Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 5 April 2012

Beyond Habermas: Alfred Sohn-Rethel on Intellectual and Manual Labour

As Marxists we were brought up to think that of all the contradictions inherent in capitalism the one between the ever-increasing social dimension of social production and private appropriation is the most fundamental. It expresses the historical trend of the capitalist mode of production and asserts its transient character. This teaching has gained enhanced relevance in monopoly capitalism. With the introduction of flow production the social dimension assumed a specific structural form of its own and henceforth increased in a conclusive manner reaching in our days the size of the giant multi-national corporations…. [This] discrepancy creates problems which tend to exceed the controlling power of private capital and requires supplementation by the social resources and power of the State, (A. Sohn-Rethel, ‘I&M L’, pp.178-9).

As we saw in our earlier critique of Habermas, classical Marxism reprises the “idealist objectivism” of Hegel by emphasizing the dialectical contradiction between the “instrumental” development of the forces of production and the “interactive” backwardness of existing capitalist social relations of production. It is this contra-diction between the “objective” possibilities of human emancipation from capitalist “appropriation of surplus value” and the “subjective” or voluntarist imposition of obsolete capitalist social relations that, in the eyes of classical Marxism, determines the crisis of capitalism. Yet even the mere re-statement of this theory – that is, the “discrepancy” between the possibility of emancipation and the obsolescence of capitalist categories of private appropriation – evinces its implicit logical contra-diction: - because it is impossible to see how the “objective” development of “forces” of production can ever give rise to claims of “emancipation” that can clash against “subjective” legal and social relations! Emancipation is a political notion that is categorically different from the kind of “social dimension of social production…that exceeds the controlling power of private capital”. The very fact that “private capital” has always exerted a “controlling power” over social production means that “social production” cannot be distinguished from the “controlling power” that “private capital” exerts over it! Consequently, it is impossible to distinguish, as Sohn-Rethel attempts to do here, between the “social dimension of social production” and the “private appropriation” of production by capitalists – as if the first could be objectively determined and the second were a mere subjective appendage or appurtenance. Quite simply, Sohn-Rethel fails to see – as did Marx who tended to relegate the State to the sphere of “superstructure” – that capitalist society was never in a “competitive” stage that did not “require supplementation by the social resources and power of the State” – for the simple reason that the political coercion of State institutions, in their various State-forms since the rise of capitalism, has been essential to the reproduction and expansion of the wage relation. To imagine that capitalism (the wage relation) would have been possible without the political violence of the collective capitalist, the State-form, is to indulge in sheer fantasy.

The Marxian distinction between base and superstructure therefore has no basis in reality because the wage relation, and not the commodity form or the law of value, is what is at the centre of capitalist social relations of production, and what makes these irreducibly antagonistic. The reality of crisis is endemic to the capitalist wage relation because the definition of capital is precisely the command of the capitalist by means of dead objectified labor over living labor. If we wish to understand what “reification” means we need not delve into the foggy notions of “commodity fetishism” or of “crystallized labor time”, but rather peer into the simple, naked violence that capitalists perpetrate against workers through the coercion of wage labor.

The wage relation, which occupied at first only a limited sphere within post-feudal mercantilist societies, eventually became generalized to the extent that capital became the predominant force until it transformed the societies within which it originated into its own shape and form – into societies of capital. No “automatism”, then; no “self-regulating market economy”; no “competitive capitalism” that is replaced eventually by “monopoly capitalism”. Indeed, once we entertain the notion of a competitive capitalism, it becomes quite simply impossible for us ever to be able to reach – both logically and historically – the stage of monopoly capitalism – again for the simple reason that the two notions are aporetic, contradictory in a practical historical sense. For it is just as impossible for “competition” to subsist without turning into “monopoly” as it is for “monopoly” to make any sense at all without the reality of competition! (Schumpeter, in CS&D, brilliantly captures this point when he observes that even the strictest monopoly in capitalism lives in fear for its life! One may also recall Schumpeter’s quip at those clever economists who objected that “monopolies are in breach of the law of competition” that in fact it is the law of competition that runs foul of monopolies!)

The upshot of what we are arguing here is that “competition” and, by extension, “monopoly” are meaningless concepts because once we look at capitalist “market competition” we discover that it is dependent solely on the ability of capitalists to secure the command of dead labor over living labor by means of the “exchange” of the two, as if living labor could be “objectified” like dead labor! Sohn-Rethel is able to see the second point, the incommensurability of dead and living labor, but he is unable to extend this point – as logically it must – to the impossibility of defining objectively a specific form of quantitative co-ordination of an “economy”, whether capitalist or other. Here is Sohn-Rethel:

Thus the commensuration of labor demanded by way of a ‘law of nature’ [Marx] for any human society, presupposes a quantification of labor of different kinds or by different individuals. And the fact is that labour, as it occurs in society, is not itself quantifiable. It is not directly quantifiable in terms of needs, nor needs in terms of labour, neither is labour quantifiable in terms of labor time unless the labour were identical in kind or the actual differences material or personal were disregarded. Therefore to satisfy ‘the law of nature’ stated by Marx thereby making human society possible, systems of social economy are needed to operate a commensuration of labour based on a quantification of labour….
A most significant difference in the modes of commensuration of labour rests upon whether it is brought about indirectly by the exchange process, or directly by the labour process. (I&ML, p.168)

The logical contra-diction in Sohn-Rethel’s argument is almost too obvious: in one and the same breath he claims in the passage above that “the commensuration of labour presupposes the quantification of labour of different kinds” and that “labour [whatever that is!] in society is not itself quantifiable” – and so far he is entirely right. But then, contrary to this correct assertion, he immediately adds that “the commensuration of labour is what makes human society possible” and that this “can be brought about indirectly by the exchange process or directly by the labour process”.

Now, we may certainly agree with Sohn-Rethel that the labour process is what constitutes the social synthesis, if it is understood in the broader sense of both the “technical” element as well as its “reflexive” (or decision-making) component, which is what Habermas was aiming at earlier (see our posts on him) and which we criticized for is artificial separation of these two elements which for us are instead absolutely indivisible. For us, for the society that we intend to substitute to capitalism, the technical labour process and the decision-making process that goes with it cannot be separated either intellectually or indeed politically, so that the socialist society of the future will have to re-establish the control of workers over their working activity – something that capitalism separated violently.

But we cannot agree with Sohn-Rethel or with Marx or with the vast majority of Marxists who have fallen into the trap of believing (with Classical and Neoclassical Political Economy!) that “the exchange process” or “the market mechanism” is what brings about the social synthesis or “social co-ordination” – because, as we have argued here repeatedly, no “social co-ordination” is possible under capitalist industry without the direct intervention and regulation of the capitalist economy by the collective capitalist, the State-form, which has now become “the Crisis-State”.

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