the exchange-centered view relegates any racializing impulses to forces external to the market, which distort the latter’s operation. The culprit is, therefore, not (what it understands as) capitalism, but the larger society that surrounds it. Racism comes from history, politics, and culture, all of which are viewed as external to capitalism and as only contingently connected to it. The effect is to formalize capitalism, reducing it to a means/end economizing logic and stripping away its historical and political contents. In this way, the market-centered view obscures a crucial point that will be central to my argument here: for structural reasons, capitalist economies require “non-economic” preconditions and inputs, including some that generate racial oppression. Failing to reckon with that dependence, this view obfuscates the system’s distinctive mechanisms of accumulation and domination.

Some of those mechanisms are disclosed, by contrast, by our second perspective. Broader, less formal, and far less rosy, this view was originated by Karl Marx, who reconceived capitalism as a system of exploitation. Famously, he penetrated beneath the standard perspective of market exchange to the more fundamental level of commodity production. There he claimed to discover the secret of accumulation in capital’s exploitation of wage laborers. For Marx, importantly, capitalism’s workers are neither serfs nor slaves, but unencumbered individuals, free to enter the labor market and sell their “labor power.” In reality, of course, they have little actual choice in the matter; deprived of any direct access to the means of production, they can only secure the means of subsistence by contracting to work for a capitalist in exchange for wages. Nor does the transaction redound principally to their benefit. What from the first perspective is an exchange of equivalents is, in Marx’s, view a sleight of hand. Recompensed only for the average socially necessary cost of their own reproduction, capitalism’s workers have no claim on the surplus value their labor generates, which accrues instead to the capitalist. And that is precisely the point. The crux of the system, for Marx, is exploitation, viewed as a relation between two classes: on the one hand, the capitalists who own the society’s means of production and appropriate its surplus; on the other, the free but propertyless producers who must sell their labor power piecemeal in order to live. Capitalism, on Marx’s view, is no mere economy, but a social system of class domination, centered on the exploitation of free labor by capital in commodity production.

Marx’s perspective has many virtues, at least one of which is incontestable. By viewing capitalism through the lens of exploitation, it makes visible what the exchange perspective obscured: the structural basis in capitalist society for working-class domination. Yet this focus fails to disclose any comparable structural basis for racial oppression. On this point, at least, the exploitation perspective sits uncomfortably close to that of exchange. While demonstrating that capital is accumulated off the back of free waged labor, it sheds little if any light on how race figures in the system and why it plays such an outsized role in capitalism’s history. Failing to address that issue, it can only convey the impression that the system’s entanglement with racial oppression is contingent.

That conclusion is too hasty, however. The trouble is that in focusing so tightly on the process by which capital exploits wage labor, Marx failed to give systematic consideration to some equally fundamental processes that are bound up with that one. I have in mind two such processes that could, when probed, reveal deep-seated links to racial oppression. The first is the crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree, dependent, and unwaged labor—by which I mean labor that is expropriated, as opposed to exploited, subject to domination unmediated by a wage contract. The second concerns the role of political orders in conferring the status of free individuals and citizens on “workers,” while constituting others as lesser beings—for example, as chattel slaves, indentured servants, colonized subjects, “native” members of “domestic dependent nations,” debt peons, and felons.3 continue

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Racism | Slavery | US History | Blog
5
May

In his final years, Poulantzas seemed to be straining against the seams of his thinking— and perhaps even against the Marxist tradition itself.

Poulantzas tried to envision how the left could simultaneously champion rank-and-file democracy at a distance from the state and push for radical transformation from within it.

As Marxism’s old messianic character faded in the late twentieth century, too many forgot that wandering in the wilderness is often the precondition of a prophet’s appearance. With the collapse of “really existing” socialism came what seemed like a permanent triumph of capitalism and the slow, grinding destruction of whatever resisted the market’s advance. But the far-too-unexpected renaissance of socialism in the twenty-first century reveals not only how much ground has been lost, but how much baggage has been shed. The presence of an authoritarian communist superpower was not only an ideological ball and chain for left politics outside the Eastern bloc, but also a real geopolitical straitjacket: at the electoral peak of European communist parties in the 1970s, the Soviet Union never kept secret that it preferred reactionaries in power in the West.

Now that this old shadow has passed and socialists are making a slow exit from the desert, they have a chance to redefine themselves for a new century. That involves taking bigger and more difficult steps, and it is not surprising that the effort has sent contemporary democratic socialists back to the 1970s, the last historical moment when socialist thinkers enjoyed even the illusion of political possibilities. In the brief window before the neoliberal era, socialists were just beginning to ask what a left politics that could win elections in a democratic system would look like. Who would its base be—what sort of alliance between classes and identity groups would it appeal to? How would it act toward a “bourgeois” political system that communists had always seen as an unredeemable instrument of class domination? Is it even possible to be a democratic revolutionary?

These questions came together in the work of Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek thinker who spent much of the 1960s and 1970s in Paris. There, Poulantzas argued that a sophisticated understanding of the capitalist state was central to a strategy for democratic socialism. Pushing as far as possible toward a Marxist theory of politics while still holding onto the central role of class struggle, Poulantzas tried to combine the insights of revolutionary strategy with a defense of parliamentary democracy against what he called “authoritarian statism.”

Recent signs of a Poulantzas renaissance, including the republication of several of his books in French and English, have a lot to do with the fact that his dual strategy for democratic socialism resonates with the task of today’s socialists: to understand how to use the capitalist state as a strategic weapon without succumbing to a long history of failed electoral projects and realignment strategies. The tensions in Poulantzas’s thinking resemble the current tensions within the left: is winning back power a matter of casting the oligarchs out of government and restoring a lost fairness, or is a more radical transformation of the state required?

It is an open question whether Poulantzas himself was able to articulate a satisfying vision for democratic socialism. His work, nevertheless, goes straight to the heart of the problems that twenty-first-century socialism must face.

Toward a Structural Theory of the Capitalist State

Nicos Poulantzas was born in Athens in 1936. In his twenties, he began a law degree at the University of Athens as a back door into philosophy. Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings became a conduit for Marxism among young Greek intellectuals since, as Poulantzas later explained, it was difficult to get the original canonical Marxist texts in a country that had suffered Nazi occupation, then civil war, then a repressive anticommunist government. After a brief stint in legal studies in Germany, Poulantzas made his way to Paris, where he was soon teaching law at the Sorbonne and mingling with the editors of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s journal Les Temps modernes. Poulantzas was drafted among a crop of new, younger writers for the journal, which published his earliest writings on law and the state and his engagements with British and Italian Marxists, including the Italian Communist Party’s in-house theorist, Antonio Gramsci. His 1964 doctoral thesis on the philosophy of law was broadly influenced by Sartre’s existentialism and the thought of Georg Lukács and Lucien Goldmann, who harmonized with the Hegelian Marxism dominant in France.

Louis Althusser, then a more marginal French philosopher but soon to be famous across Europe, dissented from this Hegelian turn. Althusser’s 1965 seminar, “Reading Capital,” was a curious event in the history of Marxism that marked the intellectual itineraries of well-known theorists like Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière. The framework it launched into Marxist theory, usually described as “structuralism,” was inextricable from Althusser’s dual opposition to Stalinist economism and the humanism of thinkers like Sartre. In the classic Marxist schema, the economic “base” gives rise to political and ideological “superstructures”—in other words, most everything about capitalist society, from its political institutions to its culture, are ultimately fated by the laws of economics. The Althusserians argued that, on the contrary, all of the domains of capitalist society operate quasi-independently of one another in order to more flexibly reproduce capitalist domination. Of course, they are tightly interrelated, and the economic decides “in the last instance” whether economics or something else will take priority, but, according to Althusser himself, “the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes.” continue

Category : Capitalism | Fascism | Hegemony | Marxism | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
1
Dec


 

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.”
 Read


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.
 Read


A headshot of Azfar Khan

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


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.
 Read


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.
 Read


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.
 Read


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.
 Read


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. 
Read


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). 
Read


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. 
Read



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
25
Nov

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.

Introduction

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
22
Oct

Neoliberalism has created genuine grievances, exploited by the radical right. The left must find a new way to articulate them

By Chantal Mouffe
The Guardian

Sept 10, 2018 – These are unsettled times for democratic politics. Shocked by the victory of Eurosceptic coalitions in Austria and in Italy, the neoliberal elites – already worried by the Brexit vote and the victory of Donald Trump – now claim democracy is in danger and raise the alarm against a possible return of “fascism”.

There is no denying that western Europe is currently witnessing a “populist moment”. This arises from the multiplication of anti-establishment movements, which signal a crisis of neoliberal hegemony. This crisis might indeed open the way for more authoritarian governments, but it can also provide the opportunity for reclaiming and deepening the democratic institutions that have been weakened by 30 years of neoliberalism.

Our current post-democratic condition is the product of several phenomena. The first one, which I call “post-politics”, is the blurring of frontiers between right and left. It is the result of the consensus established between parties of centre-right and centre-left on the idea that there was no alternative to neoliberal globalisation. Under the imperative of “modernisation”, social democrats have accepted the diktats of globalised financial capitalism and the limits it imposes on state intervention and public policies.

Politics has become a mere technical issue of managing the established order, a domain reserved for experts. The sovereignty of the people, a notion at the heart of the democratic ideal, has been declared obsolete. Post-politics only allows for an alternation in power between the centre-right and the centre-left. The confrontation between different political projects, crucial for democracy, has been eliminated.

This post-political evolution has been characterised by the dominance of the financial sector, with disastrous consequences for the productive economy. This has been accompanied by privatisation and deregulation policies that, jointly with the austerity measures imposed after the 2008 crisis, have provoked an exponential increase in inequality.

The working class and the already disadvantaged are particularly affected, but also a significant part of the middle classes, who have become poorer and more insecure.

In recent years, various resistance movements have emerged. They embody what Karl Polanyi presented in The Great Transformation as a “countermovement”, by which society reacts against the process of marketisation and pushes for social protection. This countermovement, he pointed out, could take progressive or regressive forms. This ambivalence is also true of today’s populist moment. In several European countries those resistances have been captured by rightwing parties that have articulated, in a nationalistic and xenophobic vocabulary, the demands of those abandoned by the centre-left. Rightwing populists proclaim they will give back to the people the voice that has been captured by the “elites”. They understand that politics is always partisan and requires an us/them confrontation. Furthermore, they recognise the need to mobilise the realm of emotion and sentiment in order to construct collective political identities. Drawing a line between the “people” and the “establishment”, they openly reject the post-political consensus.

Those are precisely the political moves that most parties of the left feel unable to make, owing to their consensual concept of politics and the rationalistic view that passions have to be excluded. For them, only rational debate is acceptable. This explains their hostility to populism, which they associate with demagogy and irrationality. Alas, the challenge of rightwing populism will not be met by stubbornly upholding the post-political consensus and despising the “deplorables”.

It is vital to realise that the moral condemnation and demonisation of rightwing populism is totally counterproductive – it merely reinforces anti-establishment feelings among those who lack a vocabulary to formulate what are, at core, genuine grievances.

Classifying rightwing populist parties as “extreme right” or “fascist”, presenting them as a kind of moral disease and attributing their appeal to a lack of education is, of course, very convenient for the centre-left. It allows them to dismiss any populists’ demands and to avoid acknowledging responsibility for their rise.

The only way to fight rightwing populism is to give a progressive answer to the demands they are expressing in a xenophobic language. This means recognising the existence of a democratic nucleus in those demands and the possibility, through a different discourse, of articulating those demands in a radical democratic direction.

This is the political strategy that I call “left populism”. Its purpose is the construction of a collective will, a “people” whose adversary is the “oligarchy”, the force that sustains the neoliberal order.

It cannot be formulated through the left/right cleavage, as traditionally configured. Unlike the struggles characteristic of the era of Fordist capitalism, when there was a working class that defended its specific interests, resistances have developed beyond the industrial sector. Their demands no longer correspond to defined social groups. Many touch on questions related to quality of life and intersect with issues such as sexism, racism and other forms of domination. With such diversity, the traditional left/right frontier can no longer articulate a collective will.

To bring these diverse struggles together requires establishing a bond between social movements and a new type of party to create a “people” fighting for equality and social justice.

Forget Trump – populism is the cure, not the disease

We find such a political strategy in movements such as Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, or Bernie Sanders in the US. This also informs the politics of Jeremy Corbyn, whose endeavour to transform the Labour party into a great popular movement, working “for the many, not the few”, has already succeeded in making it the greatest left party in Europe.

Those movements seek to come to power through elections, but not in order to establish a “populist regime”. Their goal is to recover and deepen democratic institutions. This strategy will take different forms: it could be called “democratic socialism”, “eco-socialism”, “liberal socialism” or “participatory democracy”, depending on the different national context. But what is important, whatever the name, is that “democracy” is the signifier around which these struggles are articulated, and that political liberal institutions are not discarded.

The process of radicalising democratic institutions will no doubt include moments of rupture and a confrontation with the dominant economic interests. It is a radical reformist strategy with an anti-capitalist dimension, but does not require relinquishing liberal democratic institutions.

I am convinced that in the next few years the central axis of the political conflict will be between rightwing populism and leftwing populism, and it is imperative that progressive sectors understand the importance of involving themselves in that struggle.

The popularity in the June 2017 parliamentary elections of Mélenchon, François Ruffin and other candidates of La France Insoumise – including in Marseille and Amiens, previous strongholds of Marine Le Pen – shows that when an egalitarian discourse is available to express their grievances, many people join the progressive struggle. Conceived around radical democratic objectives, populism, far from being a perversion of democracy – a view that the forces defending the status quo try to impose by disqualifying as “extremists” all those who oppose the post-political consensus – constitutes in today’s Europe the best political strategy for reviving and expanding our democratic ideals.

Chantal Mouffe is professor of political theory at the University of Westminster

Category : Capitalism | Neoliberalism | Rightwing Populism | Blog
4
Jan

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.

Source
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

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