By Andrew Kliman.
“[T]he existing society isn’t just capital.” — Andrew Kliman, June 3, 2009
“The present society is capital.” — Chris Cutrone, June 4, 2009
In a comment on Josh Skolnik’s recent essay on this site, Critical Thoughts on Critical Theory: A Reexamination of the Holistic Critique of “Economism” (an essay which I think is extremely perceptive and profound), Chris Cutrone wrote,
I hope that Josh (following Andrew Kliman) doesn’t mean to say that we need a more adequate economic analysis to “figure out” the economic problems of capitalism before trying to “fix” them by proposing an alternative economic model!
But how does the view that Chris is trying to mock differ from what Marx did in the Critique of the Gotha Program (and elsewhere)? That critique was–inter alia, but predominantly and precisely–a critique of the Gotha Program’s inadequate economic analysis, which prevented it from “figuring out” the economic problems of capitalism, with the result being, according to Marx, that the Program tried to “fix” these problems by proposing an alternative economic model that would not in fact work!
Again and again during the course of that critique, far from putting forward a slogan such as “The present society is capital”–i.e., far from regarding present society as an undifferentiated whole–Marx emphasized that the Program proposed false solutions because it misunderstood the specific relationships among the different aspects of present society:
Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution [of the proceeds of labor] is “fair”? And is it not, in fact, the only “fair”‘ distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions, or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise out of economic ones? [emphases added]
But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby. [emphasis added]
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! [emphasis added]
it was in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it. Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only aconsequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?” [emphases added]
Instead of the indefinite concluding phrase of the paragraph, ‘the elimination of all social and political inequality’, it ought to have been said that with the abolition of class distinctions all social and political inequality arising from them would disappear of itself. [emphasis added]
“The German Workers’ party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases. [emphasis in original]
Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. [emphasis altered]
I wonder what Chris (and zerohour, who also criticized Josh Skolnik’s essay in a similar manner) thinks of this analysis and critique of Marx’s. Is it to be dismissed as “economic determinism” or “economism”?
The position of Marxist-Humanist Initiative on this matter is unequivocal. As we have written in ourStatement of Principles:
We reject the notion that Marx was exclusively a theorist of capitalism rather than socialism. In the Critique of the Gotha Program (and in the Poverty of Philosophy, theGrundrisse, Capital, and elsewhere), he dealt with the question of an emancipatory alternative to capitalism. He showed that the alternatives proposed by Proudhonism and similar tendencies would not be viable and would lead back to capitalism. And he worked out to some extent what would actually be needed in order to transcend capitalism and its indirectly social labor, alienated labor, commodification of labor-power, and “law of value,” and what would actually be needed for socialist society to develop to the point at which it can finally operate according to the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Along with Dunayevskaya, we hold that this pathbreaking work of Marx is “new ground” for organization. It is the basis of our organization’s opposition to capitalism and our vision of a socialist future, and it is the foundation upon which we build in order to work out the problem of an emancipatory alternative to capitalism.
(2) Chris’ slogan, “The present society is capital,” is not just a metaphor. The equation of “present society” and “capital” is intentional and meant literally, since it is a direct response to my comment that “the existing society isn’t just capital.” In other words, when faced with the distinction between “present society” and “capital”–in which “present society” is a broader, more inclusive concept than “capital”–Chris has denied that there is any such distinction.
But what does “The present society is capital” mean, when taken literally? Indeed, does the slogan then have any meaning at all? I don’t think so. It’s just an empty tautology. Here’s why:
If “capital” and “the present society” are identical, undifferentiated, then, whenever we say “capital,” we could instead say “the present society,” and vice-versa, with no change in or loss of meaning. The slogan “The present society is capital” could thus be restated as
“The present society is the present society”
“Capital is capital”
These are just empty tautologies.
If Chris wishes to avoid this conclusion, he can do so, not by saying that this isn’t what he meant to say (which is obvious), nor that he’s been misunderstood–I have understood the implication of the words themselves correctly–but only by introducing determinate distinctions between “the present society” and “capital.”
Undifferentiated totality yields, and can yield, nothing more than tautology.