Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 3 June 2018

June 4, 1989 - In Memoriam

Our final instalment of “From List to Weber” is dedicated to those young innocent souls who were martyred by the brutal murderous Chinese Dictatorship on this woeful day in 1989 - as many as 10,000 or more, savagely butchered by these cowardly murderers. We shall have no peace, we shall not rest a moment, until we see these callous murderers either be executed as brutally as they took these young lives, or else be imprisoned for as long as they live for crimes against humanity. The savages in the Beijing Chinese Dictatorship do not deserve to walk the earth and breathe its air like the rest of us. Fight them we shall to our last breath until we obtain the justice we seek!!

The antagonism of workers and capital ensures that capital incessantly seeks to eliminate workers or at least to replace skilled workers with less skilled ones to reduce wage costs. Thus, what is called technology is really the process whereby capital wishes to emancipate itself from workers by either eliminating them or, given that this is impossible to do entirely, by lowering the wage costs – and this is achieved by “de-skilling” workers through the transformation of the means of production or “innovation”. But innovation itself requires the creation of new machinery that renders skilled labour superfluous. Thus, we have a tension in the division of social labour between skilled and unskilled workers – and ultimately between “intellectual” and “manual” labour. Capitalists use this division of roles and remuneration between workers as one of the most powerful tools to maintain their hegemony over society.

All labour is necessarily “social labour” – which in fact makes this phrase a pleonasm, but we insist on its use precisely to avoid the reification of “labour” as a material quantity divisible into parcels. Labour can only be divided into “tasks”, not into quantitative slices: once we look at the division of social labour as one of different “tasks”, we are better able to perceive its necessarily “social” character. Hence, when we consider the division of social labour we must also consider its inter-national dimension, because it is here that its centrality to international trade comes to the fore. We saw with Weber that it is the formal freedom of workers that (a) necessitates the existence of many capitals, (b) the existence of money wages (no payments in kind), (c) competition among capitalists and workers in production and in consumption, (d) the democratisation of political representation, of government.

Yet, this market mechanism can make a given capitalist society powerful vis-à-vis other nations only if its advancement in the skilled category does not prevent it from abandoning “strategic” options and choices! (Recall, for instance, that for strategic purposes the steel industry is not the same as the tourist industry.) A nation that is more advanced in the division of labour and whose “market mechanism” - by which we mean both Demokratisierung and Rationalisierung outlined above - is operative will be far more powerful than less advanced nations (in terms of its “productive powers” or “ability to produce wealth”) - especially if it can trade with those other nations. The obstacle that can come between this power and its exertion is purely strategic - in other words, such a nation may have neglected its military provisioning, may be too reliant on trade or indeed on intellectual labour without access to its military conversion.

The cosmopolitical theory of economics denounced by List assumes that nations do not exist; indeed, it assumes that the power of a nation can be developed according to economic laws that are universal and independent of national political power. This is obviously false. Yet, the cosmopolitical theory derives its intellectual force precisely from its attempt to abstract from the political - the nation - to the strictly economical - the marketplace society or civil society. The question now is: what are the universal features of civil society that feed its power as independently or autonomously as possible of the Nation vis-a-vis other nations? The power of a nation depends as much on its internal powers of production as it does on other “strategic” actions such as military appropriation or imperialism. 

This internal strength is what we call the specificity of the economic - which is why Lenin could attribute superiority to the Economy over the Political. The question returns to “Value” as a category of free and therefore rational choice (Weber). The question that List fails to address is: given that we cannot expect nations at different stages of economic development to engage in “free trade” because of the necessarily “unequal exchange” that this trade involves to the detriment of “less developed” nations - given all this, what does “development” mean? This is the question that List fails to address! And this is indeed the question that the “cosmopolitical” economists were seeking to address in “universalist” terms - precisely because they neglected the “political” essence of economics, and therefore of economic growth and development. This is the cardinal issue that both the cosmopolitical economists and List himself fail to address, albeit for divergent reasons, as we have seen. 

Why or how did manufacturing powers  arrive at that power before other nations? List assumes that there are agricultural and manufacturing nations - but never explains why and how some nations grew into manufacturing powers and other nations languished as agricultural powers. Indeed, he never tackles the question of the real political reality behind various types of industrial production of human needs - agricultural, manufacturing, “tertiary” or “services’ or (the latest faddish description) “artificial intelligence” (let us call it “robotics”). List simply assumes that unequal exchange led to this international division of labour. Thus, he never poses himself the question of the superiority of industrial capitalism for nations considered solely in terms of their “ability to produce wealth”. He never poses the question of industrial capitalist development. This is precisely what the “cosmopolitical” economists were seeking to do. Their answers fell short because, as List correctly argued, economics is not a “scientific” mode of exchange or production - it is not about “quantities” - but rather is intrinsically political. It is obvious that we must turn to the analysis of “value” to discover the meaning of this internal dynamic.

No comments:

Post a Comment