The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Nine: The Nature of Capitalism

Introduction

It is interesting that social democrats express themselves in different ways. Thus, Professor Noonan, a professor at the University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada), who teaches Marxism, among other courses, presents what he considers one of the major issues at stake in the struggle of the left against the right in his “post (really a series of posts) “Thinkings 10” (https://www.jeffnoonan.org/?p=4662):

… a small minority class owns and controls the natural resources that everyone needs to survive. Because they control that which everyone needs to survive, they force the rest of us to sell our ability to labour in exchange for a wage. Labour is exploited to produce social wealth, most of which is appropriated by the class whose ownership and control over natural resources grounds their social power.

Isn’t this just the picture that Marx paints? Yes, it is,

No, it is not. To present the ground of the capitalist class as control over natural resources requires justification. Nowhere does Professor Noonan provide such a justification–apart from his unsubstantiated reference to Marx.

Such a presentation of the nature of capitalism misses the specificity of the nature of capital and hence of capitalism.

Control over land (the monopolization of land or natural resources) is certainly a condition for modern society to arise, but this condition–“control over natural resources”–hardly “grounds their [the capitalist class’s] social power.”

What is different about modern exploitation is that workers are mainly exploited through control over their own products and the processes which produce those products by a minority–and not just control over “natural resources.” Workers themselves, through the objective relations between the commodities they produce, produce their own exploitation. It is the direct control over these produced commodities that constitutes the ground of the social power of the class of employers; control over natural resources is mediated through such control rather than vice versa.

Let us look at what Marx wrote on the topic, especially in the notebooks known as the Grunrdrisse (Outlines), found in volumes 28 and 29 of the collected works of Marx and Engels (Marx’s best friend and political collaborator). The following has to do with an interpretation of Marx’s theory, so there will be some quotations in order to refute Professor Noonan’s social-democratic reference to Marx.

Control Over Natural Resources Is Insufficient to Characterize the Nature of Capital(ism)

Ownership of Natural Resources (Landed Property) Characteristic of Non-capitalist Societies

Marx drafted (but did not publish) an introduction to what he planned to be his critique of political economy in August and September 1857. He wrote From volume 28(pages 43-44):

… nothing seems more natural than to begin with rent, with landed property, since it is bound up with the earth, the source of all production and all life, and with agriculture, the first form of production in all more or less established societies. But nothing would be more erroneous. In every form of society there is a particular [branch of] production which determines the position and importance of all the others, and the relations obtaining in this branch accordingly determine those in all other branches. It is the general light tingeing all other colours and modifying them in their specific quality; it is a special ether determining the specific gravity of everything found in it. For example, pastoral peoples (peoples living exclusively on hunting or fishing are beyond the point from which real development begins). A certain type of agriculture occurs among them, sporadically, and this determines landed property. It is
common property and retains this form in a larger or smaller measure, depending on the degree to which these peoples maintain their traditions, e.g. communal property among the Slavs. Among peoples with settled agriculture—this settling is already a great advance—where agriculture predominates, as in antiquity and the feudal period, even industry, its organisation and the forms of property corresponding thereto, have more or less the character of landed property. Industry is either completely dependent on it, as with the ancient Romans, or, as in the Middle Ages, it copies in the town and in its conditions the organisation of the countryside. In the Middle Ages even capital—unless it was
purely money capital—capital as traditional tools, etc., has this character of landed property. The reverse is the case in bourgeois society. Agriculture to an increasing extent becomes merely a branch of industry and is completely dominated by capital. The same applies to rent. In all forms in which landed property rules supreme, the nature relationship still predominates; in the forms in which capital rules supreme, the social, historically evolved element predominates. Rent cannot be understood without capital, but capital can be understood without rent. Capital is the economic power that dominates everything in bourgeois society. It must form both the point of departure and the conclusion and must be analysed before landed property. After each has been considered separately, their interconnection must be examined.

The issue can be approached from a variety of angles. One angle is how to divide human history into stages or periods. Of course, there are various ways of dividing human history, and some ways are more appropriate (depending on the purpose) than others. Marx at one point divided human history into three stages. From Dan Swain (2019), None so Fit to Break the Chains: Marx’s Ethics of Self-Emancipation, pages 31-32: 

In one passage in the Grundrisse Marx schematically divides history into three kinds of social forms:

Relations of personal dependence (entirely spontaneous at the outset) are the first social forms, in which human productive capacity develops only to a slight extent and at isolated points. Personal independence founded on objective dependence is the second great form, in which a system of general social metabolism, of universal relations, of all-round needs and universal capacities is formed for the first time. Free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal social productivity as their social wealth, is the third stage. The second stage creates the conditions for the third.

The third stage is conceived as merely the ‘subordination’ of – the exertion of control over – the conditions that exist in the second. This claim is no less necessary for being historically specific, however. So long as we want to maintain the huge advanced developments of capitalism – and we do want most of them – we cannot take a step back to small scale handcrafts. Thus the only option available to us, says Marx, is economic democracy.

A Condition for the Existence of Capitalism Is the Use of Produced Commodities to Oppress or Dominate Workers

Economic democracy, however, as a solution to the problems thrown up by capitalist development, must address the fact that both oppression and exploitation of the working class arises through the production of the conditions for their own oppression and exploitation and not just “control over natural resources” by the ruling class. It is control over produced resources, not natural resources, that forms an essential element of capitalism. 

From Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 28, pages 381-382:

Labour capacity has appropriated only the subjective conditions of necessary labour—the means of subsistence for productive labour capacity, i.e. for its reproduction as mere labour capacity separated from the conditions of its realisation—and it has posited these conditions themselves as objects, values, which confront it in an alien, commanding personification. It emerges from the process not only no richer but actually poorer than it entered into it. For not only has it created the conditions of necessary labour as conditions belonging to capital; but the valorisation [the impetus for producing surplus value] inherent in it as a potentiality, the value-creating potentiality, now also exists as surplus value, surplus product, in a word, as capital, as domination over living labour capacity, as value endowed with its own power and will confronting it in its abstract, object-less, purely subjective poverty. Not only has it produced alien wealth and its own poverty, but also the relationship of this wealth as self-sufficient wealth to itself as poverty, which this wealth consumes to draw new life and spirit to itself and to valorise itself anew.

All this arose from the act of exchange in which the worker exchanged his living labour capacity for an amount of objectified labour, except that this objectified labour, these conditions for his being which are external to him, and the independent externality (to him) of these physical conditions, now appear as posited by himself, as his own product, as his own self-objectification as well as the objectification of himself as a power independent of himself, indeed dominating him, dominating him as a result of his own actions.

All the moments of surplus capital are the product of alien labour—alien surplus labour converted into capital: means of subsistence for necessary labour; the objective conditions— material and instrument—so that necessary labour can reproduce the value exchanged for it in means of subsistence; finally, the necessary amount of material and instrument so that new surplus
labour can realise itself in them or new surplus value can be created.

It no longer seems here, as it still did in the first consideration of the production process, as if capital, for its part, brought with it some sort of value from circulation. The objective conditions of
labour now appear as labour’s product—both in so far as they are value in general, and as use values for production. But if capital thus appears as the product of labour, the product of labour for its part appears as capital—no longer as mere product nor exchangeable commodity, but as capital; objectified labour as dominion, command over living labour. It likewise appears as the
product of labour that its product appears as alien property, as a mode of existence independently confronting living labour … that the product of labour, objectified labour, is endowed with a soul of its own by living labour itself and establishes itself as an alien power confronting its creator.

Capitalism as the Use of Produced Commodities to Oppress and Exploit Workers 

The separation of workers from their conditions of producing their own lives (conditions of life), even if produced by them, does not however, yet constitute capital(ism). It is, rather, the structured process of forcing workers to expend more labour than the labour required to produce the conditions for their own lives, relative to From volume 28, pages 396-397:

Capital and therefore wage labour are not, then, constituted simply by an exchange of objectified labour for living labour—which from this viewpoint appear as two different determinations, as use
values in different form; the one as determination in objective form, the other in subjective form. They are constituted by the exchange of objectified labour as value, as self-sufficient value, for living labour as its use value, as use value not for a certain specific use or consumption, but as use value for value.

Hiring someone to mow the lawn does not make me a capitalist nor a member of the class of employers. This hiring process becomes a class relation in the first instance because the process involves a movement that involves a drive to increase more value through control over produced commodities which are then used to exploit workers further (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

By referring to the monopoly over “natural resources,” rather than over produced commodities by the workers themselves, Professor Noonan can then ignore the specificity of the nature of capital(ism). His own brand of social reformism can then be snuck in. He writes:

… but when we paint the problems of the world in ideological terms of “capitalism” versus “socialism” we get stuck immediately in an absolute opposition between political camps. Instead of arguing with opponents we shout at them. The other side does not listen but shouts back before both sides get tired and revert to preaching to the converted.

Getting underneath the political labels will probably not solve that problem. However, it does remove one rhetorical barrier to argument. If we can stop thinking in simplistic terms: capitalism=bad and socialism=good, then we can confront one another on the terrain that really matters: life-requirements and how best to distribute them.

The implication is that we should drop the opposition between capitalism and socialism–and focus on the issue of “life requirements and how best to distribute them.” Since “life requirements” applies to all societies (all human societies involve necessary conditions for human life to continue)–the specific nature of capitalism is lost.

It is not just a question of how “best to distribute life requirements.”–but of the form or structure or arrangement of the process that is involved in maintaining human life in a capitalist society. The very form, structure or organization of capitalist society is such that what is produced is used against workers–as a weapon against them to obtain surplus value in the private sector and to oppress workers in both the private and public sectors. Life requirements, being produced by workers, are used against workers in a capitalist society.

The concept “best distribution of them” sounds very similar to the social democrats Dhunna’s and Bush’s assumption of focusing on distribution of already produced commodities rather than the process through which they are produced in the first place (see A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist). Is there really any wonder that Professor Noonan then opposes movements that pose the problems that we face in terms of capitalism versus socialism. To be sure, I have already noted the illegitimacy of treating capitalism as a catch-all phrase of capitalism this and capitlaism that among social democrats (see Socialism and Central Planning: Mr. Gindin’s Analysis of The Political Situation of Workers in General, Part Two), but if we are going to aim for a society without classes, then aiming to create a society without classes requires the elimination of social relations, social structures and political relations that support the specific nature of the kind of society in which we live and suffer, with systemic exploitation and oppression.

Marx would therefore disagree with Professor Noonan’s specification of the problem; it is not just “control over natural resources” that needs to be discussed and critiqued, but the separation, alienation and domination of workers’ own labour and life through its own labour and products. From Volume 28, pages 390-391:

The recognition of the products as its own, and its awareness that its separation from the conditions of its realisation is improper and imposed by force, is an enormous consciousness, and is itself the product of the mode of production based on capital, and just as much the KNELL TO ITS DOOM as the consciousness of the slave that he cannot be the property of another, his consciousness of being a person, reduced slavery to an artificial lingering existence, and made it impossible for it to continue to provide the basis of production.

By ignoring the specificity of capitalist relations, Professor Noonan then simplistically argues that merely referring to “life’s requirements” and “how best to distribute to them” form a necessary and sufficient condition for the realisation of a society in which there are no classes and no exploitation and oppression. He then claims that, by focusing on “life-requirements and how best to distribute them,”

individuals are freed to live the lives the want to live.

This is wishful thinking. Rather than engage in wishful thinking, Professor Noonan would do better to engage in a systematic critique of social democrats and their philosophies–for the domination of social democrats among “the left” is itself a problem.

Professor Noonan recognizes that it is a problem–but he does not address how to solve the problem:

Progressive taxation, the Green New Deal, reparations, public health care, and GBIs [guaranteed basic incomes] can be institutionalised in ways that do not fundamentally transform the structure of ownership and control over life-resources. They can all be sold as in effect ways to bolster consumer demand by putting more money in the pockets of ordinary Americans. If the ruling class is assured that it will get its money back in the end, they can be convinced to go along with the reforms (as they were, despite vociferous opposition, in the 1930’s by the original New Deal). In Canada and the United Kingdom, social democratic parties came up with the ideas for programs like public health insurance, but it was generally ruling class parties that implemented them.

Professor Noonan offers no solution to the problem of cooptation of the labour movement and social movements. Indeed, he naively assume that by referring to life’s needs that we will be able to advance by debating the issues–rather than seeing that it is necessary to engage in struggle and critique to debate relevant issues in the first place. He writes:

While the media (mostly the right-wing media) wastes time hyperventilating about small groups of naive Antifa agitators (it would not surprise me if their ranks were thoroughly infiltrated by the cops they want to abolish) much more important debates about serious institutional changes are underway in the United States. These debates will not get anywhere without patient, organized mass mobilisation and political argument. Some of these debates are about public institutions that have long been parts of countries with effective social democratic parties (public health care, for example). Some are specific to the history of the United States (the debate around reparations for slavery). Along with ambitious plans like the Green New Deal, discussions about a renewed commitment to progressive taxation, and perhaps even Guaranteed Basic Income projects, these debates move public scrutiny beneath the level of slogans and stories to what really counts: an understanding of who controls what and why.

Firstly, Professor Noonan should practice what he preaches. I tried to engage in debate with him some time ago (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part One)–to no avail. Secondly, he does not address how social democrats not only resist any discussion of relevant issues but go out of their way to ridicule those who attempt to engage in such discussion (see for example Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?).

It would seem that Professor Noonan and I do, however, agree on the following: he implies that we should aim for a kind of society in which collective control over our conditions of life are to achieved:

The ruling class is good at playing the long game, and so must the Left be. It has to think of public institutions not in terms of income support that bolsters consumer demand for the sake of revitalising capitalism, but as first steps towards socialising ownership and control over the means of life.

However, the real Professor Noonan shows the true implications of his emphasis on the “control of life resources”–and his lack of understanding of the nature of capitalism–in a more recent post on the subject of collective bargaining. Compare the quote immediately above with the following (from the post titled “Social Democracy Meets Capitalist Reality” (https://www.jeffnoonan.org/?p=5008): 

Political persistence eventually changed the law, unions were formed, and over the next century succeeded not only in raising real wages (a feat that most classical political economists regarded as structurally impossible) but also helped democratize the work place, by giving the collective of workers some say in the organization of production (via collective bargaining).

Unions have certainly benefited workers in the short-term, but Professor Noonan simply ignores how unions often now function to justify the continued oppression and exploitation of workers (see for example  Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One  or Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Three: Unifor (Largest Private Union in Canada)). 

As for the claim that collective bargaining “democratizes the work place,” Professor Noonan undoubtedly works in privileged conditions relative to other workers and generalizes from his much superior control over his working conditions compared to most other workers (even when unionized). As I wrote in another post (What’s Left, Toronto? Part Five): 

Collective agreements, however, as this blog constantly stresses, are holding agreements that continue to express exploitation and oppression. A few privileged sets of workers (such as tenured university professors) may seem to have decent jobs, but even that situation has eroded over time. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

This division of labour is implied in a poem by one of the most famous poets of Gutemala, Otto Rene Castillo (from   Apolitical Intellectuals):

Apolitical Intellectuals

One day
the apolitical
intellectuals
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
justifications,
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?”

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.

Collective agreements do not exist in a vacuum but form part of interrelated social relations; to exclude such relations when considering the nature and legitimacy of collective agreements is to empty collective agreements of the background conditions which give them meaning in the first place.

Collective agreements by no means help to “democratize the work place.” They certainly are not “first steps towards socialising ownership and control over the means of life.”  Professor Noonan seems to be aware of this and yet idealizes collective agreements by claiming that they somehow “democratize the work place.” If however capitalist society is characterized by the use of commodities produced by workers to oppress and exploit them, then collective agreements (except for a small minority of workers–such as tenured professors) merely limit the power of employers to oppress and exploit workers–but do not by any means form even the first step in the democratization of the work place. 

What are these “first steps towards socialising ownership and control over the means of life?” Professor Noonan fails to specify what they are. Why is that? 

I will leave Professor Noonan with his “democratized work place.” Undoubtedly he enjoys a fair amount of control over his work; he is a tenured professor at the University of Windsor. What of the support workers at the University of Windsor? Do they?  

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