1. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or–this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms–with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetter. Then begins an era of social revolution.
And the era of social counterrevolution.
Did you ever hear that old one, about Engels being the better historian, but Marx being the better economist? As if either was either? Whatever else we want to say about Engels, and Marx, we’re not saying anything worthwhile if we’re not saying that from first to last they were both revolutionists– committed to social revolution as the means by which human emancipation, which is after all the emancipation of the production of social welfare, advances.
Everything about Marx’s and Engels’ work begins with that–the necessity of social revolution as the method for emancipating social labor from the condition of private property so that social labor can be the condition for the emancipation of all.
“Then begins an era of social revolution”…and counterrevolution. We’ve been living that era for 50 years, give or take a year. And when it goes on for fifty years, it’s not a crisis. It’s the axis of accumulation. It’s the business plan of capital.
That conflict that Marx describes between forces and relations of production in developed capitalism is acutely presented in the increased valuation, the accumulation of value, in the fixed assets– the machinery, buildings, means of transport, buildings, essential to production; assets which exist as property, as the condition for engaging human labor. That is really all there is to capital– that relation, those conditions. How that relation circulates, realizes itself is vital, but derivative.
The material forces of production, when organized as capital, as private property, or as state property designed to “relieve” private property of its expenses and burdens, compel the organization of labor itself from an activity and into a property, an object to be aggrandized, consumed, and extinguished behind the screen of free exchange. That exchange is the condition of labor, that is to say laborers compelled to present their capacity for labor, their time, as a commodity, as an object to be exchanged for other objects that constitute reproduction of themselves as laborers. Such exchange can only occur if a)the products, and the means of producing those products, don’t belong to the laborers themselves b) the laborers have no alternative adequate means of providing for their individual, minimal needs c) the laborers cannot reproduce, as a class, the means of life necessary for them to no longer be laborers as anything over than exchangeable value.
The potential for labor to be in itself an activity of satisfaction, both the need and the satisfaction, is buried under the relations of exchange, under the power of private property owners, who embed the conflict between their private property and the collective, associated, social labor of the workers into the form of the commodity. Surplus is extracted from labor not simply through enhancing the productivity of labor, but through subordinating, subjugating, that productivity of labor to the needs of private property. That need is first and foremost, profit; a profit achievable only upon “alienation”– commercial exchange. After that? The next need? Clearly, a police force.
At its core, capital is not simply about accumulation, expansion, but is all and always about the accumulation and expansion of the necessary conditions for the activity of labor, compressed as the value expressed in machinery, and the increment and velocity of profit, derived from the surplus labor. Those conditions are undermined by that productivity as less and less time is aggrandized in production; as more and more of that labor-time is expelled and replaced by the assets of production. What we call the conflict between forces and relations of production gets expressed as a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, but the tendency of the rate of profit to fall itself is an expression of the decline in the portion of the working day required for the workers to produce the values necessary for their own reproduction. Necessary labor declines while, for a time, the overall hours of labor increase, so much so that surplus labor increases. And then inexorably, as production outpaces reproduction, those overall hours decline. The value and mass of necessary labor declines, and at a certain stage of development, at a certain structural inflection point, the realizable surplus value falls to zero.
Capital has never been, nor will it ever be, an “economy” of equilibrium; has never been, nor will it ever be anything other than a condition of continuing disequilibrium; disequilibrium in its expansion; disequilibrium in its contraction.
So the wolves tracking our bourgeoisie are not “exogenous.” They are not imported or exported. They can’t be kept out now and forever with tariffs or walls; they can’t be mitigated now or forever by organizations legislating, adjudicating, “equity” “equitable distribution,” or “fairness.”
Not for nothing did that apex of bourgeois anti-thought and miserable deed in the late 20th century, Margaret Thatcher, proclaim that there is no such thing as society. There are only markets. She loved dogs, though. “War on the laborers, peace to the dogs,” was her program.
We know wolves eat dogs.
2. The Big Slowdown
“From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetter”
US Manufacturing Investment in Fixed Assets Average Annual Rates of Growth
1950-1974 9.6% 1974-1997 7.5% 1997-2017 2.65%
US Manufacturing Profits (with Inventory Valuations) Annual Rates of Growth
1950-1974 3.68% 1974-1997 7.13% 1997-2017 1.20%
3. Scratch a bourgeois, and you’ll find a shopkeeper; one bad Christmas shopping season from bankruptcy, trusting no one, convinced that all are out to steal, swindle, extort, as he or she steals, swindles, extorts. The world isn’t so much Hobbesian- with the war of all against all, as it is a paranoid’s fever dream and awake life, where everybody, even the other paranoids, thinks you’re crazy, but that’s because he and she and the world really are out to get you.
Back in the day, in the day when the world went from Keynes to Friedman, when laissez-faire raised its bewigged head, there were those who said that laissez-faire was no economic theory, it was a class ideology; that “free markets” were the coded cover for attacks on the living standards of the workers and the poor; that the attacks on the “state” were just a cover for reversing the gains made by workers in the advanced, and not-quite-so-advanced countries of capitalism; that the drumming for “freedom of opportunity” was in reality the attack on equality of access.
There were those who said there was no going back to some imagined golden era. Rather the only route available was against the system that propagated ideology.
The “economists” lining up for and against Friedman, or Hayek; for and against Keynes or Samuelson, presented their “clashes” as debates of theory, of history, of philosophy when their shared allegiance to political economy made the debate meaningless; when their shared distortion of the origins and functions of markets made their history a sham, and their philosophies a crime against humanity. Vietnam, anybody?
What was left for the economists? Only what had always been there: private property and a police force, since profit was becoming harder to come by.
So begins, years ago, the assault on the living standards, and the very lives of workers; so begins the coded attack on racial equality; so begins the paranoid’s disavowal of the very institutions designed to keep the paranoid tethered, however tenuously, to some reality outside that generated in and by the property of the shopkeeper.
What appears to us today as a mighty river of crackpot, wingnut, conspiracy-mongering, bigotry always was crackpot, wingnut, conspiracy-mongering, bigotry. It, all that, enters social discourse under the guise of “conservatism” or “liberalism” or “neo-liberalism” proclaiming its bedrock “logic” of “free markets” through its didactic linkage of poverty and sloth and shame; in its “principles” of unrestrained “entrepreneurship;” with the righteousness of its attacks on the weak, the vulnerable.
It enters first as novelty, as amusement, as entertainment
The mighty river of social paranoia unleashed by impaired capital accumulation sweeps church, country club, and board room into its stream and deposits all into the very fabric of bourgeois government. The corporatism that capital pretends at, the “shared value” the “common identity,” is incarnated in the fusion of church and state and business.
Evangelicals, racists, hucksters, thugs, misogynists– in a word abusers are the pillars of corporatism. The “rights,” “liberties,” “freedoms,” of capitalism give way to “order” and order can only be secured by abuse.
Having spent years eliminating labor power from the production process in order to save money, the once and future shopkeeper confronts his own handy-work and recoils in horror. The money-making power itself has been depleted.
The search for income is eclipsed by the security of wealth as more and more of the income concentrates in a smaller percentage of people.
At the certain stage when the forms of development become the engines of impairment, when structural decline coincides with, becomes congruent with cyclical contraction, the institutions of capitalist moderation, its parliaments, congresses, trade alliances, unions, its once-partners, always competitors– all that attempt at regulating, at adjusting, at distributing profit among the hostile brothers and sisters becomes an obstacle.
At the point where the paranoia becomes a pandemic, it moves from pathology to policy. So what used to be nutjob theorizing about tri-lateral commissions, international banker (Jewish) Bolshevik (Jewish-Slavic-Immigrant) conspiracies expands to obscure, dissemble, displace and replace the real critiques of the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union, the WTO, NATO, the FBI, CIA.
All those institutions organized to maintain control, to secure property against the real threat of class struggle and thereby to mitigate the fears of the paranoid class become suspect because of that attempt at mitigation.
The “left” encountering this can do nothing more and nothing less than pretend at an imitation of the bourgeoisie it imagined there once was– tolerant, enlightened, liberal, democratic; producing nothing more and nothing less than defeat and disgust. First Tsipras, then Corbyn. And after those defeats…. bring back Lula, Morales.
Meanwhile the combine of money and psychosis gathers greater force, greater currency. Children in cages? It’s done to protect… us, them, you. Every migrant is a Palestinian, living in a camp, a prison, infuriating the inquisitor by having nothing left to expropriate.
That’s where we are today– at that certain stage of development when the most profound advances in the forces of production are but the sum total of the shortcomings, the inadequacies, of capitalism.