Friday, June 14, 2024

Book proposal: Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading -- part 2.5

 Pauperism and “minus-labour”

“It is already contained in the concept of the free labourer, that he is a pauper…“

Pauperism and surplus population play brief but strategic roles in the Grundrisse, appearing in the three fragments on pages 397-423, 604-610, and 704-711, respectively, that all deal with the inverted relationship between necessary labour and the superfluous – the first and third fragments also revolving around disposable time. These two themes – or two moments of the same theme – return with a vengeance in the climactic chapter 25 of Capital, volume 1, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.”

Closely related to pauperism, at least analytically, is unproductive labour, which Marx gives fleeting attention to in the Grundrisse and relegates to the unpublished “Chapter Six” of Capital. Marx’s “does not belong here” footnote, however, hints at a more prominent role for servant work as a companion to the reserve army, in that, “the creation of surplus labour on the one side corresponds to the creation of minus-labour, relative idleness (or not-productive labour at best), on the other.” In The Source and Remedy, Dilke identified the expansion of the “unproductive classes” as one of the two primary methods by which capital avoided a terminal reduction of the rate of return on investment. Thomas Chalmers celebrated the role of this “disposable population” as a measure of national prosperity. Marx, however, never fully articulated the relationship between the disposable population of servants and the disposable reserve army of the unemployed. Chapter 52 of volume 3 of Capital begins a discussion of classes that ends in the middle of the second page with the note from Engels, “At this point the manuscript breaks off.”

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Book proposal: Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading -- part 2.4

 Alienated labour and disposable time

Marx’s remarkable, yet largely neglected statement that “[t]he whole development of wealth rests on the creation of disposable time” and his subsequent analysis of the relationship between disposable time, superfluous products, and surplus value suggests an alternative analysis of alienation that identifies disposable time itself as that which is appropriated and confronts the labourer as alien property. Marx came close to making such an analysis explicit in a footnote that begins, “It does not belong here, but can already be recalled here…” and in which he noted “In relation to the whole of society, the creation of disposable time is then also creation of time for the production of science, art etc.,” anticipating his advocacy in notebook VII of, “the general reduction of the necessary labour to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free.” Disposable time is thus not an empty container to be filled with “pseudo-activities,” to use Adorno’s phrase, but the foundation for the full cultural, intellectual, physiological, and spiritual development of the individual.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Book proposal: Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading -- part 2.3


Marx stated repeatedly in the Grundrisse that capital inverts the relationship between necessary and superfluous labour time. Capital both creates disposable time and expropriates it in the form of surplus value, reversing the nature-imposed priority of necessity before superfluity and making the performance of necessary labour conditional on the production of surplus value. Marx’s analysis of this inversion bears unmistakeable traces of Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique in The Essence of Christianity of the inversion of collective humanity and the divine, which had so influenced the young Marx. The theme of inversion returns in the first chapter of Capital in the section on the fetishism of the commodity, where in the first sentence Marx comments on the commodity’s abundant “theological niceties.” The table made of wood, “not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas.” A couple of pages later: “In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion.”

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Book proposal: Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading -- part 2.2


Published in 1821, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties was a major influence on Marx's analysis of ‘disposable time.’ In an 1851 notebook, Marx logged a 1000 word summary of the pamphlet. He also discussed it extensively in volume 3 of Theories of Surplus Value. His discussion of disposable time in a section of his Grundrisse notebooks that came to be known as the ‘fragment on machines’ has inspired rethinking of Marx's mature work by authors ranging from Raniero Panzieri, Antonio Negri, and Paolo Virno to Moishe Postone. Yet those re-evaluations do not acknowledge the decisive contribution of The Source and Remedy. This chapter examines Marx’s admiration, criticisms, and uses of the pamphlet, and the neglect of the pamphlet by subsequent writers, and offers suggestions about what might be gained by close attention to this seminal source and relying on it to perform a ‘remedial reading’ of Marx’s texts.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Book proposal: Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading -- part 2.1

Der Gefesselte Marx

Karl Marx's preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy contains the best-known description of his theory of history. At some point contradiction between the relations of production and the forces of production become fetters on the latter, ushering in a period of social revolution. The traditional interpretation is that the social revolution will unleash technological advances that enable industrial production to expand by “leaps and bounds,” even as free time for workers also increases. Marx’s description, however, specifically referred to a general conclusion he had reached in the 1840s that “became the guiding principle of my studies.” He did not suggest it was a précis of those subsequent studies. In the Grundrisse, Marx had developed a much more detailed analysis of the fetters capital both posits and overcomes, based on the remarkable premise that “the development of all wealth rests on the creation of disposable time.” In that analysis, it is not a greater quantity of manufactured goods that is fettered by the capitalist relations of production but the emancipation of the social individual.

In the Grundrisse, Marx enumerated what the specifically capitalist fetters were:

These inherent limits have to coincide with the nature of capital, with the essential character of its very concept. These necessary limits are:

(1) Necessary labour as limit on the exchange value of living labour capacity or of the wages of the industrial population;

(2) Surplus value as limit on surplus labour time; and, in regard to relative surplus labour time, as barrier to the development of the forces of production;

(3) What is the same, the transformation into money, exchange value as such, as limit of production; or exchange founded on value, or value founded on exchange, as limit of production.

This is:

(4) again the same as restriction of the production of use values by exchange value; or that real wealth has to take on a specific form distinct from itself, a form not absolutely identical with it, in order to become an object of production at all.

“However, these limits,” Marx added, “come up against the general tendency of capital... to forget and abstract from…” these very same limits! The result is inevitably overproduction, not simply in the sense of an excess inventory but of a generalized industrial overcapacity of both means of production and labour power.

Friday, June 7, 2024

Book proposal: Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading -- part 2.0

The second part of my book proposal is a chapter outline and summary. I will be doing that on the installment plan, one chapter at a time. Below is a table of contents:

  1. Fetters/Der Gefesselte Marx
  2. Ambivalence
  3. Inversion
  4. Alienated labour and disposable time
  5. Pauperism and “minus-labour”
  6. From sufficiency to planned obsolescence… and back?
  7. The revolutionary class
  8. A nation is really rich if the working day is 6 hours rather than twelve.
  9. The return of disposable time: time filled with the presence of the now

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Book proposal: Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading part one.

Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading

Tom Walker

Overview (chapter summaries will be presented in a future post)

This book proposes a remedial reading of the relationship in Marx’s critique of political economy between the forces and relations of production, real wealth, and value. It is remedial in two senses. First, it seeks to remedy the long-standing misconception of the 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy as Marx’s definitive statement on the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. Second, it does so by acknowledging the influence of the 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties on Marx’s conception of disposable time as real wealth.

In his celebrated 1859 preface, Karl Marx stated the guiding principle of his studies to be the general conclusion he had reached in the 1840s that when the property relations of society come into conflict with the material productive forces, they become fetters on their further development. “Then begins an era of social revolution.” 

“Here we have before us,” wrote G. V. Plekhanov in 1907, “a genuine ‘algebra’ – and purely materialist at that – of social development.” Thirteen years earlier he had extoled Marx’s “completely materialist conception of history” as “one of the greatest discoveries of our century, so rich in scientific discoveries.” According to Plekhanov, Marx’s view of history gave sociology “a foundation as solid as natural science.” Already in 1908, though, Georges Sorel had warned of the extreme obscurity of the 1859 preface and the absence of any mention of class. It was not surprising to him that “many liberties have been taken with this preface, which so many men cite without ever having studied it seriously.”

Remnants of Plekhanov’s late 19th century interpretation of Marx’s 1859 preface survive in both socialist ecomodernist and degrowth communist arguments. The former embracing and the latter rejecting the interpretation’s inherent productivism but both accepting it as an accurate portrayal of Marx’s view (see, for example: Matt Huber, Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet. Verso Books, 2022. Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. Cambridge University Press. 2022). While faithful adherence to the maestro’s thought is no guarantee of analytical success, dogmatic adherence to a faulty interpretation may impose unnecessary obstacles to fruitful inquiry.

A potential remedy for this predicament materialized in 1968 with the publication by the New Left Review of Martin Nicolaus’s “The Unknown Marx.” Two-thirds of the way through his essay, Nicolaus announced he would “proceed now to examine to what extent the text of the Grundrisse justifies the sweeping claims made for Marx’s new scientific achievements in his 1859 Preface.” He was particularly interested in ‘whether the Grundrisse provides further elucidation of the famous passage in the Preface about Revolution…” The examination did indeed elucidate the passage – to the extent that the passage could have been cast aside as a mere husk once the kernel of its truth content had been revealed.

“The Unknown Marx” was awarded the first Deutscher Memorial Prize. It led Moishe Postone to discover the Grundrisse and revise his view of Capital “as basically a book of Victorian positivism.” It was copied and distributed in a “bootleg” edition by student radicals at the Austin campus of the University of Texas. It reputedly secured Nicolaus a commission from New Left Books, subsequently Verso, to translate the full Grundrisse. But Nicolaus’s elucidation of the passage about fetters on the productive forces has had little lasting impact. In his 1973 Foreword to the Grundrisse, Nicolaus himself gave only brief and elusive mention to his earlier conclusion:

The famous 1859 Preface speaks of the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. Relatively little is said in Capital about this question. The Grundrisse is one long extended commentary upon it; inversely, the 1859 formulation is a summary, in a word, of the Grundrisse.

“One could go on and on,” begins the next paragraph. But instead of saying anything further about the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, Nicolaus pivoted to speak of “the rich, all-sided individuality Marx was talking about.” This seeming non-sequitur may coyly allude to the fact that in the Grundrisse, the development of the forces of production in capitalism is revealed to be the development of “the rich, all-sided individuality” of the social individual -- a point Marx explicated on page 705, “…in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth.”

Three pages later, Marx defined the revolution as appropriation of “their own surplus value” by “the mass of workers.” In Capital and in his work for the First International, Marx repeatedly referred to the limitation of the hours of work as the prerequisite for the emancipation of the working class. These statements are not incidental to Marx’s theory of history but are deeply embedded in his critique of political economy as developed over three sections of the Grundrisse (pp. 397-423, 604-610, 704-711). All three sections deal with the consequences of the contradictory drive of capital to both reduce necessary labour to a minimum while simultaneously maintaining labour time as the measure of value. In the first and last of these fragments, Marx paraphrased The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulty, several times to emphasize a point he was making. 

In his 1885 preface to volume 2 of Capital, Friedrich Engels told of Marx’s high regard for The Source and Remedy. Until recently, very little has been written about the influence of the pamphlet on Marx’s critique of political economy. In 2021, I wrote an article to commemorate the bicentennial of the pamphlet’s publication and give some background on its author, who has since been identified as Charles Wentworth Dilke. Subsequently, I scoured the Grundrisse, Capital, Theories of Surplus Value, and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy for further evidence of the pamphlet’s influence on Marx’s thought. I documented what I found here on EconoSpeak.

What I found has led me to an unconventional interpretation of Marx’s theory of revolution. My interpretation focuses on the role of disposable time as both the foundation and measure of real wealth. Reading those passages from the Grundrisse through the lens of The Source and Remedy reveals the intimate relationship of Marx’s analyses of surplus value, forces of production, and socially necessary labour time with the pamphlet’s corresponding, albeit non-identical, analyses. Such a reading highlights how Marx’s theoretical contribution brilliantly goes beyond the pamphlet’s radical liberal insights and serves as a corrective to a radical liberal misreading of Marx. Although novel, my interpretation is not without some precedent in the writings of André Gorz, Moishe Postone, Martin Hägglund, and others. With the exception of Gorz, though, these writers treat disposable time as the desirable end of social revolution rather than as both means and end.

Since translations of the Grundrisse became available in the 1960s and 1970s, the “fragment on machines” has been lauded by Herbert Marcuse as Marx’s “most realistic, his most amazing insight,” and by Moishe Postone as containing a key to interpretation of Marx’s analysis in Capital. But those rightly famous passages in notebook VII recapitulate and amplify themes whose exposition and development came in the earlier notebook IV. Although the recapitulation is itself compelling, it gains much needed coherence in context of the earlier discussion. For Postone, for example, Marx “characterizes a possible postcapitalist society in terms of the category of ‘disposable’ time.” But Marx’s category of disposable time went much deeper than that. “The whole development of wealth,” he wrote in notebook IV, “rests on the creation of disposable time.” In earlier stages of development, people exchanged only their superfluous products. In capitalism, the spontaneous order between necessity and superfluity is inverted: “In production resting on capital, the existence of necessary labour time is conditional on the creation of superfluous labour time.”

The relations of production and productive forces make a dramatic return in chapter 48, near the end of volume 3 of Capital, “The Trinity Formula.” Marx’s explanation here of why individuals enter into these relations of production echoes the narrative of the 1859 preface. In place of the relations of production turning into fetters on the productive forces and beginning an era of social revolution, Marx offers a disquisition on the “realm of freedom [which] begins only when labour determined by necessity and external expediency comes to an end…” and the disclosure that “[t]he reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.” 

This latter statement may seem to come out of the blue unless one is familiar with Marx’s Inaugural Address to the International Working Men’s Association, in which he upheld the Ten Hours’ Bill as “not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.” In his address, Marx had defined the political economy of the working class as “social production controlled by social foresight” in contrast to bourgeois political economy which relied of “the blind rule of the supply and demand laws.” In the passage in chapter 48 of volume 3, Marx “socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power.”

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Opium of the People and Radical Chains

The historical dust has not settled, but at this moment it seems clear that a proletariat which does not embrace Marxism is entirely possible. Why not, then, Marxism without a proletariat? In a thoughtful article, "Radical Chains: The Marxian Concept of Proletarian Mission" (Studies on the Left, September-October, 1966), Oscar Berland argues that this is not only a thinkable but also a necessary thought. Ronald Aronson's "Reply" to Berland agrees that the proletariat has lost its revolutionary potential, but forcefully asserts that to scuttle the concept of proletarian mission is to scuttle Marx himself. The present paper in general sustains Berland, but puts the argument in sharper terms. At the same time, and this is its major purpose, this paper attempts to show that Marx's mature economic theorizing (the core of which Berland rejects as "droll") was by no means centered around the concept of a "mission," proletarian or otherwise, and that Marx's formulation of the laws of capitalist development—unfortunately, for the proletarian cause—can be shown to have been depressingly accurate and realistic. Bringing to light a much-neglected aspect of Marx's work, this paper hopes to stimulate interest in investigating the usefulness of the surplus-value concept for the understanding of modern capitalist class structure.

Martin Nicolaus's  "Proletariat and Middle Class in Marx: Hegelian Choreography and the Capitalist Dialectic" (Studies on the Left, January-February, 1967) not only put Oscar Berland's argument in "sharper terms," it also employed Marx's as yet little known and untranslated manuscripts from 1857-58, the Grundrisse, to do so. I have explored Nicolaus's discussion in that article of the Grundrisse in an earlier post, Seeing the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns, so I won't elaborate on that aspect here. 

What I am mainly interested in here is some added speculation in Nicolaus's subsequent "The Contradiction of Advanced Capitalist Society and it Resolution," which condensed and popularized some of the earlier article's broader conclusions. It was originally presented at a seminar at Simon Fraser University in October of 1967 and was subsequently published as a pamphlet by the SDS Radical Education Project. But first there is a key point in Berland's article that is worth reviewing.

Berland traces the "revolutionary mission of the proletariat" to Marx's early essay, the "Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right." (Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosopie, Einleitung). The essay contained a paragraph that has been imprecisely immortalized as "religion is the opiate of the masses." The full sentiment is somewhat more sympathetic to religion's positive contribution, while losing none of its critical edge:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart [or "mind"] of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

So it is in the context of a continuation of Feuerbach's critique of religion that the proletariat as the subject of revolution first appeared. Furthermore, the proltetariat's revolutionary role was presented in the specific context of the German people's political backwardness (Germany was not yet a unitary state):

Where, then, is the positive possibility of a German emancipation?

Answer: In the formulation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it. ... This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.

Berland described this passage as the young Marx exalting in "the mere swish of his sword through the air," taking the expression from Marx's biographer, Franz Mehring. Nicolaus ignored the Berland/Mehring metaphor and employed his own of "choreography," which after all is not that dissimilar from sword swishing.

Three considerations need to be reiterated about the specific context of Marx's declaration. First, that it is in response to what Marx saw as the politically retarding influence of religion. Second, that it addressed the comparative semi-feudal backwardness of the Germans relative to England and France. And third, that the declaration occured years before Marx had begun his study of political economy. Of course, Marx himself shamelessly generalized from this anomolous particular and even suggested work arounds for when the class with the radical chains declined to rattle them spontaneously, as Harold Rosenberg objected in "The Pathos of the Proletariat."

In his "Contradiction of Advanced Capitalist Society" pamphlet, Nicolaus omitted the textual criticism of early works by Marx, settling for the summary that "Marx never succeeded completely in welding his pamphleteering and his serious political economic analysis into an organic, coherent whole." Nicolas didn't mention the Grundrisse in his pamphlet but it's influence is evident if you know where to look. For example, he quoted the mature Marx, "Capital is its own contradiction," which is a rough translation of a passage from the Grundrisse.

What was new and intriguing in "The Contradiction" is Nicolaus's tentative search for an alternative revolutionary subject in advanced capitalist society:

Radical social ideas are radical not because they express the demand for some imagined desirable society, not because they protest against some inequity in the present order. Their radicalness derives from their ability to express the repressed potential of the present social order, from their accuracy in pointing to the possibilities which the status quo negates.

In a subsequent section titled "Workers or Hippies," he expanded on the notion of expressing the repressed potential of the social order.

It is beyond my purpose and my abilities to present an adequate summary of the hippie subculture. However, certain distinguishing features can, I think, be described at this point. First, one must peel away an entire massive layer of commercialism and faddism. Then one must work past the drug issue. In this regard, 'straight' society insists that the use of drugs is an escape from reality, while spokesmen for the hippie subculture insist with equal firmness, though more gently, that the use of drugs is a means of exploring reality more effectively. It may be that neither explanation is valid. My own informal observations lead me to think that the use of drugs serves as little more than an esoteric rite, a badge of identification to demarcate this subculture sharply from the larger culture and to promote internal solidarity, much like the Semitic refusal to eat pork or the secret handclasps of fraternal orders. Once past the drug issue, what remains of the hippie subculture can be summarized under two headings. First, the hippie refuses to work for a living if at all possible (though he may work, typically in artistic forms for pleasure and self-satisfaction). Second, the hippie culture denies the importance of the relationship between men and commodities, and asserts the primacy of direct relationships among human beings. These two principles amount to the assertion, so offensive to capitalist society and those who share its ethos, that there are more important things in life than to earn one's living. Variously subsisting on the surplus income of middle-class parents, on the waste products of the economy, or on handouts from any source available (rarely are hippies able to receive welfare payments), the hippie subculture asserts that the era of material scarcity is or should be over, and declares that the time has come to abolish the compulsion exercised by economic relationships over genuine human relationships. A subculture within the subculture, the 'Diggers,’ has begun to organize an embryonic economic subsystem based on free distribution of necessary goods.

In retrospect, Nicolaus's description of the "hippie culture" needs to be qualified with the stipulation that most young people in the 1960s with long hair, readers of the alternative press, users of marijuana and LSD, and critics of the stereotypical 1950s suburban lifestyle and work ethic were not hippies. The were only designated hippies by the media and by passing yahoos in a car shouting, "get a job, hippie!"

While doing the archival research for this essay, I came across Sweet Chaos, a book about the Grateful Dead by Carol Brightman, who had been the publisher and editor of Viet-Report in the 1960s and helped launch its short-lived successor, Leviathan. Sweet Chaos alternates between a narrative about the Dead, Deadheads, and Jerry Garcia on one hand and reflections on her own political activism during the 1960s. She was trying to come to terms with the endurance of the Greatful Dead phenomenon and the evaporation of the political radicalism of the 1960s.

In October of 1966, the Dead played at UC Davis, where I was an undergrad and Oscar Berland was a graduate student. We never met and apparently he didn't finish his PhD. He died last year at the age of 96. Backstage at the Dead concert, I shared a joint with Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, who died at the age of 27 in 1973 and is buried about three blocks from the school where I went to the seventh grade in Palo Alto, California. 

Brightman's answer to her question appears unobtrusively five pages before the end of the book: "The Grateful Dead, the institution, the True Church that sleeps and feeds at once, is a haven in a heartless world..." Was the paraphrase of Marx intentional or unconscious? "The drugs had always gone hand in hand with the music, more for him than the others," Brightman had written of Jerry Garcia four pages earlier: 

To get high on the Persian, Garcia's opiate of choice, more like morphine than heroin, he might load up on Percodans, then use Demerol or Dilaudid to straighten out for a show… When Jerry ran over his gram-a-day quota of Persian (a gram cost seven hundred dollars)… and he was too "junk-sick" to perform, he might go onstage full of Valium, bumping into the mike, dozing off in the middle of a dirgelike song, losing whole stanzas, even after a TelePrompTer was installed at his feet. For coworkers like Cameron Sears, what was "shocking" and "ironic" about Garcia's death on August 9, 1995, in the drug rehab facility called Serenity Knolls, was that it occurred when "he was taking all the right steps to rectify the past shit he'd been through." But it was "too little too late."

Garcia left an estate valued at $9.9 million, according to court documents filed in March 1997.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

The University at War and the Iceberg Strategy

While looking for old sources discussing the "manpower channeling" policies of the U.S. Selective Service (draft) during the Vietnam war, I uncovered a treasure trove of 1960s essays on the military-industrial-academic complex. The first one that caught my eye was "The University and the Political Economy" by James O'Connor. O'Connor later wrote The Fiscal Crisis of the State and founded the journal, Capitalism Nature Socialism. "The University and the Political Economy" appeared in the 1969 first issue of Leviathan, which was a successor to Viet-Report, enlisting many of the latter journal's key personnel.

I had some difficulty finding a digitized copy online of the Leviathan issue but then it turned up on the old standby, JSTOR, which has a nice collection of alternative press literature. Also on JSTOR was the prospectus for Leviathan, chronicling its metamorphosis from Viet-Report to Leviathan. 

The last footnote in O'Connor's article cites The Iceberg Strategy: Universities and the Military Industrial Complex by none other than Martin Nicolaus, whose "Unknown Marx" I have cited several times over the last five months, most recently in "The Unknown Unknown Marx" as well as the cumbersomely titled, "Proletariat and Middle Class in Marx: Hegelian Choreography and the Capitalist Dialectic." which I cited in "Seeing the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns." O'Connor noted that Nicolaus's "Iceberg Strategy" shared his general point of view that "colleges and universities constitute four great departments of the U.S. ruling class," encompassing production, merchandising, state bureaucratic social control, and imperialist rule.

Martin Nicolaus was an associate editor of Viet-Report and on the editorial staff of Leviathan. His "Iceberg Strategy" was from a talk he gave in November 1967 at a conference on the university and the military at the University of Chicago.

Nicolaus described overt military research at universities as only the tip of an iceberg: 

In our discussions about the military and the universities, what are we aiming at and what are we trying to do? It seems to me that it's very clear that the military--the baby burners and the people who study how to burn babies -- are only the top of the educational iceberg. … If we don't see that the whole thing is oriented at the policy level toward specialization and destruction of individuals and induction of individuals into the industrial system, then it seems to me that our strategy is not going to get off the ground. …

The strategy we have now, of getting people to see the little peak of military research at the top of the iceberg and blasting that doesn't seem to me to be enough.

Nicolaus did not lay out a strategy for tackling the whole iceberg but clearly his essays on the unknown Marx and the new middle class were aimed at grappling with what was needed to know to develop such strategy.

The transition from Viet-Report to Leviathan arose as editors increasingly viewed the need for "a more sophisticated understanding of American imperialism as a product of specific economic and social arrangements" and "a more coherent theory of revolutionary social change." The first efforts in this direction were special issues in 1968 on "The University at War," edited by Mike Klare, and on "Colonialism and Liberation in America," edited by Beverley Leman. The editors of Viet-Report, and subsequently of Leviathan, were clearly following the iceberg strategy advocated by Martin Nicolaus.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on André Gorz's "Destroy the University," it takes an awful lot of disposable time to acquire a university degree and even more disposable time to finish graduate school. Marx anticipated such a situation when he observed in the Grundrisse that:

"...the creation of surplus labour on the one side corresponds to the creation of minus-labour, relative idleness (or not-productive labour at best), on the other. ... In relation to the whole of society, the creation of disposable time is then also creation of time for the production of science, art etc."

It was a idea that Marx thought "does not belong here" and he never subsequently developed systematically. But he did return to it briefly in Theories of Surplus Value where he speculated about an advance of productivity such that "whereas earlier two-thirds of the population were directly engaged in material production, now it is only one-third." If the output and work time were distributed equally, he mused, everyone would have more free time and time for "unproductive labour" that they chose. But that could never happen under capitalism. 

As Nicolaus explained, "[t]he contradiction resides in the fact that the distribution of disposable time cannot be equal so long as the capitalist system operates by appropriating surplus labor." Why? Because commodities, working time, and leisure are all created according to the imperative of capital accumulating surplus labour. If that imperative was abolished THERE WOULD BE NO CAPITAL. So capital has to continue to find ways of creating disposable time, transforming it into surplus labour, appropriating it, and then -- somehow against all limits, perils, barriers, fetters, and contradictions -- circulating the surplus in a way that again expands the production of surplus value.

So what might happen if only one-third of the population was directly engaged in material production?

—with the exception of the horde of flunkeys, the soldiers, sailors, police, lower officials and so on, mistresses, grooms, clowns and jugglers—these unproductive labourers will on the whole have a higher level of culture than the unproductive workers had previously, and in particular that ill-paid artists, musicians, lawyers, physicians, scholars, schoolmasters, inventors, etc., will also have increased in number.

This is not to say that these "unproductive workers" produce no use values. They may even produce larger quantities of use values than the so-called productive workers. It is only to say that they produce no surplus value for accumulation by capital. For a conclusion to that thought, we may return to Marx's "does not belong here" footnote:

Malthus therefore quite consistent when, along with surplus labour and surplus capital, he raises the demand for surplus idlers, consuming without producing, or the necessity of waste, luxury, lavish spending etc.

Marx's disdain is not for idleness or consumption per se but for consuming without working -- for the fact that some have to work more hours than necessary to ensure that others can spend lavishly on luxury and waste without working at all. A new wrinkle appears for university students when universities are no longer the exclusive preserve of the wealthy. With the exception of the wealthy and a fortunate few, graduates will have to work more in their post-university careers to pay off student loans and to make up for the lost earnings of their student years. 

One can always rationalize longer hours with the excuse that the work is more intrinsically satisfying. This is plausible and possibly true in many cases. Is it true enough to offset the experience of graduates who didn't get the kind of job they expected and the income inequality between professionals and "unqualified" and precarious workers? This is a spurious question. The objective Marx gestured at was not higher incomes or more enjoyment. It was emancipation. Social and political emancipation. As Martin Hägglund argued in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, freedom is not an abstract absence of constraints on our actions but the presence of the possibility to do what needs to be done to fulfill our commitments to those we care about and to values we cherish. "...secular faith is the condition of freedom. ... We are free because we are able to ask ourselves what we ought to do with our time." Here is where I insert a plug for my Leisure to Attend to Our Spiritual Business in which I discuss Hägglund's book and disposable time at length.

Gorz's, O'Connor's, and Nicolaus's examinations of the university, as well as our own experiences, show that students are not free to ask themselves what they ought to do with their time. Those choices are made for them by admissions, course schedules, course outlines, assignments, majors, grades, degree requirements. This regimen is how their disposable time has been disposed of for them, not to serve God but to serve the economy, the state, and the administration. 

Monday, April 29, 2024


Fifty-four years ago Les Temps Modernes published an essay by André Gorz titled, "Destroy the University." I am posting it here adding occasional underlining for emphasis and commentary at the end. As I will explain in my comments, this piece is of interest to me because of its relevance to current student demonstrations but also because of Gorz's pioneering thought on ecological politics and on the future of work.

Destroy the University, by André Gorz

1. The university cannot function, and we must thus prevent it from functioning so that this impossibility is made manifest. No reform of any kind can render this institution viable. We must thus combat reforms, in their effects and in their conception, not because they are dangerous, but because they are illusory. The crisis of the institution of the university goes beyond (as we will show) the realm of the university and involves the social and technical division of labor as a whole. And so, this crisis must come to a head. 

The occasions and the ways of making it come to a head are subject to discussion. They are more or less good. But the discussion and the critique can only be carried out in a worthwhile fashion by those who recognize that the rejection of reformism is necessary, and its stakes global.

2. The open crisis in the university in France goes back to the beginning of the 1960’s, to the Fouchet Plan. When the majority of an age group strives to present itself for the baccalaureate and the majority of those with diplomas strive to enter the university, the mechanisms of social selection put in place by the bourgeoisie take a beating, its ideology and its institutions thrown into crisis.

The ideology of the academy is that of the equality of chances for social promotion though studies. This equality – and Bourdieu and Passeron have demonstrated this – has always been fictitious. Nevertheless, the mechanisms and criteria of academic selection in the past were sufficiently “objective” for their class and arbitrarys character to be masked; one was eliminated or chosen in function of a group of “aptitudes” and “competences” that were defined once and for all. Traditionally the left fought, not against class criteria of selection – which would have forced it to fight against selection itself and against the academic system as a whole – but for the right of everyone to enter the selection machine.

The contradictory character of this demand remained masked as long as the right was, in theory, recognized for all while, the practical possibility to use it was denied to the vast majority. From the moment when, with the assistance of the diffusion of knowledge, the majority strives to obtain the practical possibility to use a theoretical right, the contradiction is made clear; if the majority accedes to higher education the latter lose their selective character. The right to study and the right to social promotion can no longer go together; if, at best, everyone can in fact study, everyone cannot be promoted to privileged posts. The mechanisms of academic selection having been beaten down, society will either seek to put complementary mechanisms in place, or to restrict the right to study through administrative limitations.

3. These administrative limitations – numerous clausus, exams for university entry – are such delicate matters politically that the successive governments of the Fifth Republic have retreated before their application. In fact, the limitation ex ante of the number of students is the frank and brutal negation of a juridical principle and a social fiction, i.e., that the chance of social promotion through studies is equal for all and that the possibility to study is only limited by the aptitude for doing this.

Destroying this juridical fiction means exposing the illusory character of bourgeois freedoms, and above all means confronting, in the name of a technocratic rationality – study is expensive and it isn’t profitable when graduates can’t be “promoted” – the middle classes or those so-called, whose support the capitalist regime can only preserve by dangling before them the possibility of “social elevation” limited by merit alone. Numerus clausus, pre-selection, and entry exams for universities, by destroying the illusions of the meritocratic ideology, will raise up against the capitalist state the middle classes and will reveal their condition to them as a social fate; they are composed, not of potential bourgeois, which the chance of birth and fortune prevented from become real bourgeois, but of a riffraff of the needy and of subaltern workers fated to serve, and not equal, the bourgeoisie.

Politically – and this is the meaning of the Faure reform – the bourgeoisie must thus maintain the fiction of the chance of social promotion offered to all via the free access to studies. However, it is reality that takes on the task of putting the lie to this fiction; the access to studies is free, but the studies lead nowhere. The number of graduates devalorizes the diplomas. There are many called and few chosen: there are few posts. The numerical reduction that academic selection wasn’t able to carry out will be carried out by a selection at the point of hire.

While waiting for the “force of circumstances” to be understood, i.e., that parents point their children towards “good” professional school, which are yet to be created, giving them access to “good’ jobs rather than towards universities which they’ll leave jobless, the state keeps the universities open, but little by little removes the value (e.g. Vincennes) of the diplomas they grant. In short, they give the university enough rope so that in the end – they hope – it will hang itself. In the meanwhile, they send cops into the universities in order that, in setting them ablaze, their discredit might be established.

4. These contradictions in the bourgeois university are related to fundamental contradictions:

  • The market value that has until now been recognized in diplomas rested on their rarity and on the rarity of aptitude for study. If the latter becomes general the bonus attached to the diploma must logically disappear and, with it, the hierarchical division of tasks.
  • If the aptitude for study – consecrated or not by a diploma – tends to become generalized, it ceases to be able to serve as a criterion for selection: social stratification can no longer claim to be based on competency and merit. The right to studies and the right to promotion can no longer march hand in had.
  • If studies no longer assure promotion, it will result in either one thing or the other; either
  • they are considered a waste of time and a useless social charge, since they are profitable neither for those who do them nor for capitalist society; or
  • they are considered as a non-functional general education which society can, after all, afford the luxury of. But in this case the affirmation of the inalienable right to studies has as its corollary that these studies, which open onto no career, must present to those who enter them – and who later will become employees, workers, or whatever – an intrinsic interest.

It is at this point that the contradiction of the university becomes clear. Against the selection system, the student movement had affirmed the inalienable right to studies. The logic of this demand (which remained petite bourgeoise insofar as it was a defense of the possibility of promotion for all) had led it to anti-hierarchical and egalitarian positions: in order for everyone to have the right to study it was necessary that studies, ceasing to be a class privilege, should also cease to confer the right to an privilege whatsoever. It had to be accepted that those with higher degrees should work with their hands, which led to putting in question and refusing the social division of labor, the technical division of labor which bears its imprint, and every form of the hierarchization of tasks.

But it was impossible to stop there, for the moment we accept that studies don’t lead to a career, we must redefine the nature of studies, their content and their meaning; since they don’t confer a “useful culture” they must confer a “rebellious culture;” since they don’t correspond to a demand of society’s, they must respond to the demand of those who make it and who intend to destroy that society, abolish that division of labor.

But the university is by nature incapable of responding to this demand; it isn’t functional either in relation to the demands of capitalist economy or in relation to the demands of those who want to overthrow capitalism; it dispenses neither a “useful culture” nor a “rebellious culture” (which, by definition, is not dispensed); it dispenses a university culture, i.e., a knowledge separated from any productive or militant practice. In short, it is a place where one can pass one’s time in neither a useful nor an interesting fashion. No kind of reform can change this situation. It can thus not be a question of reforming the university, but rather of destroying it in order to destroy all at once the culture separated from the people it incarnates (that of the mandarins) and the social stratification of which it after all remains the instrument

5. Such are the facts that the university guerrilla brings to light: it shortens the agony of a moribund institution and reveals the hypocrisy of the corporations that defend it. Can it be said that the leftist students will not be able to either put something else in its place or change society so that that other thing becomes viable? It is obvious: students cannot, on their own, either produce another culture or make the revolution. What they can do, however, is prevent the heightened crisis of bourgeois institutions, of the division of labor and the selection of “elites” from being masked. This is what they are doing (and is what all the partisans of order – of this order or of another, every bit as authoritarian and hierarchical – reproach them for). Alone they cannot go any farther; the effective destruction and even the contesting (and not only ideological) of the division of labor cannot be carried out in the universities; it can only be carried out in the factories and enterprises; it supposes the critical analysis of a productive organization whose apparent technical rationality is at one and the same time the objectification and mask of a political rationality, of a technique of domination. It supposes a practical knowledge of the process of production and the practical enterprise in order to change it; in order to submit it to the “associated producers,” to replace the hierarchical division by the voluntary division of labor.

It is only from the starting point of this effective critique of the division of labor that, in its turn, the critique can become effective of the education which, directly (in technical and professional schools) or indirectly, forms the managers, the enforcers, and the losers of capitalist production. The destruction of the university and class education is thus not only the affair of the taught alone; it is above all the affair of the working class if the capitalist division of labor, of which the school is the matrix, is to be surpassed.

The crisis of the bourgeois university and the working class revolt against the despotism of the factory confer an immediate relevance on the question of this surpassing. And if the conjunction between these two aspects of the same crisis – that of the division of labor – doesn’t arrive at the effective joining of the students and workers and a reciprocal critique of the methods of education and domination, the fault doesn’t lie with the student movement; it lies with the traditional organizations of the working class movement, who are doing everything possible to lock the students in the university ghetto in order to better control the workers’ demands. If the necessary violence of the student struggle thus tends to wear itself out in symbolic insurrections on the university level alone, it is not due to a perverse taste for objectless violence; it is because violence alone is capable of smashing, if only temporarily, the encirclement of the university ghetto and of posing a problem whose existence the reformists of all stripes prefer to ignore. This problem – that of the crisis of bourgeois institutions and ideology and the division of labor – is a political problem par excellence. It isn’t enough that the political parties refuse any political meaning or expression to student violence for it to be simple vandalism; it is a matter of a violence both political and politically necessary, if not sufficient.

The Intersection of Political Ecology, Disposable Time, and Student Activism

André Gorz was an early critic of non-political "degrowth" and a proponent of a strand of political ecology that sought to develop a social ethic of self-limitation as a political project. I see the latter as radically different from the kind of moralistic appeals to reduce consumption because such appeals leave unanswered the question of whether such reduced consumption will be sufficient. What we all stop eating meat, ride bicycles to work, turn down the thermostat and wear a sweater and the world still goes to hell because all that ecological frugality was not enough

Gorz warned against a political approach that purports “to raise political practices and concepts to the level of scientifically proven necessities, thus denying their specifically political character.” He had in mind what he termed the “diamat” version, by which he meant what is often referred to as "classical" Marxism.

Gorz contrasted two possible approaches. The first, which he labeled “expertocracy,” was based on scientific study of the eco-system to determine the scientifically necessary techniques. Such an approach would seek to identify “the conditions and limits within which development of the industrial technosphere can be pursued without compromising the self-regenerating capacities of the ecosphere.”   The approach “does not involve a fundamental break with industrialism and its hegemony of instrumental reason.” Instead, the workings of the resulting regulatory regime would be aimed at making the system “more or less ‘eco-compatible’ independently of any volition on the part of the social actors.” 

The second approach, “Self-limitation as a social project,” is not without its difficulties. Gorz put those difficulties squarely on the table as he introduced the strategies. “In complex industrial societies,” he wrote, “it is impossible to obtain an eco-compatible restructuring of production and consumption simply by giving the workers the right to limit their effort voluntarily.” This is in part because there is no longer an “evident correlation between the volume of production and the hours worked,” and also because, “there exists no commonly accepted norm of sufficiency that could serve as a reference for self-limitation.”  But he insisted that these obstacles were not insurmountable. Political progress would require shifting self-limitation “from the level of individual choice to the level of a social project. The norm of sufficiency, deprived of its traditional mooring, has to be defined politically.” Gorz outlined how the redistribution of working time and a guarantee of sufficient income could help to reinvigorate a norm of sufficiency consistent with ecological protection.

Political ecology thus uses ecologically necessary changes to the mode of production and consumption as a lever for normatively desirable changes in the mode of life and in social relations. Defence of the living environment in the ecological sense, and the reconstitution of a life-world, condition and support one another. Both require life and the living environment to be withdrawn from the domination of economics; both require the growth of spheres of activity to which economic rationality does not apply. 

This all may seem idealistic wishful thinking, but Gorz reminded us that such mutuality between the life-world and the living environment “is as old as civilization.” Gorz went on to give examples of advocates of such mutuality:

From the anonymous Ricardoite whose 1821 pamphlet Marx so enjoyed quoting to Keynes and Leontieff, the leading theoreticians of modern economics have all held disposable time for activities ‘valued as an end in themselves’ (die sich als Selbstzweck gilt, in Marx’s term from the Grundrisse) to be ‘the true measure of wealth’.

Gorz's "anonymous Ricardoite" is now known to be Charles Wentworth Dilke and his 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, and its influence on Marx is something I have explored extensively both on EconoSpeak and in journal articles, The Ambivalence of Disposable Time and Leisure to Attend to Our Spiritual Business.

Gorz's thought on the future of work also centred on disposable time and explored policy initiatives that could enable substantial reductions in working time and the opening up of time for intrinsically rewarding activities. The most comprehensive presention of his thinking and proposals is in his Critique of Economic Reason.

Gorz's focus on disposable time and "activities that are valued as an end in themselves" bears on the question of the crisis of the university in interesting ways. First, it takes an enormous amount of "disposable time" to obtain a university degree and especially a graduate degree. Second, the ubiquitous stress on post-secondary education as providing credentials for obtaining prestige employment mitigates the likelyhood that university studies will be valued as an end in themselves. No doubt some students value some courses as ends in themselves but this is not so for many the students, much of the time. 

Tellingly, the ancient Greek word for leisure was "σχολή"  from which Latin  "Scholae" derives. The Greek notion of leisure was that it would be occupied in discussion, disputation, oratory -- the very things that university students are being arrested for doing without the permission of university administrators. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Leisure to Attend to Our Spiritual Business


ABSTRACT: Time is central to Martin Hägglund’s discussion of secular faith and spiritual freedom. Time is precisely what is finite in this life and presides over the relationships we value and our risk of losing them. Hägglund adopted the notion of disposable time from Karl Marx’s Grundrisse and reframed it as the more descriptive socially available free time. Following Marx, Hägglund advocates the revaluation of values so that socially available free time would become the measure of value rather than socially necessary labour time.

A close examination of the origin of Marx’s analysis of disposable time suggests that questions of faith and freedom were inherent in the concept as it was expressed in the 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties that influenced Marx, in the writings of William Godwin that inspired the 1821 pamphlet, and ultimately in theological views on the doctrine of the calling that Godwin secularized in his pioneering advocacy of leisure as a universal human right.

Marx’s innovation was to show that the creation of disposable time is the basis of all wealth. Under capitalism, disposable time is expropriated in the form of surplus labour time, thereby inverting the relationship between necessary and superfluous labour time – the superfluous becomes necessary (for capital) and the necessary superfluous. Marx’s analysis of the inversion of necessary and superfluous labour time bears close resemblance to Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique in The Essence of Christianity, which had influenced the early Marx, of the inversion of collective humanity and the divine.

Forthcoming in Stasis journal. My pre-peer review draft is at timeworkweb. Final version should be available soon and will be open access.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Unknown Unknown Marx

Cover of Unknown Marx
Toward the end of his 1968 essay, "The Unknown Marx," Martin Nicolaus quoted Marx's enumeration, in notebook 4 of his 1857-58 manuscript, of four barriers to production under capital that "expose the basis of overproduction, the fundamental contradiction of developed capital." Nicolaus qualified what Marx meant by overproduction to be "[not] simply ‘excess inventory’; rather, he means excess productive power more generally."

‘These inherent limits necessarily coincide with the nature of capital, with its essential determinants. These necessary limits are:

‘1. necessary labour as limit to the exchange-value of living labour-power, of the wages of the industrial population;

‘2. surplus value as limit to surplus labour-time; and, in relation to relative surplus labour-time, as limit to the development of the productive forces;

‘3. what is the same thing, the transformation into money, into exchangevalue, as such, as a limit to production; or: exchange based on value, or value based on exchange, as limit to production. This is again

‘4. the same thing as restriction of the production of use-values by exchange-value; or: the fact that real wealth must take on a specific form distinct from itself, absolutely not identical with it, in order to become an object of production at all.’

It "would require a book," Nicolaus then observed, to present "a proper analysis of the implications of these rather cryptic theses." In lieu of that analysis, he offered a synopsis that "these four ‘limits’ represent no more than different aspects of the contradiction between ‘forces of production’ and ‘social relations of production’."

Neither Nicolaus nor anyone else has written that book. Nor did Nicolaus again refer to these inherent limits in the Foreword to his translation of the Grundrisse. Instead, he invoked Marx's discussion of "the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production" in the 1859 Preface to his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. "The Grundrisse is one long extended commentary upon it; inversely, the 1859 formulation is a summary, in a word, of the Grundrisse." "One could go on and on," Nicolaus added in the subsequent paragraph.

One could go on and on... it would require a book. 

Although the Grundrisse may be seen as "one long extended commentary" on the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, there are shorter passages that are particularly germaine to the analysis of the "rather cryptic theses" at the core of that contradiction. The condensed version -- consisting of pages 397-423, 608-610, and 704-711 -- is less than 5% of the total number of pages. It is bracketed by paraphrased, loosely translated 'quotations' from The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties.On page 397 is found:

Wealth is disposable time and nothing more. ... If the whole labour of a country were sufficient only to raise the support of the whole population, there would be no surplus labour, consequently nothing that can be allowed to accumulate as capital . . . Truly wealthy a nation, if there is no interest or if the working day is 6 hours rather than 12 . . . Whatever may be due to the capitalist, he can only receive the surplus labour of the labourer; for the labourer must live.’ (The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties.

 And on page 709:

‘If the entire labour of a country were sufficient only to raise the support of the whole population, there would be no surplus labour, consequently nothing that could be allowed to accumulate as capital. If in one year the people raises enough for the support of two years, one year’s consumption must perish, or for one year men must cease from productive labour. But the possessors of [the] surplus produce or capital . . . employ people upon something not directly and immediately productive, e.g. in the erection of machinery. So it goes on.’ (The Source and Remedy ofthe National Difficulties, p. 4.)

The first quotation contains a montage of passages from pages 6, 4, back to 6, and on to 22 of The Source and Remedy. The quotation on page 709 sticks with page 4 as Marx had already quoted from page 6 three pages earlier. 

The bracketing quotations come before and after a pair of remarkable paragraphs by Marx. The first one asserts that "[t]he whole development of wealth rests on the creation of disposable time" and goes on to explain that "[i]n production resting on capital, the existence of necessary labour time is conditional on the creation of superfluous labour time." The paragraph bracketed by the final quote presents an intense analysis of disposable time in which the English term, 'disposable time', appears seven times in Marx's German manuscript, along with three instances of 'surplus labour' in English and two phrases, 'instrumental in creating the means of social disposable time' and 'to convert it into surplus labour.' 

Seine Tendenz aber immer, einerseits disposable time zu schaffen, andrerseits to convert it into surplus labour.

Once the mass of workers have appropriated their own surplus labour, Marx argued, in a passage echoing his earlier assertion that development of wealth rested "on the creation of disposable time": 

...the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time.

Real wealth, then, is "the developed productive power of all individuals," which "rests on the creation of disposable time." Disposable time thus is integral to the development of the productive forces and the contradiction with the productive relations rests with capital's tendency to not only create disposable time but to convert as much of it as it can it into surplus labour.

Forces of production and social relations - two different sides of the development of the social individual - appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

What comes after "the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high"? Four out of five authors who quote that incendiary passage do not mention disposable time. Yet that was Marx's follow-up in yet another paraphrase from The Source and Remedy: "'Wealth is not command over surplus labour time’ (real wealth), ‘but rather, disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.’" 

Marx took the pamphlet's statement that real wealth is disposable time and examined its dialectical contradictions in all their complexity. He was quite explicit and repetitive about the relationship between disposable time and the productive forces. Moishe Postone almost got it right when he described disposable time as, for Marx, a characteristic of "a possible post capitalist society." It is indeed that but also much more. Disposable time is also the medium through which the productive forces are developed in capital

The infamous 'fetters' on the development of the productive forces -- those four "necessary limits" to the development of the productive forces quoted at the beginning of this essay -- arise from the compulsion of capital to convert disposable time into surplus labour time. The four limits are, in fact a single, unfolding contradiction that culminates in the non-identity of real wealth and value, use-value and exchange-value: "the fact that real wealth must take on a specific form distinct from itself, absolutely not identical with it, in order to become an object of production at all."

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Matt Huber's and Leigh Phillips's "classical Marxist critique" of Kohei Saito

Prometheus Sculpture at Chernobyl
I have expressed my disagreement with Kohei Saito's Slow Down and Marx in the Anthropocene in previous posts. I welcome Huber's and Phillips's critique of Saito at Jacobin. They get much right in their criticism of Saito's Utopianism and implicit primitivism but they share with Saito a fundamental misreading of Marx. This misreading is based on a speculative interpretation of a stirring but ambiguous passage in Marx's Preface to his 1859 Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

The misreading of the above became canonical as the "classical Marxist theory of history" as expounded by Lenin, Stalin, and a host of Second International luminaries. As Georges Sorel complained already in 1908, though, "many liberties have been taken with this preface, which so many men cite without ever having studied it seriously." Not only had they not "studied it seriously," they did not yet have access to a much longer and more historically specific elaboration of the "fetters on the development of the forces of production" Marx had worked out in unpublished notebooks from 1857 and 1858.

On page 415 of the 1973 English translation of the Grundrisse, Marx enumerated four contradictions that impose inherent limits to capital, both from the standpoint of accumulation and of development of the forces of production. 

The stages of production which precede capital appear, regarded from its standpoint, as so many fetters upon the productive forces. It itself, however, correctly understood, appears as the condition of the development of the forces of production as long as they require an external spur, which appears at the same time as their bridle. … These necessary limits are:

(1) Necessary labour as limit on the exchange value of living labour capacity or of the wages of the industrial population;

(2) Surplus value as limit on surplus labour time; and, in regard to relative surplus labour time, as barrier to the development of the forces of production;

(3) What is the same, the transformation into money, exchange value as such, as limit of production; or exchange founded on value, or value founded on exchange, as limit of production.

This is:

(4) again the same as restriction of the production of use values by exchange value; or that real wealth has to take on a specific form distinct from itself, a form not absolutely identical with it, in order to become an object of production at all.

Martin Nicolaus, translator of the 1973 edition, had earlier commented on those limits in his 1968 essay, "The Unknown Marx": 

While a proper analysis of the implications of these rather cryptic theses would require a book, it is immediately apparent that these four ‘limits’ represent no more than different aspects of the contradiction between ‘forces of production’ and ‘social relations of production’.

What Nicolaus described as cryptic theses 56 years ago have become more intelligable over the decades as there have been more studies of Marx that get away from the fetters of the classical Marxist critique. I consider one of the most coherent discussions to be Derek Sayer's Violence of Abstraction, which directly confronted Gerald Cohen's defense of what he called "the old-fashioned historical materialism." 

Huber and Phillips also adhere to what they extol as the classical Marxist critique, which they construe as "Marx’s thesis that socialism would release production from the fetters of capitalism..." They go on to state their view that:

It was elementary for Marxists that at a certain point in the development of the forces of production (basically scientific knowledge, technology, labor, land, and natural resources), they become constrained by the relations of production (the way that production is organized, which under capitalism means, roughly, owners of capital selling commodities on markets for profit and hiring owners of labor power in exchange for wages).

As Sayer pointed out, "[p]roductive forces are... an attribute of human beings in association, their collective capacities, not a set of things as such at all." Machines are not productive forces. Technologies are not productive forces. Natural resources are not productive forces. Even skillls are not productive forces. They "only become productive forces in so far as they take on social characteristics." That is to say, they develop the productive power of social labour. To overlook this is, in Sayer's words, to fetishize the notion of productive forces.

This raises a rather daunting question, if our fetishizing habits of thought lead us to fetishize even the most coherent attempts to cure us of our fetishing habits of thought, how do we escape the dilemma? Marx posed the answer in his third thesis on Feuerbach. Whether it is a satisfactory answer is hard to say.

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

How do Huber and Phillips conceive of revolutionary practice? 

...humanity is already always and everywhere surrounded by natural limits, by constraints on what we can currently do.

It is science and technology, shackled to egalitarianism (or as midcentury Marxist Hal Draper put it, “Prometheus plus Spartacus”), that allows us to overcome those limits.

Curiously, Draper did not tether Prometheus to "science and technology" as implied by Huber and Phillips's parenthetical citation. In fact, Draper only mentioned science once and technology not at all. He also stated that "Prometheus scarcely appears again in Marx’s writings..." and elaborated in a footnote that a  notable exception is in Poverty of Philosophy where Marx ridiculed Proudhon's enlistment of Prometheus to play the part of Robinson Crusoe:

First of all, Prometheus emerging from the bosom of nature awakens to life, in a delightful inertia, etc., etc. Prometheus sets to work, and on this first day, the first day of the second creation, Prometheus’ product, that is, his wealth, his wellbeing, is equal to 10. On the second day, Prometheus divides his labour, and his product becomes equal to 100. On the third day and on each of the following days, Prometheus invents machines, discovers new utilities in bodies, new forces in nature.... With every step of his industrial activity, there is an increase in the number of his products, which marks an enhancement of happiness for him. And since, after all, to consume is for him to produce, it is clear that every day’s consumption, using up only the product of the day before, leaves a surplus product for the next day.

What did Marx have to say about M. Proudhom's Promethean pantomime? 

This Prometheus of M. Proudhon’s is a queer character, as weak in logic as in political economy. So long as Prometheus merely teaches us the division of labour, the application of machinery, the exploitation of natural forces and scientific power, multiplying the productive forces of men and giving a surplus compared with the produce of labour in isolation, this new Prometheus has the misfortune only of coming too late. But the moment Prometheus starts talking about production and consumption he becomes really ludicrous. ...

Marx dissected this ludicrousness to Proudhon's pretention that he has "proved by theory and by facts the principle that all labour must have a surplus." To which Marx scoffed in reply, "The 'facts' are the famous progressive calculation; the theory is the myth of Prometheus." 

Huber and Phillips ludicrously make their Promethean myth "more concrete" by invoking the progressive calculation of "science and technology": of the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s planetary boundaries is a limit to the amount of greenhouse gas that we can emit, largely as a result of the use of fossil fuels for energy, before causing average global temperatures to exceed those optimal for human flourishing. ... This energetic limit is all too real, but it is also contingent. When we fully shift to clean energy sources such as nuclear, wind, and solar, that climate-related limit on energy use will have been transcended. The only true, permanently insuperable limits that we face are the laws of physics and logic.

The limit on energy use "will have been transcended" by the "shift to clean energy sources" without any logic as to how that shift will occur or any scrutiny of the laws of physics involved in constructing and operating "nuclear, wind, and solar" production of energy. It is perhaps unfair to compare Huber and Phillips to Proudhon. M. Proudhon didn't have the luxury of being informed by Marx's critique of his Promethean myth and he didn't invoke a "classical Marxist critique" as the foundation for his ludicruous fable. Huber and Phillips don't have that alibi.

Until now I have been pretty harsh on Huber and Phillips, aside from acknowledging at the outset some worthwhile criticisms of Saito and degrowth. To conclude, I should mention another part of the article I applaud. In a post on X [nee "tweet"], Matt Huber says that his favorite contribution to the article was the line, "Degrowthers consistently misdiagnose the core problem of capitalism as ‘growth’ when in fact it is the lack of social control over production and investment decisions." I agree 100% and cite Marx's almost identical statement from his Inaugural Address to the International Working Men's Association: "social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class." The first part of that sentence is also noteworthy, so I'll quote the whole passage:

This struggle about the legal restriction of the hours of labour raged the more fiercely since, apart from frightened avarice, it told indeed upon the great contest between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class. Hence the Ten Hours’ Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.

Not only a practical success but the victory of a principle. Not to be overlooked is the context of that victory, the struggle over the restriction of the hours of labour.

Nearly two years later, in instructions to the delegates to the Internation, Marx wrote, paraphrasing English Factory Inspector, R. J. Saunders, "A preliminary condition, without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive, is the limitation of the working day."

If there seems to be a common theme emerging here, consider Marx's argument from volume 3 of Capital that humans must "wrestle with nature to satisfy his wants... in all social formations and under all possible modes of production." Beyond this realm of physical necessity, though, "begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite."The shortening of the working-day is a basic prerequisite for entering the true realm of freedom. The limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition for all further attempts at improvement and emancipation. The legal restriction of the hours of labour is the victory of the principle of social production controlled by social foresight. I wonder if there is somewhere that Marx explained the analysis behind these self-assured and consistent declarations? He did so in notebook VII of his 1857-58 manuscripts (Grundrisse, 1973, p. 708), which was a continuation and amplification of analysis he had begun in notebook IV (pp. 397-423):

The creation of a large quantity of disposable time... appears in the stage of capital, as of all earlier ones, as not-labour time, free time, for a few. What capital adds is that it increases the surplus labour time of the mass by all the means of art and science, because its wealth consists directly in the appropriation of surplus labour time; since value directly its purpose, not use value. It is thus, despite itself, instrumental in creating the means of social disposable time, in order to reduce labour time for the whole society to a diminishing minimum, and thus to free everyone’s time for their own development. But its tendency always, on the one side, to create disposable time, on the other, to convert it into surplus labour. If it succeeds too well at the first, then it suffers from surplus production, and then necessary labour is interrupted, because no surplus labour can be realized by capital. The more this contradiction develops, the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien surplus labour, but that the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour. Once they have done so - and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence - then, on one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time.

I have bolded the words that appeared in English in Marx's original manuscript. Undoubtedly, the English words allude to the source of Marx's fascination with disposable time and its relationship to surplus value, the 1821 English pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties.The above passage is the culmination of an analysis that begins in notebook IV with a quotation from The Source and Remedy and concludes in notebook VII with another quotation from The Source and Remedy.

On page 398 of the Grundrisse, Marx stated, "The whole development of wealth rests on the creation of disposable time." He then commenced a discussion of "the development of the productive forces." On page 708, he echoed that statement about the development of wealth with the proclamation, "The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time."

Marx's repeated statements about the limitation of working time being a necessary condition for the realm of human freedom were not humane gesture or concessions to contemporary trade union struggles. They were integral to his critique of political economy and his analysis of capital. Both Saito and Huber and Phillips cite or paraphrase passages where Marx insisted on the reduction of working time but elide specifically that demand.