Saturday, January 27, 2007


Three questions arising from pages 690-743

1. Whose is "the general intellect"?
2. Increasing alienation as a revolutionary force?
3. Who or what "breaks down" capitalism?
Three questions arising from pages 690-743

1. Whose is "the general intellect"? Emancipation through education, or universal bludging?

In these pages Marx refers repeatedly to the immense productive power of "the general intellect". What he seems to mean is the general pool of scientific knowledge, more or less readily available to any interested and educated person, in contrast to particular patent processes.
"The general intellect" appears as the property of the capitalist class, not because the capitalists are clever, but because they alone have the accumulated wealth necessary to put the productive power of "the general intellect" to work, hiring scientists along the way if necessary.
Capitalism today has added a twist to this. The number of patents has expanded enormously. Of the seven million patents issued in the USA since the first one in 1836, half have been granted since about 1970 [New Scientist, 6 January 2007]. Since the 1990s, patents are granted to "intellectual property" which would previously have been classified as unpatentable mathematical algorithms. The term "intellectual property" is now everywhere, but dates only from the 1980s. More and more scientific research is done within capitalist corporations, or, if by scientists in universities, under capitalist sponsorship; its results are more and more treated by the capitalist sponsors as their "property".
Under socialism (so I take Marx to think), "the general intellect" will become social property, scientific knowledge being used under social control to shorten the necessary drudgery of economic production and to enrich people's increased free time.
This perspective does not depend on every member of society developing an encyclopedic knowledge of science, any more than the capitalist control of the powers of science today depends on capitalists being scientific experts. I think Marx's perception is coloured by the assumption, still more or less plausible in his day, that an energetic, intelligent, and leisured individual could become basically educated in every field of systematic human knowledge (as Engels pretty much was). That assumption makes no sense today. Anyone today, however energetic, intelligent, and leisured, will be vastly ignorant in many fields of knowledge. That is a manageable problem - but a fairly wide spread of basic scientific education is still, as far as I can see, essential for Marx's perspective to make sure.
Otherwise, how avoid the scientifically-knowledgeable becoming a ruling clerisy? Or, conversely, society being repeatedly disrupted by decisions about the deployment of science being taken democratically with an "electorate" which knows little about the issues at stake and thus is prey to demagogy? These dangers may be a lesser evil than the horrors of capitalism, but they're not good.
Education thus appears as a core issue for socialists.
Marx's prediction in the Grundrisse is that the expansion of free time will lead to a huge expansion of people's self-education and self-development. There is evidence from present-day society that this is not entirely utopian: among the layers of the population whose jobs allow them more free time and energy after work, the take-up of serious popularised-science books and TV programme is higher than ever.
It can hardly be considered automatic, though. Could it be argued that Marx is too optimistically "high-minded" about how people will use more free time? He does write that "free time... is both idle time and time for higher activity", but seems to assume that most people will do a lot of the "higher activity".
Do we need to look at a new objection to socialism, in addition to the old "universal greed" one, and the "universal laziness" one (without the whip of capitalist wage-labour, no-one will work, so society will collapse)? A "universal bludging" one? A scenario that in a socialist society, people will do their short quota of necessary labour, but mostly then spend the rest of their time bludging - as captives of the same sort of dumbing-down entertainment which already seizes more people in today's society than those so exhausted by their wage-labour that (unless very exceptionally strong-willed) they just don't have energy for more? So that the bludging majority will either be the captives of the educated minority, or disrupt society by making social decisions a matter of who can best make a demagogic appeal to an ill-informed public?
Two connected questions are: what should socialists be saying about education now, within capitalist society; and why is capitalism so unable to increase "productivity" in education?
In general, after all, we do not propose to build socialism by executing some blueprint from nowhere and assuming that we have a completely new population with a completely new mentality. We propose to develop socialism by building on bases provided by capitalism, and to do it with people more or less as they are now.
Marx and Engels did write: Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew [The German Ideology]. But they did not believe that a revolution could transform human nature completely and suddenly; it could only bring to the fore some aspects already there, but currently pushed down, and push down some traits currently boosted.
The methods of education have changed startlingly little over centuries. New ideas - those of active education, learning-by-doing - did come forward in the early 20th century (from John Dewey in the USA, for example). The Bolsheviks drew on those ideas while trying to design a new education system in Russia after the revolution: the poverty of the country, and the civil war, meant that they made little progress before the Stalinist counter-revolution struck down all such efforts.
Deweyan ideas did become more widespread in the advanced capitalist countries after World War 2. But what's "new" bourgeois educational thinking today? The advocacy of a return to the old pre-1900 norm of education by lecture plus rote learning!
In the 1960s there was a smaller flurry of suggestions for new methods of education. Some people suggested that computer systems could take over from teachers. That hasn't happened and doesn't look like ever happening.
On education, the left tends to confine itself to opposing the retrogressionists and demanding better wages for teachers, more teachers, better school buildings, no fees for uni students, and so on. All these things are important, but they do not add up to a revolutionary vision.

2. Increasing alienation as a revolutionary force?

Passages in the Grundrisse can be read as suggesting that, while Marx did not predict a constant fall in absolute working-class living standards, he did predict a trend for capitalism to increase the alienation of labour in all its forms.
That raises two questions. One, was Marx right about that? Two, should we expect increased alienation to produce increased radicalism in the working class?
I think Marx was partly right about the trend, and partly wrong. The wealth of capitalist societies has become more and more "alienated from" the majority - more and more concentrated in the hands of the bosses of a relatively few giant corporations, or even, above them, in the hands of an esoteric layer of financial wheeler-dealers.
Also, capital works constantly to make each job more "alienated". But there, there are counter-tendencies. Many of the most "alienated" jobs - precisely because they reduce the worker more and more to a mere cog in the machinery - end up being abolished through automation. Simultaneously, the number grows of maintenance, repair, and design jobs "alongside" the machinery (a number which Marx, in his time, considered insignificant).
Those jobs, however hard capital tries, tend to be more resistant to "alienation".
Further, the inability of capital to "automate" activities like education and health care leads to a relative growth in the numbers of such workers as teachers and nurses, whose work is, once again, more resistant to "alienation".
Should we expect increased alienation-on-the-job to produce increased radicalism in the working class? No, not necessarily, any more than we expect increased exploitation necessarily to produce increased radicalism. Increased alienation and increased exploitation, in and of themselves, only brutalise. They radicalise only in combination with other things. I see no basis either in Marx or in reality for the idea that the worse things are for workers, the more revolutionary they will be.
What I think Marx does argue, and is arguable, is that capital has an inbuilt drive to make alienation, at the overall class level, at the level of the overall relations between working class and capital, more socially visible.
The semblance of exchange [between workers and capital] vanishes in the course [Prozess] of the mode of production founded on capital. This course itself and its repetition posit what is the case in itself, namely that the worker receives as wages from the capitalist what is only a part of his own labour. This then also enters into the consciousness of the workers as well as of the capitalists. [Grundrisse p.597].
Engels developed the idea further in Anti-Duhring: The crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces... the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital...
But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces... The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit.

3. Who or what "breaks down" capitalism?

3.1. In these pages of the Grundrisse Marx sometimes writes as if there are more or less automatic mechanisms within capitalism which will lead to its breakdown regardless of what anyone consciously decides to do.
Capitalism thus works towards its own dissolution as a form dominating production... Production based on exchange value breaks down. And so on.
There is similar wording elsewhere in Marx's writings. Capital volume 1: The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated. In sentences about the downfall of capitalism, the verb is in the passive voice ("are expropriated"), with silence on the active subject, or the subject of the verb is an abstraction or even a metaphor ("the knell").

3.2. There is, however, absolutely no room for supposing that Marx was, in his own mind, vague about the active agency of the downfall of capitalism. Just three pages after the thought that "production based on exchange value breaks down", Marx states flatly: The mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour. Once they have done so... [p.708].
In the very first line of the Rules of the First International, Marx wrote: The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.
Back in 1845, Marx and Engels had scornfully insisted: History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth”, it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims. [The Holy Family].

3.3. The suggestion that capitalism will break down of its own accord has, however, recurred destructively in later Marxist and allegedly-Marxist thought.
3.3.1. At the end of the 19th century, Eduard Bernstein based his "revisionist" drive to swing German Social Democracy towards policies of bit-by-bit reform on the idea that history had refuted a prediction of "breakdown of capitalism" made by Marx and Engels.
Karl Kautsky, as summarised by Lenin, replied: Marx and Engels never propounded a special breakdown theory... they did not connect a breakdown necessarily with an economic crisis. This is a distortion chargeable to their opponents who expound Marx’s theory one-sidedly, tearing out of context odd passages from different writings in order thus triumphantly to refute the “one-sidedness” and “crudeness” of the theory. Actually Marx and Engels considered the transformation of West-European economic relations to be dependent on the maturity and strength of the classes brought to the fore by modern European history.
3.3.2. Yet by about 1909 the same Kautsky, become middle-aged and less revolutionary, was basing his own perspectives on a sort of "breakdown theory". Capitalism, he came to argue, was fast approaching an economic and social crisis so huge that the capitalist ruling class would be thrown into hopeless disarray. So long as the labour movement was well organised and prepared, power would pretty much fall into its hands. Hence Kautsky could combine advocating very cautious tactics for the present - all bold tactics best reserved for the period of catastrophe sure to come soon - with glowing promises of revolutionary victory just round the corner.
3.3.3. The Communist International and the Communist Parties were formed in a period, after the end of World War 1, of actual huge social and economic crisis. A large section of the Communist Parties became devoted to the idea that this capitalist crisis was the once-promised once-and-for-all "breakdown", drawing the conclusion that none but directly revolutionary tactics should now be considered (this was called the "theory of the offensive"). It took a big battle led by Lenin and Trotsky to quash this idea.
Lenin famously remarked (though I can't trace the source of this dictum) that there is no a crisis without a way out for the bourgeoisie. Trotsky spelled it out:
If we grant - and let us grant it for the moment - that the working class fails to rise in revolutionary struggle, but allows the bourgeoisie the opportunity to rule the world’s destiny for a long number of years, say two or three decades, then assuredly some sort of new equilibrium will be established... After a new world division of labor is thus established in agony for 15 or 20 or 25 years, a new epoch of capitalist upswing might perhaps ensue. [Report on the World Economic Crisis and The New Tasks of The Communist International, June 1921].
Trotsky also explained that economic crisis did not necessarily at all produce working-class radicalisation. What was radicalising about the capitalist cycle of boom and slump was the alternation, the change, not necessarily the slump phase.
After a period of big battles and defeats, a crisis has the effect of depressing rather than arousing the working class. It undermines the workers' confidence in their powers and demoralises them politically. Under such conditions, only an industrial revival can close the ranks of the proletariat, pour fresh blood into its veins, restore its confidence in itself and make it capable of further struggle. [My Life].
3.3.4. After the triumph of Stalinism in the Communist Parties, their ideologues placed particular stress on the capitalist-collapse theme. The "tendency of the rate of profit to fall", given little weight by any of the great pre-1914 Marxists, was now touted as "the Marxist theory", supposedly mathematical proof of capitalism's fall into the abyss. See, for example, Emile Burns' much-used 1000-page Stalinist primer of 1935, A Handbook of Marxism.
After World War Two, the Communist Parties insisted right up to the late 1950s that Marx had (correctly) predicted "absolute immiseration", and the working class in Europe was being pushed closer and closer to starvation.
To people hostile to capitalism but uneasy about the USSR, the Stalinists would reply: well, capitalism is collapsing anyway, and the USSR is the only alternative. I can still remember a student meeting as late as 1969 when some of us criticised the East European states, and a CPer replied threateningly that Eastern Europe was going great guns economically, capitalism was doomed, and we'd better start thinking about what side we wanted to be on when "socialism" (Stalinism) took over.
3.3.5. In his very last years Trotsky himself lost his grip on the question of crisis. He came to assume that capitalism had no way out. This assumed condition of permanent and total crisis meant, of course, that: Under conditions of decaying capitalism the proletariat grows neither numerically nor culturally. There are no grounds, therefore, for expecting that it will sometime rise to the level of the revolutionary tasks - other than a new capitalist convulsion pushing the existing working class (with its existing numbers and culture) to rally to the revolutionaries. The harsh and tragic dialectic of our epoch is working in our favour. Brought to the extreme pitch of exasperation and indignation, the masses will find no other leadership than that offered to them by the Fourth International.
This vision, abstracted, crudified and dogmatised, would contribute to much sectarian posturing by would-be Trotskyists after Trotsky's death in 1940.
3.3.6. In any period when capitalism is in extreme difficulties, obviously unlikely to be surmounted soon, there's an understandable tendency among revolutionary socialists to jump to the conclusion that "this is the one", guaranteed by economic reasoning to be the final crisis. In the 1930s, not only Stalinists but also independent Marxists started talking about "late capitalism". In the 1970s, the same again.

3.4. The truth on this, I suggest, is:
a) Revolutionary socialist perspectives depend entirely on the growth and increased awareness and abilities of the working class.
b) They also depend on capitalism being ineradicably subject to crises. If capitalism always kept on an even keel, then there would be none of the tremendous internal conflicts and disarray within the capitalist class necessary to spark and create space for revolutionary mobilisations from below, and it would be impossibly difficult for more than a minority of the working class not to be lulled into an assumption of the eternal durability of capitalism.
c) They do not depend on proving that some "final crisis" or "breakdown" will come, or even that the periodic crises necessarily become sharper. Neither of those things can in fact be proved.

3.5. I think Kautsky was right about the main drift of Marx's thinking. Marx and Engels did not connect a breakdown necessarily with an economic crisis. Actually Marx and Engels considered the transformation of [capitalist] relations to be dependent on the maturity and strength of the [working class].
The curious counterpoint of crisis-enthusiasm in Marx's writings comes, I think, from three things:
a) In earlier writings, the "natural" enthusiasm of the new convert, who can't believe that the refusal of others to accept the revolutionary socialist truths which now seem so clear to him or her can survive the shake-up sure to be provided by the next crisis.
b) A desire to emphasise "materialism" in contrast to the idealism of earlier socialists, for whom socialism was, in one way or another, just the triumph of abstract, ahistorical Reason. Thus in his Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital (1873), Marx approvingly quotes a reviewer who had written that Marx proves, at the same time, both the necessity of the present order of things, and the necessity of another order into which the first must inevitably pass over; and this all the same, whether men believe or do not believe it, whether they are conscious or unconscious of it. Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history, governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence...
Actually, of course, Marx did not believe the absurd idea that the replacement of capitalism could happen "all the same" whether or not people "are conscious or unconscious of it". But he did believe that processes internal to capitalist development, not some arbitrary will inserted from outside, led to socialist revolution (including by creating the necessary consciousness). He wanted to emphasise that side of it, and was willing to exaggerate a bit, or condone exaggerations by others, in doing so.
Engels would later write: Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-a-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. [Letter to Bloch, 22 September 1890].
c) I do not believe that Marx ever got clearly into focus the radical difference between a working-class socialist revolution, overthrowing capitalism, and a bourgeois revolution, overthrowing feudalism. With the bourgeois revolution, it can indeed happen with people having very little conscious idea of aims; and much of the work of the bourgeois revolution can arrive as an impersonal economic resultant of the disparate activities of many people, none of whom consciously desired the outcome. Not so with the socialist revolution.
Marx gave many pointers to the difference - in The Eighteenth Brumaire, for example - but it was Trotsky who first formulated it clearly (in Lessons of October, 1924).

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