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Marx: Contradictions, Incoherence, and Problems

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Political Ideologies Contexts, Ideas, and Practices

Professor. Arvind Sivaramakrishnan Department of Humanities and Social Science Indian Institute of Madras

Lecture no. 15 Marx Lec 3/4 Contradictions, Cyclical Crises in Capitalism, Problems in Marx. 46:05

Well, hello, everyone, We’re ready to continue our study of Marx. We have looked at the main ideas and concepts in Marx. We’ve also done something on his biography, which is in some way very significant to his writing. And we’ve looked at his, we’ve looked in some detail at Marx’s account of the systematic processes in commodity production, or as we often call it today, capitalism and the impact of those on the ways we think, and whether our everyday understandings of it are accurate or not.

We concluded by looking at the topic of ideology and commodity fetishism, both of which, as Marx shows, systematically mislead us all involved that is, as to the nature of this system of commodity production. Well, we’ll go on to look at major contradictions and incoherences in capitalism, and we’ll then go on, to look at things like the falling rate of profit. We’ll also look at some problems in Marx’s own work, arising from his own work.

And we’ll look at further questions arising. We’ll then go on to look at forms of Marxism, such as socialism in its different forms, evolutionary, revolutionary, and so on. We’ll also look at the differences between socialism and communism and we’ll then conclude. Well, what about major contradictions and incoherences in capitalism? Marx certainly exposes these in great detail.

He is, as we’ve seen, never completely materialistic or mechanistic. He’s always aware of the power of social ideas, and long-established social systems, even in economies which are otherwise completely or almost completely capitalist. For example, Marx notes that in Great Britain, the new class, the bourgeoisie, effectively controlled the whole of civil society, or the sphere of interest, that is, generally speaking, the private sphere. The bourgeoisie effectively controlled that sphere, but the old landed aristocracy still ruled officially through the institutions of state.

Secondly, Marx exposes a powerful element of moral coercion which is inherent in capitalism, even though the claim is very widespread that this system, capitalism, is founded on freedom. First of all, as Marx shows, money reduces all human relations, all human values, to a single interchangeable or apparently universalizable measure, that is, money.

In addition, any accumulation of money, capital, amounts to deferred or delayed consumption. If we save money, we postpone our consumption of goods and our participation in activities - for which we would need money. In respect of capital, Marx himself says, “The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have.” In other words, if we defer and delay our consumption by participating in this system, we end up with more of its major good - money. But what Marx is saying here is, yes, what we’ll end up with is more money, more money, and that is the very thing which can buy the things we need to meet our needs and express our lives.

But to accumulate it at all, to accumulate money at all, we have to live a certain kind of life. What kind of life is that? To accumulate money, we need to live a certain kind of life. That is, we need to give our working hours to the capitalist, we need then to scrimp and save for anything beyond the necessities and so on - because the system requires that we’re only paid the cost of our labour power, and anything else where we just have to scrimp and save for a do without while we could save and so on. Well, this then shapes the whole or almost the whole of our lives. It amounts to a comprehensive vision of how we should live. It is therefore a blanket moral requirement. And its acceptance, or our acceptance of it, is essential to the emergence and survival or maintenance of capitalism.

There’s a further problem here, and that is inherent in the logic of commodity production. The capitalist has to keep the value of the workers labour power as low as possible, and even force it consistently downwards, so is to maximize the surplus that the worker generates. But if workers are paid so little that they can’t buy the goods themselves produce, then the system is at risk of collapsing because the market for goods shrinks rapidly.

That may be a negative form of Keynes’s multiplier, a shrinking effect; such shrinkages can have an enormous impact. And the global crash of 2007 to 9, from which were yet to recover globally, has been described, for example, by Amartya Sen, as a crisis of aggregate demand. This also serves to show our whole economies almost certainly depend less on gigantic corporations than on ordinary people’s buying and selling ordinary things, everyday things.

[Now, what has also emerged in this process is the role of finance capital. Particularly in the Anglophone world, political and other pressures on governments have led to very great restrictions.] What has also emerged in this process is the role of finance capital, especially in the Anglophone world, political and other pressures on governments have led to very great relaxations on finance - and the result is that enormous notional or paper profits can be made very quickly, without apparent need or any apparent need for the use of labour power in production.

Quite simply the worker’s labour power, that is, the worker’s, the human being’s labour power, is all about eliminated from the process of making profits. One result has been that astounding amounts of money are claimed as profits, and are held solely in notional form. Even in 2007, the notional total of derivatives, a particular kind of financial product, was 595.3 trillion dollars, nearly 600 trillion dollars. That, at that time amounted to eleven times the world’s actual annual output.

It is difficult to know what this kind of money even means, especially as it seems not to be invented, invested in production largely, but in yet more financial instruments and other such holdings. In other words, the status of production is rapidly diminishing.

Now, Marx never claims that the absolute position of workers will get worse and worse, will deteriorate endlessly under capitalism - but his analysis shows that there is no limit to the extent of the inequalities between the working class and the bourgeoisie, the controllers of capital. In industrial capitalism, the bourgeoisie furthermore, can and do reuse the surplus value, which the workers create by - and how do the workers create that? They turn more and more areas of life into commodities because the system requires it,that is one of the internal imperatives in this system of production.

Even the worker’s labour power, as we have seen, even the workers labour power is a commodity. But that process, the commodification of more and more areas of life, brings yet more workers under the control of the bourgeoisie, the controllers of the capital - and it is necessary to capitalist society. As we have seen, in order to be a worker at all in commodity production, a worker has to have their daily necessities available in the right quantities in the right place and at the right time, because their whole life is subordinated to being at work on time for a specified period of time. And less capital is actually used for that purpose, that is for the worker to produce goods; it remains dead labour.

Now one result of this dead labour is the falling rate of profit. I have taken the phrase from Shlomo Avineri’s book on Marx; one result of dead labour is the falling rate of profit. What does that mean? Well, it is an intrinsic and inherent feature in capitalist production. Capitalists may form a class in the system, yes, they do. But they’re also in continual conflict with one another, and with their workers - because in this system, they are under constant commercial pressure to reduce the costs of production and increase the volume of production. The only way to do that is to reduce the time it takes to produce an item, because that reduces the labour time used, and that is the sole index of productivity at a profit.

An obvious way to do that is to install machinery. Machinery is therefore a form of crystallized or dead labour because it is not itself a source of labour power or labour time. Now, Marx calls machinery constant capital and labour power variable capital. Those are not unfamiliar terms to us. But the ratio of the two is for him, is for Marx, the rate of profit. In volume Three of Capital Marx calculates this as the percentage of surplus value in the total investment by the capitalist, that is, the ratio of constant and variable capital.

Now, as more and more machinery increases productivity, it therefore reduces the amount of labour power needed. So, the ratio of variable capital to constant capital keeps falling because less and less labour power is used. Therefore, the ratio of surplus value or profit to investment also falls. Marx calls this the falling rate of profit. In addition, the value of each item produced falls, because less and less, progressively less labour time, goes into producing it. Now, it makes no difference that higher volumes of production mean that what Marx calls the absolute massive surplus value, the total profit rises; that doesn’t matter, the rate of profit per unit time spent in production falls. And for the capitalists, the only response is to keep producing more and more in the same time. That then means the market could, and often does, collapse through overproduction.

This could also mean as we have seen that the state has to colonize other regions of the world and turn the colonized peoples into captive consumers for the surplus goods produced by capitalism. This also has deadly environmental consequences, because it requires that we continue to produce and consume ever increasing volumes of goods and services. We should return to this point in our later chapter, chapter 7, which is on ecologism.

But, let’s now look at some problems in Marx. I shall not go into questions here about how socialist movements or political parties might bring about socialism. Those questions have been covered very extensively within such groups, within political groups and also in the literature on Marx and Marxism. Instead, we should look at some, look briefly at some philosophic difficulties or potential difficulties in the work of Marx.
The first is Marx’s distinction between use value and exchange value. Marx says, “Use value is limited by the properties of the thing in question, the thing we are using,” and he says that, “Exchange value is the ratio or proportion at which this particular good is exchanged for another commodity in the market.” Now, the idea of use value is not as simple as it looks. The properties of a thing are themselves not independent of particular societies or ways of life; that is, the relevant properties.

What is it that makes something useful to us? That is a relevant property, something that we can identify as being useful for us or something we can use or a property that something has which makes it useful to us. Now, an item can serve many uses - as a tool or a memento or an ornament. And therefore, use value is itself a social creation. We may think that use value just has to do with the properties of the object, but it is itself a social creation, because use assumes society and sociality.

Now Marx shows some recognition of this, but he does,’t make it very clear. The second problem has to do with Marx is account of alienation; that’s the second problem I shall look at here. Marx’s critique of capitalist production is extremely powerful. He shows how capitalist production expropriates our humanity itself. But he regards our humanity as expressed in the things we do and embodied in the things we create, and therefore, in a completely capitalist system, it is not clear what other form of humanity we know. That is, we may be unable to say what is being alienated from what. If the expression of our humanity is the objects and systems we create here and now in this system, well, what does it mean then to say we are alienated from the things we create? We have to posit or assume some human essence, which underlies any particular historical expression of our humanity - and that raises other problems in turn.

One possible way for us to proceed might be to say that as we are reasoning and collaborative actors in and on the world, then capitalism reduces us to robotic subjects, of its own imperatives. That is, reduces us to something no longer recognizable or intelligible as human. That condition is one in which, in which the capitalist class and the proletariat both find themselves.

For example, the Marx scholar Iring Fetscher has identified a strong conception of human nature in Marx’s work. According to this, we are collaborative and creative beings, whose sociality and creativity are controlled and redirected by capitalism to its own ends. In other words, we have a persisting human nature, which is to be collaborative and creative, in the end collaboratively creative, and this, and this human nature is controlled and redirected by capitalism to its own ends - and nothing else.

Of course, there are further the questions arising. Marx is very clear that there is no question of going back to pre-industrial societies. There is no way of knowing how, for example, preindustrial feudalism or other hierarchies could be revived or reinstated. But that leaves open the question of how societies which are still primarily feudal, or agrarian and feudal, are to be transformed into socialist societies, unless they go through an industrial revolution and its attendant horrors.

This is an issue that faces all socialist movements in the developing world. And Marx’s own work is not automatically a source of help here, partly because he seems to consider it necessary for preindustrial societies to become industrial capitalist ones before they can become socialist societies. Secondly, we need to remember that Marx’s account of history is never mechanistic even though his sense of the process seems to suggest it is, but his account of history is never mechanistic.

He is nevertheless, pessimistic about the prospects for the emergence of capitalism in societies which have never been feudal in the first place. He saw feudalism as a precondition for the commercialization of land and agriculture, and he held for example, that Portuguese society was not feudal - so, the mercantile, the merchant civil society, which transformed the rest of Europe, did not develop there.

Marx does recognize that he needs to be cautious in his account of capitalism as apparently emerging only in societies which have been feudal in the first place. He is cautious about that. He’s never completely mechanistic about it. But one implication is that if we try and bring about socialism in very traditional non-feudal societies, then we can’t use Marx’s work as a formula for our own action.

Instead, we need to engage with it and draw upon it with a very clear sense of our own historical and social location. There are no easy options in the form of one model or another. That may seem like cold comfort, but Marx himself calls on us to investigate whether any society has sources of social or societal behaviour which might contribute to the development of socialism - even though the development of socialism itself requires a clear understanding of capitalism. In other words, we have to think where we are, and not take Marx as giving us easy formulas for the transformation of our own societies into socialist ones.

Now many socialist leaders around the world have been well aware that they need to know the workings of capitalism very well, in order to develop socialism for their own societies, but they have to develop that developed socialism for their own societies. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara both rejected the Soviet model when they overthrew the dictator, the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. So too equally clear-headed was the Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was elected in 1970. Guevara also saw how the then communist countries were failing to improve civilian productions, I will rephrase that.

Guevara also saw how the then communist countries were failing to improve civilian production systems, but at the same time, were putting vast amounts of money into military research and production under the pressures of the Cold War. Guevara was very alert to the 7 implications of technological developments, and he saw how capitalist corporations were using new technologies solely to increase their profits. In 1962, he said, “Electronics has become a fundamental political problem.”

And he tried to reorientate Cuban society and the economy, so that technological innovation and production would foster a common ethics in which willing commitment, willing commitment, note the phrase, would be central. In India, although political parties on the left have often been severely criticized, with substantial evidence, for a wide range of failures, Communist leaders nevertheless have always known that their task is the enormously difficult one of devising a compelling, a convincing, socialist position for India. I take that from the work of Vijay Prashad.

Now, those are the kinds of things which all who engage in socialist political activity have to face, but what must not be forgotten in any study of Marx, and no doubt in any attempt to draw upon Marx, is Marx’s fierce passion for the productive life of human beings. Marx’s lifelong analysis of capitalism and his rage against it, both show how capitalism, despite the immense productive energies it liberates, systematically chains human creativity and productivity to its own ends - and, in doing so, crushes all forms, all other forms and expressions of human creativity and productivity. It even comes close to or actually reshapes are very nature as human beings. Yet Marx shows us how the forces of capitalism, that is, the forces of the system of commodity production are not forces of nature, or supernatural forces, they’re human creations. And if we see them as anything else, as anything but human creations, then we enslave ourselves to those forces and to the controllers of capital.

Well what about the forms political activity has taken while it draws from Marx’s critique of capital? Very broadly, what about socialism, communism and Marxism? These terms can’t be easily understood in isolation from a knowledge of Marx’s own writings. And one reason for that is that Marx himself says we do not anticipate the worlds dogmatically, but we rather wish to find the new world through the criticism of the old one. I have paraphrased Marx, I’ll say that again. We do not anticipate the worlds dogmatically, but rather wish to find the new world through the criticism of the old one.
Marx was also well aware that when we change our views and our ways of life, we usually do so in response to intolerable conditions, and less because we’re attracted by some vision of a better life in the future. Therefore, one difficulty we face is that Marx himself died before he could carry out his stated intention of writing about future society. The notes he left on that have been published as volumes two and three of Capital or Das Kapital. And they have received attention from some very distinguished Marx’s scholars, such as Bertell Ollman.

Now the terms socialism, communism and Marxism given that we have not got Marxist detailed, specific, and complete writings on future society, and particularly not on the state. The terms socialism, communism and Marxism are of course very widely used. We hear them, use them all the time. But they’re often used with without specification, and very often used in complete ignorance of what they mean, particularly when they are used as general terms of abuse.

Now, here I shall only provide a brief outline of them. And I hope that you can draw upon this material here and on the material, we’ve covered earlier on Marx to inform your sense of political positions which you might hear or read about.

Well, what about a socialist system? That is one in which the state owns the means of production, that is plant and equipment, and also owns natural resources and property such as land. That’s a socialist system. This is sometimes called state socialism. And the most obvious historical examples have been the Soviet Union, The People’s Republic of China and Cuba, plus the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The former German Democratic Republic, the GDR, widely known popularly as East Germany, may also have been an example of state socialism.

Now, this kind of system can work extremely well. For example, in the chapter on liberalism, in the topic of liberalism, we looked briefly at the British National Health Service. It is the most loved and trusted institution in the United Kingdom. And some visitors to Cuba have also received, who have received treatment under the country’s health care system, have also spoken very highly of it. It is run on similar lines to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, completely public, completely free at the point of need.

As we know at the time I am delivering these lectures, the NHS has been part-privatized in that certain clinical services are now being delivered under contract by private providers, but treatment is still free at the point of need. Now in mixed economies, such as the largely social democratic systems of Western Europe and Scandinavia, state owned institutions are usually described as being in public rather than state ownership. That includes almost all educational institutions in Western Europe and Scandinavia, and perhaps also increasingly, perhaps also in southern Europe. Now, the terms public ownership and government ownership are used in India, where for example, three quarters of the banks are in the public sector, as are the railways.

So, in India, as we know, public ownership and government ownership are used, if not equally, quite widely used in both forms, in Indian public discourse. But - comprehensive state socialism has been severely criticized, only partly for a mixed record of success and 9 failure. For example, the Soviet and the Chinese education systems have received much less criticism than many of those countries’ other systems.

Some of the sharpest criticisms have been directed at state socialism, for its centralization of power and political authority, among a very small elite at the top of the systems concerned that has even been called state capitalism, for example, by the American scholar Richard Wolf. [Excuse me.]

Now, there’s a contrast to socialist systems; a communist system would involve staged progress towards full communism. The first stage, according to Marx, would be what he calls in a famous phrase, “The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” He said this in 1875. This would be, as Marx says, I quote, “Still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society, from whose womb it emerges.” Marx doesn’t seem to say exactly what these transitional birthmarks would be, or how long they would last, but in the manifesto of the Communist Party, he and Engels, Marx and Engels, set out a number of specific measures that such a system would implement, including, I quote, “a heavy progressive income tax, as well as state control of transport, and the means of communication. The system would also abolish landed property, and it would direct all rents or profits from land to public purposes.” There’s nothing particularly utopian about any of that. And some of it has been very successfully implemented around the world for many decades, even in systems which do not call themselves socialist or communist but social democratic.

Now, Marx’s use of the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has caused problems. It is quite likely that he did not mean dictatorship in the usual sense. He used the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in opposition to the French socialist Louis Blanqui’s proposal that a future worker state would have to be organized on elitist lines. And Marx was writing more than half a century before the terrible dictatorships of the 20th century came into being. He probably had the severely limited dictatorships of Roman times in mind.

Now, I have drawn that from Bertell Ollman’s work; Ollman also points out that the democratic rule of the whole working class, which would bring former capitalists and landowners under its ambit or umbrella, would be more democratic than anything we have today, even under our current bourgeois conceptions of democracy. But this would still be a transitional and transformative stage on the way to full communism.

In that form, full communism, the means of production and natural resources would be genuinely communally owned. Marx’s work on this, like his work on the state, is incomplete. But his writings on the Paris Commune, and its distribution of political and administrative power, give us a key to his thinking.

Well, crucially too, Marx was very insistent that in, that the new system would involve work as a human, agreeable or at least bearable, kind of activity. In a draft text on surplus value, he also argues in detail that eliminating the unnecessary work we do in the existing systems would give us a great deal more free time for the use of our creative capacities. The unnecessary work that we do to in order to participate in the existing commodity producing system, that unnecessary work may amounte to as much as nine tenths of the use of all labour power. Marx - I’ve drawn that from - Marx and from Bertell Ollman.

Marx did not as we know, lived to start specifying what a communist society would look like. But he did say enough to show that it would involve a profoundly different sense of productive value, in almost every sense, from the ways we understand that term today. Each of us as he himself says, Marx himself says, “Would produce according to our ability and would receive according to our need.”

Well, how does that relate to what we would consider Marxism? Marxism has always been the subject of a flourishing debate for as long as Marx’s work has been known in public, the mid-1860s, 1850s onwards. Now, even if particular groups or parties reach agreement on what Marxism means, or on how it would best be implemented, even if they reach agreement. There is always been a flourishing debate, a really heated debate, on what Marxism means.

That was as true in Marx’s own time as it is in ours, and we’ve seen that Marx, Marx himself was involved in various disputes about the policies and directions, the various groups that he founded or joined should take. The crucial point is that all these disputes, discussions and disagreements, grounded in, grounded in or derived from, analyses of our situation or condition.

These analyses also draw upon the major themes in Marx; that means that there is no one defined or definable Marxist position or perspective, there is no one such position or no single such position. And it also means that we have to know something about Marx’s own work in order to understand the issues that arise in and around the enormous field of Marxist debate and literature and political action.
Clearly, there is no question of our (encompass) encompassing that immense variety and range of Marxist arguments, policies and policies here. Neither can we encompass the colossal amount of work on those themes. But socialists and communist movements and parties in non-communist countries have had to devise approaches which they consider would constitute the best ways to achieve socialism and then possibly communism.

These approaches have been outlined clearly in much of the literature, and we can summarize them briefly here - but we need to remember that almost all the debates and arguments involve questions of the relations of production, that is, the relations of ownership and control in the political economy of any society where socialist or communist movements exist. This, of course, includes the analysis of major institutions and practices, such as religion, a point I have derived from John Molyneux.

And we must also remember that Marxist thinking, like the thinking of Sigmund Freud, has had an enormous impact far outside. Perhaps even outside the widest fields that they could have intended to cover, famous artists in many areas of work, we deeply influenced by Marx, and we shall encounter some of these in chapter eight, which is on in our eighth topic, and that is on post-modernism in post-structuralism.

Now, Marx’s language and terminology also inform our language in many ways, and often unexpected and significant ways. Many great works of literary analysis have been explicitly informed by Marx’s work, and one such is Raymond Williams’s book, Marxism and Literature, first published in 1977. But for the moment will only look at brief summaries of possible paths towards, paths towards evolutionary social towards socialism.

I beg your pardon, I’ll start that again. For the present well shall only look briefly at summaries of possible paths towards socialism. We’ll start with evolutionary socialism; we’ll go on to look at revolutionary socialism, and we’ll conclude with a general roundup on Marxism.