Marx and Wert-abspaltungskritik
Ci-dessous, une conversation à Chicago entre différents membres de groupes marxistes américains, qui avaient invité Elmar Flatschart de la revue allemande « Exit ! » fondée principalement autour de l'oeuvre de Robert Kurz (1943-2012). Cette discussion est parue dans le journal du groupe marxiste américain Platypus (« Platypus Review ») en mai 2013.
Pour rappel au lecteur attentif, nous indiquons que depuis une importante scission en 2004 au sein du groupe « Krisis », les personnes qui ont suivi R. Kurz (comme E. Flatschart) en fondant une nouvelle revue (« Exit ! »), ont totalement abandonné le terme de « Wertkritik » qu'elles ont souhaité dépasser (parce qu'insuffisant à leurs yeux) pour lui préférer celui de « Wert-abspaltungskritik » (dissociation-valeur ou clivage-valeur) forgé notamment par Roswitha Scholz dans son fameux article de 1992, « La valeur, c'est le mâle ». Aujourd'hui seuls la revue « Krisis », la revue autrichienne « Streifzüge » et différents groupes militants et cercles de lecture à travers le monde, utilisent le qualificatif de « Wertkritik ». Il faut également préciser, que si Moishe Postone ne doit pas être assimilé à la « Wertkritik » (ou à la « Wert-abspaltungskritik ») et qu'il ne s'en est jamais réclamé (malgré les nombreux contacts, jamais aucune discussion de fond n'a eu lieu avec les Allemands), le rapport à Postone est différent entre « Krisis » (E. Lohoff et N. Trenkle reprochent principalement à Postone l'absence de théorie de la crise interne - voir Auf Selbstzerstörung programmiert in « Krisis » 2/ 2013) et « Exit ! », cette dernière branche ayant développé ces dernières années des critiques au-delà de la seule absence de théorie de la crise interne chez cet auteur américain.
Pour des traductions en anglais, nous renvoyons désormais au volume Marxism and the Critique of Value, publié par le groupe de littérature marxiste de Chicago « Médiations » en 2014, au site britannique « Libcom » qui rassemble de nombreux textes, ainsi qu'à l'article récent d'A. Jappe « Kurz, a Journey into Capitalism's Heart of Darkness » (à paraître dans le prochain numéro de la revue britannique « Historical Materialism »).
Elmar Flatschart (« Exit ! » -Allemagne), Alan Milchman (« Internationalist Pesperctive » - USA), and Jamie Merchant (« Permanent Crisis » - USA)
Platypus Review 56 | May 2013
On Saturday, April 6, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel, “Marx and Wertkritik,” at its Fifth Annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute Chicago. The panel featured Elmar Flatschart of the German theoretical journal EXIT!, Alan Milchman of Internationalist Perspective, and Jamie Merchant of Permanent Crisis. It was moderated by Gregor Baszak, of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion. A full recording of the event can be found online.
Elmar Flatschart: Value critique, or, following the theorem developed by Roswitha Scholz, a critique of value-diremption (Wertabspaltungskritik), seeks to understand and critique the fundamental mechanisms that govern modern society. This critique is not as interested in the political Marx of class struggle and the workers’ movement, but more in the philosophical aspects of his work that focus on the abstract and fetishized character of modern domination. This approach tries to keep the abstract critical theory of society strictly separate from the contradictory practical attempts to overcome capitalism. Marxism shouldn’t be understood as an identity-giving, wholesome position, which history proved to be erroneous, but should be reduced to a theoretical core that can help us to understand society, via a negative critique, even if it does not necessarily provide us with a way out. The call for the abolition of labor does not have immediate ramifications for Marxist politics.
There is no new program or a master plan for emancipation that can be developed out of the abolition of value. Rather, it can be seen as a condition of emancipation from value and the abstract system of oppression it represents. How emancipation will be achieved is a more complex story. We know what will not work: much of what the Old Left proposed as Marxist politics. A lot of that should be abandoned because, essentially, abstract domination cannot be abolished through the imposition of some other kind of direct, personal domination. If we are to critique the abstractions of the economic forms, we similarly have to target the political form itself. While Marx and Engels suggested as much by their formulation of the state eventually “withering away,” I think we need to be a lot more radical. Emancipation ultimately has to mean the abolishment of the political as well. This is contradictory in the present political situation, but we should not try to postpone this task until after the revolution. We should see the constraints and the fetishizations immanent to the political form as something we want to get rid of now.
On the issue of value critique’s relation to the New Marx Reading (Neue Marx Lektüre [NML]) initiated by Hans-Georg Backhaus, I would say that Backhaus was more of a philosopher and philologist than an economist. He sought to uncover the deep core in Marx that was in line with his teacher Adorno’s reading. Unfortunately, he didn’t get very far with that himself, but I think he set the agenda. Backhaus’s efforts were a key point from which value-diremption critique departed and tried to enlarge its vision. The 1970s were a turning point in both theory and praxis when it was acknowledged that the old economicist and politicist roads to revolution do not work out. So the reformulation of the theory, which builds on the earlier work of the Frankfurt School, corresponds to new forms of praxis and reacts to the fact that everything now is more complex: There is no one vanguard party but many situated politics; no one system of oppression that covers all, but an abstract notion of reified domination (verdinglichte Herrschaft) that realizes itself in various ways; and no one strategy for revolution, but contradictory relations that, although graspable only in the negative, we have to confront wherever we meet.
Some aspects of the Left’s impasse today, according to value critique, came about for necessary reasons. These difficulties were necessary in that they prompted a broadening of perspectives, which made things more difficult but ultimately more complete, corresponding to social reality and the new complexities of oppression. Certainly, pondering this cannot solve the problems the Left faces today, namely, of its marginalization. But just because you face this problem, asking for a simple and programmatic solution would not correct this. In fact, it would mean setting the wrong questions on the agenda again, which have been proven to be wrong. What Backhaus and others have taught us is that emancipation from the currently prevailing system of abstract oppression is immensely complex and also highly unlikely. But it is still possible, if we face the complexity involved in it. There are neither programs nor utopias, only a hard laboring through these contradictions that we face in struggles, wherever they occur.
On whether value critique signifies a return to anarchism: I think it is dangerous to frame things in these terms. You should not work with old labels that do not conform to reality anymore. Designations applicable in the 19th and early 20th century, concerning the opposition between Marxism and anarchism, cannot be applied to today’s social movements. Surely, there are certain questions in this dispute that are still relevant, but today’s leftist landscape is in many ways not reducible to this simple opposition. The Situationists, for example, were probably the first who combined an essentially Marxist critique with an anti-authoritarian, anarchist method of politics. Part of the problem is that one would have to define what anarchism and Marxism mean with respect to the specific social relations of the present—and that is all but easy. The concept of the “Left” is maybe even more difficult: What is the Left today? I think it’s hard to say what this really means. Should we even be referring to this concept and can we even use this label meaningfully? Marxist and anarchist approaches intersect in social movements today. From the perspective of value-diremption critique this can also be seen as progressive insofar as one core contradiction that arises from emancipatory projects is dealt with more comprehensively, and that is the one between immanence and transcendence. You can see this complexity as a kind of double dialectic: On the one hand, what is termed “anarchist” means striving for some immediate transcendence in praxis at the cost of remaining immanent. On the other hand, you can say that Marxist approaches, at least some of them, retain the theoretical vision that went beyond the given immanent categories and tried to account for the complexity of transcendence in a meaningful way. It might be good that this dialectic is no longer split into a stark Marxism-anarchism duality but comes together in the more progressive parts of social movements.
How is “the science of value” (die Wissenschaft vom Wert) determined (and limited) by the contemporary potential for revolutionary change of the societal whole it addresses and belongs to? Here I would repeat that, concerning the social-revolutionary aspect of value critique, there simply is none. It is not the task of abstract critique of society to give you immediate steps to social revolution. Rather, it seeks to develop the most radical critique of society, but that project is in no way tied to an equally elaborated notion of revolution. That was also a problem of older approaches that had this package-deal mentality, which was essentially politicist, as it proved to be with Lenin and the Marxist-Leninist tradition. As value-diremption critique sees it, revolution is not the task of the abstract critique of society; rather, revolution is the task of concrete theories of praxis and immanent political theories, which is different from and more complex than theorizing society. We need to keep those separate.
Alan Milchman: My approach to Wertkritik is somewhat different. Several comrades have criticized Wertkritik, saying it is all about philology and text critique, that it is academic. Quite the contrary: Wertkritik is the reverse of academicism, pure text critique, or philology. Wertkritik has rescued from Marx’s texts things that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. The division Elmar drew between the domain of politics and that of Wertkritik is highly dubious. The figure that I take as a good example of the union of the two is Hans-Jürgen Krahl, who was active in the 1960s and, tragically, died young in an automobile crash. He had a great interest in Marx’s manuscripts, and it wasn’t a philological but rather a political interest, and it is the union of the two that I find so interesting about Wertkritik.
Imagine what kind of Marxism we would have if no one had ever published the Paris manuscripts of 1844. True, one could argue that Lukács’s inquiry into reification and alienation already laid out much of what was in those manuscripts. But our understanding of the relation between Marx and Hegel, of alienation and reification, has certainly been enriched by the 1844 Manuscripts. How much weaker would our understanding of capitalism have been, if Marx’s elaboration of capital as a moving contradiction in the Grundrisse had never come to light? It seems to me that these texts of Marx with which Wertkritik is engaged are crucial precisely for a political orientation to capitalism in this epoch.
I was asked whether the working-class movement ultimately proved to be the best bourgeois subjects, keeping capital going in a way that the bourgeoisie itself could not. It depends, however, on what you mean by the “working-class movement.” If by this one means that the mass political parties, social democratic or Stalinist, became the enforcers of capital in several countries beginning in August of 1914, through the 1930s and the reconstruction of the 1950s and the epoch of Stalinism, then yes, certainly that is true. But is that the working-class movement? No, that is the political force that crushed the working-class movement. That is not the workers’ movement, but the death of the workers’ movement. These forces did what the classical bourgeoisie did not, and never could have done. Will they return again in the midst of the present crisis, if neoliberalism is as bankrupt as many of us believe it is? I don’t want to rule out that possibility. Would they come in the same clothes? Probably not, but many of the same ideas, including nationalization, would be a last rampart of capitalism.
Does value critique have a social revolutionary aspect to it? Yes—it allows us to see that capital in this epoch is different from capital in earlier periods. It allows us to see the trajectory of capitalism that Marx anticipated, though he couldn’t foresee its details, namely, the shift away from the idea that communism is about the (re-)distribution of wealth, and realizing instead that it is really about the transformation of the production of wealth. Unless you transform or abolish the production-relations based on the value form of wage labor, you have not struck a blow against capitalism. In fact, you are probably only reinforcing capitalism. Capitalism lives or dies on the basis of the value form. That is exactly what Wertkritik tries to show us. So much of the political program of the classical left is predicated on redistributing income or regulating the bourgeoisie, and not on the abolition of wage labor and value. The argument that Internationalist Perspective makes is precisely that unless one moves directly to the task of the abolition of value, creating and participating in a revolutionary movement is impossible today. It is not the task of Marxist revolutionaries to create the movement singlehandedly. Nevertheless, this understanding of the possibilities of the abolition of the value form, and what it means if we do not directly attack it, this is something that is accessible to the working class today.
The organizers have quoted Marx from the 1844 Manuscripts: “[W]ithout revolution, socialism cannot be made possible.” Speaking for Internationalist Perspective: Definitely! Without a revolution, the overthrow of the value form is just an academic exercise. It has to be concretized in the overthrow of the value form, and the protector and guarantor of the value form in this epoch is the capitalist state—whatever garb it dresses itself in. Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Ahmadinejad in Iran, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria are all different faces of the capitalist state today. If the Social Democrats win the next election in Germany, they will be the capitalist state. And when Barack Obama won the last election, he became the representative of capital in Washington, D.C., and therefore the mortal enemy not simply of the working class, however you want to define it, but of humankind. This recognition is closely connected to value form theory and Wertkritik, and unless that link is made, we will fail to go beyond a discussion of redistributing income, nationalizing the banks, or seizing the means of production through the state or through cooperatives. Frankly, I am sick of Richard Wolff telling us that we need cooperatives, repeating what the utopian socialists Saint-Simon and Fourier said some 200 years ago. Responding to the crisis we are in now with cooperatives would mean making the workers compete on the world market, the same as any other capitalist enterprise. It changes nothing. Just how dramatic and revolutionary the change has to be—that is the contribution of Wertkritik.
Jamie Merchant: In the 1970s and ’80s, an important reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory of society began to emerge that cut directly against long-standing and ideologically entrenched modes of reading Marx. Emerging in a variety of places and at different times, this reinterpretation consisted of a reconceptualization of Marx’s key theoretical categories, such as labor and value, that removed the affirmative, transhistorical characteristics they retained for orthodox Marxism and transformed them into critical, historically dynamic categories. As indicated in the Grundrisse and as highlighted by Moishe Postone, Marx’s categories denote not positive economic phenomena but rather fundamental forms of human practice that constitute the capitalist social formation. Rather than conceiving, in the orthodox manner, of “labor” as an eternal, immutable property of human existence that is the ultimate source of value and thus the standpoint for the critique of capitalism, in this view “labor” is grasped as a historically specific form of human practice that actually has the “misfortune,” as Marx puts it in Capital, of producing “value.” The ineluctable abstraction of human labor under the capitalist production of commodities, that is to say, its role within the valorization processes of capital, produces value as abstract, homogeneous labor-time. It is the blind, relentless drive to accumulate surplus value regardless of and often at the expense of human life itself that constitutes the peculiar form of wealth at the core of capitalist modernity. Far from constituting the standpoint of critique, value-producing labor must be seen as the object of critique in any critical theory directed at the social conditions and forms of domination that constitute the modern world.
The production of value through the expenditure of human labor-time is the determining form of wealth for modernity, but it is not the only form of wealth for Marx. In the Grundrisse, Marx argues, “[T]o the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labor time and on the amount of labor employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labor time.” Interpreting this passage, Postone suggests that “Marx contrasts value, a form of wealth bound to human labor time expenditure, to the gigantic wealth-producing potential of modern science and technology. Value becomes anachronistic in terms of the system of production to which it gives rise; the realization of that potential would entail the abolition of value.” What both Marx and Postone refer to as “real wealth” is in fact pure potentiality; it is the possibility of a form of production in which the tremendous collective productive powers of society will no longer work to devalue necessary labor time in order to produce surplus labor time, but instead abolish surplus labor tout court, so that the general necessary labor-time for everyone across society is reduced to a minimum. This is a possibility that is immanent to capitalism as a contradictory, historically dynamic totality. As Marx argues in the Grundrisse, Capital itself is the moving contradiction, in that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth…. Forces of production and social relations… appear to capital as mere means… In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky high.
The abolition of value means the determinate negation of capitalism. It would mean realizing the potential for the real collective wealth of humanity to greatly reduce, across the board, the required time and intensity of work for everyone, everywhere. It would mean severing the structural links between the total productive power of society and the driving, destructive imperatives of the capital-form. It would mean abolishing the central constitutive contradiction of modern society and open the path to a fundamentally new and unprecedented organization and experience of social life. Such a radical break is itself only possible, however, because the abolition of value implies the abolition of the totality that is constructed around it, the totality of capitalism as a structure of alienation, or of self-generated self-domination through value, labor, and capital as social forms of practice.
These considerations have certain implications for politics. Theory, broadly speaking, must again come to play some role, however mediated, in the formation and guidance of practice. For any politics that neglects the agency of the value-form misses the core logic of the capitalist social formation and so risks an unwitting perpetuation or affirmation of it. On the other hand, as long as the practices constituting proletarian labor and the production of value persist, then capitalism continues to reproduce itself as a structure of domination regardless of whatever subjective ideas are entertained by the producers themselves. Regarding the Left, this basically means that capitalism could care less whether we call ourselves Marxists, anarchists, socialists, or whatever. From the point of view of our entanglement in the circuits of value-producing labor, the imperatives of the totality define what is necessary, regardless. Conversely, a social movement with sufficient scope would not have to explicitly identify itself with “Marxism” per se, or with any other ideological label, to potentially bring the totality into some kind of focus. Of course Marxist currents can play an important role of self-clarification within the context of a given movement. But, at present, a form of politics that somehow comes to be mediated by the critique of value will have no a priori ideological identity. One should therefore consider whether the movement’s ideological content in tandem with the form of the movement seems in some way to point beyond the present historical context. The task, then, is to see whether critical forms of collective consciousness, which emerge as part of an evolving, contradictory historical totality, are able to see that totality, in however mediated a form, and somehow absorb that vision in an organizational praxis.
There is also a vital temporal dimension that must be taken into account. Neoliberal capitalism has in many ways decimated the capacity to imagine, in a common-sense sort of way, society as a total form, much less to envision the supersession of capitalism itself. This was not always the case. Though exhibiting its own contradictions, the Fordist state-capitalism of western social democracy presented a different scenario. The state-mediated organization of capital accumulation along national lines, the closely interwoven nexus of capital, labor, and the state, and the apparent pacification of the class war between capital and labor—however temporary and illusory—provided material foundations for the mass perception of something like “society,” of a social whole that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. The international reorganization of accumulation beyond national borders, in the arcane, opaque world of financial capital, is a hallmark of neoliberal society and a material precondition both for its pervasive ethos of unfettered individual choice, as well as for an academic fixation on subjectivity at the expense of pursuing any rigorous historical inquiry into objectivity. In its political comportment, the abolition of value must take on a robustly materialist outlook: These political economic conditions, fundamental to the production of neoliberal subjectivity as well as its objective social structures, must be targeted for transformation by any critical politics. Such a transformation would not constitute the endpoint of political struggle, but the movement to a penultimate formation of capitalism on terms favorable to the Left, that would make overthrowing it once again appear possible, plausible, and desirable to great numbers of people.
Any truly anti-capitalist politics will be dead in the water if it remains limited to the horizon of the nation-state. Value theory imposes this conclusion upon us. Inasmuch as value, understood as socially necessary labor time, is a category of the totality, it is a manifestly global category; socially necessary labor time denotes the value of the labor of the collective worker in toto, that is, of the global proletariat at a given historical moment in the trajectory of the capitalist world system. Therefore, if the abolition of value and the realization of real wealth would be the determinate negation of capitalism, then politics with that goal must necessarily operate in some kind of internationalist frame. The abolition of value must be the abolition of all value, the determinate negation of the totality formed by value-producing labor.
Right now, we are facing a rapid retrenchment of neoliberal financial power across the advanced capitalist bloc in a way that is destroying the lives of people every day, coalescing in the formation of an “austerity state,” a long-term mutation of the neoliberal state that has emerged from the massive financial collapse of 2008 and the ensuing global slump. The enormous public bailouts of the self-destructing financial system across the capitalist west have created a situation in which the state, ironically, is now more severely mortgaged to international capital and financial markets than it was before. Sovereign debt and government bonds—one of the only remaining sources of finance after neoliberalism’s exemption of corporations and the richest strata from taxation—must maintain their prices at a certain level to keep creditors on the world market satisfied. A major requirement for this is greatly reducing the amount of the social product directed towards public goods, and greatly increasing that which goes toward debt service. At the same time, the economic crash destroyed and continues to destroy a great deal of value, as the general unemployment rate of the advanced capitalist world rises. The creation of a massive reserve army of labor in tandem with the permanent fiscal crisis of the state means this formation is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
It is upon this inhospitable terrain that the Left must somehow learn to organize itself if it is to have any future. Additionally, given what appears to be an increasing probability of either a major ecological catastrophe or a revival of imperial geopolitics, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that the Left must learn to organize itself if society is to have any future. But because the Left at this moment is not—because, at least in the U.S., there is no organizationally coherent leftist project with a true mass base of support—we are not even in a place to adopt Gramsci’s classic metaphor of the “war of position” to inform our thinking during this period, as that first requires some actual “forces” which can then be “positioned” strategically. As always, there are more-or-less inchoate antagonisms towards the current form of society. Negativity will exist as long as capitalist society, in all its internal and manifest contradictions, exists; it is immanent to it. But it is up to leftists and progressives to channel that negativity in a direction that would implicate capital and bring it into perspective as an impersonal system of domination whose abolition would benefit everyone, and the Left must do so before such negativity is turned toward darker, right-wing trajectories.
Q & A
If we assume that the early 20th century revolutionaries failed simply because they didn’t have access to this deep critique of the value-form, doesn’t this completely write off the history of Marxist politics, and how that history might be useful, even necessary, in the present? More generally, what is the relationship between the programmatic goal of abolishing socially necessary labor time, and abolishing the abstract domination of capital ?
AM: I don’t know how we would have read Marx’s manuscripts in the 1870s, 1890s, or 1920s. Probably, if they were accessible then, it would have changed things, but more important is the trajectory of capitalism itself. We can read Marx’s manuscripts today in a way we might not have been able to read them then. For instance, until fairly recently, and as a result of the financial crisis of 2008, I don’t think I would have appreciated how critical Marx’s analysis of money is. But I am not arguing that history would’ve been different had we access to these manuscripts, only that reading those manuscripts today allows us to better grasp capitalism now.
JM: The suggestion that we should think transitionally comes from the vast majority of people who are being screwed over by this global crisis and the onset of the global regime of austerity. A post-capitalist vision of society is very difficult to render plausible when the vast majority of people are looking for a job, trying to put food on the table, and so on. We would have to think in terms of reforms for revolution: How can we reform the financial system in a way that makes investment possible for public projects, that gets more people back to work, that reduces the level of structural unemployment? We need to accomplish that, as it will allow people to glimpse past the horizon of capitalism, which was once possible, but is now exceedingly rare on a mass scale.
EF: There is no programmatic demand to abolish the value form ; rather, the value form is a necessary condition for emancipation. Programmatic goals need to “climb down” from this abstract necessary condition, or start in the concrete context. These programmatic goals have to add up in order to change totality. There is no program on the level of the totality—this is very important, as that is the “politicist” illusion, with which we must dispense.
Neoliberalism might well have obscured the experience of the Fordist era, rendering it more esoteric, but didn’t Fordism, and the nationalism from which it is inseparable, in its own way occlude even deeper issues of capitalism? Elmar, you warn against “privileging” the workers as a revolutionary subject, but you seem to conflate earlier Marxism, in which the proletariat’s role is characterized negatively, with 20th century Stalinism and Social Democracy. What other subject would manifest the self-overcoming capitalism “on the basis of capitalism itself,” as Lenin put it in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder?
EF: Marx had a negative notion of class, insofar as he saw it as immanent to capitalism and this is evident in the logical approach of Capital. But then again you already have with Marx, and more so with Engels, this political privileging of class as an emancipatory actor. There were no other questions of oppression, and hence no other emancipatory subjectivities. There is no one subject anymore, and this is what we can learn from the New Left and the postmodern turn.
JM: Yes, Fordism definitely occluded capital in many ways, especially, in the Cold War context, in terms of the role of the nation-state. But my point was that it was a form of society in which the social whole did appear, and so the idea of society had more currency. There was this concern during the Fordist period of the individual being absorbed into the social whole and losing individualism. But this was just the inversion of the cultural logic of neoliberalism. The point is that different periods of accumulation provide different versions of society and apprehension of the “social”; the social form appears in differently mediated ways. Different regimes of accumulation can lead to different perceptions of what society is, which could open up avenues for new forms of politics.
What was found in the Grundrisse and 1844 Manuscripts that added to political understandings of Marx’s writings, which often speak to the abolition of value?
AM: Why wasn’t the abolition of labor part of the Critique of the Gotha Programme? Why did Marx preserve, in the lowest stage of communism, remuneration for the worker on the basis of labor-time? Yes, Marx certainly spoke of the abolition of labor before 1875, in the Paris manuscripts and in his critique of Friedrich List. But then he came to write his Critique of the Gotha Programme, and it was not there. What was there, instead, is a long period of transition in which labor time and accounting would be the basis of this stage of communism. Today, we must admit this was not the basis for even a transition to communism. It is only the basis for the perpetuation of capitalism.
Is the abolition of value the same as the abolition of labor? How is this related to a question of unemployment or a question of full employment? Do you think the Left should pursue a politics of fuller employment coupled with shorter hours? If so, how? If not, by what other means could one hope to politically accomplish the abolition of labor?
AM: I don’t see how a demand for full employment has anything to do with the abolition of labor. Full employment is a demand for jobs. It is a demand predicated upon the existence of labor, the continuation of wage-labor, rather than the overthrow of wage-labor.
JM: I disagree with Alan. If we are able to organize something like full employment—and the people around Jacobin magazine, for instance, are talking about this—the collective working class would be in a much stronger position. This would be much more favorable for the formation of consciousness, opening the way to more radical demands once most people no longer have to be so fixated on getting and keeping a job.
EF: It is totally wrong to ask for full employment. We should strive to see labor itself, the labor form, as something that can be abolished. That will make way for meaningful activities. We have the technological ability to enable a rich living for all without a minimum of fixed, necessary labor. That should be part of our program.
What sorts of political developments on the German left led in the direction of value critique, NML, and so on?
EF: Backhaus’s theory built on the basis of the Frankfurt School, and also on its mistakes, including a tendency for Adorno to be superficial in his critique of political economy, which focused on exchange-value and was supra-historical. Those with this new interest in Marx said, “We have to work on that, because Marx is more complex.” But they wanted to retain certain of the Frankfurt School’s notions—we need a critique of totality that goes beyond the economic, that takes in culture, things like that. They wanted to retain the negativity, the dialectical, the Hegelian thing, and that’s how this peculiar tradition came to develop. Politically, the activism going on in the 1960s in Germany was relevant. All these new issues, all these new movements—the women’s movement, the anti-Fascist, ecological, gay rights—all those things went into this critique of abstract domination. The idea was to try to get them together—at least, in theory. As it turned out, a lot of people didn’t include all these demands in their concrete programs.
What does it mean to talk about the abolition of the value form? Hegel would say this is like trying to jump to the truth, not understanding that truth comes through necessary forms of appearance. Marx understood the depth of this problem. He did not view it in these impossibly abstract terms, but in a way that connected, from one step to the next, to the revolution that was seen as increasingly necessary. How is your demand to abolish the value form connected to Marx’s own politics?
AM: Is the abolition of labor too abstract? Let’s concretize it. There is a movement in a factory against its closure. Workers seize the factory and decide that the factory will be self-managed. The workers manage it, buy the raw materials, and sell the products on the market. They even agree to cut their own wages in order to compete. Somebody else says, that’s ridiculous, and instead raises what so many other workers demand: jobs from the capitalist state, printing the infamous trillion dollar coin, basically following the Keynesian left today in the U.S. What we should ask of them is: Why are you demanding more jobs? Why are you demanding full employment? Capital cannot concede it. I can imagine Paul Krugman saying, why doesn’t the American state give every human being in the U.S., legal or illegal, a hundred thousand dollars a year. But it is an impossible claim, as it would destroy the basis of American capitalism unless the surplus value extracted was sufficient to give every human being in the U.S. a hundred thousand dollars.
I think it is quite realistic to abolish labor. Therefore I say, we reach out to the workers, we challenge the legality of the of the whole state apparatus and its juridical infrastructure, and we seize the means of production, not to operate them as capitalist enterprises, but to begin the process of making the social wealth that capitalism has created freely available to people. If some form of rationing is necessary, which depends on how successful such a revolution proved to be, then the rationing should be on the basis of need, rather than labor.
Elmar claimed the old distinctions between Marxism and anarchism are out of date, when, according to the debate between Marx and the anarchists of the 19th century, Elmar and Alan both would be considered anarchists. I exempt Jamie from this, because he seems to be a traditional Marxist, dressed up as a Postonian. If you read Marx’s polemics against Bakunin, the critique is on the basis that they are going to “leap into the open skies” of freedom. It seems that, through a passive response to historical weakness, what Wertkritik has arrived at is 19th century anarchism.
EF: You are reducing the whole of anarchist and Marxist programmatics to the political. If you take the Marxist tradition, there’s this grand theory of society and there are anti-political approaches that are also important for emancipation, in a dialectical relationship to the political processes of emancipation.
AM: I think everything I have said is compatible with the reading of Marx. We may well disagree; but this is a dispute that would be within Marxism, not between anarchism and Marxism. The fundamentals are as true today as they were in 1857 or 1875: The collective worker, or Gesamtarbeiter, alone has the capacity to explode the value form. There are various movements, but it is only the collective worker that can potentially coalesce as a subject. If we don’t grasp that fact, we disarm ourselves.
How does the collapse of the Soviet Union and “state capitalism” figure into the course of value-critique? Of what continued insight is value-critique theory now that these forms of socialism are no longer historically present? What now motivates the impulse behind Wertkritik?
AM: Wertkritik and NML (Neue Marx Lekture) emerged in Germany—though you see somewhat similar impulses in, say, Operaismo in Italy—and were predicated upon the development and the logic of capitalism in the most advanced industrial societies. What happened in the Soviet Union was that the destruction of the national capital led inexorably to an economic impasse. Gorbachev had to work through what was needed in order to begin to reshape it, and now we have Putin’s Russia. But Stalin’s project or Mao’s project was the predecessor to what we see now in Russia or China. The insoluble contradictions of the USSR, for instance, were not the impetus for Wertkritik. I think that was a sideshow. Could one construct socialism on the model of Mao or the model of Stalin, or even the model of Lenin? I am sure Postone would agree, that this was national capitalist development under specific circumstances, and that it had to end the way it did end. It probably could have ended in a working class revolution, and that obviously would have been better—but it didn’t. |P
Transcribed by Gregor Baszak, Thomas Willis, and Wentai Xiao
1. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 705.↑
2. Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), 26.↑
3. Marx, Grundrisse, 706.↑