Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Loren Goldner

    Some curious folks made their way to the Niebyl-Proctor library in Oakland to listen to Loren Goldner talk about the crisis in capitalism and possible forms of organization to overthrow commodity-producing society. Goldner spoke for about an hour, then answered questions for another hour. Goldner devoted the first part of his talk to explaining the current economic crisis as part of a historical series of such crises. Fortunately, he does not share the opinion of many so-called Marxists that capitalism will work its way out of the current crisis. Goldner is correct in saying that only large-scale destruction of fixed capital (in, say, a catastrophic war) would allow capital a temporary reset, similar to what happened in WWII. A contradiction exists, however, in  Goldner's thinking when it comes to organizing and political action. On one hand, the crisis is terminal and the downfall of capitalism is inevitable. On the other, the working class must organize to overthrow it. Concerning this matter, we would like to ask the obvious but nevertheless perverse question: why bother overthrowing something that is going to collapse anyway? This is like digging up the corpse to kill it again. But there were plenty of necrophiliacs in attendance (one shouted: "How dare you say that trade unions have not won victories against capital in the last decades?), so perhaps that's just how they roll. Now, there is no doubt that capitalism is still (barely) alive, but it has been placed on the respirator of credit (a.k.a. fictional capital). We must pull the plug, and we sure as hell aren't going to consult the family members. We agree with Goldner that we must organize to create a capitalist alternative, not because capital will not die if we don't, but because the Right will create its own version of a post-capitalist society, and it won't be pretty. Goldner is wrong about the centrality of organized labor in the creation of socialism. He and most of those in attendance still think that labor will lead the revolution. Dead labor was always dead, but since the 70s, living labor has also been dead. The zombie banks have their counterpart in the zombie labor movements that every so often are jolted back to life by austerity programs and factory closures. But these, by and large, are sad spectacles, pale specters of the massive strikes that were once possible when the proletariat (i.e. industrial working class) still existed. Strike! Strike! Strike! The imagination of the necrophiliacs is chained to the corpse of big labor. They are unable to conceive of an anti-capitalist social movement that does not feature the labor strike as its chief component. Now, it must be said that Goldner has a more nuanced view of labor then some of its apostles who were in attendance. For instance, Goldner takes seriously the notion that labor time must be reduced to an absolute minimum. Therein lies emancipation. For him this is a matter of reconfiguring productive activity to 1) eliminate socially superfluous production (e.g. stop building two cars per second globally, stop producing rafts of cheap plastic shit to sell at WalMart) and 2) incorporate greater numbers of peopleinto the workforce to divide the necessary labor equally. These are ideas worth considering, along with the institution of a basic living wage, the universal right to food, housing, and medical care, etc. But it is unclear how these goals will be achieve by a labor movement. As alluded to above, Goldner recognizes the failure of trade unions to achieve substantial victories against capital. On the basis of comments he made throughout the night, it can be inferred that he attributes this failure to two things: 1) the corruption of labor leadership and its too-cozy relationship with management/capital; 2) the inability of labor movements to break out of the narrow confines of their various industries or, in other words, labor's failure to move beyond localized struggles to create international solidarity among workers in all sectors. We ask, though, how this could be otherwise? What is a trade union and its leadership if not a necessary mediation between labor and capital? Could labor and capital somehow confront each other in an unmediated fashion? Marx described the struggle between workers and capitalists as capital itself working out its own internal laws. 
    This is why no labor movement has ever consciously abolished its own industry. Autoworkers' unions, in desperate back-room deals with management, have made huge concessions, agreeing to sacrifice vast numbers of their rank and file, in order to preserve the industry for the few workers lucky enough to remain. This midget-sized proletariat is hardly going to form the base of a social movement large enough to act as the subject of history. It is impossible to imagine any labor movement, of any size, saying: "You know what? Society doesn't really need the product of our labor. In fact, our industry is harmful to the environment, undermines our quality of life and health, and, by consuming vast amounts of energy and mineral recourses, as well as time, acts as a barrier to the full, creative development of our productive potential. Let's hang 'em up."
    To seriously consider Goldner's proposition to reduce necessary labor to a minimum (or eliminate it entirely!) requires understanding the inseparability of abstract labor and capital. But this is too much for those who fetishize the working class. Goldner is one of these. When an audience member queried Goldner on the possible relation between his proposal to eliminate necessary labor and the theories of the German Wertkritik circle and the American Moishe Postone, who argue that the abolition of capital requires the simultaneous abolition of labor, Goldner launched into a critique of Postone which ended with him admitting that he "didn't think much" of Postone's ideas. It is indeed unfortunate that Marxists like Goldner are unable to accept Postone's interpretation of Marx. We have read Goldner's review of Postone's Time, Labor, and Social Domination and find it to be little more than a litany of petty complaints about the book's lack of proper respect for Marxist luminaries like Luxemburg and Lenin, and straw man arguments ("In some sense it can be said that Postone’s book comes down to a critique of most previous Marxists for not having read, or integrated, the so-called “Unpublished Chapter Six” of vol. I of Capital"; see also Goldner's contention that Postone's relative lack of attention to the nuances of the "state capitalism" debate about the Soviet Union compromises his theoretical argument about abstract labor and value). There is a moment, however, in Goldner's review in which he seems on the verge of comprehension, only to revert to his reflexive faith in the proletariat. 
    Marx’s work is a phenomenology of the self-abolition of the proletariat, the latter being the commodity form of labor power. Postone is certainly right that “traditional Marxism” by and large did not see this, and glorified the working class and the industry produced by capitalism as a healthy substratum to be “freed” in “socialism”.
    After making this concession, Goldner concludes that Marx supported the Paris Commune, therefore he must have thought that the working class could overthrow capital, therefore it is absurd to think that the proletariat is not the subject of history. A few points are in order. First, it is perhaps too much to expect absolute consistency, even from a peerless thinker like Marx. The Wertkritik writers (whom Goldner, by his own admission, has not read) distinguish between the exoteric and the esoteric Marx (this distinction first appears in the work of Stefan Breuer). The former is the 19th century man of letters and partisan of the labor movement; the latter is the theorist of value who drove himself to the very limits of the speculative possibilities of his era. These two aspects of Marx's thought are often in tension. Second, even if during Marx's time it was feasible to imagine that the industrial working class, through collective action, could negate capital, it does not necessary follow that it could do the same today. Third, related to the second point, if the proletariat (whatever is left of it)  retains the ability to end capital, its ability to do this lies in its potential refusal to work ever again, not in temporary work stoppages (strikes) designed to wrest concessions from capital, thereby making workers happy again qua workers. Goldner reproaches Postone for having made "capital the subject of history, and fail[ing] to come up with a subject that will go beyond it." But Goldner does worse, because he fails to understand that capital, the subject of history, is a social totality than includes labor as one of its moments or aspects. Labor is not merely opposed to capital. Its opposition to capital is a necessary one. Labor is a real abstraction (possessing both abstract and concrete dimensions), unique to capitalism, that functions (in both its subjective form "labor" and its objectified form "value") as the universal nexus of social cohesion. The problem with conceiving of the proletariat as the subject of history that will overthrow capital, then abolish itself or somehow wither away (as in traditional Marxist accounts of the proletariat-led State) is that it ignores the notion of determinate negation and provides no alternative mode of production. It imagines that labor, in some new, emancipated form, will outlive capitalism. If fails to explain how the new proletarian production will differ from the old. Plus ├ža change... Despite Goldner's claims to the contrary, Postone does provide some answers about the new subject of history, precisely by invoking the Hegelian notion of determinate negation. It is uncontroversial, even among necrophiliac Marxists, to say that the new society must be born out of conditions immanent to capitalism. That is, capitalism must create the conditions for its supercession. Postone's book, in its much-maligned and nearly universally misunderstood third section, explains this process.
    The understanding of the determinate negation of capitalism implied by the unfolding of Marx's categories in Capital parallels what he presents in the Grundrisse. In the latter, he characterizes a possible postcapitalist society in terms of the category of "disposable" time: "on the one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all."[127] Marx defines "disposable" time as "room for the development of the individual's full productive forces, hence those of society also."[128] This is the positive form taken on by that extra time, freed by the forces of production, which under advanced capitalism remains bound as "superfluous." The category of superfluous time expresses only negativity -- the historical nonnecessity of a previous historical necessity -- and therefore still refers to the Subject: society in general in its alienated form. The category of disposable time reverses this negativity and gives it a new referent: the social individual.[129] It presupposes the abolition of the value form of social mediation: only then, according to Marx, can (nonalienated) labor time and disposable time complement one another positively as constitutive of the social individual. Overcoming capitalism, then, would entail the transformation not only of the structure and character of social labor but also of nonworking time, and of their relation. In the absence of the abolition of value, however, any extra time generated as a result of the reduction of the workday is determined negatively by Marx, as the antithesis of (alienated) labor time, as what we would call "leisure time": "Labour time as the measure of wealth posits wealth itself as founded on poverty, and disposable time as existing in and because of the antithesis to surplus labour time."[130]
    The trajectory of capitalist production as presented by Marx can be viewed, then, in terms of the development of the social division of time -- from socially necessary (individually necessary and surplus), through socially necessary and superfluous, to the possibility of socially necessary and disposable (which would entail overcoming the older form of necessity). This trajectory expresses the dialectical development of capitalism, of an alienated form of society constituted as a richly developed totality at the expense of the individuals, which gives rise to the possibility of its own negation, a new form of society in which people, singly and collectively, can appropriate the species-general capacities that had been constituted in alienated form as attributes of the Subject.
    These developments would produce a new Subject, not the proletariat but, simply, humanity, which for the first time would be able to consciously direct its collective capacities and write its own future. This is what Marx meant when he called all human history prior to socialism its prehistory.
    It is up to us to create the new organizational forms that will enable us to grasp the possibilities immanent to the present crisis. We suspect these forms will not resemble past labor movements, even if they include those who can still call themselves workers.