This is the text of a lecture I gave to the Marx Research Seminar at the University of Lincoln on 6th of October 2015.
In this lecture I claim that the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883) was not only a science of revolution but also a revolutionary science, constituting a scientific revolution in social and political thought. This claim is based on Marx’s discovery of the dynamic substance: value in motion (Capital Vol 2 ), on which the social universe of Capital is founded: a dynamic substance that is unknown and invisible to the methods of bourgeois social science. This claim is grounded in a reappraisal of Marx’s social theory that seeks to recover and develop the revolutionary proposition in Marx’s writing through ‘a critique of value’, recognising the revolutionary principles (communism) and practices (class struggle) out of which a postcapitalist society is already emerging, but is always and everywhere at risk.
This reappraisal runs counter to ‘worldview’ traditional marxism (Heinrich 2004) or ‘western Marxism’ (Anderson 1987), both of which are distractions from and degradations of Marx’s work.
Worldview Marxism is characterised by ‘crude economism (ideology and politics reduced to a direct and conscious transmission of economic interests), as well as a pronounced historical determinism that viewed the end of capitalism as inevitable occurrences’ and in which the category of worker and the working class takes on ‘an all identity constituting role’ (Heinrich 2004 24-25). A defining feature of worldview Marxism is that it is based on the politics of distribution of resources rather than any fundamental transformation in the social relations of production (Postone 1993).
Western Marxism is characterised by a shift from a critique of political economy towards matters of philosophy and culture: ‘to concentrate overwhelmingly on [the] study of superstructures’ (Anderson 1987 75), introducing concepts that were antithetical to political economy, including Althusserian over-determination, Gramscian hegemony, Freudian psychoanalysis, Weberian rationality and Sartre’s dialectical reason (Anderson 1987 47 – 74).
What distinguishes the critique of value from worldview or western Marxism is that it takes the concept of value, not the proletariat or the working class, as its starting point. Rather than see the proletariat as the subject of revolution, this critique of value regards the proletariat as a determined form of value which must be ‘abolished’ for communism to be established. The critique of value seeks to deconstruct the main categories of political economy: the commodity, money-capital and labour, to reveal that value, more correctly value in motion [capital], is not a system of economics or ideology that has been imposed on society, but that value in motion [capital] mediates all aspects of social life, including everyday life outside of economic activity and the workplace: as a ‘social ecological metabolism’ (Charnock et al 2014 12) or a ‘web of life’ ( Moore 2015) or a ‘social factory’ (Tronti 1979) or ‘social universe’ (Postone 1993) with its own ‘political cosmology’ (Neary 2004). In other words, value is ‘the construction of capitalist society in its totality’ (Dinerstein and Neary 2002 21).
This reading of Marx through the prism of value spawned a dissident tradition at the start of the twentieth century (Pashukanis 1983, Rubin 1972), beaten, brutalised and buried by the orthodoxies of Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism as well as Social Democracy, characterised as the prevention of communism ( Binns and Dixon 1999). A focus on value re-emerged in the 1960s as a contribution to Critical Theory by members of the Frankfurt School, following Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1973) and Sohn-Rethel’s work on real abstraction and his Marxist theory of consciousness. This work has been developed since through various critical encounters with Marx’s work as neue Marx lecture ( Heinrich 2004), critique of value ( Larsen et al 2014), capital relation theory (Clarke 1991), Open Marxism ( Bonefeld, Holloway, Gunn, Psychopedis 1992, 1995 and Dinerstein 2014) and more recently through the notion of Communisation (Endnotes 2012). Along with this intellectual endeavour there has been a significant archival research project to recover and reappraise Marx’s life work [MEGA2]. What connects all of this writing, along with its emphasis on value, is its stress on the unfinished and non-dogmatic nature of Marx’s work within a consistent theoretical framework, notwithstanding its deviations and ambiguities, sometimes pushing up to and beyond Marx’s own radical conclusions. This reappraisal sees Marx’s work as grounded in the historical moment when it was written which, despite its nineteenth century vernacular, is still of central relevance to our present circumstances as capitalist civilisation has not yet been transcended (Musto 2009 2010).
Marx set out his critique of value most substantially in the Grundrisse and Capital Volumes 1-3, in his Theories of Surplus Value and in Results of the Immediate Process of Production, although traces of its development can be found throughout his work. I want to focus on the first chapter of Volume 1 and more specifically to start where Marx starts in Capital with his first sentence (Holloway 2015). But before doing that we need to be aware of the problem that Marx is attempting to solve.
The problem that faced political economy was what is the value of value in a world where the absolutism of the Monarch was replaced by the relativity of market based prices (Rubin 1989 65). From the 17th to end of 19th century it was well understood that labour was the source of value in commercial society, elaborated in the work of William Petty, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, among others. The problem was how to reconcile this fact with the emergence of a political society in which labour was becoming increasingly antagonistic as a result of the negative social consequences resulting from the appropriation of value by the capitalist class. While political economy sought to maintain the basis of commercial society through the provision of cheap labour, Marx’s critique of political economy sought to abolish the emerging industrial society based on the labour theory of value and construct a communist world on a new principle of social wealth. What emerged at the end of the 19th century is what we now call mainstream or marginalist economics which maintains there is no intrinsic value to commodities other than what a customer is prepared to pay based on their utility and quantity, with the focus on markets and prices ( Mason 2015 160, Clarke 1991). This version of economics has been described as a Great Avoidance (Perlman 1972), recognised for what it was: an attempt to take the politics out of political economy while, at the same time, the newly emerging liberal state sought to contain the nascent political power of labour through the administration of democratic representation. Given the nature of what was at stake, the problem of labour and the labour theory of value was not going to go away ( Dinerstein and Neary 2002, Elson 1980).
So what is Marx’s first sentence in Capital and why is it so significant?
‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form’ (Marx 1990 125).
The first sentence points to the problem of the nature of wealth in capitalist societies. Marx is suggesting with the word ‘appears’ that social wealth lies beyond the mere empirical and that an immense collection of capitalist commodities is a kind of wealth that cannot be easily measured, pointing towards a deeper scientific understanding of the non-empirical social forces out of which wealth is produced. This approach is not amenable to positivist methodologies but requires a more critical practical reflexivity where concepts (abstractions) cannot be assumed, but must be interrogated in relation to the material ( concrete) world out of which they are derived (Gunn 1989). Marx’s method is no arbitrary gesture but is grounded, as we shall see, in his exposition of the movement of value in motion, between its concrete and the abstract forms, as the real nature of the commodity, as Capital expands at the level of society. Marx is writing at an abstract level but it is not an abstract theory, rather a theory of abstraction: and more especially invokes the social power of real abstraction in capitalist society. This is the essence of reading capital politically (Cleaver 2000) and the basis for such definitions of communism as ‘the ruthless critique of everything that exists’ (Marx 1843) and ‘the real movement that abolishes the present state of things’ (Marx 1845).
And so the second sentence in Capital 1 is, ‘Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity’ ( Capital 1 193). Marx’s main contribution to social science is the revelation of value in motion as an (im)material social substance not recognisable to bourgeois social theory. Marx comes to this discovery through an exposition of the dual nature of commodity form, which contains within it the whole organising principle of capitalist society and is the basis for its contradictory dysfunctionality (Lukacs 1967). A commodity is constituted as use value (concrete) and exchange value (abstract); as a contradictory ‘unity of opposites’ which, contrary to Hegel’s affirmative dialectic, is not resolvable within itself. Whatever usefulness a commodity (concrete value) may possess, the main reason for its manufacture is to be exchanged (exchange value) so that the surplus value created in the process of production can be realised. Labour, or rather labour power: the sale of the capacity to work, is identified as a commodity with a specific skill (concrete labour) and exchange value ( abstract labour), calculated as the level of subsistence by which the worker can reproduce themselves. Surplus value is based on the exploitation of labour power (commodified work) whose exchange value (wages calculated as a rate of workers’ subsistence) is less than the total value that is produced and from out of which the surplus value is obtained. This is the basis of Marx’s labour theory of value.
A further feature of Marx’s revolutionary science is the way in which value is measured. For Marx, as for David Ricardo, value was measured in labour time, but unlike Ricardo’s version of the labour theory of value where time was related to the socially necessary conditions of production, (Rubin 1979 252), Marx’s labour time was not a measure of clock time but a peculiar form of social time, ‘socially necessary labour time’: ‘the labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society.’ (Capital 1 129). This temporal measure of competitive productivity means that the struggle over working time becomes a major feature of class conflict. The intensification of the rate of productivity as a measure of labour time is not contained within the factory but becomes a new social measure for ‘the speed of life’ (Neary and Rikowski 2000 2002).
For Marx the value of value is an immaterial social substance (abstract labour) making it much more than a quantitative accounting device, and more like ‘a social ecological metabolism’ (Charnock et al 2014 12). Value is a form of social mediation that dominates all aspects of Capital’s life-world. The level of productivity against which socially necessary labour time is assessed is the total amount of value produced at the level of society: or the total amount of work (human energy) that has been abstracted from workers in the process of production without any reference to the concrete specificity of work (use value). This process of abstraction is not something that happens in the mind, but is a real social process in which each commodity represents a discrete portion of value in motion as a dynamic and coercive expansive totality; or, a temporal quantification of densified matter (Postone 1993 292), making the intellectual space to re-envision Marx’s work as a very distinctive contribution to the critique of political cosmology (Kay and Mott 1983, Neary 2004). Marx represents this totality as a process of circulation in which value takes on the form of different commodities: Money (M), Labour Power (L), Means of Production ( MP) and Capital (M’), as it moves through its expansive cycle, giving the movement of time in space; or, rather space-time, a logical and historical trajectory, in what amounts to a Einsteinian-like process of social metamorphosis (Postone 1993, Neary 2004).
Following this methodology Marx’s critique of political economy can be seen more sociologically as a theory of social forms. This theory can be applied to social forms that appear to lie outside of this productive cycle, including all forms of capitalist institutions: the state ( Clarke 1991b Meiksins Wood 1999, Postone 1993), human consciousness ( Sohn-Rethel 1978), Culture (Adorno 1973), humanity-in-nature including worker animals (Moore 2015) , colonisation and post-colonisation ( Dinerstein 2014, Moore 2015), gender and sexuality ( Scholz 2014, Stoetzler 2009), socialist objects (Kiaer 2008,) and even human subjectivity itself (Clarke 1991, Jappe 2015).
Productivity is further enhanced by the introduction of machines, harnessing science and technology to the process of valorisation, stripping workers of any specific skills, becoming machine minders until they are eventually expelled from the workplace. The rationality that lies behind this process is not the rationality of individual actors, who are always and everywhere depersonalised and become representatives of a particular aspect of value in motion, as workers or employers or other forms of unproductive work. But, the rationality of value in motion is ultimately irrational. While machines may increase material wealth, like the collection of things outlined in the opening sentence of Capital 1, they do not create social wealth: value, as they can only transfer their own value (dead labour) into the commodities they produce before degrading and becoming obsolete. Labour power (living labour) is the only commodity that produces surplus value (Marx 1992).
The replacement of labour power by machines leads to a decline in the rate of surplus value, described by Marx as ‘a tendency for the rate of profit to fall’ resulting in periodic economic crises (Marx 1990). These slumps in the rate of surplus value have up until this point been ameliorated by moving production to places where the value of labour is below the average rate of socially necessary labour time, or to areas where natural resources can be appropriated without recompense, or by military conflagrations which through massive destruction create the conditions for a renewed cycle of surplus value production, starting up a new period of ‘primitive accumulation’ ( Marx Capital 1), or with the expansion of credit and debt, mortgaging a future that will never be paid for, or through innovation, e.g., microtechnologies, ushering in a new phase of the industrial revolution to further socialise production, sometimes referred to as ‘immaterial labour’ (Virno 2004). However, despite capital’s capacity to avoid terminal crisis, the future for capital appears everywhere as catastrophe. The current predictors are looking at a situation beyond amelioration: a period of long term stagnation (Mason 2015 27-29), alongside a global collapse in the world of work (ILO 2015).
All of this causes enormous social upheaval and resistance, but the source of the conflict is not according to this critique of value a struggle between capitalists and the proletariat, or an unequal distribution of resources, or a refusing the identity of the Other, or Patriarchal Power; rather, it is the contradictory logic that lies at the heart of the commodity form. This core contradiction is the basis for class struggle and the revolution of everyday life (Lefebvre 1990), including the struggle over the value of labour and jobs, which involves struggles over the value of unpaid domestic labour forcing women into various types of gender specific subjugation, as well as struggles against all colonised life, slave labour, racist and dehumanising police and other types of population control and environmental destruction beyond the human imagination. The working class is not a sociological category, following E P Thompson ‘class itself is not a thing, it is a happening…not part of the machine but the way the machine works …the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise’ (Thompson 1991); but, contra Thompson, class struggle is not ‘ the friction of interests’, rather it is the consequence of the contradiction inherent in the value form; revolution is the ‘ latent potential’ of the use value dimension, no longer constrained and shaped by the value dimension.’ (Postone 364). The critique of value is then a categorial critique and the basis for defetishisation (Bonefeld 2014).
In Chapter 1 of Capital Volume 1 Marx leads us through the movement of value in an historical and logical process as it takes on social forms that are appropriate to the exchange process before emerging as money ‘the universal equivalent’ through which all economic transactions are validated. The final part of Chapter 1 gives an elaboration of defetishisation in a section on commodity fetishism, which deals with the issue raised in the very first sentence of Capital Vol 1: how the things in capitalist society are not always as they appear and while they may appear to have a life and, indeed, a value of their own, are in fact the result of more foundational processes derived from the dynamic interaction between the empirical and non-empirical world of value in motion.
From Harry Cleaver (2000), Reading Capital Politically
Later in Volume 1, Marx shows us how money (M) is transformed into capital ( in a process by which surplus value is created . The key to this sequence is that if value is validated in exchange, a process which gives rise to the liberal principles of freedom and equivalence/equality, then surplus value, which provides money with its ‘supreme form of social power’ ( Clarke 1988) , is generated in the process of production, a realm that is characterised by coercion and domination ( M’). Marx describes this process of valorisation as the General Formula of Capital expressed through a series of algebraic-like equations.
C – M- C
M – C- M’
Note well: Capital as value in motion is a ‘moving contradiction’ (Grundrisse 706), in the form of a self-valorising automatic Subject, without an ego or consciousness ( Postone 1993). A Monster that has subsumed the planet, where through the process of real abstraction ‘all that is solid melts into air…’ (Marx 1848).
When Marx is working this out in the 1850s, he is the only person in the world who understands what he is talking about ( Nicolaus 1993 61). Our understanding of Marx’s method has been greatly enhanced by the recovery of a body of work, known as the Grundrisse, a series of workbooks first published in Germany in 1930s and in an English translation in the 1960s, casting ‘a fresh light on the inner logic of Capital…which challenges and puts to the test every serious interpretation of Marx yet conceived’ (Nicolaus 1993 7).
There is an important section in the Grundrisse: the Fragment of Machines, where Marx goes through the revolutionary consequences of labour power being withdrawn from the process of production and replaced by machines, thus reducing the rate of valorisation: a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. The result of this ongoing withdrawal is a mass of unemployed workers and an enormous collection of things without a market for their exchange value to be realised. This emergence of surplus population alongside a surplus of material wealth renders the production of capitalist value anachronistic as it is no longer appropriate or necessary for the society that it has produced (Postone 1993). This raises the possibility for a higher level of society (712) based on a new logic of abundance rather than subsistence, where human life is able to organise itself on the principle of ‘disposable time’ (708) rather than ‘labour time’; in what has become ‘ a mass of workers [who] must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour…measured by the needs of the social individual [as] the development of the power of social production…For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals’ (708), for ‘every individual and the whole society’ (706). And, in a passage that is particularly relevant for those of us who work in universities, Marx recognises the extent to which the general power of science, knowledge and technology, which he defines as : ‘general social knowledge’ (706) , ‘the general powers of the human head’ ( page), ‘the social brain’ `(694), and ‘the general intellect’ (706) or’ knowledge in an alien form : the power of knowledge objectified’ (Grundrisse date 706), which had previously been used to increase capitalist productivity, can now be reappropriated as knowledge at the level of society as a new type of ‘social intellect’ (709) ‘for society generally and each of its members..the development of the individual’s full productive forces, hence those of society also ‘ (708).
Marx had previously argued in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) that ‘natural science has transformed human life all the more practically through industry and has prepared the conditions for human emancipation, however much its immediate effect was to complete the process of dehumanisation’ (355). Now, in the Fragments the stage is set for natural science to ‘become the basis of a human science…The idea of one basis for life and another for science is from the very outset a lie…Natural science will in time subsume the science of man, just as the science of man will subsume natural science: there will be one science’ (355). This is much more than a call for interdisciplinarity, but is a powerful critique of the subject discipline obsessed capitalist university, providing the basis for a new revolutionary science and the foundation for a communist higher and higher education.
Writing at the end of his life, in The Critique of the Gotha Programme (2009), Marx elaborated further on the transition from capitalism to communism: ‘not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society… and is still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges’ (Marx 2009 8). This transition to the new communist society, is not based on fair distribution of goods but a change in relations of production, in this case no longer based on indirect labour mediated by exchange and the coercive logic of socially necessary labour time, but in the form of directly social labour, in which value is assessed by the actual labour time performed by freely associating individuals based on actually existing needs and capabilities. In this way ‘individuals receive back from society – after the deductions have been made – exactly what he gives it ..[as]..his individual quantum of labour’ (Hudis 2012 194): ‘The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another’ (Hudis 2012 194), the level of which would ‘involve a great deal of discussion and debate’ (Hudis 2012 197) as part of a system that is totally transparent (Hudis 2012 198). However, during this period of transition Marx recognises that the system is still defective as the bourgeois principles of equivalence and equal rights are implied in a society that still appears to be dominated by work ( Hudis 2012 199): ‘The type of highest phase of communist society can only be fully realised when labour is no longer ‘the means of life, has itself become the prime necessity of life; after the productive forces have also increased with the all round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly..’ (2009 10). This necessary moment is represented by the phrase ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’, (10). Marx is very clear, he is not talking about the emancipation of labour, but the emancipation from labour ( 2009 11).
In the meantime and in our current predicament, Marx agrees that worker cooperatives are a means towards revolutionising the present conditions of production so long as they remain ‘the independent creations of the workers and not proteges of the government or of the bourgeoisie’ (17). This form of democratic workers control would form part of transitional political society in which the state is under the control of the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’, like the Paris Commune(13) (Lissagaray 2014). Marx is clear, this revolutionary communist arrangement would need to defend itself as democratic forms of parliamentary representation are only ever forms of Police-State despotism (Marx 2009 19).
Concrete Thought experiment – higher education for a higher society
Imagine for a moment a Jeremy Corbyn-like figure wins a future General Election and begins in earnest the transition towards communism based on the principle of ‘from each according to their capacity to each according to their needs’. As part of this programme and based on the slogan ‘higher education for a higher society’ new legislation developed with the Cooperative Party has been passed to replace the target driven Soviet Style five year planning on which Universities are currently governed (Radice 2008). As we have seen, knowledge, science and technology: described as ‘the general intellect’ have been key factors in the production of capitalist value and must be reappropriated for the communist future. Institutionally: the University of Lincoln, together with other universities, is to become a worker-student cooperative, where students are regarded as workers who for the time being and in this transitional phase before the labour theory of value is abolished will be paid a salary. A key principle of the cooperative university is that knowledge is not simply to be learned, like ‘alien knowledge’ ( Marx Grundrisse 695) but knowledge to be produced in collaboration with students and academics in a programme referred to as Student as Producer. The Research Excellence Framework, Teaching Excellence Framework and the National Student Survey are to be abandoned, leading to the development of an alternative set of judgements and practices to consider academic work, based on standards of academic integrity and values including transparency, the commons and commonwealth, radical democracy, and the meaning and substance of disposable time. Locally, the University of Lincoln is to act as a resource for Lincolnshire’s already existing cooperative societies and many cooperative schools. Globally, the University and its staff will seek dialogue, exchange and solidarity with other co-operative and democratically run universities, such as that of Mondragon in Spain, and other revolutionary forms of higher education. The University of Lincoln, together with other Universities, will work to strengthen collaborative interdisciplinary relations with research partners in the International Cooperative Alliance, International Labour Organisation, United Nations and other global organisations which acknowledge the key contribution that cooperatives make to their members’ lives at the regional, national and international level.
This is not just a concrete thought experiment, but is the basis of a contribution to the University of Lincoln’s new Strategic Plan consultation process ( Neary, Amsler and Winn 2015). This contribution is based on work that has been ongoing at the Social Science Centre Lincoln, a co-operative providing no-fee higher education in Lincoln since 2011, and a subsequent research project began in 2015: Beyond Private and Public: a cooperative model for higher education, which, as the title implies, is not the protege of either the state or bourgeois preoccupations. The theory and practices that lie behind the development of this type of cooperative university are carried out resolutely with a Marxist critique of value in mind (Neary and Winn 2015, Winn 2015).
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