Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Revolutions (2009)

Book Review from the July 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Endnotes #1 – Preliminary Materials For A Balance Sheet Of The Twentieth Century. 216 pages. Available from Endnotes, 12 London Road, Brighton, BN1 4JA. £10

The opening issue of this new journal is based around a dialogue between contemporary French ultra-left groups Troploin (Gilles Dauvé & Karl Nesic) and Théorie Communiste (who remain anonymous). Of the contributors Dauvé is probably most well known to English speakers for his tracts written under the pseudonym ‘Jean Barrot’ – Eclipse and Re-emergement of the Communist Movement, Critique of the Situationist International and Fascism / Anti-fascism.

As Endnotes state in their introduction “…we have no wish to encourage an interest in history per se. [..] We hope [..] to undermine the illusion that this is somehow “our” past, something to be protected or preserved. [..]We would go so far as to say that with the exception of the recognition of the historical break that separates us from them, that we have nothing to learn from the failures of past revolutions — no need to replay them to discover their “errors” or distil their “truths” — for it would in any case be impossible to repeat them.”

Both groups, and presumably Endnotes, are tied to the concept of “Communisation” – communism is not something that happens after the revolution, it is the “immediate production of communism; the self-abolition of the proletariat through its abolition of capital and the state.” Notions of both a “transitional society” and “workers self-management” are rejected. Capitalism is a system of production, value accumulation can as easily be managed by workers as by private capitalists or state bureaucrats.

The structure of the journal - each chapter is a critique of the one preceding it - makes for a stimulating and engaging read. A wide range concepts and historical events are covered and subject to lively criticism. From the Paris Commune to Argentina 2002 via the Russian and German revolutions, Italian “Red Years”, the Spanish tragedy, Paris 68 and the Italian “Hot Autumn” we are taken on a radical train journey of revolution and counter-revolution, though the spirit isn’t one of nostalgic reminiscence but firmly rooted in the possibilities of the present moment.
Whilst the politics of both Troploin and Théorie Communiste don’t converge with the Socialist Party on all counts there is certainly plenty of food for thought on offer here and a good opportunity to become acquainted with a not overly well known current of contemporary European thought.

Marx's Wage Labour and Capital (2004)

From the February 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party can be described as a Marxist party, in that it recognises the immense contribution made by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 19th century in developing a scientific understanding of capitalism as a distinct and transient society, one which was historically progressive in its time, but which is now outdated and needing to be replaced.

This is not to say that we think Marx and Engels were correct on every subject then, still less now. The whole point of a scientific approach to politics and economics is that it is based on facts, evidence and objective testing and reassessment. Marxism itself has been defined as the distillation of all the lessons and understandings gained from working class struggles against capitalism, expressed in a scientific manner.

Nonetheless, there is enormous value to be gained from studying the classical works of Marx and Engels. Writing during the earlier phases of capitalism’s development and working to get a handle on the whole phenomenon, their writings provide a clarity and a perspective on capitalism and the need for workers to replace it by socialism, rarely achieved since. In fact, some hold that the development of capitalism has accorded even more closely with their basic analysis than was perhaps the case at the time.

Their works may not be particularly easy reading - but newcomers may be pleasantly surprised how easy they can get into them - but they were written by people who were active participants - as well as commentators - in 19th century working class struggle and who were passionate and eloquent in their commitment and analysis. Their power to slice through the fog of mystique, confusion and distortion which passes for contemporary news and commentary can be both astonishing and inspiring.

Wage Labour and Capital is one excellent example of just such a classic. Written by Marx towards the end of 1847, it was aimed to be a popular exposition of the basics of how capitalism functioned and the subjugation of wage labour. Engels re-issued it in 1891 but with certain changes to take into account Marx’s advances in economic theory after 1847, in particular the distinction between “labour” and “labour-power” which was not made in the original version. Engels, however, did not point out - and change - the different sense in which Marx employed the term “cost of production” in 1847 compared with later. In Capital Marx used the term to mean what it costs the capitalist to produce a commodity, i.e. what they have to pay for raw materials, labour-power, energy, wear and tear, etc. In other words, not including profit. In Wage-Labour and Capital Marx uses it to mean cost in terms of the total amount of labour required to produce it, including the part the capitalist did not need to pay for, i.e. including profit. It was thus the same as he later meant by value.

Marx starts by making a few things clear. Workers sell the capitalist their labour power for an amount of money. That money could have been used to buy a certain amount of commodities. So labour power is as much a commodity as (say) sugar. The workers’ labour power has been exchanged for an amount of commodities measured by money. The exchange value of labour power as measured by money is its price. Wages are just a special name “for the price of this peculiar commodity which has no other repository than human flesh and blood.”

But why does the worker sell labour power to the capitalist? In order to live of course! Marx then exposes the reality of work under capitalism in a way which has great resonance today:
“The exercise of labour [should be] the worker’s own life activity, manifestation of their own life. But they have to sell it to another person to obtain means of subsistence. Life activity is just a means to enable existence. They work in order to live. Labour is not even reckoned as part of normal life, it is rather a sacrifice of their life. Work has no meaning other than as earnings.
“What he produces for himself is not the silk he weaves, not the gold he draws from the mine, not the palace he builds. What he produces for himself is wages, and silk, gold, palace resolve themselves for him into a definite quantity of means of subsistence, perhaps a cotton jacket, some copper coins and a lodging in a cellar.”
Marx points out labour was not always a commodity and that under capitalism labour takes the form of wage labour, or “free” labour. That is workers are free to sell their labour-power to any capitalist who wishes to buy it and the capitalist is free to get rid of the worker as soon as there is no profit to be made. But there is a limit to such “freedom”:
“The worker whose sole source of livelihood is the sale of his labour power cannot leave the whole class of purchasers (the capitalist class) without renouncing his existence. He belongs not to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class.”
Marx then carefully explores how prices of commodities are determined. Slicing through the metaphysics of supply and demand and free competition, Marx identifies that the benchmark is the labour cost of production. This is also the centre of gravity for a price, around which prices will fluctuate. If a particular branch of industry is profitable, capital is put in to that industry until the price of that product falls below the labour cost of production, and vice versa.
“We see how capital continually migrates in and out, out of one domain of industry into another. High prices bring too great an immigration and low prices too great an emigration. The fluctuations of supply and demand continually bring the price of a commodity back to the cost of production.”
The corollary is that “the current price of a commodity is always either below or above its cost of production.”

One of Marx’s specific contributions to political economy was to regard these continual fluctuations in prices not as chance but as fundamental to how the capitalist economy ensures that prices are determined by the cost of production. That is: “These fluctuations which bring with them the most fearful devastations and like earthquakes shake bourgeois society to tremble at its foundations - this industrial anarchy” is fundamental and basic to capitalism, rather than something which can be smoothed or ironed out.

The same general laws determine the price of labour power, or wages. Whilst wages do fluctuate through supply and demand, in essence:
“The cost of production of labour power is the cost required for maintaining the worker as a worker and developing him into a worker. The price of his labour is therefore determined by the price of the necessary means of subsistence.”
Just as the cost of replacing machines needs to be factored into prices:
“The cost of reproduction must also be included, whereby the race of workers is enabled to multiply and replace worn out workers by new ones. Wages, the cost of production of labour power for the working class as a whole - as opposed to individual workers - amounts to the costs of existence and reproduction of the whole working class.”
Marx then dissects the reality and truth of capital. Yes, capital consists of “raw materials, instruments of labour and means of subsistence which are utilised to produce new raw materials, new instruments of labour and new means of subsistence”. They are also nothing more than:
“Creations of labour, products of labour, accumulated labour. Accumulated labour which serves as a means of new production is capital.”
These products of labour are however no longer owned by the working class. They have been appropriated by the capitalist class. The existence of the capitalist class and its wealth is based on robbery. But capital is a product and part of capitalism. As well as being all these different components of production, “all the products of which it consists are commodities, sums of exchange values, as well as material products.”

But how do certain sets of commodities become capital? The following evocative description tells us:
“By maintaining and multiplying itself as an independent social power, that is, as the power of a portion of society, by means of its exchange for direct, living labour power. “
This is the reality of the god worshipped by modern society. Entirely made by labour. Old, past, historic, parasitical, but because we accept the rules of capitalism, we allow this god to subvert and rule modern society in its own peculiar and reactionary interests. Living labour subordinate to dead labour. The reality of the exchange between wage worker and capitalist is that:
“The worker receives means of subsistence, but the capitalist receives the productive activity of the worker, the creative power which not only replaces that which is consumed (through wages) but gives to the accumulated labour a greater value than it previously possessed. The worker surrenders to the capitalist this noble reproductive power in return for subsistence which is consumed for ever.”
The relationship and dependency is that:
“Capital presupposes wage labour; wage labour presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition the existence of each other; they reciprocally bring forth each other.”
So wage labour and capital have a common interest? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that capital only thrives by exchanging itself for wage labour. The more capital increases, so does wage labour. No, in that the increase and profitability of capital is simply to increase the power of the master over the slave, the increased domination of the capitalist class over the working class.

The most tolerable situation for workers under capitalism may well be for the fastest growth in productive forces, of capital. But the respective gains for the capitalist class and the working class are hardly equal. The capitalist class already has power over the working class. The strengthening of capital increases further the power of the capitalist class to appropriate an even greater relative share of wealth than before. Whilst money or even real wages may grow in times of prosperity of capital, the stupendous growth in the wealth appropriated by capital may mean that in society as a whole, the position of wage labour is relatively worse off than before.

And why should the capitalist class be entitled to any of the wealth created by the working class? All the wealth is created by workers using means of production which were created by previous workers. The capitalist class adds precisely nothing to the process. Any wealth appropriated by the capitalists is at the direct expense of the working class. Profit and wages are shares in the same product of the worker. One gains, one loses.

In the final section, Marx sets out the basic futility and effect of the competition between the capitalists. Capitalists try and drive each other out of business by raising the productivity of labour and cheapening their products. But all that happens is that other capitalists adopt the same mechanisms and processes, resulting in the prices in the once profitable line falling below the labour cost of production. They are all in exactly the same position as before.
“The same game begins again. More division of labour, more machinery, enlarged scale of exploitation of machinery and division of labour. And again competition brings the same counteraction against this result. This is the law which again and again throws bourgeois production out of its old course and which compels capital to intensify the productive forces of labour, the law which gives capital no rest and continually whispers in its ear: ‘Go on! Go on!’ Whatever the power of the means of production employed, competition seeks to rob capital of the golden fruits of this power by bringing the price of commodities back to the cost of production.
If we now picture to ourselves this feverish simultaneous agitation on the whole world market, it will be comprehensible how the growth, accumulation and concentration of capital results in an uninterrupted division of labour, and in the application of new and the perfecting of old machinery precipitately and on an ever greater scale.
Finally, as the capitalists are compelled to exploit the already gigantic means of production on a larger scale, there is a corresponding increase in industrial earthquakes, in which the trading world can only maintain itself by sacrificing a part of wealth, or products and even of productive forces to the gods of the nether world - in a word, crises increase. The world market becomes more and more contracted, fewer and fewer new markets remain available for exploitation, since every preceding crisis has subjected to world trade a market hitherto unconquered or only superficially exploited.”
This is still the crazy system we live and work in. Destructive of wealth, people and the planet we occupy. Is it not time for the producers of wealth - the world working class - to cast aside the capitalist class and their crippling, destructive, distorting system, and replace it by a more sensible and satisfying approach whereby we produce wealth to meet people’s needs and we work because we enjoy it and want to contribute to the good and well-being of world humanity?
Andrew Northall

Pathfinders: Harmony of the Hive Mind (2015)

The Pathfinders Column from the August 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

When you watch a really good band play a gig, you probably notice the rhythmically and harmonically 'tight' performance, the 100 percent focus and commitment, the way the players proceed in lock-step, almost as one mind. You know of course that this is an illusion created by many hours of painstaking rehearsal during which every element is calculated, measured, argued-over and scripted out, every variable is banished or budgeted for and all the words, chord structures and extempore passages are fixed and memorised. If you pay close attention you can even read the subtle signals passing between the various players who, behind the music, are 'talking' each other through the song.

Imagine for a moment that the players in this band were telepathic, not for show but for real. They wouldn't need to count in, or maintain eye contact, or rehearse endlessly. They wouldn't have to stick to the script in order to play perfectly. They wouldn't even need a script. Each of the players would share the others' thoughts as if present in their heads, though not in words because words take too long to process, but instead in abstract feelings or sensations, perhaps mixed with fragmentary visual images or fluctuations in mood. The effect would not be like a silent negotiation between individual minds but a single 'multi-mind' spontaneously thinking and acting.

Even better, suppose the audience was telepathic as well. Then they could become part of the band, ultimately blurring or abolishing the distinction between listener and performer, singing or creating rhythm or playing their own instruments, the whole consisting of balanced arrangements in controlled volumes without the need for a sound engineer. In short, a telepathic gig would be phenomenally good by anybody's standards. Rolling Stones? Oasis? Arctic Monkeys? Who they?

Well, you guessed it. Scientifically-speaking, something like this may be possible in the future. Recent work with monkeys showed that it was possible to connect the electrical output from the parts of their brains involved in movement so that they were able to move an object on a screen towards a desired goal, in order to get a reward (New Scientist, 18 July). Each of the three monkeys was connected via electrodes to a computer which allowed them to move the screen object in just one dimension. To move it successfully required synchronised thinking from all three monkeys, operating what the researchers dubbed a 'brainet'. Further work with rats showed that they could receive, store and transmit usable information to a computer, functioning as a parallel processing unit or 'hive mind'.

The world is wiring itself together at every level, from rats to neural networks to the 'internet of things'. Human telepathic control over these networks is the ultimate logical goal, albeit on the assumption of future background technology rather less obtrusive than today's clunky electrodes, scanners and wire cables. The description of a musical performance given above, though of course speculative, is meant as an analogue of any human endeavour requiring collective participation. Formal spoken languages would no longer be a barrier, and may for many purposes become redundant. The possibilities for science, engineering, games, learning and the arts are certainly beyond our present ability to predict, and nearly beyond our ability to imagine.

There is one problem with all this, though it's not one that socialists will lose any sleep over.

The ability of humans to think collectively as a group-mind would be catastrophic for capitalism. All workers sharing their ideas, without language, labels, prejudices and egos getting in the way? It must be stopped at once. Divide and rule is what's needed to keep this market economy on the straight and narrow. Cut those monkey scientists' funding immediately!

Cyberspace in black and white

Apparently we're getting less spam in our emails these days, as anti-spam policing has for the first time since 2003 managed to cut it to below 50 percent of all email traffic (BBC Online, 18 July). Or rather the various spammers and phishers have finally twigged that we've all long since twigged, and their nasty little games don't work anymore. The bad news is that malware is on the increase, including the dreaded 'ransomware' (pay up, or never see your files again). So the arms race between the black hats and the white hats (i.e. baddy hackers and goody hackers) continues to escalate in a war which is of course all about screwing money out of you. If you're not paying the black hatters, it's only because you're paying the white hatters. Maybe it's not the most pressing concern for socialism, but the lack of a profit incentive would mean pretty much the end of spam, of malware, even of all those hated passwords.

Why do plutocrats get their wallets out?

From vague pixellated blur to stunning hi-res image, we've all followed with bated breath the passage of the New Horizons probe to distant Pluto to reveal its secrets. And its secret is now revealed – it's a cold, boring planetoid where nobody in their right mind would ever want to go. Still, it's amazing that the first moon probe was launched as recently as 1959, within the lifetime of many of our readers, and now every planet in the solar system has had close-up photo opportunities from the NASA paparazzi. Pluto, though, is about as far as we can realistically go unless someone invents a Star Trek-style warp drive. Even at New Horizon's record speed of 50,000mph it would take 100,000 years to reach our nearest stellar neighbour (New Scientist, 18 July).

Most socialists find science interesting and planetary exploration equally so, but unlike excitable media journalists they are not hopelessly confused about the reasons for it. Talk of public interest and selling science to school kids is all very worthy, but socialists know two things the journalists don't. First, space exploration is not funded by the public out of taxes, because those taxes ultimately derive from the rich, therefore it is the rich who are financing it. Second, the rich are doing it as a speculative investment to see what returns they can get out of it. Think science is purely the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake? Think again. That's not how the rich see it at all. They aim to get more rich, and investing in science – even those avenues that seem to offer no obvious profit potential – is the way to do it. Pluto, if you recall, as well as being the god of the underworld, was also the god of wealth.