Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 30 October 2011

On Capitalism as Rational Socialism

The English translation of Emile Durkheim’s, the great French sociologist, work La Division du Travail Social is almost universally rendered as “The Social Division of Labor”. The obvious mis-translation illustrates brilliantly and perfectly the gross misconception that gives rise to it: Durkheim was speaking of the division of social labour – certainly not of the “social division of labour”! For there can clearly be no “labour” as an entity that is abstracted from the ineluctable “sociality” of human beings. Our living activity, our very “being” from eating to dreaming to speaking and therefore also working, is simply unimaginable independently of our belonging to our species. Just as Leibniz could enjoin that “a being must be a being” – that, in other words, it is impossible to conceive of “being” except as a “unity” – so we may say that “human beings” (individual physical human bodies) are really and truly aspects of “being human”. In other words, it is utterly impossible to conceive human beings as separate atomic individuals whose lives and activities can be described independently of their “humanity”, of their “being human”. And this applies a fortiori to our living activity as living labour.

To speak of “labour” abstractly is to believe that there is a “quantity”, a material and spatial and homogeneous entity that can be “measured” according to, say, time or productivity or definite tasks. But what we know for certain about human activity is that its potential forms of material ex-pression are virtually infinite however much they may be “conditioned” by our natural environment.

It is absolutely impossible therefore to describe human living activity in terms of “individual labour” – there is simply no such “thing”! Living labour is an activity that cannot be “measured” and that therefore cannot be “divided”: there can be no such thing as “the division of labour”! What is possible, however, is for human beings as “being humans” to divide the totality of their social labour into different but interdependent tasks. Social labour then is a “totality” that belongs to the human species (leaving out for a moment its impact on the environment) and that is by that very fact only divisible in a “political” sense – never “scientifically” or “mathematically” or “rationally” or “systematically”! Only “politically”! And the question then becomes what kind of political decision-making is in place so as “to organize social labour” – again, not “labour” (!), but “social labour”.

Durkheim, incidentally, distinguished between the “mechanical solidarity” of early social groups and the “organic solidarity” of advanced human societies. But when Max Weber considers “modern capitalism” (the phrase is Werner Sombart’s, but Weber borrows it), he speaks invariably of its “mechanical foundations”, of “the iron cage” – indicating metaphorically the complex “machinery” of what he calls “the capitalist organization of labour”. Given his “spiritualist” bent, Weber considers that capitalist society is less “organic” than earlier human groupings. Yet here again we must side with Durkheim: what makes advanced industrial capitalist societies “organic” is the fact that despite the imposing and ubiquitous “machinery”, the interdependence of human beings has now reached such a stage that it has become truly “organic”, rather than “mechanical”. Even in a “metaphorical” sense, heavy industry is becoming a smaller component of capitalist industry, leaving greater space for services and, above all, “information”. The “viruses” that we attribute to computer systems are becoming ever more “organically” real with each passing day!

So let us now return to Weber and that absolutely remarkable passage from the “Foreword” to his intended series of studies on “The Sociology of Religions” which Talcott Parsons (despite the appalling translation in places) wisely chose to preface to the English edition of Die Protestantische Ethik. Here it is:

Eine exakte Kalkulation: – die Grundlage alles andern, – ist eben nur auf dem Boden freier Arbeit möglich. Und wie – und weil – keine rationale Arbeitsorganisation, so – und deshalb – hat die Welt außerhalb des modernen Okzidents auch keinen rationalen Sozialismus gekannt….

Aber ebenso wie – trotzdem es doch überall einmal städtische Marktprivilegien, Zünfte, Gilden und allerhand rechtliche Scheidungen zwischen Stadt und Land in der verschiedensten Form gab, – doch der Begriff des »Bürgers« überall außer im Okzident und der Begriff der »Bourgeoisie« überall außer im modernen Okzident fehlte, so fehlte auch das »Proletariat« als Klasse und mußte fehlen, weil eben die rationale Organisation freier Arbeit als Betrieb fehlte….

Vollends fehlt der moderne Gegensatz: großindustrieller Unternehmer und freier Lohnarbeiter. Und daher konnte es auch eine Problematik von der Art, wie sie der moderne Sozialismus kennt, nicht geben.

Exact calculation – the basis of all others – is possible only on the ground of free labour.

And just as, or rather because, the world has known no rational organization of labour outside the modern Occident, it has known no rational socialism [precisely what Lenin is attempting in Russia!]. …

But although there have everywhere been civic market privileges, companies, guilds, and all sorts of legal differences between town and country, the concept of the Burger [as opposed to "citizen" in Parsons’s derelict translation] has not existed outside the Occident, and that of the bourgeoisie outside the modern Occident. Similarly, the proletariat as a class could not exist, because there was no rational organization of free labour under regular discipline of the factory [die rationale Organisation freier Arbeit als Betrieb].

The modern conflict of the large-scale industrial entrepreneur and free-wage labourers was entirely lacking. And thus there could be no Problematik such as that experienced by modern socialism.

Hidden in these few lapidary notes are some of the most remarkable political and sociological insights in the history of capitalist praxis. We should study them very carefully because they contain “the keynote” (Italians would call it “la chiave di lettura”), the “key” to the interpretation of capitalist society and State in the Keynesian era.

The world has never known “the rational organization of labour”, says Weber – outside of capitalism, of the bourgeois era, that is. But “the rational organization of labour” means quintessentially for Weber that “the organization of labour” must occur in accordance with a “measurable”, “calculable”, hence “quantifiable” method of organization. And for him it “the only basis or ground” for this rational organization of labour to be “exactly calculable” is that this labour force is “free”. But here the “freedom” of “labour” needs to be defined, and the definition of “free” will also qualify the definition of “labour”. – Because the “freedom” of “labour” contains a number of characteristics. The first is that the labour is “free” from any social bonds that prevent or interfere with its being subjected to “regular discipline of the factory”. In other words, Weber intends “freedom” for “labour” only in a negative sense: it is “freedom from” social bonds or rights that may prevent “labour” from being subjected to “the regular discipline of the factory”: and this means that this “labour” must be entirely “destitute”, “divested” from all social bonds or claims to anything that may serve for its own reproduction outside of the “factory”! “Labour” must be “free from” the means of production so that it may “alienate” itself to the “bourgeois” who will subject it to “the regular discipline of the factory”.

Already, therefore, Weber’s main contention in the Ethik that the “calling” of labour under the principle of “time is money” was responsible for “the spirit of capitalism” is completely confuted! It is not religious faith, but rather the coercion of human living labour into factory work as regular discipline that turns the “time” of human beings into “money”!

Weber does not explain what it is that is “calculated” when “exact calculation” or “rationality” is enforced on “organized labour in the factory”: he does not explain “profit”, which is quite obviously the “monetary difference” between the cost of factory production and the revenue derived from the sale of the goods produced in that factory. So already at least we have a definition of “profit” that goes well beyond Weber’s earlier simplistic notion of “opportunistic exchange” and that comes closer to “the rational and systematic pursuit of profit” that he intended.

But this leads us to the second meaning of “free”: this “labour” must be “free” also in the sense that the living activity of each human being as worker is easily comparable to that of every other worker: in other words, the work itself (!), the labour process, has to be easily comparable and measurable as in the ergonomic principles of Taylorism, and then of Fordism. Thus, the organization of labour can be “rational” only if it is “exactly calculable”. And this “exact calculation” is possible only on the basis of “free labour under regular discipline” – which “discipline” consists in the physical homologation (so far as is possible) of human living activity in terms of tasks and time! In other words, it is “regular discipline” of formally “free labour” that makes possible – and it alone (!) can make possible – the exact calculation or “rationality” of “the organization of labour”.

And all this put together is not “capitalism” but it is also and above all (!!) “rational socialism”! Only “rational socialism” ensures “the existence of the proletariat as a class (!)” that is in “opposition” or “contrast” (Gegensatz – not necessarily “conflict or struggle” [Kampf] – again, poor Parsons translation) with “the large-scale entrepreneur”. By this, Weber surely means that “the organization of labour” can be “rational” only if it is “exactly calculable” by means of “profit” (or the monetary expression of value) and for this the “labour” must be subjected to “the regular discipline of the factory” so that it is “free” in the following senses:

-          “free” from ownership of the means of production for its own reproduction;

-          “free” in the sense of “performing homogeneous tasks” that make it comparable to other living labour in such a way that all living labour becomes one aggregate mass of “divisible labour” (including “individual labour”);

-          “free” in the sense that once “labour” is “divisible” its productive power as “social labour” becomes “the property” of “capital” because it is “capital” in the shape of the means of production that “bring individual labours together as social labour” within the factory under the regular discipline of the capitalist;

-           and finally, this “labour” must be “free” to form an “opposition or contrast as a class” to the employer or entrepreneur (the Arbeit-geber, the “giver” of “labour”) in such a way that the “labour” becomes truly “rational” or “exactly calculable” in terms of its “organization”.

But this final “task” of the political organization of “labour” as “free labour” upon which the “exact calculability” and therefore the “profitability” (!) of the “rational organization of labour” is dependent – this final task of organizing “free labour as a class” is the task of “rational Socialism”!!

So this is the Problematik of rational Socialism! How to ensure that the living labour of workers which is always and always will be ANTAGONISTIC to the capitalist “rational organization of free labour under the regular discipline of the factory” - which will always be antagonistic to the wage relation and the “reduction” of living labour to alienated “free labour” – the Problematik of rational Socialism is how to ensure that this worker antagonism to the false exchange of living labour with dead labour (the “goods” the capitalist produces) is “organized” in a manner that makes possible “the exact calculation” on which the capitalistic extraction of “value” and “profits” is based!!

Please NOTE! That Weber does not speak of “rational Socialism” as “the problem” or as “a problem” for capitalism, for the bourgeoisie. No!! He speaks instead of “the Problematik” of modern rational Socialism: in other words, the integration of the workers’ antagonistic push against the capitalist wage relation is as much of a “problem” for capital as it is for the Sozialismus, for the Social Democratic or “Labor” parties of Europe whose task it is “to organize living labour” as a “class” for its exploitation as “labour”, as “organized free labour” (a “labour” that is homogeneous and calculable and “divisible”) “under the regular discipline of the factory” commanded by the capitalist for “profit”!

This is the tremendous – revolutionary! – realization that President Roosevelt had first and sought to implement in the American New Deal Settlement following the Great Crash of 1929 – and a realization that Keynes only later theorized in bourgeois “economic” terms in the ‘General Theory’!! This development is what we will study next when we return to Keynes.

Appendix: This useful note by Paul Krugman on “Keynesianism” reveals how he acknowledges that opposition to Keynesian policies by the bourgeoisie is due to the fact that they wish to restrain “do-goodism” (remember that we have called Krugman himself a “do-gooder” on this site – just search). BUT KRUGMAN IS WRONG! What the bourgeoisie fears in “Keynesianism” is that the rest of society will be able to unmask Keynesianism for what it is – the bleakest apology for “rational Socialism” – the very “regular discipline of the factory” that we are exposing here!! And once we all see Keynesianism for what it is – then the necks of the bourgeoisie come next!!
And this essay by Herbert Marcuse on Weber and the application of "rationality" to industrial capitalism covers some of our points - but not in the same way (thank God! - because I just discovered it!) and without the politico-economic analysis.

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