Sunday 27 May 2018

Marx and the Fragment on Machines

This, I suppose, is a fragment on fragments. Those bits and pieces of jottings, letters, notes to self, first drafts and other ephemera that accumulate as the debris of writing. When someone, a novelist, thinker, leader, is canonised careers can be made arranging and debating the detritus deposited in a personal (and oft disorganised) archive. Indeed, the very process of establishing somebody as a somebody often draws on this backstage of their careers, giving them weight and significance, dressing them up resplendently, before thrusting the spotlight upon these private thoughts. Few have suffered this more than Marx, of which a veritable industry (now a growth one again) has grown out of his work. As our Blue Marxist friends put it in their Fabians essay, "Marx’s work is unfinished, fragmentary, largely posthumous and received in translation, and accordingly is both rife with misinterpretation and open to radically divergent readings and applications." An opinion all Marxists would, at some level, share.

The extent of Marx's work is vast. From journalism to philosophical polemic, from popular manifestos and resolutions to the unsurpassed achievement of materialist social theory, what was published in Marx's life time was the tip of a vast ice berg. Since his death, almost everything he wrote has been published. The second and third volumes of Capital edited by Engels, the supplementary Theories of Surplus Value, the important Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology, the Theses on Feuerbach, The Grundrisse, and the voluminous correspondence between Marx and Engels, their comrades, contemporaries, and enemies. This has been combed through by amateur and professional quote mongers, and was crudely pilfered by the Stalinists to justify their dictatorships and grotesqueries. As texts were released and became available in translation, so new audiences discovered them with their own theoretical concerns in mind. In Marx, they found pre-emptings of their position and confirmation they were on the right track, or brought Marx's thought to bear on problems he did not consider in depth, and/or could not consider. Plenty wrote books emphasising some aspect of his corpus over others. Humanists and Hegel fans found his youthful drafts of 1844 congenial. Louis Althusser and friends, on the other hand, excommunicated these and all Marx's writing prior to the German Ideology as part of scientific socialism's "pre-history", and that historical materialism, understood as the material analysis of the movement of concrete social dynamics, dated from 1845-6. This was the period in which Marx, well, became a Marxist.

Why this matters to us is because the new left has dipped into Marx's back catalogue itself. In his 1979 book, Marx Beyond Marx, Antonio Negri makes the case for The Grundrisse as his most revolutionary work. It is certainly a pivotal moment in Marx's career because here, in rough form, we find drafts and notes for what were envisaged to be Capital's six volumes, including what would be books on the political economy of the proletariat, the world market and the state. There is some debate about whether he stuck by, junked, or incorporated some or all of this into the volumes that did appear, but that's one for the real Marx geeks. What Negri does, among other things, is introduce the concept of the socialised worker (awkwardly translated as 'social worker') and ties it to the now famous fragment on machines (a fair summary here). To do his argument a little bit of violence, as mechanisation pushes up the rate of exploitation fewer workers are needed, but these workers cannot simply be left to rot without work. Employment in actual factories subsides and the social factory and its reproductive labour picks up the slack. Waged and salaried labour, regardless of its employment by companies, the public sector and, increasingly, the third sector, becomes concerned with the production of information and social relationships.

Marx's Fragment suggests that the machinery of production appears to take on a character all of its own, that machines become involved in automated relationships with one another in which humans are reduced to waiting on their needs, a state of affairs whose origins can be traced to Marx's earlier theory of alienation. As more machines are introduced to increase the rate of exploitation and more workers are squeezed out of production, the amount of labour time it takes for a particular good to be made is driven down. And this is a problem because the average amount of what Marx calls socially necessary labour by humans that goes into a commodity is the basis of its value: it is the key lynchpin of how capitalism works. Therefore capital's drive to raise the rate of exploitation, to increase its share of surplus value is, over the long-term, driving value down. If production becomes entirely automated then no labour time is necessary, and value itself collapses. The problem is as automation gathers pace, so immaterial labour and its production of intangible commodities involves an acceleration of this decline of value. As Paul Mason points out, the information and intellectual properties that are hitherto growth areas for investment and profits see necessary labour time rapidly fall to zero. It might take Ed Sheeran a year to throw out an album. It takes you little time and no labour to download it and send copies to all your friends. Imagine what happens once 3D printing technology matures: the fall to nil labour time can only spread to material goods. Value, therefore, is in deep trouble. Not because technology has reduced labour time to zero across strategic sectors of the economy, but because capital's drive for profits have, even though it's undermining its fundamental, foundational relationships.

You can read this in two ways: that capitalism is doomed and it will collapse under the weight of its contradictions. Or it won't. I'm in the latter camp. It does probably mean that the most dynamic period of capitalism lies in the past, at least where the advanced, metropolitan West and Japan are concerned, and a future of low growth and stagnation is something we can look forward to. The tendency to zero labour time can be offset and struggled against through the elaborate development of intellectual property and licensing laws, as well as emergent forms of value capture, but to go beyond capitalism, to build a society after capitalism requires conscious organisation. In other words, politics.

This brings me back to the curious objection Jon and Frederick make in their Blue Marxism piece. For them, because the Fragment was unpublished, what counts for more is what Marx did publish, which chiefly means Capital. While anyone who aligns with Marx's project would agree that these volumes offer the basis for "any wider politics capable of confronting the issues around value, money and commodification", it has to be said Jon's career as a Labour MP is not noted for taking these issues on. Corbynism on the other hand has smashed the accursed Overton window and allowed for them to be considered by a mass public, introducing large numbers of people to what Marx had to say. Secondly, you can't simply discard rough work without a convincing argument. The Grundrisse after all translates as 'outlines', and what is it outlining? Arguments that made it into Capital and plans and insights that didn't. As Gilles Deleuze put it, "You have to take the work as a whole. to try and follow rather than judge it, see where it branches out in different directions, where it gets bogged down, moves forward, makes a breakthrough: you have to accept it, welcome it, as a whole." (Negotiations, p.85). To continue with the theme and give Marx's overall oeuvre a Deleuzian twist, they are an assemblage of published and unpublished texts that stand in tension, connect at times well, at times awkwardly with one another, but as a system of differences they are pregnant with lines of flight that overspill the intentions of the author, and anyone who tried turning Marxism into a straitjacket. There's a very good reason why, in the USSR at the height of Stalin's reign, reading Capital alone was disallowed.

Ultimately though, Jon can call on Frederick's Marxological services as much as he wants. The position of The Fragment in Marx's work is, if you'd pardon an on-topic pun, immaterial. Had The Grundrisse never made it to the Moscow archives and thence Progress Publishers, or The Fragment ended up as kindling to light the hard-up Marx family's fire, it doesn't matter. Using Marxist analysis to work out what has happened to capitalism over the post-war period, the growing dominance of immaterial labour and the production of intangibles, the tendency for necessary labour time to trend toward zero because of the intensification of exploitation and with it a decline in the law of value, this would have been discerned sooner or later by Marxists and in Marxian terms. After all, non-Marxist and bourgeois writers and economists have cottoned on to these trends too and made sense of them within their own schemas. Ultimately, fixating on the provenance of The Fragment and whether it is or isn't properly Marxist is for the birds. What matters is the situation Marx foresaw is now with us and the job of the new left is to do what the new left is doing: analysing it, critiquing it, creating new concepts to deal with it, and assembling a new left politics that can confront it. The new left is using Marx as a guide and an inspiration, not an excuse to sit paralysed, nostalgically pining for a class politics and a pure Marxism that never existed.


Daniel said...

"The tendency to zero labour time can be offset and struggled against through the elaborate development of intellectual property and licensing laws, as well as emergent forms of value capture, but to go beyond capitalism, to build a society after capitalism requires conscious organisation. In other words, politics."

Is the free software movement relevant to this? If capitalism is going to fight back by capturing human labour using intellectual property surely free software principles of the right to see, tweak and distribute source code is an important part of any post capitalist politics?

Ken said...

'... in the USSR at the height of Stalin's reign, reading Capital alone was disallowed.'

[citation needed].

Phil said...

I'll see if I can find that citation for you, Ken. I think it was either in Medvedev's Let History Judge, or the book he did about Stalin's henchmen (the chapter about Zhdanov would be the obvious place).

Phil said...

And yes Daniel, any movement of what you might call the general intellect or the social commons is relevant to the new class politics.

A. Nony Maus said...

On the open-source movement I'd highly recommend reading 'open-source everything manifesto'; it's an intriguing take on the value of the commons from the unique perspective of a high level military intelligence officer, and it's implications as a society.