Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 10 March 2021


“Nature loves to abscond” (physis kryptesthai philei, Heraclitus, fragment 123). The immediate equiparation by Marx of the windmill with feudalism and of the spinning jenny with capitalism in The Poverty of Philosophy, already sonorously dismissed by Max Weber (in his comments to W. Sombart’s Technik und Kultur), illustrates and demonstrates how for him it is ultimately the forces of production that determine the social relations of production. It is possible for human society “to strip off its mystical veil” from hiding its real “process of material production”. Even so, “this, however, demands for society a certain material groundwork or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful period of development”:

The life­process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan. This, however, demands for society a certain material groundwork or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development.  Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely,[32] value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour time by the magnitude of that value.[33] 

We shall deal with Marx’s understanding of the relation between forces and relations of production soon. But the tension – indeed the apory or even contradiction here is evident: for it is not logically possible for a “material groundwork” to be the “spontaneous product” of anything at all! Material processes – “the life-process of society” – are either material, that is, automatic natural or mechanical processes that are scientifically and aetiologically determined, even in the sense that they arise “naturally” (“physically” as in the Greek notion of physis, nature) – and therefore are once again strictly causally determined – or else in the sense that they are the product of the free actions and choices of human beings (Latin, spons, free will) – in which case they cannot be determined scientifically! Marx wants his cake and eat it, too. His view of nature is straight out of the Greek pre-Socratics: nature is a hidden process that manifests and un-covers itself to humans (whence the meaning of “truth” for the Greeks as “a-letheia” [remembrance], un-covering, dis-closure or opening, clearing) through a process of scientific “dis-covery”. Like Nietzsche, Marx believes that science has a history. But unlike Nietzsche, Marx also believes that the history of science is a process of discovery of a materially given, determined yet concealed Nature or reality, and not a process of human interpretation, hermeneusis, activity, praxis.

The fact, that in the particular form of production with which we are dealing, viz., the production of commoditiesthe specific social character of private labour carried on independently, consists in the equality of every kind of that labour, by virtue of its being human labour, which character, therefore, assumes in the product the form of value – this fact appears to the producers, notwithstanding the discovery above referred to, to be just as real and final, as the fact, that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered.  What, first of all, practically concerns producers when they make an exchange, is the question, how much of some other product they get for their own? in what proportions the products are exchangeable? When these proportions have, by custom [!], attained a certain stability, they appear to result from the nature of the products, so that, for instance, one ton of iron and two ounces of gold appear as naturally to be of equal value as a pound of gold and a pound of iron in spite of their different physical and chemical qualities appear to be of equal weight.

Quite evidently, Marx here believes that capitalism defined as “private labour carried on independently”, actually and in reality “consists in the equality of every kind of that labour…which therefore assumes in the product the form of value”. But we know that this occurs not through “private labour carried on independently” or through “generalized exchange” or “by custom”, but rather by means of specific historical coercion! Marx is always seeking to present capitalism as a mode of production that can function without naked political coercion; merely by means of “free” market exchange, as an “objective appearance”, a fetishism that arises from the sheer generalized exchange of products. For him, science eventually catches up with absconding Nature – but not before Nature itself has provided the material conditions for humans to acquire consciousness of its “laws”. Unlike Nietzsche, who mercilessly exposed the folly of scientism, Marx truly believed in “the laws of nature”, at least to the degree that he believed he had discovered “the laws of motion of human society”.

Let us then tersely summarize the basic ingredients of Marx’s theory of “the laws of motion” of human society. All human society must reproduce itself materially for it to survive. This reproduction requires two ingredients: social labour, which cannot be segmented or broken down into “individual labours”, and the “socially necessary labour time” required for social labour to ensure at least the material reproduction of society. Anything produced over and above this basic reproduction may be called “surplus labour time” or “surplus production”. What determines “socially necessary labour time” are what Marx calls “the forces of production”. These forces of production in turn determine the social relations of production which may either hinder or foster them. It is when the present social relations of production hinder the forces of production that social revolutions occur.

What distinguishes one mode of production from another is the manner in which “surplus labour time” or “surplus production” is utilized. For instance, in feudalism, this surplus goes toward consumption by feudal lords and the religious order either in castles or armies or in cathedrals and monasteries. Capitalism is unique because the surplus is re-invested to generate more surplus product either by expanding the labour force (absolute exploitation) or by making it more productive so as to lower the socially necessary labour time for its reproduction as well as to expand the number of employed workers (relative exploitation). For Marx, forces and social relations of production will no longer be in contradiction only under communism:

The life­process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan.

The problem with capitalism and all preceding economic formations is, to re-phrase Marx’s thesis, that “the process of material production is not consciously regulated by freely associated men in accordance with a settled plan”. In other words, the problem with capitalism is not that “social labour” and “socially necessary labour time” do not apply – because these must always apply as the fundamental realities of economic reproduction. The problem is rather that the surplus production achieved by capitalist industry through the development of the forces of production is used so as to maximize “surplus value”, that is, the production over and above what society needs for its reproduction is used by capitalists so as to employ more workers for greater production. In this sense, society becomes a slave of production and not its master because the aim of the capitalist bourgeoisie is to perpetuate the servitude of wage labour even though the forces of production have developed to such an extent that the frantic production of material surpluses could easily lead to the virtual abolition of the “socially necessary labour time” needed for the reproduction of the working class, and thus lead to the abolition of wage labour itself! Once again, let us re-read Marx’s passage above in this light:

Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely,[32] value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour time by the magnitude of that value.[33] These formulæ, which bear it stamped upon them in unmistakable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulæ appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a self­evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself. 

It is not that Nature, in the guise of the forces of production, never required that “the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him”. It is rather that, to paraphrase Marx, through the historical vehicle of capitalism the forces of production lead to communism, that is to say, to “a state of society in which the process of production [no longer] has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him”. In other words, capitalism is “a stage of society” in which the social relations of production – the private appropriation of the product of social labour over and above what is needed for social reproduction – are no longer compatible with the overwhelming surplus product that is produced by the “socially necessary labour time” actually required by capitalists so as to expand their command over new and future living labour, over new and future workers: - all in the irrational drive to maximize abstract “wealth”; wealth as accumulated dead labour or abstract labour or value or money. The fact that money and generalized exchange, or fetishism, “conceals” the nature of social labour, making social production appear as the aggregate of “private individual labours”, is really the necessary outcome of a certain “stage of society” and of its “forces of production” whereby Nature itself “conceals” itself. And society can only dis-cover or un-veil this truth only gradually, in the fulness of time. Similarly, just as money is the fetishistic material social objectification of social labour as private individual labours, so the State and the ideological superstructure are the “spontaneous” or natural by-products of a given stage of society, of the forces of production which work behind the backs of humans, like Hegel’s ruse of reason. 

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