Thursday, May 4, 2017

Understanding Marxism: William Clare Roberts offers an interpretation of Marx's political and philosophical project

From William Clare Roberts:

Because the impersonal domination of the market mediates the other aspects of capitalist production, capitalist exploitation is quite unlike other forms of exploitation. As Marx puts it in Capital, capitalists did not invent the exploitation of surplus labor. But, in the past, those who enjoyed the fruits of other people's labor did so by means of extortion, theft and coercion. Exploitation was, therefore, a drain on production; it disincentivized production. Capitalist production, on the other hand, incentivizes labor and production like nothing else ever has. The exploitation of labor-power -- Marx's technical phrase for capitalist exploitation -- is so effective, in fact, that overwork is endemic to capitalist economies.

Marx thought that workers organizing to fight overwork was one of the most important and powerful levers for the development and transformation of capitalist production. The fight against overwork, and for higher wages, was, he argued, the basic spur that drove capitalists to introduce new production technologies. Industrialization and mechanization, in turn, provoke the agglomeration of capitalist producers, increasing both the mass of workers and the concentration of capital. These fights also bring workers together, and give them political experience. All of this, Marx argued, prepared workers to win the battle someday, and to replace capitalist production entirely.

This understanding of the links between exploitation, class struggle, capitalist development and revolutionary politics has largely fallen out of favor among radicals. I am very interested in the history of this theory's decline, in part because I think the theory had more going for it than many of its critics -- even very sympathetic critics -- realize....

The criticisms of Marx's value theory ... have diverted attention from the basic observations that underlie Marx's account of capitalist exploitation. Unlike materials and technologies of production, which provide objectively predictable inputs to the production process, workers must be induced to work, and how much work they provide is a matter requiring constant management and government. Marx's attention to the workplace as a site of governance and induced activity is as relevant as ever.

The other major reason Marx's analysis has fallen out of favor is that the link between class struggle and revolutionary politics seemed to be broken. On the one hand, the industrial working class seemed to be integrated into capitalism by winning the franchise, winning higher wages through unionization, and winning social security in the form of the welfare state. On the other hand, the locus of radicalism and revolt seemed to be in the students, the peasants of the colonized world, and the oppressed peoples fighting for national liberation.

But none of these developments actually undermine Marx's argument, which was that only those dependent upon wages for life -- a class that far exceeds industrial workers -- have an interest in universal emancipation. Anyone who is dominated or oppressed has an interest in the emancipation of their own group. But Marx thought that wages made people interdependent on one another and dependent upon technologically advanced production to such an extent that wage workers could only liberate themselves -- even at a national level -- by liberating everyone, everywhere. At a moment when left populism -- be it that of Sanders or Corbyn or Mélanchon -- seems compelled to reinforce national frontiers, Marx's argument should be revisited.

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