The personification of capital

First off, new article to mark the 170th anniversary of anarchism as a named socio-economic theory. It concentrates on Proudhon’s ideas and how they fit into the evolution of anarchism in the mid-nineteenth century socialist and labour movements. It was written for the new Black Flag magazine (which is itself 40 this year!). I've been thinking of doing a "The Revolutionary Ideas of Proudhon" article for sometime now (to complement my one on Bakunin). This will have to do until I get round to it...

The article is, I suppose, kind of an introduction to why revolutionary anarchists should be interested in Proudhon. It is also, in part, a plug for the new book ("Property is Theft!") and, yes, it is very focused on Proudhon’s influence on social anarchism, specifically on the evolution of European anarchism between the 1860s and 1870s. I've linked to the introduction to the Reader, which goes into the subjects more fully and that covers Proudhon's wider influence. And, yes, it is based on that introduction, much edited and with a few extra quotes here and there.

Space precluded covering everything, so I concentrated on the bits of Proudhon I think are most significant and had most impact on social anarchism. It does not cover all the ins and outs of his ideas and their evolution, obviously. Still, gets the job of getting "serious" revolutionaries to perhaps reconsider their all too often dismissal-out-of-hand of Proudhon started – I hope. I do find it strange that so many anarchists seem uninterested in the history and evolution of our ideas, so willing to downplay the influence of the person who not only raised many of the themes which we take for granted as anarchism but also coined the name to describe it! Particularly when the likes of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Guerin and a host of other revolutionary anarchists acknowledge anarchism’s debt to the Frenchman.

I think Guerin is particularly of note, as he was extremely dismissive of Proudhon back when he was a Trotskyist (and raised the usual nonsense that he only criticised finance capital, just like fascists!). Then he did something unusual for a Marxist, he actually read Proudhon (and Bakunin) and became a bit of a fan (while, of course, recognising his limitations). As I noted elsewhere, he listed Proudhon alongside Bakunin as his two "outstanding anarchist thinkers."

As such, while I can (at some level) understand books like (the excellent) "Black Flame" arguing that anarchism developed in the First International and that Proudhon, while not an anarchist, heavily influenced it, I just do not agree. The themes that help define anarchism as anarchism are indebted to Proudhon – anti-capitalism, anti-statism, critique of property, wage-labour causing exploitation in production, socialisation, self-management, socio-economic federalism, decentralisation, mandated and recallable delegates, etc., etc., etc. – were first discussed by Proudhon and many of his ideas were taken up by later anarchists like Bakunin. Indeed, one of the things I discovered in my work on the anthology was just how much which I had assumed was Bakunin’s contributions were, in fact, Proudhon’s.

There are differences, of course. Rejection of reformism, most obviously, and the embrace of the class struggle, direct action, unions, strikes as well as the explicit opposition to Proudhon’s sexism and support for patriarchy. Kropotkin put it well, though, he stated that Proudhon had laid "the foundations of Anarchism" and that "[w]e understand then that at the bottom of Proudhon’s [General Idea of the Revolution] . . .lay a deeply practical idea -- that of Anarchy." ("Modern Science and Anarchism", "Evolution and Environment", p. 27, p. 75) He also argued that "[w]ithin these federations [of the IMWA] developed . . . what may be described as modern anarchism." (Anarchism, p. 294) In short, Proudhon’s reformist anarchism evolved into revolutionary anarchism, the dominant form of anarchism at the time (and since).

As such, the likes of "Black Flame" are right in a sense – the IWMA saw the birth of revolutionary anarchism, something distinct from mutualism but still a development of it. Given the embrace of revolution and class struggle, it makes little sense (as many Marxists do) to criticise anarchism for Proudhon’s rejection of both as revolutionary anarchism already criticises Proudhon for that. While some may find having a clean break with Proudhon appealing, I think it causes more problems than it solves. It also hinders our understanding of the evolution of anarchism and how and when certain key libertarian positions (indeed, key "proletarian" positions) developed. While Marxists may find such historical ignorance useful for their pretensions of being the sole-voice of "proletarian" politics, I fail to see what benefit anarchists gain from it – particularly when so much of this "proletarian" politics was expounded first by the "petit-bourgeois" Proudhon! And, needless to say, Bakunin as well.

How I feel like a broken record… still, perhaps this is understandable as I’m in the final stages of an almost two year book project which should, I think, revolutionise our understanding both of Proudhon and the evolution of anarchism between 1840 and 1870! And talking of libertarian history…

One thing I forgot to mention was that the AFAQ blog has a new post on "The Catalan CNT and the Asturias Uprising". After July 19th 1936, this must be the most discussed event in Spanish Anarchism’s history. Suffice to say, most Marxist accounts of this revolt are distortions of what actually happened. I think my favourite one was by an ultra-leftist Marxist sect (the ICC – International Communist Current) in their series of articles on Spanish Anarchism – all footnoted, of course, but utter nonsense if you know the subject!

The article discussed the October revolt and reproduced the Catalan CNT’s leaflet of October 6th before smugly noting that the leaflet fails to mention the events in Asturias and how this was a damning indictment of Spanish anarchism. The attack on Asturias started on the 7th of October while news of what was happening in the rest of Spain was not well-known so I’m not sure what their point is. The CNT can be criticised for many things, but not knowing future events is not one of them. Nor, I would say, is not inventing a technology which allowed not only future events to be communicated but also instantaneous news from hundreds of kilometres away.

In short, the Catalan CNT was being damned for not inventing time travel and/or the internet…

The quality of that attack is pretty much typical when Marxists turn their sights on Spanish anarchism, indeed anarchism in general. I can only assume the authors of that piece took for granted that most Marxists know little about the history of anarchism. That or they are so ideologically blinkered that mere commonsense does not get in their way. Probably a bit of both…

And after those somewhat irrelevant comments, I turn to the matter at hand – the "personification" of capital (and the related "universalisation" of capitalism). In my recent reply to Joseph Kay I touched on this, noting that while it is correct to recognise that capitalism can exist without actual capitalists it is a dreadful error to argue that capitalism exists when wage-labour does not. Simply put, as Marx, Engels, Proudhon and a host of others were well aware commodity production does not equate to capitalism. To quote Engels the "object of production – to produce commodities – does not import to the instrument the character of capital" as the "production of commodities is one of the preconditions for the existence of capital . . . as long as the producer sells only what he himself produces, he is not a capitalist; he becomes so only from the moment he makes use of his instrument to exploit the wage labour of others." [Collected Works, Vol. 47, pp. 179-80] I could have quoted Marx, but Engels is just repeating what Marx wrote. Indeed, it is a core part of the analysis in volume 1 of Capital – the section on "primitive accumulation" would lose much of its force if dispossessing the masses from the means of life were irrelevant to what constitutes capitalism (for example).

Which, incidentally, puts me in mind of one of my (many) pet hates – Marxists who try to distance Marxism from Engels. Apparently for some Engels long term contributor, the man whom he worked closely for decades, cannot be involved when discussing Marx’s ideas. I’ve come across this a lot in ultra-leftist circles and it seems to me just to be a case of wishful thinking, of seeking a "real" Marx which has been distorted by others (starting with Engels). Personally, I’m find it somewhat incredulous that someone reading Marx over 120 years after his death has a better grasp of his ideas than Engels. However, it does have some political utility as it allows the actual fate of Marxism as an ideology and movement to be distanced from its founder.

This is not to say that Engels was totally correct about his interpretation of Marx or that he did not introduce new elements or popularised (vulgarised) others. It is just to stress that it seems unlikely, on the key issues, that Engels never discussed them with Marx. I think my favourite example of this was Engels’ clarification of Marx’s comments on "smashing" the state machine in "The Civil War in France":

"It is simply a question of showing that the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administrative centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes: whereas all bourgeois republicans since 1848 inveighed against this machinery so long as they were in the opposition, but once they were in the government they took it over without altering it and used it partly against the reaction but still more against the proletariat." (Collected Works, vol. 47, p. 74)

Quoting that in a debate on libcom did produce some highly amusing and bizarre responses by the ultra-leftists Marxists. Suffice to say, it all depended on what "it" meant, apparently. This was in response to discussions on the Paris Commune, which say numerous "Marxists" express an utter ignorance of how the Commune was structured – the poor soles did not realise it was based on the existing (bourgeois) electoral divisions. This, in spite of Marx explicitly stating that it "was formed of the municipal councillors" who had been "chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town." Much use of made of the "drafts" of "The Civil War in France", i.e., material Marx rejected from inclusion in the finished work! Suffice to say, this was not quoted:

"But the proletariat cannot, as the ruling classes and their different rival fractions have done in the successive hours of their triumph, simply lay hold on the existent State body and wield this ready-made agency for their own purpose. The first condition for the holding of political power, is to transform its working machinery and destroy it as an instrument of class rule." (vol. 22, p. 533)

Transform? Refashion? But I thought the proletariat was to smash the state? As explained in AFAQ, the numerous apparently contradictory comments by Marx and Engels on the state become consistent once you realise they made a clear difference between the republican state (which could be captured and transformed) and the state machinery inherited by the state from abolitionism (which could not be reformed). Suffice to say, denigrating Engels helps cut out much, but not all, the social democratic aspects of Marxism and so has some political utility for some.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Just to make myself clear, I am well aware of what terms like "self-exploitation" and "self-managed capitalism" seek to describe. What these confused terms are trying to point to is how market forces can make independent producers and members of co-operatives work longer and harder than they would like to do as well as forcing them to invest more of their income into maintaining and developing their means of production. In short, the market produces a dynamic which those within it have to adjust to in order to survive as well as producing and increasing inequalities. This is recognised by some supporters of market exchange and commodity production – Proudhon most obviously (he was not blind to the negative effects of free markets and proposed various socio-economic institutions – such as the agro-industrial federation – to counteract their impact).

What this does not equal is "capitalism" or "self-exploitation." The whole point of any theory of exploitation is that it is focused on non-producers appropriating unpaid surplus-labour from the producers. When the producers keep the full product of their labour then, by definition, it is not exploitation. Marx was clear on this: "Let us suppose the workers are themselves in possession of their respective means of production and exchange their commodities with one another. These commodities would not be products of capital." These workers "have created . . . new values, i.e., the working day added to the means of production. This would comprise their wages plus surplus-value, the surplus labour over and above their necessary requirements, though the result of this would belong to themselves." (Capital, vol. 3, p. 276)

If we use Marx’s s/v formula, we can say that either the workers are not exploited or infinitely so. As all labour is surplus, the workers do not get paid wages and so we have s/0 – infinity. Conversely, we can take all firm income as "wages" (Proudhon was one for calling co-operative income that). Thus surplus is zero, leading to zero exploitation (0/v).

Ah, it will be objected the workers will be subject to the market and this will force them to invest some of their surplus-labour into means of production. They will still be seeking to produce an income greater than their costs. Sure, of course, but that is still not exploitation. If it were, then the capitalists exploit themselves when they are forced, by market forces, to invest some of the surplus-labour they appropriate from their workers into new means of production! What other possibility could there be?

Which suggests, ironically, the "communist" analysis has re-created the "abstinence" apologetic for capital! After all, if workers exploit themselves by having to invest some of their income to survive in the market then the poor capitalist must exploit themselves when they make the same kind of decision! For some reason I’m not that convinced that the capitalists are exploiting themselves when they decide to invest some of their surplus-value in new "capital" rather than, say, a new house, yacht, or some other luxury. Poor babies! As Marx suggested in one of my favourite quotes by him:

"An unparalleled example of the ‘discoveries’ of vulgar economics! It replaces an economic category with a sycophantic phrase, and that is all . . . All the conditions necessary for the labour process are now converted into acts of abstinence on the part of the capitalist . . . The capitalist robs himself whenever he ‘lends (!) the instruments of production to the worker’, in other words, whenever he valorises their value as capital by incorporating labour-power into them instead of eating them up, steam-engines, cotton, railways, manure, horses and all; or, as the vulgar economist childishly conceives, instead of dissipating ‘their value’ in luxuries and other articles of consumption. How the capitalist class can perform the latter feat is a secret which vulgar economics has so far obstinately refused to divulge. Enough that the world continues to live solely through the self-chastisement of this modern penitent of Vishnu, the capitalist. Not only accumulation, but the simple ‘conservation of a capital requires a constant effort to resist the temptation of consuming it.’ The simple dictates of humanity therefore plainly enjoin the release of the capitalist from his martyrdom and his temptation, in the same way as the slave-owners of Georgia, U.S.A., have recently been delivered by the abolition of slavery from the painful dilemma over whether they should squander the surplus product extracted by means of the whip from their Negro slaves entirely in champagne, or whether they should reconvert a part of it into more Negroes and more land." (Capital, vol. 1., pp. 744-5)

The last sentence is very suggestive, given that it suggests that slave-holders also have a dynamic to increase their investment in means of production in order to increase the "surplus product" they receive. Clearly, we must have capitalist slave-holders along side associated-labour capitalists, artisan capitalists and peasant capitalists! Which suggests, I would say, that for all their concern for avoiding the "personification" of capital they have entered the realms of the "univerisalisation" of capital – the seeing of capital everywhere, regardless of the actual mode of production. Thus what makes capitalism unique gets lost in a general demonisation of "the market" and this mirrors, ironically, the propertarian perspective.And it always strikes me odd that the conclusion of this so-called "communist" analysis is exactly the same as the ultra-reactionary ideology of the "Austrian" and other "market-advocates" schools. This focus on the market by the defenders of capitalism, as David Schweickart suggests, is no accident:

"The identification of capitalism with the market is a pernicious error of both conservative defenders of laissez-faire [capitalism] and most left opponents . . . If one looks at the works of the major apologists for capitalism . . . one finds the focus of the apology always on the virtues of the market and on the vices of central planning. Rhetorically this is an effective strategy, for it is much easier to defend the market than to defend the other two defining institutions of capitalism. Proponents of capitalism know well that it is better to keep attention toward the market and away from wage labour or private ownership of the means of production." ("Market Socialism: A Defense", pp. 7-22, Market Socialism: the debate among socialists, Bertell Ollman (ed.), p. 11)

I would suggest that this only aids those defending capitalism as it leads to all kinds of dead-ends. Thus, for example, the Bolsheviks campaigned against workers seizing their workplaces in 1917 and 1918, arguing that it was "petit-bourgeois" and not socialist. This helped undermine genuine socialistic tendencies in the revolution and simply handed over the means of production to the state bureaucracy and its appointed one-man managers. The "horizontal" links produced by commodity production by the factory committees were confused with capitalism and the replaced by a bureaucratic nightmare.

It reminds me of a SPGB meeting I attended way back in Glasgow. I mentioned the Spanish Revolution of 1936 and I was solemnly informed that there was no such thing as there were no Socialists in the Spanish Cortes! Arguing that co-operatives are just "self-exploitation" and self-managed "capitalism" strikes me as myopic nonsense as it leads to the conclusion that there was no revolution in 1936 as "capital" had merely changed its form. It also means effectively poo-poo-ing the solutions working class people started to create in an actual revolution by contrasting it to an ideal – an utopian position if ever there were one. It also means failing to understand the dynamic of any real revolution by dismissing these practical experiences out-of-hand as not perfect or anti-capitalist enough, even though they were not expected nor desired by anarchists.

It also leads to some strange analyses, with Tony Cliff of the SWP arguing that the USSR was "state capitalist" because it was locked in military competition with the capitalist west. Thus Russia was capitalist because America was capitalist – a bit like asserting that Safeway is capitalist because Lidl is capitalist. Yes, Cliff managed to overcome the "personification" dead-end of identifying capitalism with actual capitalists and so recognised that the state could act as a collective capitalism. Unfortunately, he did so by ignoring the actual relations within production in favour of looking at the "horizontal" links between economic entities – presumably, the slave-states of the American South were just as capitalist as the North! Whatever happened to capitalism as a mode of production?

Cliff’s failure to look at the actual relations of production in Stalinist Russia is unsurprising – if he had, he would have had to conclude that Russia had went state capitalist in 1918 under Lenin and Trotsky! This did not stop him, as I noted elsewhere, berating Proudhon for ignoring the "relations of production" in the usual ritualistic (and incorrect) Marxist fashion. That kind of theoretical dead-end happens when you try to use terms of "self-exploitation" and "wage-labour" to describe all forms of commodity production, regardless of whether the workers possess their means of production or not.

Simply put, commodity production is (as Marx and Engels repeated constantly) not enough to indicate whether an economy is capitalist or not. All of which reminded me of something I read in I. I. Rubin’s "Essays on Marx's Theory of Value" (another book I’ve seen ultra-leftists invoke regularly). I have to admit to having a soft-spot for this book as it was thanks to that I finally understood what "exchange value" was and how it related to market prices. That was something of an eye-opener and allowed me to see through those (bad) critiques of Marx (and classical economics) which assert that he failed to take into account demand, or the fluctuations in price, and so forth (somewhat ironically, such attacks mirror similar ones he inflicted on Proudhon in "The Poverty of Philosophy"). In Chapter Eight (BASIC CHARACTERISTICS OF MARX'S THEORY OF VALUE) Rubins writes the following:

"If the product of labor acquires value only in a determined social form of organization of labor, then value does not represent a "property" of the product of labor, but a determined "social form" or "social function" which the product of labor fulfills as a connecting link between dissociated commodity producers, as an ‘intermediary’ or as a ‘bearer’ of production relations among people. Thus at first glance value seems to be simply a property of things. When we say: ‘a painted, round oak table costs, or has the value of 25 roubles,’ it can be shown that this sentence gives information on four properties of the table. But if we think about it, we will be convinced that the first three properties of the table are radically different from the fourth. The properties characterize the table as a material thing and give us determined information on the technical aspects of the carpenter's labor. A man who has experience with these properties of the table can get a picture of the technical side of production, he can get an idea of the raw materials, the accessories, the technical methods and even the technical skill of the carpenter. But no matter how long he studies the table he will not learn anything about the social (production) relations between the producers of the table and other people. He cannot know whether or not the producer is an independent craftsman, an artisan, a wage laborer, or perhaps a member of a socialist community or an amateur carpenter who makes tables for personal use. Characteristics of the product expressed by the words: ‘the table has the value of 25 roubles’ are of a completely different nature. These words show that the table is a commodity, that it is produced for the market, that its producer is related to other members of society by production relations among commodity owners, that the economy has a determined social form, namely the form of commodity economy." (p. 68-9)

Yet a moments thought shows otherwise. The fact that the table costs 25 roubles says very little about "production relations" in terms of what happens in the workplace. A table can cost 25 roubles and can be created by slaves, serfs, an independent artisan, an artel of artisans, a co-operative, wage-workers employed by a capitalist, by wage-workers employed by the state (as in 1920s Russia) or even as part of a centrally-planned economy (as in 1930s Russia). In terms of the relations of its producer to other members in a society the answer simply cannot be worked out from the price-tag. We cannot even say if the 25 roubles represents a commodity on the market rather than a good produced by central planning (or PARECON or such like).

Of course you could lump all those different possible modes of production as "capital" and move on (many do), but it does not seem very convincing – it is meant to be a mode of production, after all. Each would have its own dynamics (due to, for example, the different ways surplus-labour is appropriated and by whom) and only some can be considered as capitalism (wage-labour to a capitalist or state). As such, Rubin is not quite right to state:

"Work relations among commodity producers or social labor are ‘materialized’ and ‘crystallized’ in the value of a product of labor. This means that a determined social form of organization of labor is consistent with a particular social form of product of labor.’ (p. 69)

Yet the product of labour as a commodity can have many different social forms of organisation of labour, it is not "determined" – that smacks of Marx’s flawed arguments in "The Philosophy of Philosophy" rather than his more mature arguments in Capital.

Rubin was aware that capitalism is defined by wage-labour (as most Marxists pay lip-service to). As he argued in Chapter Four (THING AND SOCIAL FUNCTION (FORM)) "relations among the commodity owners do not necessarily presuppose a production bond between the industrial capitalist and the workers" (p. 32) and the relations between workers and capitalists create a "type of production relation, which is the basis of capitalist society." (p. 34) And so:

"With the emergence of a new type of production relation - namely a capitalistic relation which connects a commodity owner (a capitalist) with a commodity owner (a worker), and which is established through the transfer of money - the money acquires a new social function or form: it becomes ‘capital.’ More exactly, the money which directly connects the capitalist with the workers plays the role, or has the form, of ‘variable capital.’ But to establish production relations with the workers, the capitalist must possess means of production or money with which to buy them. These means of production or money which serve indirectly to establish a production relation between the capitalist and the workers has the function or form of ‘constant capital.’ To the extent that we consider production relations between the class of capitalists and the class of laborers in the process of production, we are considering ‘productive capital’ or ‘capital in the stage of production.’ But before the process of production began, the capitalist appeared on the market as a buyer of means of production and labor power. These production relations between the capitalist as buyer and other commodity owners correspond to the function, or form, of ‘money capital.’ At the end of the production process the capitalist appears as a seller of his goods, which acquires an expression in the function, or form of, ‘commodity capital.’ In this way the metamorphosis or ‘transformation of the form’ of capital reflects different forms of production relations among people. (p. 33)


All this does not mean that socialists do not extend their critique of wage-labour into the critique of the wages-system (i.e., commodity production or distribution according to deed rather than need). It does not mean that the negative effects of markets and market forces do not exist. It just means that we need to be aware of what makes capital capital and avoid confused and unclear terminology to describe real problems with markets. We do need to avoid the "personification" of capital (as in comments like "if one eliminates the capitalists, the means of production cease to be capital." (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, part 3, p. 296)) as this allows blindness to such things as state-capitalist (where the state hires wage-labour). However, this far too often flows into the "universalisation" of capital – seeing capital everywhere there is commodity production and so downplaying what makes capitalism a unique mode of production: wage-labour.

Moreover, given that every revolution seems to go through a mutualist phase of co-operatives/collectives selling the product of their labour on the market this flawed understanding of capital could cause problems for revolutionaries. It may cause them to dismiss attempts of workers to seize their workplaces. It may cause them to abstractly present an idealised vision of "socialism" which undermines the genuine socialistic experiments occurring in a revolution. After all, the arguments used by the Bolsheviks to undermine the factory committee movement flowed from the confusion of capitalism with commodity production. Sure, these experiments in mutualism all were flawed compared to the (libertarian) communist ideal but the alleged mistakes made during a real revolution by real workers are far more positive (and better able to evolve) than even the most appealing of utopias of revolutionary activists – particularly ones imposed by central committees.


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