Moment, Motion, Impulse, Imperative

  1. Throughout Marx’s work there is a synthetic impulse that urges us (as it did him) to account for and reconcile the different phases, circuits, cycles– all those moments–in the accumulation of capital. Each moment appears distinct, separated definitely in time and often by place, but each is immanent to every other moment. That immanence makes up the “truth,” the “whole,” the movement of the social relation of production that defines the accumulation of capital. With that expansion, development, and apprehension of moment into motion, Marx’s synthetic impulse becomes a synthetic imperative.

That imperative makes sense, or rather is to make sense of the history that capital obscures with its ideologies, its philosophies, its “economics.” Has to be, because Marx isn’t just recording history, he is accounting for it. He is categorizing it. He is presenting history as other than moments, phases, cycles. History is the record of social organization of labor; the mediation of the “natural” activity of human beings by the social relations within which that activity is expressed. Marx’s task is not to present history as events, trivial and/or great; but as etiology, a study of causes; and as ontogenesis, the origin and development of specific “organisms.”

The synthetic imperative finds the “point,” nexus, in, of, and through the convergence of the critique of political economy with historical materialism in the reproduction of the social condition of labor; in the reproduction of the classes bound to that condition, that exchange. The very processes of the “economy” have to reproduce the class relations that determine the condition of labor. Exchange is not just a “market force.” It’s the condition of labor, the social medium for the reproduction of life.

If that social reproduction of classes is intrinsic to, shared by, both Marx’s critique of political economy and his works of historical materialism, we might just be able to clarify, and shrink to the proper level of significance or insignificance, certain areas of debate and controversy surrounding Marx and capital.

2. For example, there’s the “Brenner debate.” The “great controversy” predates Brenner’s investigations where he argues that specific property relations in the English countryside compelled agricultural producers to offer all or almost all of their crops, not just the surplus, for exchange in the markets in the English countryside.

This is the origin of the unique capital relation where subsistence, reproduction, can only be achieved when the product of labor has no use to the laborer other than its use in exchange for a value that commands greater production for exchange. Land was no longer a guarantor of subsistence. Land was a platform upon which products were cultivated and extracted as exchange values. The cycle of value, of valorization, transformed land from a resource and into an asset. Any failure in the cycle transformed the asset into a burden, a liability. Land while not made of value, was enmeshed in value.

The oppositions to Brenner’s works argue, in any number of iterations, against the specificity and necessity of this condition in both space and time. The Brenner thesis is criticized for being “euro-centric;” for ignoring the wealth extracted through the imposition of slavery on, and the exploitation of labor through feudal or near-feudal service obligations, and the extermination of indigenous populations of the Americas which triggered their replacement through the enslavement and transport of millions of Africans, the creation of the plantation, the hacienda, the colony.

Euro-centric? That’s exactly the point. The specific mode of production called capitalism developed first in Europe before being transplanted in various iterations to other continents, including Australia and North America. Capitalism did not develop its specific relations of production in Africa or the Indian subcontinent; nor did the Spanish, French, Portuguese and Dutch ventures in the Caribbean and on the continent of South America yield that relation.

Capital, the opposition maintains, exists as a trans-historical mode, made manifest in “world systems” of trade and commerce prior to the emergence of the peculiar relationship in the English countryside. Everything was capital, if not manifest, at least in latency.

Every thing. However, none of those things established the capitalist class as a dominant class. None of these things established the relation of laborer to capitalist through the mediation of labor as an exchange value.

It is clear, I think, that from the origins that Brenner examined, we can see the implied and necessary dispossession of subsistence producers; we can recognize the implied and necessary expropriation of the common lands; the necessary formation of an agricultural proletariat.

We can see the truth to labor as “free;” that is, unencumbered by anything that might interfere with the exchange of that labor as a commodity in a market. The production of useful articles as values to be exchanged, as commodities, could be replicated an infinite number of times because, and only because labor itself was “free,” accessible as both a useful object and a value. The distinction between subsistence and surplus had been replaced, obliterated actually, by the creation of the “working day,” which divides, while obscuring the division of, labor into necessary time and surplus time; into necessary value and surplus value, through the wage relation. All this and more is packed inside, coiled like DNA inside a cell nucleus, in the specific relations found in the English countryside.

Now this doesn’t mean that slavery didn’t create wealth; this doesn’t mean that colonization was not integral to the expansion of capital; this doesn’t mean that commercial capital, merchant’s capital, didn’t, doesn’t exist.

This doesn’t mean that wealth wasn’t extorted by slavers, merchants, traders; by pillaging and looting which found its way, through commerce, into the banks and bank accounts of our English landowners, English aristocracy, English royalty; our English entrepreneurs.

That does mean that regardless of the wealth so extorted, no slave system was capable of creating the class of capitalists and the class of workers. No slave system was ever able through its own expansion, its own reproduction, to transform the condition of labor such that wage-labor became the basis for further accumulation.

3. If we can recognize the dispossession of the subsistence producer as the basis for the creation of the class of free laborers, for the production of exchange values; if production for exchange implies that ability to labor must present itself in the market as a commodity, we can then assess those conditions where that market is impaired, obstructed.

For all the ink and paper devoted to the importance of the world markets to the origin and development of modern capitalism, and to capitalism as a world system, modern capitalism’s original devotion was to the creation of a “national,” domestic market, through the creation of the national, domestic labor force. Securing this labor force is intrinsic to that domestic development as agricultural productivity is spurred forward by the demands of profitability, and the pools of dispossessed labor provides for the growth of urban areas. The world system exists in the varying degrees of success, and the gradations of impairment and obstruction, capitalism has encountered and created in establishing that national “reciprocity.”

The movement from the abstract of Marx’s critique of political economy to the concrete of his historical materialism compels the recognition that, while the social creation of free labor is critical to the advance of capitalism as the dominant mode of production, the historical circumstances in England, or in the United States, are not automatically reproduced throughout or by the world markets.

There are the points, moments, where capital accommodates rather than revolutionizes the pre-existing relations of land and labor, and thus cannot create the national labor force and the domestic market; where capital implants itself as islands rather than an ocean; where uneven and combined development is the living legacy of “advanced” capitalism; where capitalism has run up against the limits of private ownership of the means of production as a “path to development;” index, categorize, and identify the capital relation as inadequate to the satisfaction of human need; capitalism in whole and part, as relation and system is antithetical to the emancipation of labor.

4. The synthetic imperative hits a wall, or so it seems, in Marx’s own work. “Marx never gave us a “complete theory of crisis” in Capital,” you say? No kidding. Marx never gave us a “complete theory” of capital in Capital. Did Marx ever give anyone a complete anything? Beats me. First word regarding the “complete theory?” Pity. Last word? Engels.

Just because something moves from impulse to imperative, doesn’t mean that everyone or anyone is going to live long enough to complete the synthesis. It’s more than just a minor possibility that integrating all the manifestations of capital’s system of dynamic disequilibrium might not be accomplished, might be impossible to accomplish before the overthrow of the system itself.

That, that capital embodied the overthrow of capital value relations is the real synthesis that Marx perceived. He was first and foremost a revolutionary.

Marx articulates a convergence of his critique and historical materialism in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In those famous paragraphs of that famous preface, Marx identifies that “man”–men and women produce the terms of their existence socially; that the relations of production, which is the condition of labor, are determined by the development of the forces of production, which we know, or will know soon, is the accumulated labor embodied in technology. The relation of the accumulated labor to the living laborer constitutes the mode of production. In the expansion and development of the mode, the growth of the means of production overwhelms the condition of labor, namely the capital value relations. “From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era social revolution.”

Marx perceives this as a principle of history, and I don’t think it’s accidental, or coincidental, or an invisible hand at work, that Marx’s thumbnail sketch appears in this contribution to the critique of political economy which itself is a preface to the critique he elaborates upon in Capital.

As is often the case, Marx’s own “euro-centrism,” his inability to escape time and circumstance of his own social existence, “allows” him to present this recognition of the dynamics of compatibility/conflict between means and relations of production as if it were “historical law,” applicable everywhere humans create the means of their own subsistence.

However such applicability would transform the historical law into supra-historical requirement.

The propulsive force generated by the conflict between means and relations exists when those same relations require the continuous expansion of the forces of production to a level that cannot be sustained by the ruling class that appropriates its wealth through the mode of production. For that to occur, the ruled class must embody a dual identity, one identity being that of the reservoir of labor sustaining the current mode, the other identity being that of source for the reorganization of labor into a more productive, more social power.

Now the bourgeoisie acting as revolutionary as a class anywhere in history is conspicuous in its absence, is a hard sell. However, the organization of commerce and property that is explicit in the bourgeoisie’s notions of “civil society,” “privacy,” a secular, or at least ecumenical state, etc. comes close when the small agricultural producer, the artisan, the urban poor give it life; because they then create the condition for their own transformation into proletarians.

Marx derives this law only because the condition imposed on labor, when the organization of wage-labor for the production of value for exchange embodies the conflict between forces and relations at its very core. Capitalism may have made other modes, other societies, obsolete. It may and it does demolish entire civilizations. But with capital, the obsolescence is immanent to itself. The demolition of the edifice it calls civilization is intrinsic to capital itself.

Like value, history exists prior to capital. But value does not exist as the law regulating production before capital, before labor itself is organized as a “freely” traded exchange value.

History exists; but it does not exist as a record of expanding social labor prior to the emergence of capitalism.

5. So what does Marx give us by way of synthesis, besides a not-blank sheet of paper? besides an analysis of conditions and relations that identify capitalism as a specific mode of production?

Marx doesn’t come close to delivering the “complete package.” However, in his manuscripts that Engels assembled and edited as Capital, Volume 3, he gives us the tendency of the rate of profit to decline with the development of capital. In Chapter 15, specifically he does connect the moments into motion and follows the synthesis from impulse to imperative:

A fall in the rate of profit and accelerated accumulation are different expressions of the same process only in so far as both reflect the development of productiveness. Accumulation, in turn, hastens the fall of the rate of profit, inasmuch as it implies concentration of labour on a large scale, and thus a higher composition of capital. On the other hand, a fall in the rate of profit again hastens the concentration of capital and its centralisation through expropriation of minor capitalists, the few direct producers who still have anything left to be expropriated. This accelerates accumulation with regard to mass, although the rate of accumulation falls with the rate of profit.

On the other hand, the rate of self-expansion of the total capital, or the rate of profit, being the goad of capitalist production (just as self-expansion of capital is its only purpose), its fall checks the formation of new independent capitals and thus appears as a threat to the development of the capitalist production process. It breeds over-production, speculation, crises, and surplus-capital alongside surplus-population. Those economists, therefore, who, like Ricardo, regard the capitalist mode of production as absolute, feel at this point that it creates a barrier itself, and for this reason attribute the barrier to Nature (in the theory of rent), not to production. But the main thing about their horror of the falling rate of profit is the feeling that capitalist production meets in the development of its productive forces a barrier which has nothing to do with the production of wealth as such; and this peculiar barrier testifies to the limitations and to the merely historical, transitory character of the capitalist mode of production; testifies that for the production of wealth, it is not an absolute mode, moreover, that at a certain stage it rather conflicts with its further development.

We are at Marx’s own transition point; at the transition from the critique of political economy to the historical limits of the mode of production.

We are at Marx’s synthetic compression– his distillation– of his own abstract critique and the movement from abstract to concrete manifestations of the immanent obstacles to capitalist accumulation.

He continues:

The conditions of direct exploitation, and those of realising it, are not identical. They diverge not only in place and time, but also logically. The first are only limited by the productive power of society, the latter by the proportional relation of the various branches of production and the consumer power of society. But this last-named is not determined either by the absolute productive power, or by the absolute consumer power, but by the consumer power based on antagonistic conditions of distribution, which reduce the consumption of the bulk of society to a minimum varying within more or less narrow limits. It is furthermore restricted by the tendency to accumulate, the drive to expand capital and produce surplus-value on an extended scale. This is law for capitalist production, imposed by incessant revolutions in the methods of production themselves, by the depreciation of existing capital always bound up with them, by the general competitive struggle and the need to improve production and expand its scale merely as a means of self-preservation and under penalty of ruin. The market must, therefore, be continually extended, so that its interrelations and the conditions regulating them assume more and more the form of a natural law working independently of the producer, and become ever more uncontrollable. This internal contradiction seeks to resolve itself through expansion of the outlying field of production. But the more productiveness develops, the more it finds itself at variance with the narrow basis on which the conditions of consumption rest. It is no contradiction at all on this self-contradictory basis that there should be an excess of capital simultaneously with a growing surplus of population. For while a combination of these two would, indeed, increase the mass of produced surplus-value, it would at the same time intensify the contradiction between the conditions under which this surplus-value is produced and those under which it is realised.

We’re back at the “market relations” that must expand, which must reproduce exchange value as the condition of labor, and those relations demand, require, that a) the working day as a distinct period of time must be established b)that the exchange of labor power for the wage, the exchange of labor power as a value, requires compensation of the labor at its value, at the time necessary for its reproduction c) that the time of reproduction, of necessary labor; the necessary time represent only a fraction of the entirety of the working day for the entire society d) that only that necessary fraction be compensated e) that the necessary fraction be continually reduced, not simply relatively, but absolutely, that is to a level below that of the entire reduction in the working days.

Where does that get us? Right back to this: overproduction is immanent to the wage relation. That value cannot exist without the immanent conditions of devaluation.

Marx considers the manifestations of this in the pages that follow:

The increase in the productiveness (which, moreover, we repeat, always goes hand in hand with a depreciation of the available capital) can directly only increase the value of the existing capital if by raising the rate of profit it increases that portion of the value of the annual product which is reconverted into capital. As concerns the productivity of labour, this can only occur (since this productivity has nothing direct to do with the value of the existing capital) by raising the relative surplus-value, or reducing the value of the constant capital, so that the commodities which enter either the reproduction of labour-power, or the elements of constant capital, are cheapened. Both imply a depreciation of the existing capital, and both go hand in hand with a reduction of the variable capital in relation to the constant. Both cause a fall in the rate of profit, and both slow it down. Furthermore, inasmuch as an increased rate of profit causes a greater demand for labour, it tends to increase the working population and thus the material, whose exploitation makes real capital out of capital.

Marx seems to have placed himself between the horns of a contradiction. At one and the same time, the increase in productiveness always goes hand in hand with a depreciation of existing capital, while the productiveness of labor “has nothing direct to do with the value of the existing capital.” The resolution of course is not in the productivity of labor, but in the value allocated to the necessary portion of the working day– not productivity, which changes nothing regarding the value; but rather value itself, reducing the portion that is claimed for the reproduction of labor. So…sooner or later, later or sooner, capital accumulation requires the devaluation of accumulated capital and labor power in order to offset the impact of the productivity of labor on the rate of profit:

Alongside the fall in the rate of profit mass of capitals grows, and hand in hand with this there occurs a depreciation of existing capitals which checks the fall and gives an accelerating motion to the accumulation of capital-values.

Alongside the development of productivity there develops a higher composition of capital, i.e., the relative decrease of the ratio of variable to constant capital.

More than a “relative decrease of the ratio of variable to constant capital,” capital is driven, the more it accumulates, to find a method to drive down the cost of the reproduction of labor power; to reduce the wage; to reduce the amount of time devoted to “necessary labor,” including destruction of the necessary laborers.

Class struggle against capital, for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, is the synthetic imperative of Marx’s critique of political economy and historical materialism. It is the real movement immanent to and against the reproduction of Mr. and Mrs. Moneybags, and all their little Moneybags, their political hacks, their wingnut militias, their anti-vaxxers, their bankrupt shopkeepers, their infinite agents of terror.


July 18, 2021

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: