This is the full text of the introductory talk Principia Dialectica gave at the London anarchist bookfair in October 2008:
“There is a corpse ruling society – the corpse of dead labour, to paraphrase a quote from the German Krisis group.(1) Up until now, all of the ‘marxisms’ that proclaim themselves as such have been antagonistic to this very statement (although they may proclaim lip service to the idea, a little like the old Labour party had a sentimental attachment to its famous ‘clause four.’) This hostility, which still staggers on in all the dying marxist sects, is one all the anarchisms, in the main, justifiably reject. The notion that a self proclaimed elite group can seize control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the state and economy and take charge of it until ‘the workers’ are mature enough to cope with a society in which ‘the state has withered away’ has been shown to be a lie.
It is not by accident that Bolshevism is equated with Stalinism, no matter how much the Trotskyite parties may complain. In the increasingly technically advanced, administered world of modern capitalism, this ‘workers’ marxism’ project, in whatever form it proclaims itself to be – can only aspire to a bureaucratic rearrangement of society, where the detail division of labour remains in place, and where the process of work itself maintains its alienated core. Indeed, if the most fierce opponents of the system aren’t prepared to tackle the fundamental problem that ‘failing to expand surplus value will result in sever economic difficulties with great social costs’(2) the Left will be unable to make a solid case for wholesale social change. It should be clear to everyone by now that a planned economy per se is not a better alternative to capitalism – it is potentially a more brutal version.
In our view, it is the labour process itself that has to be abolished. Tailoring it to a form more adequate to the demand for a more equitable ‘redistribution’ of wealth will not threaten the deep structure of capital itself.
The justifiable hostility to the ‘workers’ party marxisms’ in all their forms, is partly because the side of Marx, that side which has come to be called ‘the exoteric’(3) is that side of Marx in which he spoke in positive terms about the future creation of ‘a workers state’, of political ‘workers parties’ – all of which was enthusiastically taken up by Lenin’s communist party.
The dictatorship of the proletariat’ became just that – a barbaric, cruel regime, a so-called utopian project that stacked up a pile of dead bodies with more efficiency and vigour than any form of state it professed to oppose, except nazism. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now look back and observe the 20th century drive to modernization was actually a mirror image project – first communism versus capitalism, then fascism versus Stalinism, then cold war modernization versus ‘catch up Stalinism.’ Each ‘sphere of influence’ East or West, North and South, the social totality was constituted and rested upon the exploitation of labour – with horrifying results. To explain away the failure of socialist revolution on the basis of ‘the wrong people took power’ is actually hugely regressive, and doesn’t help move forward the project of dismantling capitalism in the slightest. Moishe Postone makes the point when he says: ‘I certainly don’t believe that if Kautsky or Lenin had read Capital ‘properly’ things would look very different. They read Capital from an early 20th Century perspective.’(4)
That doesn’t mean we should let Lenin off the hook – Stalin’s secret police learnt well from the prototype. What needs to be rooted out is this blanket reliance on the so-called ‘working class’, as a catch-all phrase for everything good – and inversely, anything deemed to ‘oppose’ it as bad. This naïve framework lives on in all the marxist sects – hence they are actually a barrier to change. People won’t take such an outdated relic of an idea seriously anymore, and with good reason. Instead we have to come to terms with the fact that capital as a social relationship will continue to live on ‘behind our backs’ unless we can grasp what it is we are really up against – the true essence of capitalism.
We can perhaps hope that Karl Marx himself would have disowned the communist project of the 20th Century and their state building disasters, but we can’t deny that the seeds of the 20th Century soviet nightmares are to be found within some of Marx’s ideas themselves. Nevertheless, there is a useful – indeed essential – side to Marx; that which has come to be called ‘the esoteric Marx.’ (5) We want to reclaim it as stolen property from the Leninist wreck. It is the ‘esoteric’ Marx which can be accessed today, to help us find a way out of the nightmare that consigns millions to absolute misery, and is fast destroying the planet.
Marx’s project was to understand capitalism in order to help dismantle it. His famous work Capital unravels a series of what he called ‘categories’ that served, in their totality, to disguise the true nature of how society functions. Although it appears to be quite obvious that we live in a society divided between the rich and poor, the ruling class and a proletariat, of powerful men versus a mass of women who are usually economically and socially marginal, as well as a myriad of cultural and racial distinctions that only appear to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, this observation of appearances themselves don’t get us very far. Indeed, Marx wasn’t the first person to discuss or notice that society was divided, primarily, along class lines.
The fact that he hardly addressed the issue of sexual oppression is one aside we should return to in the discussion, but for sake of brevity now, I want to argue that the essential ‘esoteric’ side of Marx is what we need to grasp in 2008. It remains, still the fact that labour, the global working class, is responsible for driving the capitalist system. But a deeper reading of Marx, applied to today’s conditions returns us to the conclusion of the opening sentence of this talk – that labour, work, the so-called working class, is an out of date relic. Coercive totalitarian work – no one can escape it and it’s very toxic consequences, rich or poor – is itself a complete drain on society, and is, in fact, holding us back from creating the kind of world that gives us the desire to get lost in, a world of enchantment, as Guy Debord once said.
But instead this ‘esoteric’ side of Marx, who first made this discovery however implicitly, has been buried – understandably so by all those who have an interest in maintaining a society of enforced domination, but unfortunately it is a case of ‘full spectrum dominance’ in 2008. The social democrat parties everywhere hold as first principle the objective of getting everyone into a job, no matter how environmentally or psychically damaging it is (‘sex workers’ for example) whilst the so called ‘far left’ trotskyite remnants, who claim to hold the mantle for ‘radical ideas’ but often really disguise a most disgusting reactionary core – mobilise around the conviction that we must ‘defend work’ or place demands on the system to ‘create more jobs.’
It is a scandal that in today’s society, where the current drama of the financial markets is sure to guarantee ever more millions within the peripheral zones of the world economy are really set to suffer the coming fallout, hardly anyone is seriously questioning the viability of a system based on the rule of dead labour. To update critical theory in 2008, to help recreate a strong and vibrant anti-capitalist movement – which has been in reverse gear since the initiation of the ‘war on terror’ – we have to dispense with one idea that lives on as an albatross around our necks – the idea that the so-called working class represent a future society of freedom. It doesn’t. In fact, we live in a society divided between the ‘included’ (wage earners) and the excluded – those with no part to play in the money economy. As has been pointed out, ‘a diminishing percentage of the working class is involved in surplus value production, as distinct from realization.’ This relative diminution of proletariat labour on a global scale has, not by chance, ushered in the era of gigantic slum cities. Nairobi has sixty percent of its population living in slums, Mubai, seventy percent. These people are not the ‘classical’ reserve army of labour that Marx spoke of. They will never get to experience such a hope. The chance of them ever becoming a part of the so-called working class is non-existent. Instead, the system of production that they are enmeshed within/without means they are forced to forage for survival on waste-dumps. This is one reason why the classic capitalist categories of Nineteenth century marxism are beyond being reproduced. To borrow from The Krisis group’s manifesto again: ‘In short, class struggle is all over because labour society’s time is up.’
The excluded are growing in size constantly and everywhere, increasingly so amidst the most successful capitalist centres themselves. Quite literally, if you don’t work, you don’t have access to life.
In 2008, what the radical Left really should start building towards is to help facilitate , in as wide an arena as possible, an environment where we can discuss how to move towards the peaceful abolition of work. This will mean we must engage with the idea that to treat the so-called working class as some kind of deity, whose programme is always the most radical one, and so beyond all criticism, is as illogical as the system that breeds it. It is an absurd idea that a category created by the system – the working class – can actually be the bearer of a future un-repressive society.
To comprehend the trajectory of this system, where it is heading, we need to get to grips with some of the discoveries Karl Marx made over 150 years ago. Another important implication of the increasing dimunition (or shrinkage) of the working class – that section that actually produces ‘surplus value’ – the category that actually drives the system, that keeps it alive: the section actually shrinking – is that it has been receding ever since the onset of the ‘third industrial revolution’ – the micro electronic revolution that got going in the 1970s. But still as labour and work becomes more self-evidentially superfluous, every political group of every ideology (‘full spectrum domination’) ignores this truth, and even, as we have seen, calls not just for its preservation, but it’s expansion. It is an expansion that the system today, due to its own internal laws, makes completely unrealizable. The next section is an attempt to explain this.
The most important idea that Marx formulated really succeeds in giving us an insight into how society has got to the point where labour itself is redundant. What is truly revolutionary about the ideas of Karl Marx is the fact that the insight below is so relevant to society in 2008. In 1854 Marx wrote:
‘Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. […] On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value.’ (6)
In Das Kapital, Vol. 3 Chapter 13, Marx explains this process as ‘the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.’ This is the process we see occurring today, with such catastrophic consequences. It comes about, through the increased investment in machinery relative to living labour-power. This increases labour productivity and therefore surplus value and the rate of exploitation. However, only living labour-power can produce surplus value (the return as a proportion of total investment), and hence the ‘rate of profit’ falls.
And so it remains to this day that labour time itself is ‘the measuring rod’, and so we remain within the limits of a system that measures everything of worth as ‘value’ – an artificial category, as opposed to material or socially useful ‘wealth.’
Marx’s opus Das Kapital was a detailed expansion of this observation. This became known as his theory of labour value, and it rests upon two ideas, important enough for us to outline in a little detail.
To sum up Marx’s discovery neatly:
‘First…Living labour is the sole source of the new value that is the social substance of wages and profits.
‘Second…total value…exists as a definite quantitative magnitude at the level of the world economy. this magnitude sets definite limits on profits, wages and the realisability of prices that helps ensure ‘reasonable’ profit margins.
This is in contradiction to traditional economic orthodoxy, because it goes against the idea that a rise in labour productivity is related to economic prosperity.’
Instead, Marx’s historic breakthrough hinges on the fact that ‘the life-blood of the capitalist economy is not material output, but surplus value. Because surplus value can only be created by the exploitation of living labour, we are witness to a process where today the system itself valorizes – in other words, it seeks to automatically create the conditions for its own reproduction. In the process of this growth, it destroy the actual creator of surplus value (workers) through investment in more and more advance labour saving technology – but at the same time it depends on flesh and blood workers for its own survival, for a rise in profit. Crucially, because the system has a diminishing surplus to plough back into the system, the capitalist machine is unable to expand growth. As soon as we got to the stage where machines themselves are produced by other machines, the gap between their wealth creating capabilities and the amount of labour time employed in their construction, the scope for an increase in surplus value diminishes exponentially.
We may still at this stage want to hold onto a romantic idea that ‘the working class’ – because they constitute (an amorphous) mass that creates ‘value’ that drives this society – are the ‘sector’ to realise change. Instead, it has to be borne in mind that the trajectory of the capitalist system itself means that those workers’ tasks are simplified to the point whereby their actual development is so one-sided that most workers’ usefulness as a detail in the division of labour itself is actually incredibly diminished. Anyone who has ever experienced the schooling system and the lack of skills and knowledge it actually imparts upon young people – despite the best will in the world of the teachers that actually manage it -will know immediately what this means in practice.
In short, work – or the lack of it – quite literally becomes the enemy of society. The consequences of this ‘shearing off’ effect described above, in terms of the social whole, has been outlined by the German critical theorist Robert Kurz in truly penetrating style:
In the third industrial revolution of microelectronics the capitalist development hits on its limitation. Labour is superseded in a dimension that cannot be compensated. With this, capital itself melts it’s substance of accumulation. In the West, the microelectronic rationalisation leads to an irreversible structural mass unemployment, social security systems and infrastructure are cut down. Inversely, capital escapes into a quasi-accumulation money bubble. In the East and South national economies and world regions collapse, because they cannot upgrade their productions micro-electronically for lack of capital and fall behind the productivity and efficiency standards of the world market. Inversely, a scavenging economy develops that exploits the ruins of the decaying reproduction.’
Guy Debord famously described what this automatic process – valorization – means in terms of human relationships. He described it as if we are living within ‘a society of the spectacle.’ What did he mean by this? Moishe Postone’s study, which should be required reading by everyone in the anti-capitalist movement in 2008 describes what this means, but unlike Debord, Moishe Postone does not make metaphysical presumptions about the so called role of the ‘working class’. Postone: ‘As industrial production becomes fully developed, these productive powers of the social whole become greater than the combined skills, labour and experience of the collective worker. They are socially general, the accumulated knowledge and power of humanity constituting itself as such in alienated form; they cannot be apprehended as the objectified powers of the proletariat. The poverty of individual labour is the presupposition of social wealth.’
This system of ‘auto-self reproduction’ of ‘valorisation’ which acts as the dynamic core that moves the system, that keeps it growing, is dependent upon workers labour power (remember, the production of surplus value is dependent upon the work of living labourers.) In short, we have entered a stage where the universalisation of the proletariat has taken place. Every human being is now implicated in the system of auto-reproduction – fewer and fewer can escape it, and in terms of our physical environment, no class can live outside of it’s consequences. A concrete example of this is illuminated by the way nuclear power and pollution has spread everywhere.
Why is the problem more than just a case of redistribution? Surely, if we could just reorganize the system more equitably, with fairer and more humane people in control of the system – ideally, representatives of the workers who actually run the system worldwide – then the wealth that is created by this process that Marx describes could be made to work for the majority of the world?
This is where we come head to head with a very real contemporary problem. Nearly every human being on the planet is prepared to accept the fact that capitalism doesn’t work – more and more people are coming to realise that capitalism is dead set on it’s goal of dematerializing the planet. Indeed, as Micheal Neary points out in a recent article, capitalism has ‘a cosmic ambition to actually escape the planet and it’s inhabitants.’ (7) Why is there a lack of alternatives? Why is the left today unable to win the argument?
There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, the left have some very good critics of the system, with some excellent critiques in many spheres. But the left has no alternative idea to replace the system.
The marxist sects promote ‘the working class’ as the solution to all crises. This is a critique that fails to do justice to the complicated system we are enmeshed within, and is as useful a remedy as waiting for the messiah.
Secondly, the left is still weighed down with the dead tradition of past catastrophes – Stalinism, Maoism, Pol Pot, etc. No matter how hard it tries to dissociate itself from, the smoking gun is still, if not actually being held, in the vicinity. Let me illustrate with a very recent example. The left speaks with forked tongue and proves to be untrustworthy, as well as without any alternative that can offer to inspire anyone except the already converted.
Instead of calling this very society into question, many left-wing critics of the system seek to –either by accident or by design – actually defend this society of forced labour. The most widely read left-wing blogger on the web, Socialist Workers’ Party member Richard Seymour, is an example of the kind of impasse we are faced with today. He offered up ‘a critique’ of the recent financial crisis, with what is widely regarded as a ‘socialist’ solution. It is nothing of the sort. This is what Richard Seymour had to say in early October 2008, as the credit bubble first burst:
‘As for the US, a minimum program might be: nationalise the failing institutions and socialise the profits as well as the risks; support liquidity in the capital markets for the time being, with strict reciprocity and limits on executive remuneration; inject funding into the housing market, buying up the failing mortgages and empty houses and subsidise rents; introduce measures to increase consumption, including tax breaks for the poorest, a rise in the minimum wage, price controls on essential items, and increased welfare expenditure funded by taxes on the wealthiest, which has a useful side-effect of keeping the US purchasing the products of other economies so that they don’t tank; implement a strict regulatory system into the financial sector so that workers and consumers aren’t exposed to this level of risk again; reduce the costs to both businesses and individuals from healthcare by socialising the industry, thereby promoting job creation among manufacturers and giving workers a bit more money in their pockets. Those are fairly moderate demands, but you won’t see 10% of it realised unless the American working class experiences a major revival in its political and industrial strength.’ (8)
Richard Seymour is talking with a forked tongue. In terms of appearance, this sounds like good meat and veg socialist thinking, but this appearance actually veils a far more sinister essence, an essence which has always lurked dishonestly in the background of the orthodox marxist project.
In fact what Seymour is putting forward is a demand for a permanent increase in productivity as a solution to the crisis. His solution actually means people would have to work harder. It actually proposes a kind of ‘administered’ socialism, something like the Eastern European variant that existed up until 1989. It is a critique that does not get to the heart of the ‘deep structure’ of the system, but actually suggests that, if only everyone trapped within ‘the iron cage’ – bosses, workers, administrators – worked more efficiently we could solve the crisis. It is a classical Keynesian solution, but with a Stalinist twist: it rests on a threat of coercion, where everyone will be required to participate for the greater socialist good. It means: work harder. Of course, people like Seymour whisper sideways out of their mouths that really they require a wholesale ‘revolution’ and such proposals are only a ‘cover’, an attempt to draw ‘the workers in’, for them to understand the merits of the real ‘esoteric’ programme of freedom. In reality, both the orthodox-marxists ‘exoteric’ and ‘esoteric’ sides rests on subterfuge and denial: ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has always ended in just that – dictatorship, gulags, firing squads, barbarism. For them, taking control of ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy is a solution to the crisis – state control by the so-called ‘workers’, but in reality a bureaucratic caste. How else could such a proposal work?
It is unlikely that many people here today are easily fooled by this state socialist response to the system – the disaster called Leninism and the desire to avoid repeating it is probably the one thing that everyone in this room all share a commitment to.
By contrast, in a truly groundbreaking study, the Hungarian philosopher and historian Gaspar Tamas has unravelled the complex mediations that have unfolded over the last two hundred odd years, ever since the development of the classical workers movement. He argues that many people have mistaken the genuine marxian project for something else – what he calls ‘Rosseauan’ socialism. (9)
Gaspar Tamas unravels how, in the twentieth century, the Rosseauian (socialist) project actually posited the working class as a contender for power, a worthy cultural competitor to the ruling class.
In fact, a genuine project of liberation will not posit the working class as agent or contender for power. This is because the society we need to create – one where the condition for the free development of each person rests upon the free development of all – does not mean the raising up of the working class as a worthy cultural competitor to the ruling class. Instead, our argument is that we should not be aiming for the triumphant survival of the working class. Rather, we should aim for the abolition of the working class.
London, October 2008.