Primer Red (Part 6): Late Capitalism

For previous editions of Primer Red, on dialectical materialism, alienation, class, value, and praxis, see here.

Capitalism developed in stages, and “late capitalism” is capitalism’s overtime—its extra innings.

Find a troubling story about some boss’s creative way to take advantage of his workers, about some desperate family go-funding money to pay for basic human needs, or some nightmarish product, and you can find a comment underneath it: “Late capitalism.”

The way you hear “late capitalism,” used, it’s basically interchangeable with “nasty social rot.” That’s basically right, but it’s useful to understand what exactly “late capitalism” refers to in its Marxist sense. By doing so we can know what to expect next and what to do about it.

“Late capitalism,” both in its original meaning when the idea was developed in the 1960s and ‘70s and as it is used today describes capitalism that is “late” in the sense that it is spilling over its time. It’s capitalism that has begun to cannibalize itself in order to survive. It is a social system that has fully “industrialized” and “commodified” human life, so that everything has become “pay to play,” and so we are all more in debt and more insecure than is sustainable, or to put it another way, in a way that cannot survive because it cannot reproduce itself, since it is consuming itself. This is why stories about “late capitalism” are grotesque stories of needless suffering next to grotesque stories of obscene wealth; stories of dazzling technology next to stories of crumbling basic human needs.

Capitalism is usually discussed as having developed in stages. For a capitalist society to develop, there has to be capital—there has to be an immense excess of value that can be reinvested in productive enterprises. For capital to come into being, there have to be large enough numbers of workers who produce things—commodities—and large enough numbers of people to purchase them. That obviously can’t happen all at once. A phase of “primitive accumulation,” when capital first begins to organize, and creates a working class through the destruction of old ways of production is necessary first. This gives way to a phase of intense competition between small and mid-sized firms, that is relatively “free,” meaning workers and the state haven’t developed the systems to regulate capital yet. The nature of capitalist competition weeds out the smaller firms over time, and the need for new markets and ever-cheaper labor and resources then results in monopoly capitalism, when international firms arise and entire industries come to be dominated by fewer and fewer firms—and competition for colonial possessions and imperial domination of developing societies becomes more intense.

Because historically the period of monopoly capitalism happened at the same time as the rise of socialist revolution and socialist economies, some Marxists beginning in the 1940s and ‘50s speculated that capitalism was in a phase of contradiction it couldn’t escape. But, after the Second World War, despite strong trade unions, mixed economies with state planning all throughout the West, and comparatively heavy regulation of the economy, capitalism didn’t collapse. In fact, it seemed to get more entrenched.

After the Second World War, even the most capitalistic of societies—the U.S., the United Kingdom, Western Europe and Japan—gave up on pre-war “liberal” capitalism and pursued “planning,” what later came to be known as “mixed economies.” “Planning” referred to heavy state intervention in the economy—massive public spending financed by high taxes to make sure national economies stayed competitive and employment and wages stayed high enough that the social decay that led to the Second World War wouldn’t be repeated. In what is now considered the “Golden Age” of capitalism, from 1945 to 1970, economic planning and heavy intervention in the economy, once considered a sinister invention of the socialist countries, became widely accepted as necessary to maintain social order.

At first, Marxists thought that this level of planning and intervention spelled eventual doom for capitalism, because the capitalist class was losing their grip on the political order as economic planning became institutionalized and that planning proved capable of creating an immense amount of wealth. The capitalist class began suffering from an increasing “profit squeeze” as workers and the public captured more and more of the value they produced, both through wages and public spending. Capital found it harder and harder to reproduce itself at the same time as immense wealth was being created—enough wealth in fact that the needs of much humanity could be met through simple redistribution. If capital could not reproduce itself through capturing profits, capitalism would simply cease to be. The end, it seemed, was nigh.

By the 1970s, foreign competition became more intense as countries finally fully emerged from the effects of the Second World War and anti-colonial struggles. The U.S. was no longer able to underpin the world financial system with its gold reserves, and the result was inflation. U.S. workers, buoyed by large-scale collective bargaining agreements (union contracts) in major industries and an immense level of public sector employment, kept their wage and benefit demands high despite creeping-up unemployment. The maturation of developing countries raised the cost of raw materials, and in the case of the international oil cartel OPEC, caused severe price shock. The political necessity of keeping unemployment low and for increasing social spending to address roiling demands to end social inequality and environmental degradation simply made it impossible for capitalists to capture enough profit to reproduce themselves.

So beginning in the late 1960s and accelerating in the 1970s, capital waged a counter-offensive to save private profit and private control of production. Instead of collapsing in an orderly fashion, capitalism went into overtime by assaulting worker self-organization, privatizing what had been publicly controlled, and undoing the social policies that ate into profits—those programs funded by direct taxation and regulations that cost firms money to implement, like environmental safeguards. Critically, because big companies can more easily amass profits than small ones, antitrust laws were gutted to allow for massive levels of concentration in industries, often with profits guaranteed by public subsidies. To buy itself time, in other words, capitalism began trying to suck profit out of every possible area of human existence, funding it at the expense of the public, while undercutting the social fabric that encouraged collective action.

This phase is “late” in the sense that it is delayed rather than recent. This wasn’t a new phase, like the progress from primitive accumulation to laissez faire to monopoly capitalism and imperialism. Instead, it was just ripping the system apart to grab up as much as possible as quickly as possible, to allow for massive profits to be gained by hook and crook.

This is why when the examples of the social rot of “late capitalism” (or “neoliberalism”) often seem so vicious. Late capitalism addressed the “profit squeeze” by transferring wealth and power from the people to private individuals, especially large firms, which, again, are best adapted to ensure large profits. The process of “wealth transfer” isn’t just transactional—it’s violent. The only way to wrench what someone has and give it to someone else is through the use of power, and in late capitalism, it requires using power against the less powerful on behalf of the powerful.

In this stage of capitalism, the economy becomes more “financialized” meaning dominated by the financial sector. This immense concentration in turn results in “industrialization” (mechanized production, including of services) and commodification (pay-to-play) becoming more generalized as capital seeks more and more places to invest. In other words, a smaller number of financial firms come to dominate how and what is produced, and impose market-pricing on the stuff of life—from healthcare to education to childcare. The market has to invade every aspect of human interaction, because profit has to be extracted everywhere.

Beginning in the 1980s in particular, as public financing of public goods evaporated with slashed taxes, states began to move toward “debt financing”—going to bond markets and related schemes to fund government. In other words, governments had to entice private funding of public goods through subsidies and tax incentives. Low taxes paid predominately by the small number of individuals and firms with immense incomes required policy that favored those individuals and firms. Cities, states, and entire nations became more and more susceptible to capital strikes and capital flights—the constant threat that unfriendly policies (raised minimum wages, head-taxes, etc.) would cause companies or rich residents to pick up and leave. This was a way to keep capital in the hands of the bourgeoisie and tie economic growth to private profit, while constraining how public policy is made. To cut costs and make more private capital available, states also began mass privatization of public services and deregulation of industry and finance. States also began to crack down on labor power which had kept wealth from concentrating in the hands of firms; this was an obstacle to private development.

From the period of the 1970s to the present, what the public had built into common ownership—not just physical things like roads or water pipes but services, like education—became subject to the ability of the public to borrow from private creditors (for example, bond holders). The state was starved of revenue, infrastructure and public goods with it, and the public became increasingly dependent on borrowing. This explosion of borrowing in turn helped fund “financialization” of the economy, as cities and states became major debtors pumping money into financial firms.

Formerly public or publicly subsidized goods like transportation, housing, and education became more “commodified,” or pay-to-play, at the same time that labor lost bargaining power and private or household debt also exploded. This is a hallmark of financialization. Ever increasing “debt-to-equity” ratios, meaning the balance between your assets and cash and what you owe to creditors, are a universal feature of late capitalism. The looseness of credit resulted in an explosion of household debt. At the same time, small farms and small businesses that weren’t being bought up or wiped out by larger, more efficient companies had to borrow to compete. This happened at all levels of society. So much economic policy happening at the hands of an ever-smaller number of capitalists resulted in constantly inflating and bursting bubbles, with the public lacking the social power to punish the people responsible and comprehensively change the system.

The pattern also happens on the international level. After the Second World War, but accelerating in the 1970s, the external debt of “third world” or developing countries increased dramatically, from $609 billion in 1980 to $2.4 trillion in 2001. As large international firms needed to find new profit in developing economies, entities like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began pressuring countries to make it easier for capital to cross borders—in other words, to allow foreign investment into their markets without regulation. This began in earnest in the 1980s as a way to keep profits high while keeping prices low. This was necessary because in the U.S. in particular, household income was not increasing. So things had to be produced cheaply. The economies of these developing countries were treated like casinos, and when speculators overheated their markets, there were catastrophic failures, culminating in catastrophes in Mexico in 1994 and in Russia, Brazil, and throughout Asia in 1997–98.

This death spiral for society was capitalism’s saving throw. This is capitalism’s “overtime”—thus “late capitalism.” Everybody but the people at the very top are more and more precarious and insecure, which results in poorer planning and more of this sort of panicked, short-term decision-making. This keeps everyone from households to small businesses to local governments in a cycle of dependence on large firms, which can extract more and more profit from them.

Let’s go from international economies to our individual lives. Where once someone could choose a career “path” with a relatively predictable course, job tenure has become ever shorter, as people lost job protections and a safety net that gave them bargaining power, and firms became more likely to be bought out or to collapse. Advancement and security became less a matter of being consistently productive, and more a matter of becoming a valuable, flexible “package” (or “brand”) of a person. Social insurance, such as welfare, health care for all, reliable transit, social housing, etc., that provided some basic predictability in the worst-case scenarios having completely disappeared, our ability to survive in society at all turns entirely on being “employable” and “flexible”—in other words, in order to survive, individuals in late capitalism have to completely transform into commodities themselves.

Human life in capitalism’s extra innings depends completely on our value to an ever-smaller number of capitalists in pursuit of ever-greater profit, which is the only way for capitalism to survive into the future.

 


WORKS CONSULTED, FURTHER READING

Harvey, David The Limits to Capital

Various, Urbanization and Urban Planning in Capitalist Society

Hackworth, Jason The Neoliberal City

Marx, Karl Grundrisse

Haroutunian, Harry Marx After Marx

Wallulis, Jerald The New Insecurity: The End of the Standard and Family

Hobsbawm, Eric The Age of Extremes, 1914-1991

Gordon, Robert The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War

Cavanagh, John and Mander, Jerry “World Bank and IMF Turn Poor Third World Countries in Loan Addicts”

Pollin, Robert Contours of Descent

Primer Red (Part 5): Praxis

“Primer Red” is our political education series on some basics of radical thought and history. See Parts I (dialectics), II (alienation), III (class), and IV (value). Please share questions and suggestions for future discussions!

Society doesn’t change because people’s attitudes improve. It changes because people change it “materially”—because people change the physical world and change how people relate to each other, not just person-to-person, but group-to-group and class-to-class. This is what Marx meant when he said that philosophers had spent their time describing the world, when the purpose was to change it. It is also what people mean when they talk about “praxis.”

Praxis is just the ancient Greek word for “practice” (or “doing”). Usually, when a perfectly usable English word is available instead of a Latin or Greek one, you should use it. But over the years, “praxis” has taken on a deeper meaning among Marxists. Nowadays, “praxis” means the process of transforming the theory and ideas of socialism into concrete “practice” done by people in the real world. So when we take the ancient Greek root and the plain English meaning among socialists, “praxis” literally means “doing socialism.”

Okay, so how do we “do socialism”? Well, there are a lot of ways of turning the ideas of socialism into socialism in the world. We can “do socialism” in lots and lots of ways. There are two major types of activities people mean when they talk about “praxis.” First is “doing socialism” by what we can call “making socialism,” that is, creating structures and relationships in the real world. The second is what we can call “pursuing socialism,” or fighting for political or social outcomes that strengthen workers in the struggle against capitalists.

“Making socialism” could include building representative democratic organizations that account for historical imbalances, where we learn how to make decisions through discussion, debate, ordered process, and voting. Another way we “make” socialism is by organizing our workplaces into democratic unions in order to force democracy into the workplace, or by aiding and supporting others who are organizing their workplaces (engaging in “solidarity”). Teaching ourselves how to actually construct equitable organizations and institutions is “doing socialism.” It’s praxis. So people engage in “praxis” by trying to actually organize their social, political, and economic worlds in ways that are socialist—that is, equitable and democratically controlled. When DSA chapters pool their knowledge and time to engage in direct service provision, like brake light replacement or disaster relief, that is a form of praxis intended to make the world we live in closer to a socialist world, with people contributing what they can afford to contribute to the commonwealth so those in need can directly benefit, all the while building personal and community relationships between individuals and groups of workers, and between socialist organizers and unorganized workers.

“Pursuing” socialism is “praxis” by fighting for policies and outcomes that further the causes of socialism. That is, that bring an equitable, democratically controlled world closer to reality through societal-level policy changes. When socialists debate radical versus superficial reforms, it is really an argument about which is better socialist praxis. For example, one of the major reasons socialists support single-payer (or nationalized) health care is not because it is morally right (though it is!), but because socially controlled healthcare also helps shift the balance of power to workers from capital. When workers rely on their bosses for their healthcare, either through wages or benefits, they are not only in a weaker bargaining position with their bosses, but the “commodity value” of labor (wages) is kept low, because workers always have to bargain for healthcare as well as wages. What’s more, socialists pursuing and winning a popular policy like Medicare for All attracts workers to socialism as a movement. So fighting for Medicare for All achieves many goals at once, all the while making a structural change to the relationship between workers and capitalists: It takes away one of capitalists’ strongest bargaining chips.

Pursuing Medicare for All is therefore “good praxis” in the sense that it is a reform that doesn’t just paper over one of capitalism’s abuses but eliminates it, while at the same time strengthening the political movement of socialism.

There is at least one element common to all “good praxis,” though: praxis and ideology are a cycle. It doesn’t just go one way, from theory to practice. We let our ideas inform our work, but we have to also let our work inform our ideas. We test our theories out in the world, and as we gain experience, we develop our theories further. This is a dialectical process that helps to make sure that we do not just become stubborn ideologues who try to read the world to fit our ideas.

Socialism has to accommodate the lived inequities we encounter in real life. When we find, in our real-world democratic organizations, that men tend to dominate groups and women are predominantly left to take on administrative tasks, we have to develop our theory to acknowledge the reality: “Neutral” democratic structure doesn’t itself make things equitable. We now know that there are real-life dynamics that result in an inequity that nobody may intend, but that is present nonetheless. So we acknowledge that social conditioning doesn’t check itself at the meeting-room door, and include principles of shared responsibility and shared work into our theories. In turn, to engage in good “doing” of that theory, we need to organize ourselves to make sure we have a process that develops equity in leadership and distributes work equitably.

Socialist feminism and anti-racist socialism are two of the most dynamic areas of the praxis/theory cycle, which shouldn’t be surprising since the lived experience of women and people of color engaged in socialist action should provide to organizers a lot of information about actual inequities not experienced by advantaged groups. We use “feminist process” in our work as a result of the study of group dynamics by feminist organizers who identified inequity in day-to-day work and developed theory as a result. We apply that theory to our work—we do socialism better.

Praxis is a bit of jargon that gets thrown around a lot, often just for good old-fashioned ha-ha’s (which is fine, since laughing at ourselves is also good praxis). But don’t let the jargon get in the way of its useful application: Praxis is practice—that is, doing. Our “doing” should reflect our theories, and our theories should reflect our doing.

Primer Red (Part 4): Value

Why does a tree catch fire so easily? Every tree holds in its cells the energy it has absorbed from the sun. We don’t think of trees as energetic, but in fact, to grow like they do, trees have to absorb and store an immense amount of energy. When touched by fire, that energy is released—the captured energy from the sun, stored in the cells, is released. A tree is a tree, a fixed thing in the world we can climb or sleep under or chop down for wood or sell. A tree is also a process, a relationship between different processes—the interaction of soil, water, energy, air, and animal life.

Soil is formed by the deposit and interaction of minerals, water, and organic matter, being churned up by rain, worms, ants and other animals, and wind. The seed of a tree falls into the soil and is fed by the soil’s nutrients and sunlight. The sunlight itself is part of a process—the thermonuclear reactions of the sun, the travel of the rays of sunlight to the Earth. Rain, too, is part of atmospheric and meteorological processes. All these processes interact to bring the seed into a sapling and the sapling into a tree. The tree itself contains bits of all of these process in its own process of growing.

A tree isn’t just a tree: it is a physical expression of and contains these processes, most of which we never see. What we see is what we get out of the tree. Wood, relief from the sun, comfort from the rain. What goes into making the tree, what we enjoy the tree for, and what we can get for a tree we might all think of separately, but they’re knotted together in a way that can’t be unravelled. Still, we understand these different parts of “tree-ness” pretty instinctively.

So it goes for Marx’s theory of value. Value is one of the most complicated concepts in Marx’s work, so we’ll go easy for this one. But there are three big categories of “value” that are important for us to understand in radical work: the labor value, use value and exchange value.

The stuff we buy and sell, the stuff of life—commodities—contains and expresses these three kinds of value: labor, use, and exchange values.

The labor value is the “socially-necessary labor time” (SNLT) necessary to make the commodity. In a capitalist economy, for example, a house is a commodity we buy and sell, and it has value based on the socially-necessary labor time to make it. By “socially necessary” Marx meant the “average” time the worker or workers would have to spend, using the average productivity and average tools in use at the time the house was built. All of the different bits needed to build that house also had to be produced themselves—the gypsum for the drywall, the wood for the frame, the concrete for the foundation, the architect’s time. There is labor time in these, too. The final house has a certain amount of “embodied labor” in it. With automation (labor-saving equipment), the SNLT goes down; but rarely do workers end up working less; to the contrary, the time-savings results in ever more production of commodities. Why? Well, because commodities have “use-values.”

The use value is more or less what it sounds like: it is what human beings get out of a commodity. In the case of the house, it has many use-values: a house gives us shelter, storage for our stuff, a sense of place; but it can also give us access to schools, and amenities by its proximity to cultural or natural centers. We get the use-value of a thing when we use it. We can assign a thing a use-value separately from its “labor value,” and our trusty tree helps us understand why: a typical forest tree required no human labor to come into being, but we would certainly value it for the shade or wood it would provide us. So “use-value” isn’t really tied to the “embodied labor” value—it isn’t built into the thing itself. It is a “relation” of the thing to the individuals who have a want for it. But there’s no doubt that commodities, the stuff of life, have a use-value.

In capitalist economies, commodities will also have an “exchange-value,” which, mercifully, is also what it sounds like: the worth of a thing in an exchange for another thing or things. This isn’t the same as its price (which is an important difference we’ll see in a minute). The exchange value is the value one commodity or quantity of commodities will get for another or other commodities. In capitalism, exchange-value gets reduced to price, but they are not the same thing.

The reason is that our work and ideas are commodities that we sell. The “socially-necessary labor time” that goes into a commodity is sold and paid for; we “commodify” our labor. The house has all that “embodied labor” in it; and when we sell the house, that embodied labor is being purchased. We look at the house and see shelter, and storage, and a school district; we look at the tree and see shade, and shelter, and wood; but running through those things are processes invisible to us. The house, like the tree, contains the energy spent to bring it into being. This is the labor running through it.

People want the house for the use-value, but cannot acquire it without exchange. The exchange value is related to—but not exclusively made up of—the socially-necessary labor-time, the “embodied labor” in the house. In the modern economy, this is expressed by the “price.” Although exchange value and price are not the same thing, in modern market economies, price is the basic way we see exchange value.

In fact, price is the thing that “hides” the embodied labor. Again, this is something we get instinctively. A rare comic book has a limited use value to a limited number of people, and its price won’t reflect the embodied labor in it. Similarly, a ratty house that happens to be in a good school district will have an exchange value-through-price higher than the embodied labor. Marx called this “commodity fetishism,” and it is a reason why we don’t “see” the labor value of commodities; it’s why an iPhone 7 that costs $220 to make (including all labor, marketing, taxes, etc.) can sell for $650.

If this all seems pretty technical and not very relevant for radical work, it certainly can be; and there is a lot of debate about how relevant Marx’s concepts of “value” are given modern advances in economic thought. But at their very basic levels, there is something very important to take away from the theories of value.

That is how commodities—not just things, but labor and ideas—have a use value that is distinct from its exchange value and/or price. Think of how in cities with thousands of people suffering homelessness, there are foreclosed homes boarded up, or second homes kept empty by absentee owners for short-term vacation rentals. The use-value of these commodities for people without them is intensely important, but it’s the exchange values that determine how they’re distributed.

In fact, it’s the wild-eyed chase for higher and higher exchange values (as “prices”), instead of the reasonable distribution of use-values, that leaves so many people with so little and so few people with so much. Those who own much can’t afford to let the use-values slip from their grasp, because it drives down the price. In fact, as with the case of boarded up homes, they’d rather destroy the use-values than make them available to those in need. Housing is an obvious example, but there are many others. The United States, and the West in general, produces use-values from clothing to food to housing to transportation, in surplus abundance, but finds ways to restrict them to only those who can afford the exchange value. This is the “artificial scarcity” that keeps us at each others’ throats.

Understanding value types helps us understand why our society doesn’t have to work this way. When we see cases of water held behind armed guard during a hurricane, we can point to that and say, we know what the social cost of producing that is; we know its value in use to people who don’t have it; why isn’t it being distributed rationally? Why is the entire distribution system of use-values built on the merciless drive for ever-higher exchange values?

When we understand the processes that went into making a tree and appreciate its uses, we’re a step closer to seeing the world as it really is.

Works Consulted and Further Reading

Karl Marx, Capital Volume I

Karl Marx, Capital Volume III

Ernest Mandel, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, 1843 to Das Kapital

David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth Century America

Brendan McCovey, “Law of Value 6: Socially Necessary Labor Time (YT: Law of Value 6: Socially Necessary Labor Time (1 of 2))” (Video)

Primer Red (Part 3): Class

“Primer Red” is our political education series on some basics of radical thought and history. See Part I, on dialectical materialism, here. Part II on Alienation is here. Please share questions, suggestions and submissions for future discussions!

After the last year, I’m sure you’re all hankering for a discussion about class.

Class is central to Marxism and socialism, but it’s surprisingly hard to pin down, given how people talk about it. We don’t really have a natural language for it in America. American politicians are allergic to it; they talk about the “middle class” or “working families” but not the “working class” or “labor.” Over the last few decades, radical politics itself has drifted away from class as the central location for struggle.

It’s definitely true that the idea of “class” has undergone a lot of change, and as socialist groups tried to actually organize, they found that simplistic “class analysis” was not really up to the task in a complex society with lots of different forms of oppression.

For socialists though, class is the starting point for any analysis that ends up with “socialism” as the answer.

To understand why, let’s talk about what class isn’t. It isn’t just a way to say “income” or “education level.” These are often used to approximate class, but they aren’t the same thing as class. For Marx, class was a relation, or relationship-in-motion, more than an identity similar to being “poor” or “uneducated.” Your class is defined by your relation to the “modes of production,” or the way the stuff we need to live—the stuff of life—is created. If your relationship to these modes is selling your labor time and power for wages so you can pay for the stuff, you’re in the working class, a laborer. If you own the “means of production,”—that is, capital—and live primarily off the profit, you’re in the capitalist class.

There is such a thing as “social class” based on income, or education, or cultural habits—these are demographic categories, and they are useful for certain kinds of social, especially academic, analysis. We get this at a gut level: politicians put on a Carhartt jacket or clear brush at the ranch or awkwardly use slang; they exaggerate their humble beginnings. People obscure or exaggerate their education depending on where they want to fit in; people use certain manners or references to screen people for their class.

But this isn’t “class” in the way that radicals mean it. There are two classes based on their relationship to the modes of production; there are those who own the means and those who sell themselves to those who own the means.

In a complex system there are outliers of course. On one side, independent professionals, like lawyers or doctors, but also managers, especially corporate executives or highly-skilled specialists (like accountants), who may technically work for wages but have a level of independence laborers lack. On the other hand there is the underclass—people who live and work in non-formal economies, petty criminals, etc. But in general, this is the “class relation”: laborers who (a) have to sell enough work-time to both subsist and make a profit for (b) capitalists who live off the surplus.

The laborer has to sell their labor to live, because all of the tools that make the stuff of life is owned by another class. The individual identities of the laborers and capitalists can change—and laborers can become capitalists and vice versa—but in capitalism, the relation stays in place.

This is the struggle part of class struggle. Laborers need the tools—whether that’s land, machines, or investment dollars—to make the stuff of life. Capitalists need the labor power to set the tools working hard enough to keep the laborers alive and produce a surplus they can live off of. The struggle comes from this antagonistic nature of the “relation” the two groups have to the mode of production.

The “struggle” part of class struggle has to occur because of the nature of the class relation. It is in-born to the relation. Sometimes the struggle is severe, sometimes for lack of a better word it is chill. Coming out of a crisis, when new productive forces are unleashed or labor has more bargaining power, laborers and capitalists struggle in a more transactional, bureaucratic way. In times of crisis, when there is overproduction and hoarding, the conflict becomes radical and even bloody, as both sides fight for control over the modes of production—over the stuff of life.

It’s important to see class as a relation instead of a pure identity (like your income or education level) because the relation determines a lot, despite your income or education. Consider some of the discussion of “alienation” in the previous edition of Primer Red: the relationship to how you earned a living played a role in the “misery” experienced. Let’s consider an example:

Take two cousins, Country Cousin and City Cousin. The Country Cousin is a middling rural farmer who owns family farmland and a farmhouse, as well as some livestock facilities. She has a high school degree and has taken some courses in agriculture. She wakes up each day, and her family and a few season hands from town work to harvest specialty crops she sells to a regional produce distributor. She also sells eggs and a few times a year, pork. At the end of the year, after paying her creditor bank, her income and property taxes, her suppliers, health insurance from a rural co-op, and her workers, she holds $30,000 for herself and her family. She owns her home and her land, which she inherited as a portion of a larger family estate. Living in a rural area, her cost of living is low; after taxes and expenses, $30,000 certainly doesn’t make her rich, but her family’s most basic needs are met and she can access credit when she needs it, although life is still fairly precarious.

Her City Cousin is a nurse’s aide ten years on the job. She has an associate’s degree and a certificate in her chosen work from a city college. Her schedule is different every week. She has little control over her workplace, with layers of supervisors and managers, some of whom are tyrannical and even abusive. After taxes, she makes $30,000 a year—some of which goes to rent, some to student loan debt, some to commuting costs, some for supplemental health care.

City and Country Cousins may well have a different analysis of their struggles. City Cousin’s relation to her means of subsistence results in a different form of struggle. The details of their income and educational attainment don’t make out their class. The cousins may have a similar hate of banks and creditors, but Country Cousin is going to be very concerned about her property rights, government regulations about how she treats her seasonal employees or complies with state agricultural or environmental rules. Her relation to how she subsists leads to fundamentally different social (and ideological) concerns.

City Cousin wants workplace regulations. She wants it to be easier to unionize. She wants taxes to make commuting cheaper. She wouldn’t mind seeing rent control imposed on landowners. She wants more control at work—including telling her abusive boss to shove it. The character of her struggle results from her relation to the mode of production.

To be clear, though, both cousins may (rightly) see their problems are coming from the specific ways the capitalist system works. A small farmer is punished by the growth of big agribusiness monopolies, abusive bank and credit practices, starved governments that don’t keep up infrastructure. But her subsistence is still built on the things that the capitalist class relies on—strong property rights, market exchange of goods, and a wage system that creates profit. That matters when at times of crisis it comes time to fight for changes in the system.

“Class” is a relation to the way the stuff of life is created. It is tied up with other systems of oppression, that are more readily identifiable by fixed markers—for example, race or gender or disability. Class is distinct because it can be fluid on the individual level, but fixed as a feature of capitalism. It sets in motion a particular kind of struggle, which is in-born to the class relation. If you have to sell to someone else enough of your time both to live yourself and create enough surplus for them, you’re set in a struggle that won’t go away until the system is swept away.

This relation determines our alienation—and sets in motion the materialist dialectic that moves history.

 

WORKS CONSULTED AND FURTHER READING:

Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I, Penguin Classics

David Harvey, Companion to Marx’s Capital, Vol. I, Verso Books

Charles Mills, From Class to Race, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers

Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, Verso Books.

Primer Red (Part 2): Alienation

“Primer Red” is our political education series on some basics of radical thought and history. See Part I, on dialectical materialism, here. Please share questions and suggestions for future discussions!

We’ve all felt alienated, and plenty of songs about teen angst helped drive the point home. But alienation has a particular meaning for the radical—it’s a condition all working class people find themselves in as a result of our economic system. Alienation means being separated from our full potential and desires by the need to sell our time and energy just to survive.

What does the radical mean when she talks about “alienation”? We can all understand feeling alienated. When we feel we have to turn off some part of ourselves at work to fit in and get ahead, that is alienation. When we dream about how we’d rather spend our time if we didn’t have to work for someone else to survive, that is alienation. When we code switch, that is alienation.

But it’s important not to confuse the condition of alienation with the feeling of alienation (i.e., feeling lonely or left out). Karl Marx wrote heavily about alienation in his early works, and saw the root of workers’ degraded condition as being caused by their “alienation” from the fruit of their labor—the separation of their physical labor time from the purpose and result of that labor time. For Marxists, in a world defined by “motion,” labor power and labor time are essential to an individual’s “flowering” into their full selves, and when they have to “commodify” or sell that time and power, they are alienating their very being. To survive, workers have to sell, often as cheap as possible, their very being—their humanity. Marx and Engels attributed this to the “mode of production,” that is, capitalism.

Throughout his work, Marx was fixated on the idea of the “full flowering” of humanity, which he said could only happen when people were no longer alienated. Only when the freedoms enjoyed by the non-laboring class—the capitalist class—were “generalized” to all people could all people be free. So long as people were required to “commodify” or sell off their time and energy in random ways to employers, they could never flower, because they’d never have time to pursue their own desires and rewards. Instead, they’d be caught in a cycle of selling themselves for someone else’s benefit.

Marx observed an interesting contradiction that still bears out to this day: that a worker’s misery seems to increase even as she produces more and more wealth. The more workers “commodify” themselves as a group, the “cheaper” they become. The more labor-power on sale in the market to produce more and more things and services, the cheaper each worker is. The cheaper each worker is, the more they have to work to survive. The more they have to work, the more they are “alienated”—the less time and energy they have to dedicate to their individual “flowering,” to “being themselves.” To being human.

As American workers’ productivity has increased over the last few decades, suicide rates, opioid abuse, and depression have skyrocketed. This is not only true in America. In India, where development has brought that country closer in line with the “advanced” economies, suicide and depression rates have exploded, particularly among small farmers brought into corporate farming systems. Over a two-year period in India, 2007–09, when farmers were induced to farm “cash crops” instead of subsistence crops, there were more than 180,000 suicides of Indian farmers.

Why should it work out this way? After all, if people are being paid more and stuff is cheaper, haven’t we conquered poverty and “misery”?

We certainly hear people make this argument all the time. What do people have to complain about when there are cheap cell phones and a little extra cash in their pockets? But this is what Marx meant when he talked about “generalizing” the freedom of the owners. When we own the results of our time and energy, we aren’t alienated from it. Owners never get tired of talking about the freedom of “being their own boss,” of the rewards of “building something” all their own. This is what radicals want to generalize to everybody. Yes, work is needed to survive. But unless we all own what we all pitch in to produce, alienation will go on, and people will sell off bits of their humanity just to make it to tomorrow.

Since people have to work to make all the things we need to live, can this alienation problem ever really be solved? Marx felt it could: when the “forces of production” produced enough abundance. Marx predicted the capitalist system would eventually have so much automation and productive power that humanity’s basic needs could be met, so long as owners weren’t hoarding the results. His prediction seems pretty dead-on: machines are replacing everything from farming to trucking to accounting. When we all own these productive forces in common, we can generalize the freedom and reward that, right now, only owners enjoy.

As organizers, how does “alienation” fit in with our day-to-day work? I think it’s very simple, and it boils down to a single question. If you didn’t have to work so much, what would you do? We have real-world examples of this all around us: retirees. Supposed “realists” will often tell you that it isn’t realistic to have a world where people don’t have to struggle to survive, because if they didn’t have to work as hard, people would just lay around. But is that true? Think of the millions of people who, as soon as they aren’t tethered to a desk, or counter, or assembly line, engage in volunteer work; tend to community gardens; learn a new skill; provide child care for neighbors or family; build things; and engage in any of thousands of activities to keep their minds and bodies busy in a way that is self-rewarding. Ask yourselves and ask your neighbors: if you didn’t have to work so much, how would you fill your time?

Radicals don’t think the goal is to get rid of “labor” or “laboring.” No, we want a world of “free productive activity,” that allows people truly to own what they make and have time to “fully flower” into themselves. When people volunteer for their community, they may not necessarily be in love with the particular task—cleaning up the local park, building shelter for people without homes—but they take pleasure and reward in the task as something productive, useful, self-fulfilling and for the common good. This is labor, but it isn’t “alienated.” It is the essence of being human, of being a social creature, as human beings inherently are. This is what Marx called our “species-being,” and it is the opposite of “de-humanizing”: it is giving us a chance to be fully human.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin Press

Karl Marx, Capital: Vol. I, Penguin Press

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Progress Publishers

Arundhati Roy, Field Notes on Democracy, Haymarket Books

Ernest Mandel, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, 1843 to Capital, Verso Books.

Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, Ungar Press.

Primer Red (Part 1): Dialectical Materialism

This is the first in a series of primers on some basics of radical thought and history. Please share questions and suggestions for future discussions!

Every Labor Day, radicals rightfully take pleasure in pointing out to cliche-merchant politicians and media the radical roots of the U.S. labor movement, sharing stories of the socialists, communists, and anarchists who organized, fought, and often suffered to bring justice to working people.

This isn’t isolated to the labor movement. On issue after issue, we can cite our radical forebears who were years—often decades—ahead of the rest of society in advocating for justice. For example, Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party supported women’s suffrage since the party’s founding nearly two decades before American women finally got the right to vote. The Communist Party USA’s newspaper The Daily Worker began agitating for African-American integration into Major League Baseball in the 1930s, long before Jackie Robinson’s 1947 big-league debut. From anti-racism to reproductive rights to environmental justice, radicals are simply more often proven right by history. Why is this so often borne out?

It isn’t because of good moral instincts. It’s because of the Marxist method of analysis, dialectical materialism—a phrase you’re likely to hear over and over again if you’re interested in radical politics. And even if you haven’t, you’ve definitely come across the method. This way of thinking is a powerful tool in the radical’s utility belt, not just for intellectual debate, but for the street-level analysis of power we use in our day-to-day organizing.

There’s a huge body of philosophy and debate around dialectics and dialectical materialism, going back to the ancient Greeks. But it’s a pleasingly simple method: dialectical materialism understands systems by assuming the system is always in motion, and that it moves based on how opposed physical (or “material”) elements interact with each other (the “dialectics”—think “dialog”).

The way the physical world is ordered determines the way we experience that world. It isn’t our ideas that create systems; our ideas come from the systems. Dialectical materialism requires us not to start with abstract ideas and apply rules of logic, but instead to look at how the physical world is actually organized, and look at how competing forces interact to produce new conditions.

Marx and Engels were influenced by philosophers like G.W.F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, but also by scientists like Charles Darwin (Engels was particularly influenced by Darwin). In fact, Darwin’s theory of evolution is a good gateway to understanding the method.

When Darwin saw a finch’s beak on the Galapagos Islands, he tried to understand what physical forces would result in a beak of that shape by looking at the physical “history” of the ecosystem. Rather than just theorize about why the beak would be useful, he looked at the environment in which that animal developed; on one island of the Galapagos where hard seeds were plentiful, the finch evolved a more robust, powerful beak; on another, where insects were more prevalent, they developed more lithe beaks.

Darwin rejected the idea of “independent creation”; the finches must have all came from some starting point (an ancestor finch) and developed through separate, material processes of interaction. Each stage of finch had to develop, or evolve, from a previous stage of finch, with slight quantitative change (say, a one-millimeter thicker beak) over time resulting in a qualitative change (voila, a whole new finch!). The development is a struggle: as the beaks get stronger, so do the seed shells get tougher; the only way to get to a new, robustly-beaked finch is if along the way, you’re getting tougher-shelled seeds. This is the dialectic (back-and-forth) of material (physical nature).

Even though the change is gradual, it isn’t perfectly even; there are moments when it speeds up; in evolution this is sometimes called “punctuated equilibrium.” A new disease is introduced to the island that kills off the favored nesting tree of the finch, and many of them die; those with slightly stronger wings can get to the higher branches of a different tree, and they survive. Now the ecosystem looks qualitatively different. In human social terms, “punctuated equilibrium” can be thought of as revolution.

When dialectical materialism is applied to the changes of social systems over time, that’s often called “historical materialism.” Change doesn’t happen, radicals say, because of people’s abstract hopes and dreams, or because they heard good arguments. People experience conflict because of material conditions, and they act and react by trying to change the source of the conflict. Over time, these little fixes will actually only make the situation more unstable, because the underlying source of the conflict hasn’t gone away. That is when you get the big thunderclap, and the rate of change accelerates and old systems die.

You’ll often hear Marxists talk about “motion.” We are born into a society in motion that at any given moment looks indistinct from the moment before; over time, however, the push-and-pull between forces (seeds getting tougher and beaks getting stronger; resources getting scarcer and new methods of distribution of springing up) results in a total change of systems, and at key moments of stress or crisis, revolutions speed up the rate of change.

So there was no specific date when feudalism (basically a military system of hereditary privilege) collapsed and capitalism (a contractual system based on private property) emerged. But small crises arising from conflicts between the feudal military class and the productive trader/financier classes, over the course of centuries, exposed the weaknesses of the feudal system. Then, when the system became too unstable, a series of revolutions sped up the rate of change, culminating in the early 19th-century death of feudalism.

The French Revolution and its wars were a mass dying off of the nesting trees. But centuries of small changes born of the struggle over the resources necessary for human flourishing—the development of positive law, court systems, enforceable contracts, bureaucracies based on the written word, banking systems, trans-border trade—predated the thunderclap of mass uprising. Without those small developments over time, the big events of revolution would have been incomprehensible. What would people have been revolting against? What would their demands have been? Again, it was the push-and-pull between opposed forces—useless rural feudal lords trying to impose their will over increasingly productive urban capitalists and workers—that resulted in the collapse of the old system.

So how do we apply this dialectical and historical materialism to our day-to-day work? We look at the existing conditions in our society and look for the “contradictions.” Employers (capitalists) need employees (workers). You can’t have one without the other, but their relationship is contradictory. Employers, to flourish, need to make sure employees get as little as possible, and employees, to flourish, need to get as much as possible. This is the class struggle. The seed gets harder, and the finch’s beak gets thicker. On the local level, we have landlords and tenants, polluters and natural resources, militarized police and free communities. We can talk people’s ears off about the contradictions, but we know that it isn’t ideas that move people to action. It’s conflict.

It’s only when people directly experience the conflict in the system that they’ll take positive steps to resolve that conflict. When we talk about organizing, we don’t just mean talking; we mean moving people into “material” action—trying to take what they need and want, and facing the forces that want to keep it from them. This kind of organizing creates the small quantitative changes that over time results in a big qualitative change—systems and a world that, although it springs from what came before, is wholly new.

 

FURTHER READING:

Singer, Peter: Marx, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press

Ollman, Bertell: Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method, University of Illinois Press

D’Amato, Paul: The Meaning of Marxism, Haymarket Books

Slaughter, Cliff: Marxism & The Class Struggle, New Park

Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels: Theses on Feuerbach, Progress Press

Mandel, Ernest: The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, 1843 to Capital, Verso Books

A reading on Engels and the Dialectic of Nature. NOTE: Never confuse Engels’ interest in Darwinian evolution with the snake oil of “social Darwinism,” the late 19th Century philosophy that said that the rich were the “most fit.” Natural selection is a dialectical, material process, but it does not map onto how society works, as Marx and Engels well understood. Dialectical materialism is a system for understanding how things work; social Darwinism was a crackpot theory for retroactively justifying why things were the way they were.