Archive for the ‘Marxism’ Category

A chat on previous post.

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

[Following is an extract from WhatsApp chat with a friend and comrade, Pratik, about the previous post. Whatsapp spelling and grammar has been retained.]

Pratik:  So this post doesn’t do justice to marx’s ideas about the relation between technology, production, and power.. that the capitalist develops technology to raise productivity is not a law marx is keen to prove.. rather, marx suggests that the capitalist develops technology insofar as it allows the capitalist to weaken the value of the workmen’s labour (so as to throttle their assertions).. once the capitalist is able to overcome the opposition from the workers, there is no reason for him/her to further this development (which can be risky) and productivity then remains at that level.. marx does account for the possibility that the search for profits does push capitalists often to find technological ways to reduce costs of production, but that is not a perennial quest.. rather, large periods of production are times in which the capitalists is extracting absolute value from the workers, even after changes increasing the relative surplus value..

hence, what you say towards the latter end of the article “The company claims increase in productivity and it might partly be due to the co-bots but many workers attribute it to increased work intensity due to the atmosphere of fear and terror from the idea of job loss.” is something which marx is in agreement with.. when technological innovation takes place under one company, which means that the capitalist can extract more surplus from the worker, he/she is also under the greed of maximising the benefit of such innovation, which is why they set workers to work extra time.. the auto industry is a perfect example of this.. since the early 2000s, the inclusion of robots production combined with the inclusion of cheaper temporary workers drove up the hours and intensity of production compared to earlier times.. and when this period of innovation became general across industries, even then these work conditions tended towards increasing because competition drove companies to extract more out of their workers.. this became the basis for the clash between workers and managements in these industries

a third issue with this post is that it’s still critiquing marx’s analyses of capitalism with individual capitalists.. in marx’s time, that was the dominant mode of ownership.. it collapsed by the time of the first world war and subsequent economic depression.. in the third volume of capital, marx argues that these analyses cannot be taken as such in the context of joint stock capital, which do not face many of the limitations of individual capitalists.. but they were yet a small percentage of the total capital.. marx believed that the working class movement was strong enough to take over the means of production and abolish class society with the demise of the individual capitalists.. unfortunately, that did not happen.. so i guess today when we read marx, we should try to develop an analyses based on the joint-stock, corporate, and state forms of capital accumulation rather than critique marx’s individual capitalists critique

i’d say that even today there can be no denial that capitalism has thrived on technical innovation.. from a time when the mass base of consumers used to buy cloth and get it stitched by a tailor in a shop, society is now living on mass produced ready-mades.. or the disappearance of agrarian labourers as a mass category in most places.. in fact, there was a recent report about technological innovation in which india had moved up by many places over the last many years..
of course, these are not new innovations, but rather introduction of already made innovations in a society which was relatively lagging in the use of the same.. and in that sense, capitalism is stuck.. perhaps robotics is the only new development which holds the only possibility of major changes (displacing workers from production altogether).. if marx is correct that value only comes from the worker, then such changes will be the end of known capitalism..

this article takes up these issues quite well i believe

Sarthak: From my cursory reading of Marx I had a sense that Marx shares the view that I am more or less arguing for, that the most important application of technology in production usually is to decrease workers control over the process – by deskilling, by hyper specialization, by surveillance etc. If I remember correctly he called it the “rate of exploitation” as a factor in technological deployment.

I think you are right about the choice of technological design and deployment within a individual capitalist form of firm and a corporation should be studied separately for better understanding.

The use of the term should be more carefully then. The final product, the technology, alternative designs of same technology are all usually clubbed into one – these have different level of influence from corporate capital.

Capitalism does thrive on new technology, so did many non capitalistic societies – states extracting profits from taxes dependent on various new war making technologies and of bureaucracy – the agenda of technology design was set by these interests. They did not had the fortunate goldilock period of abundance of energy resources and scientific development that enabled modern electronic and computer revolutions. But this period is soon coming to an end. The limited energy and mineral resources have all peaked and the ways capitalism disposed off (or sinked) the by products has put the planet on the verge of complete collapse – the possibility of ever reaching a stage of totally desposing off workers looks very slim the really existing world where for the political economy to exist we need habitable plant.

In any case, I am interested in knowing your view about “value only comes from the worker” bit.

Pratik:   Indeed, if the present scenario as far as resources are concerned isn’t worrying enough, we have an army of do-good scientists and social researchers arguing for shifting to nuclear energy. If coal and steam can mess things so much, one can see how nuclear would give us the scale of energy to speed up mass extinction. I was recently looking at statistics, and found that the average daily consumption of electricity is about 500kwh, while the average household consumption is only about 80kwh.. So most of this consumption is geared towards protecting the ways of social organisation. I think the answer lies there. We need a social organisation not built around such mass production, but around small communities making use of technology on a smaller scale merely for use. It just looks like doom otherwise.

I am in agreement with most of what you have said. I indeed agree from marx’s argument that value only comes from the worker. It is a recognition that value is an abstract relation between people, the only social beings capable of using abstraction. Those who look at this from the nature versus culture angle jump to the conclusion that marx is for culture. This is mistaken. Marx is distinguishing a human relation from relation of pure nature, but knowing well that the human is premised upon nature. This he calls one of the biggest contradiction of capital: it seeks to replace nature completely with a new nature built on human creation. Towards the end of the section on modern machinery in agriculture, he talks about the cataclysmic effects this process has. But to come back to his insistence on humans alone producing value, I think he is trying to argue how there is no way to get outside this process until the value producing agent stops producing value.

Sarthak: The whole energy generation and distribution business and the projected boom – mostly based on low grade coal is only to increase misery for already miserable both in urban and rural regions. I agree with you on where the answer lies – the new social organization. And that too within next 10 years – if we are already not too late, that is.

Hmm… yes, this formulation that the abstraction of value is only created by worker looks quite right. None of the other material could produce the final product when put together for one thing. But I also think Kropotkin’s observation that even the workers value is dependent on whole of society – current and past. In a way all the value generated is social value. But yes, at one instance of it the workers input is most important.

Pratik: “But I also think Kropotkin’s observation that even the workers value is dependent on whole of society – current and past. In a way all the value generated is social value.” No doubt.. this perspective which posits the actually existing worker as the only crucial variable is leninist/populist rhetoric.. labour of the past lives as fixed capital or dead labour in machinery, money, etc. and as variable capital or living labour in the working class.. the abolition of capital doesn’t come by the workers taking charge of the dead capital alone, but by generalising it/abolishing themselves as a class, as per marx.. we need to understand what sense this makes today, if it does make any sense

so far all this development has only led to more salaries for the wealthier class.. there has been some absolute wealth trickling down over the last ten years (in terms of wages), but i think it is important to attack the idea that development alone can uplift the poor..

Philosophy of Marxist Sociology – Part 2

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

[This article was supposed to be about ontology but I dropped that idea because it gradually morphed into this discussion.]

“If the new technology lowers production costs it will be adopted, and if not it will be rejected. In this respect Sraffa and Marx made the same assumption about how individual capitalists go about deciding to adopt or reject a new technology, which is also what other economists have always assumed.”

“Marx was well aware of, and even expressed admiration for, the fact that compared to all previous economic systems capitalism had greatly increased the pace of technological change. He assumed that individual capitalists are hard driven to adopt any new technology that lowers their cost of production because this would give them a temporary advantage over their competitors, who, in turn, would be quick to adopt cost-reducing changes for fear of being driven out of business.”

(Robin Hahnel, RADICAL POLITICAL ECONOMY: Sraffa Versus Marx, 2017)

There is nothing original in what I will be saying. It has all been said before with much more clarity, evidence and rigor by people like Stephen Marglin, David F. Noble and others. I want to say two things:

  1. It is not the case that capitalism has “greatly increased the pace of technological change” or that capitalism necessarily increases “productive capabilities”.
  2. It is also not the case that capitalists necessarily adopt a technique or technology that “lowers production costs”

In point 2, I use the terms techniques, more specifically work organizational techniques and technology interchangeably. This might not work for some cases but I believe and trust most will agree that same principles must apply in choice of production process technique and deploying a new technology in form of a machine. Significant number of the automation techniques and now digitization ones are in fact, mostly change in production process rather than new machines deployment in unchanged setting.

Returning to the first point. In England in the second half of the 18th century the spinning-jenny was one of the first machine to be used in the factory. And as one 19th century historian noted:

“The technology of wool-spinning for many years after the
factory made its appearance was the same in factory as in cottage; in both the “spinning jenny”; was the basic machine well into the nineteenth century.”

Not much technological advance there. So what was different in the factory? One 18th century factory owner commenting on the advances wrote:

“One reason for this extra advance is Mr. Harrison (the
mill manager) bought 4 handkerchiefs one for each machine value about 1/2d p. each and hung them over the engine as prizes for the girls that do most.”

I have not cross-checked but I believe the technology of handkerchief was not novel to 18th century England.

The important advantage of factory over cottage from point of view of the boss was not its “technological advantage” through new machines or harnessing the power of water sources (most factories were not using water generated electricity at all) but the increase in surveillance and discipline.

“If the factory Briareus could have been created by mechanical genius alone, it should have come into being thirty years sooner. It required, in fact, a man of a Napoleon nerve and ambition, to subdue the refractory tempers of work-people accustomed to irregular paroxysms of diligence.”

“To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright.”

Much of the technology was already laying around before industrial capitalism took hold. Even today, this narrow demand for controlling the workers has hindered technological advances. This has been studied by Noble and many other historian of technology after him. And the advances that actually do develop and in the form they develop are not through capitalist innovation or private capital – it is almost entirely through state funded research and development in form of dual-use military technology.

So the whole argument about uniqueness of capitalism in technological realm is unfounded. The uniqueness does lie in the control the boss class has over design of new technologies and the narrowness of reasons of deployment: discipline and control.

These are all human choices, and they are regularly challenged by workers. From the Luddites to the current struggles against robots. These factors too affect the course of change but unless the  control over means of production and dependence of wage slavery does not end major changes are impossible.

2. The following quotes are from a 1994 New York Times article.

“We are also concerned about having only one place where a product is made,” he said. “There could be an explosion or labor problems.” If the Boston workers struck, for example, Gillette would supply the Sensor XL to Europe and the United States from the Berlin plant, and vice versa.

“Some of those workers are making blades at Gillette plants in Poland, Russia, and China, where production costs are less than in the United States. But that is not the case in Germany. “You could ship the blades from here, but you set up there for insurance,” Mr. Vernon said. “And the justifications for this approach are not so clear cut.

The scholar might not be clear about the justification of adopting a costly method of production because maybe he had not grasped the “successful code of factory discipline.”

In the long run this control over the class enemy of the factory owner might give profit opportunity but at the same time it could be argued that the profits only gives possibility of more control – over the workforce and society generally.

Closer to home, in Chakan and  Pantnagar, Bajaj Auto Ltd. deployed 40 co-bots per-plant just prior to a wage agreement in Chakan after 3 years of on and off struggles lead by young contract workers.

The company claims increase in productivity and it might partly be due to the co-bots but many workers attribute it to increased work intensity due to the atmosphere of fear and terror from the idea of job loss.

But the timing and other factors suggest that rather than productivity gain or immediate increase in profit – in fact the robots from Universal Robots might have costed a lot in short term – the reason are more social than economic. It is hitting the class enemy with the boots in order to maintain profits and control over society – that Herculean enterprise that started in the 18th century.

The struggle is against the lack of control and the alienation of wage system. No alienating methods of so called Marxist “revolution” can ever free the working class.

In fact, Engles even said that, “[w]anting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power loom in order to return to the spinning wheel.” (On Authority.)

There can and should be no end of alienation and discipline for some of the Marxists.

Uniting the Black and the Red? – Anarchism and Marxism.

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

Otto von Bismarck remarked, upon hearing of the split at the Hauge congress of the First International and formation of the anti-authoritarian international at St. Imier, “Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!”

Tons of ink and kilobytes of memory has been devoted to very important analysis and criticism of authoritarian “socialism”, most notably of Marx and his disciples by anarchists and left communists. Can Marxists and anarchists find some common ground – theoretical and practical – to unite? Is it desirable?

The answer to the latter question I believe is affirmative and for simple reasons that I won’t comment on. I would make a short and simple case for how a unification is possible.

1. The Primacy of Libertarian Marx and Anti-Authoritarianism.
Many Marxist scholars, most notably Bertell Ollman, has pointed out the distinction Marx made between analysis and presentation. The works where Marx analyzed capitalism, state and religion are in his unpublished works where he developed the concept of alienation, commodity fetishism and also his dialectics. These take a secondary place in his Capital and are at time missing for reasons both of presentation and personal.

If we ignore the incidentals of his personality and focus on his analysis of domination – especially by and under capitalistic relations – that is rooted in a universal struggle against all form of domination and restriction on creative, collective activity of humans, anarchists can find an ally and Marxism can become more humanistic.

Marx’s views on the transformational role of the State also changed after the Paris Commune as noted in his Address of 1872. He no longer believed holding state power was necessary for moving to a communistic stage of society – and that a federalist and democratic alternative was possible. A view consistent with early humanistic Marx. He might or might not have given up his determinism of social stages but at least he no longer saw the state apparatus necessary for this transformation.

If we again, ignore the personality and the fact that he was at the same time lying and planning very hard to kick Bakunin and federalists out of the International and; the Marxist realize the correctness and utility of this position we can find a common platform.

2. Revolutionary Practice.
When a monopoly of technical expertise accumulates in a class and they are in power to influence and direct the masses, they themselves kill the collective, creative urge of the individual over her life that was the point of departure for the socialist project and alienate the workers and forms a new form of oppression with new institutions and new myths to numb the misery.

The second point that Marxists need to consider is that when the State is not a means of transformation, the power again falls back in hands of the workers and the masses. Only they alone through autonomous organizations make the revolution and wage the struggles. These organizations will become the seeds of the future society. Autonomous workers and community groups of some and of various sorts, not any Party must be the focus for transformational and revolutionary practice.

If the Marxists can completely detach away from their authoritarianism in analysis and in practice and; embrace the Black, only then can a meaningful synthesis, that looks forward to and participates in a true revolution take place.

This appeal (or maybe just a mere suggestion) is not aimed towards the people who have given up any hope of revolution or see their place in the status quo – as the vanguard of the oppressed – no longer even the vanguard of some “revolution.” They may very well find plenty of useful stuff in Marx’s authoritarianism and a place among the liberal intelligentsia and political elites. They are not revolutionaries. Revolutionary Marxists should no longer waste energies on them.

On the other hand, the anarchists can overcome their anti-organizationalism and other bourgeois tendencies and focus again on class and other oppression with the serious aim of transformation and revolution and; not mere symbolic violence or individualistic isolationism.

Philosophy of Marxist Sociology – Part 1

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

Marxist analysis has made me uneasy for years. The issues, for me, in these analyses (discernable in the final exposition of the result-statements) are the intertwined relations of methodological commitments and ontological assumptions. The workshop on 20-21 July 2019 gave the opportunity to think through one or two aspects of the philosophy of Marxist sociology. Here I will talk about “concept fetishism” and “ontological assumptions” (in part 2 – spoilers alert: part 2 instead turned into a post about technology).

As this is an informal discussion I use the term Marxist for prominent Marxist thinkers without clear demarcation, who have an affinity with Bolshevik ideology, and Marxist analysis as the analysis of social phenomenon from the lens of their understanding of “dialectics” and “historical materialism”. While these are only a fraction of questions around Marxist analysis, there are more important issues (to put it very mildly) with their political program.

Concept Fetishism:

Marxists, among other things, pride themselves for being “scientific”. They were not alone in the mid to late 19th century Europe to use such language – even the anarchists like Bakunin and Luigi Fabbri fell victim to such positivist romanticism but, this soon subsided from other schools of thoughts, left or right except notably in Marxism (it did reemerge in mainstream neo-classical economic through mathematization of economics in mid 20th century.) Many Marxist still hold this positivist and to a significant extent deterministic view of their sociological “science”.

One important aspect of the scientific study of any natural phenomenon is the plurality of analysis – vertical and horizontal. Let us take an example of fluid mechanics. Lets us examine the Venturian flow of a fluid (with a Set X of properties – viscosity, velocity, discharge, etc, which are irrelevant for the point under consideration.) Venturian flow is the flow of a fluid from one pressure zone to another pressure zone. The vertical plurality of analysis of this phenomenon might include at one level the study of chemical difference (say, phase separation) in a zone of study and at another level the study of pathline of parcels (the trajectory of individual particles.)

Both ways of looking at the different aspect of the same phenomenon give the fuller understanding of the mechanism of the flow. In practice though, it is the (theoretical) understanding of mechanisms at different levels and their interactions that precedes particular analysis. This kind of plurality is common in all social analysis and even Marxists analyze segregation and sub-segregation of classes in this manner. In fact, even common-sense worldview works on this principle.

The problem in many cases arrises in horizontal plurality. It usually takes the form of the fetishism of one concept within that level of study at the cost of neglect of others – but reductionism or neglect.

Let us continue with the example of Venturian flow to look at horizontal plurality. At the second level of the previous example, the study of pathline can be done through either Lagrangian or Eulerian methods. The Lagrangian method looks at fluid motion where the observer follows an individual fluid parcel as it moves through space and time. Eulerian on the other hand looks at fluid motion at a specific location in the space through which the fluid flows as time passes. Both are looking at the same phenomenon at the same vertical level of abstraction.

I believe Power to be a level of analysis for understanding society. It is almost at the same level of Class analysis (Note: I say “almost” because one of difference, it seems to me, between hard and social science is the possibility of clearly demarcating the vertical levels.) In power analysis control of means of production (capitalist class), over mean of administration (political and social elite),  means of violence and coercion (police and military elites), their interrelations and the power of organized opposition to them could be the different ways of looking at the distribution of power in a social zone.

By various ways, Marxists have sidelined or ridiculed the idea of power because, to put it crudely, power is only used to “maximize profits”. Maximization of profits, hence, becomes the summum bonum of all social activities for “the ruling class”. This untested premiss is one of the core principles of Marxist worldview. This is one reason why Marxists had difficulty in accommodating racism and caste in their framework. Black women were not taken as test subjects for medical experiments for reasons of maximizing profits. Neither there is any evidence that Pardhi men are criminalized for reasons of profit generation.

At least, I believe. that maximization of profits and concentrating more and more capital is one way of gaining control and power in society. This is not a place to dwell on the whole of the power and elite frameworks of analysis – much of which is compatible with Marxist views.  But here is should suffice to raise the question can profit-making really be an end in itself? Do we see that happening in any sphere of social life? Or are control and power too important and quite independent components of social motivation for actions – shaping class interests? And If they are does Marxism leave space for horizontally accommodating them?