September 14, 2008

Runs the shibboleth

What I want to talk about by the end of this post is the (non?)-distinction between a theory of capital focused primarily upon accumulation as the agent of history versus labor. It is a distinction I have read and heard before, if not explicitly, then at least implicitly, in debates about how to understand capital. Related to this is the question, of course, of how to do something about the system and its logic, a topic about which I don't think I'll have the guts to speak about until many more years of thinking about these problems.  . .  .

The following is meant to be an exposition on chapters sixteen through twenty-four, conforming to Harvey's division, but I mainly will talk about chapters 23 and 24 because the prior ones seem to repeat arguments, and I didn't find very much continuity between them and the later ones. I think I should re-read the chapter on money and watch Harvey's lecture on it, because that seems to be the only key insight that arises from his discussion of wages.

So let's begin with a point that is reiterated throughout these chapters and which appeared earlier, too: volume one is primarily a simple model. He says he will assume that commodites are sold at value, that there is always an equilibrium between the prices of commodities and their value, that there is no overproduction or underconsumption, there are no taxes, no interest, no landholding, no banks, no tariffs or export and transportation issues. It's a closed system.

In his defense: this is not a bad thing because for understanding the larger schema of things, one must understand the basic elements and how they push things along, beneath the surface of more complicated financial formula. There will be time in volumes two and three for that. Offense: this is a good thing because Marx can prove that even when the system is at its simplest and runs smoothly according to the tenets of classical political economy, it results in exploitation.

Within this simplified model, Marx observes that value oscillates between two hands but essentially remains the same: labor and capital. If we assume capital exists, then its next stage is to buy labor-power (as exchange-value), which gives the capitalist the right to all the labor expended by workers (as use-value), which results in commodities sold on the market (as an exchange-value greater than the wages), pocketed as surplus-value, which ultimately becomes reinvested as more capital. Old story right? UV -> XV> Exchange-value is a ruse for the use-value of labor, and it is this oscillation that allows for the sleight of hand. As in chapter one, he writes: "Not a single atom of his old capital continues to exist" (715).

It has vanished into the undifferentiated commodity form.

Marx also returns, seemingly for the first time since chapter one, to the obvious question of -- so where did all that capital originally come from? 
From our present standpoint it therefore seems likely that the capitalist, once upon a time, became possessed of money by some form of primitive accumulation [ursprΓΌngliche akkumulation] (714).
More on this later, of course. Instead of harping on primitive accumulation, though, Marx more logically says that since at the end of the cycle, surplus-value is converted into capital, we should think of the originary capital invested in labor-power as simply past labor. Dead labor. Labor extracted from the capitalist is then used to pay the laborer again and again and again. It is a never-ending cycle.

Marx then spends time developing two big ideas. First, he argues that even in a static system, such a process of using labor to feed labor cements the division between the working and capitalist classes. If the process iterates repeatedly, the worker winds up with no surplus, and the capitalist piles up the surplus. Thus the formation of classes. Even when the worker gets a wage and spends it on food for its family, it is still doing it to support the capitalists who profit from their consumption (in two ways: the food gives the worker energy to work, and the profits from food probably go to the capitalist):
By converting part of his capital into labour-power, the capitalist augments the value of his entire capital. He kills two birds with one stone. He profits, not only by what he receives from, but by what he gives to, the labourer. . . . The consumption of food by a beast of burden does not become any less a necessary aspect of the production process because the beast enjoys what it eats.(717-718).
Next, Marx spends chapter 24 asking why the capitalist doesn't just use the surplus-value to consume things and live a nice life. Why does surplus-value necessarily become more capital? His answer is that capital is a spiral and that in order to survive it must grow, and if you aren't growing then you are dying. In the mind of the capitalist, it becomes stated as an imperative to
Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! 'Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates.' Therefore, save, save,i.e, reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie in the period of its domination (742).
Accumulate to accumulate, produce to produce, labor to labor, value to value. On the one hand, it is a self-referential and nihilistic position (insert the need for religion and some sort of spiritual reassurance that something external and greater has a plan for all of us), and on the other hand, in its self-referentiality, it is limitless in its prospects. Ask capital when it plans to stop using resources and widening the rich-poor gap, and it wouldn't even understand those terms.

The other passage that I think is worth quoting is on the page before:
[I]n so far as he is capital personified, [the capitalist's] motivating force is not the acquisition and enjoyment of use-values, but the acquisition and augmentation of exchange-values. He is fanatically intent on the valorization of value; consequently he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production's sake . . . Only as a personification of capital is the capitalist respectable (739).
Now to try to bring this together. 

It seems to me that the last two quotes -- 'accumulation for accumulation' and 'capital personified' -- while not at all facetious reveal Marx's writing mode as a model. In extreme cases we have absolute bastards like the ones he writes about, but really what you probably find in real life are people whose intentions aren't completely evil but, when it comes down to it, share the tenets of capital personified. If one were to reduce someone's role and position in an economy to their most fundamental logics and actions, then you wind up with capital personified.

So this is how one can come to the conclusion that the agent of capital is capital itself. As William Sewell has claimed a few times, taking a cue from Moishe Postone, the social horizon of the modern era has been the accumulation of capital. Here is a line from his article that has stuck with me for months:
I would tend to emphasize the endless accumulation of capital as forming the crucial underlying dynamic of capitalism, with class and class struggle figuring more as a context and outcome of the dynamic of accumulation. In capital-centered Marxist theories, the endless accumulation of capital produces changing historical configurations of political power, spatial relations, class struggles, intellectual forms, technology, and systems of economic regulation that endure for a certain time until they are dismantled by their own contradictions and replaced by new configurations.
The opposition in this quote lies between Sewell's emphasis on capital accumulation versus Geoff Eley's emphasis on class. The opposition seems to be between a theory that sees history moving forward by the actions of the capitalist class (who accumulate) versus a theory that sees history moving forward by the actions of the working class (who get exploited).  Eley's position is similar to the position taken by the editors of the Re/thinking Marxism journal, Resnick and Wolff. An oversimplified version of Eley's and R/W's theses would be that in all social phenomena, since capitalist exploitation is involved, class is involved. Class overdetermines everything, and even though there are variations in class dynamics, it is always present and hence almost transhistorical (within the historical limits of capital).

After reading these last few chapters, I think that I am willing to agree with Sewell but with the need for a fuller explanation. Something paradoxical emerges from these chapters. On the one hand, the only governing principle of accumulation is completely lifeless and abstract. No single person is giving the orders to accumulate, businesses full of greedy people run themselves into the ground trying to accumulate more than their peers, and well-intentioned people also do bad things to other people because they see it as the only way for them to survive. Would they do this if they had the total freedom to choose how to live their lives? Hard to say but probably not as unanimous as it appears today. No one is really running the show. 

On the other hand, where could capital come from if it does not come from the workers? Capital is simply a disguised form of dead labor, which emerges from living labor itself. You cannot have capital without the workers, but then of course you could not have a working class without an exploitative one. So it is a system that depends upon the life and blood of those who form the basis of value. These processes of class, labor and accumulation seem incredibly, inextricably intertwined. How could one choose?

And then add to the formula the fact that Marx is writing in full modular mode. What he writes is very powerful and resonates strongly with everything we experience by simply living in this world economy, but it is definitely a simplified version, and if that's the case is he underestimating the role of any alternative logics outside that authorized by capital? In his above exposition of how the worker is reproduced as a figure within capital, Marx seems to suggest that even when we think we are not at work -- resting, eating, complaining about our jobs -- we are simply refueling for more work, a socially necessary element for capital's functioning. Which would suggest we are always at capital's mercy.

As Harvey says in his podcast, the modular mode for Marx is necessary because capital is a shape-shifting force that cannot be represented in a single, fully complex moment but must be stripped down to a governing logic that grafts itself on top of historically specific situations. Other logics do exist and co-exist with capital, but it's just that capital seems to appropriate and make use of those logics in different ways in each instance and somehow in the end remains, at its heart, intact. 

So is capital accumulation the only logic? Probably not. And could capital exist without labor and without reproducing classes? Nope. But those classes are much more a result of capital than they are a pre-existing historical agent. Capital gives, and capital can take away. I think that's Sewell's point, and it's a more dynamic formulation than the crappy cultural studies model of looking for reified class distinctions (along with gender and race and sexuality and caste and religion and whatever) outside of history. 

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