In Aufheben 3 (Summer 1994), we reviewed Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-92, a collection of articles from the American autonomist journals Zerowork (1974-9) and Midnight Notes (1979-). We welcomed the book and the tradition which it expresses; in asserting the primacy of the class struggle, the Midnight Notes collective present a vital alternative to objectivist Leninist theories of imperialism in understanding such events as the Gulf War.
However, we were ultimately critical of the book, arguing for example that it appeared to grasp the dynamic of modern capitalism simply in terms of the power of capital to (deliberately) manipulate prices to attack the working class. Below, we publish a reply to our review, from one of the editors of Midnight Oil.
And below that we have our counter-reply, in which we argue that the position(s) developed in Midnight Oil, and re-affirmed in the editor's reply, fail to take sufficient account of the mediations that constitute capital's operation through the "law of value".
A reply to Aufheben's review of Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-92
by George Caffentzis
Aufheben, v.a. irr. lift (up), pick up; keep, preserve;
(laws) repeal, abolish; (agreements) rescind, annul;
(philosophy) overcoming, preservation.
These remarks are personal responses to a review of a book entitled Midnight Oil: Work Energy, War, 1973-1992 which appeared in an English-language journal entitled Aufheben in 1994. I am responding to the Aufheben review because I am one of the editors of Midnight Oil and because the review was lengthy and very critical. Its thesis is this: "It is not merely that we find Midnight Oil is inconsistent, as is only to be expected from a collective project developing over 20 years, rather it is that we find its underlying theory incoherent." I will argue that the "underlying theory" is not incoherent and that the arguments the Aufheben reviewer uses to prove Midnight Oil's theory incoherent are not sound because the views attributed to the Midnight Notes collective are simply not its views. In other words, the Aufheben reviewer has read Midnight Oil wrong-headedly.
Who is to blame for this misreading, if that is what it is, the authors or the readers or both? Here let me take on a bit of mea culpa for the Midnight Notes editorial collective. The text of Midnight Oil is a strange and complex animal. The first part deals directly with the Gulf War and with aspects of the petroleum extraction and refining industry internationally during the 1980s. Its purpose was to describe and explain why the war (with or without quotation marks) happened as it did. Parts two and three include articles from Zerowork I (1975) and issues of Midnight Notes from 1979 to 1990 whose purpose is to trace the development both of that period's class relations in general and of the theory the Midnight Notes collective uses to explain the Gulf War. But the development implies contradiction and some later articles (especially "The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse") were clearly in a polemic with earlier ones (especially "Notes on the International Crisis"). All this happens without much stage direction for the reader. The only place where there is some reflection on the whole project is in the Introduc tion and there the accent is on the continuity and coherence of the book's articles, although the difference between Zerowork and the Midnight Notes collectives is noted.
Thus the reader who notices a contradiction between articles in Midnight Oil has some work to do for him/herself. The reader has to ask and answer the questions: "Is the contradiction a sign of theoretical incoherence or of theoretical development? Is it a sign of a plain confusion or of an aufheben (i.e., a repealing and a preserving)?" Is this too much to ask of a reader? Not necessarily, if the reader is a member of a collective that calls itself "Aufheben" (even ironically). I will show that at a number of points the Aufheben reader-reviewer did not ask him/herself these questions and simply assumed the worst, for reasons that are not clear to me.
The clearest example of this failure has to do with the notion of value. In the Aufheben review's section on "Value and the Apocalypse", the reviewers note that there is a rather obvious contradiction between "Notes on the International Crisis" and "The Work Energy/ Crisis and the Apocalypse". The second article clearly rejects the first article's view that capitalism has entered into a period of "labourless production liberating capital from labour as a value-producing activity". The reviewer did not note that the first article appeared in Zerowork I in 1975 and the second in Midnight Notes #3 in 1980. In fact, he/she assumes a continuity of views even when there is an explicit rejection of such continuity in the later article, which the reviewer notes! But she/he continues to claim that the "underlying theory" of Midnight Notes abandons the "law of value" when in Midnight Oil article after article, from beginning (p. xiv: "Despite all its high-tech machines, space shuttles, laser beam weapons and genetic engineering, capital still depends upon human work") to end (p. 326: "How can we understand anything about this world without using the axioms of Marx's theory of work, money and profit?") the application of this law forms the basis of explanation.
Our interest, has not been in swearing allegiance to "the Law" but to show how capital is even more constrained by it at the end of the twentieth century than it was in the nineteenth. The most important consequence of this constraint is that any increase in the capitalization of the highly mechanized industries (such as the nuclear power industry and the petroleum extraction and refining industry) must be accompanied by a major increase in unmechanized, "wretch" and "housework" labour. That is why computerization and robotization must be accompanied by a major increase in sweatshops and slavery, i.e., the expansion of areas of absolute surplus value and unwaged labour. This theme has been repeated so often in Midnight Notes writing that it is hard to believe that any reader can mistake it, even if he/she disagreed with it, as the Aufheben reviewers certainly do.
The reviewer also argues (a bit incoherently) that Midnight Notes collective uses the law of value incorrectly, since the petroleum industry is not a high organic composition industry and that the proper analysis of oil price is through seeing it as a product of rent. This is not the place to deal with the matter of organic composition at length but a glance at page 237 of Midnight Oil will show that the derivation of the three sectors of industry organized by the ratio of invested capital to wages was empirically based. Anyway, if the collective was empirically wrong, then the Aufheben reviewer should show us some numbers. As for the rent analysis of the oil price, it is not that Midnight Notes did not consider it, but it was rejected as a minor aspect of the story. The idea that a few oil sheikhs' and autocrats' "property rights" determined such a vital commodity's price was hard to believe in the context of the increasing marginalization of rental income with the development of capital in the twentieth century. This is especially the case with former colonial nations which are being recolonized in new ways at this very moment. As I wrote in "Rambo on the Barbary Shore": "For the US state considers itself the custodian for world capital of the planet's energy resources, whether these residues of geologic evolution happen to be immediately below US territory or not... "Libyan terrorism" is simply the belief that the petroleum resources locked in the Libyans' soil is theirs. Such presumption is intolerable, according to the present capitalist order" (pp. 292, 294). One might agree or disagree with these expressions, but they hardly constitute neglect of the question of rent.
Disagreement is one thing, but the inability to read what one is disagreeing with is another. Therefore, it is not surprising that some other elements of "incoherence" in Midnight Oil the Aufheben reviewer claims to see are also cases of her/his disagreement with the Midnight Notes position presented as Midnight Notes' own confusion (N.B.: don't mingle aufhebens, please). Let me take them in order: (1) the importance of energy commodities in the present period of capitalist accumulation, (2) the way in which capitalists plan, strategize, and conspire, (3) Midnight Notes' predictions concerning the Gulf War made in October of 1990, (4) the role of class struggle as the major variable in historical analysis.
Is it true, as the Aufheben reviewer contends, that "Midnight Notes contends, that the history of post-war capitalism is the history of oil price changes?" (my italics). No, it is not, as a reading of the full title of the book - Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992 - and even a superficial reading of chapter headings and random paragraphs throughout the book would indicate. "Work", "energy" and "war" are clearly as important as "oil" in the book's conceptual economy, while its dramatis personae include not only roughnecks and Exxon executives. Autoworkers, coal miners, nuclear power technicians, housewives and communal farmers are as central to Midnight Oil's history of post-war capitalism as are people formerly connected with the oil industry.
Why then does the Aufheben reviewer mistakenly claim that Midnight Notes collective "attempt[s] to reduce the history of capitalism to the history of oil price fluctuations"? My most charitable explanation is as follows. Knowledge of the role of energy commodities and their prices, especially petroleum, play in class relations is crucial for the understanding of the post-war history of capitalism. This is not an insight especially given to Midnight Notes, it is contemporary common sense. This knowledge is especially important in explaining the Gulf War of 1990-91 which was fought, literally, on, over and within oil wells, pipelines, terminals and refineries. Since Midnight Oil is a book aiming to explain the main characteristics of the Gulf War through the application of class analysis, oil qua commodity and its price had to be the central topic of the book.
Further, the Midnight Notes collective has argued more generally that with the demise of a Keynesian strategy - which focused class struggle in the mass assembly line factories making "consumer durables" - the centre of gravity of class relations shifted to basic commodities that are essential to both capitalist production and the reproduction of the working class. Energy commodities, especially petroleum, are the most basic of the basic commodities. Consequently, changes in the prices of such commodities penetrate all nodes of the commodity field and are obviously crucial for understanding the history of post-1973 capitalism.
Finally, there is the question of prices. Midnight Notes is not alone in arguing that all the prices of commodities are determined by socio-political struggle. It is the starting point of the critique of political economy both logically and historically. After all, prices of commodities, especially prices of their production, reflect (1) the existence of exploitable labour (hence the continually renewed, violent expropriation of workers from the means of subsistence), (2) the struggle over the value of workers' labour power (indeed, often the establishment of the existence of such value in the first place) in the production of the commodity, (3) the struggle over the surplus value extracted during the production of the commodity (involving battles over length and intensity of the work day), (4) the transferring in or out of the total surplus value generated by the capitalist system as a whole in order to determine the price of production (which involves the global accumulated struggles of capital and proletariat in all aspects of production).
Though these geological strata of class struggle can be found in the prices of all commodities, they are especially evident in commodities on the top and bottom of the production tree - i.e., in branches where there is a very high or a very low machinery/direct labour ratio. This is so because the global social character of capital is made most evident in these branches. Energy commodities, especially those produced in the nuclear or petroleum cycle, are on the higher branches, and so their prices reflect the indices of struggle throughout the system.
Taking these aspects of oil prices as essential to Midnight Oil's analysis, it would certainly be wrong to say that Midnight Notes reduces the history of capitalism to oil price fluctuations, as the Aufheben reviewer charges. The most accurate claim one can make is that Midnight Notes interprets major changes in oil prices in the 1973-1992 as indices and complex reflections of class struggles throughout the world capitalist system. This too is not such a wild view. the problem is to provide such an interpretation. Midnight Oil sketches a narrative that attempts to explain basic inflections in the oil price from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. The particular narrative might be crude and full of gaps. it certainly does not claim to be necessarily true. Other, perhaps better, narratives are possible and I look forward to studying them. But one thing that Midnight Notes's approach does is to show how the most dispossessed and apparently wretched people of the planet have changed capitalism and are putting its hegemony in question on the most basic level. The narrative satisfies a minimum condition from my perspective, for any correct understanding of oil price changes or any other important feature of the history of capitalism.
The Aufheben reviewer certainly finds fault with particulars of the Midnight Oil narrative, but more importantly s/he sees a deeper logical flaw in it: the conflation of "capitalism with the actions of individual capitalists" for "Midnight Oil is fatally undermined by Midnight Notes's tendency to ascribe outcomes to the conscious strategy of a unified capital." In a word, the Midnight Notes collective commits a fallacy of composition - by arguing that since individual capitalists have strategies, then capital as a whole has a strategy - which leads it to hold a simplistic and vacuous "conspiracy theory".
Here again I argue that the reader has misread the work. First, since the Aufheben reviewer recognizes the Midnight Notes collective's efforts to read working class action as a determining element in the analysis of any recent historical event or tendency, then surely Midnight Oil cannot be ascribing outcomes to the conscious strategy of a unified capital, any more than an outcome can be ascribed to a conscious unified proletarian strategy. So in a war, the victory of side A cannot be ascribed to A's actions and strategy alone, the actions of Side Band its strategy for victory must be included in any account of the victory itself. Since almost every important feature of capitalism is rife with struggles, then any outcome cannot be ascribed to a single strategy. The Midnight Notes collective certainly does not believe in the myth of an absolute, omnipotent totality called capital determining values, prices and profits round the planet. That God was never born, it need hardly be killed by Midnight Notes or Aufheben!
Second, what of the fallacy of the composition retort: "Capitalism does not have a strategy, although individual capitalists pursue different strategies"? We should remind the Aufheben reviewer that not every inference from parts to whole is illegitimate. For example, though "Each atom in this piece of chalk is indivisible. Therefore, the chalk is indivisible" is a fallacious argument, "Every atom in this piece of chalk has mass. Therefore, the piece of chalk has mass" is not. What of capitals and strategies? Let our reviewer attend: there may be a genuine aufheben lurking here. For individual capitals and capitalists are not merely mutually repulsive identities, they form a system and a class. Can this system and class, though not conscious, have a strategy? Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, Freud, Foucault and many others have taught us that strategies need not have self-conscious, Cartesian subjects owning them. Certainly individual capitalists have collective interests (prime among them "the intensity of exploitation of the sum total of labour by the sum total of capital") and they embody these "freemason"-like interests in ever more elaborate organizational forms, beginning with mercantile combinations within a city (as noted by Smith) and ending in the most refined international coordinating bodies like the IMF, the World Bank and the W.T.O. (prefigured in the writing of Saint-Simon). But even in the absence of any formal organizational form, one can ascribe a strategy (tacitly, as Locke would say) to capitalists operating collectively. Is this logically improper, fallacious or incoherent? Not necessarily. Is it useful? Perhaps, if it helps in describing, explaining, predicting and retrodicting our history.
The matter of prediction and retrodiction brings us, finally, to the Midnight Notes pamphlet, When Crusaders and Assassins Unite, Let The People Beware, quickly written in September and October 1990, as an intervention in the anti-war debate in the US which tended to be hysterical and/or apocalyptic at times. The pamphlet tried to soberly describe, explain and predict the outcome of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the US/UN response months before the shooting started and stopped.. The Aufheben reviewer begins and ends the review with this pamphlet and gives the impression that it was a total failure and a proof of the "incoherence" of Midnight Oil's "underlying theory". But this assessment is off the mark. Indeed, the following facts - the actual outcome of the war (which led to a status quo ante as far as the governments of Iraq and Kuwait are concerned), the elaborate backroom monetary dealings between the Hussein regime and the Bush administration preceding the invasion, the permanent stationing of the US military in the Gulf, the ability of the Iraqi military to remain intact and destroy the southern "Shiite" and northern "Kurdish" rebellions, the US government's application of "marginal [instead of absolute ] military force", and the refusal of the US to fight "a large-scale, conventional shooting war" - were correctly predicted or retrodicted by the pamphlet. Of course, the pamphlet was sketchy and ad hoc, but it was the starting point of Midnight Notes collective's year-long study of the background of the war which eventually led to the writing of Part 1 of Midnight Oil.
Surely, it shouldn't be surprising that this study would have led to a deepening of our analysis of the Gulf War, especially in allowing us to see its connection to the Debt Crisis and the New Enclosures. Nor should the construction of a more complex analysis of the game played by the major capitalist players among each other, separately, and of the struggle they fought against the oil-producing proletariat, collectively, be surprising either. Somehow the Aufheben reviewer wants to blame the Midnight Notes collective for studying the issues more thoroughly and putting forth more complex hypotheses on the basis of this study. I really do not understand their game in this regard.
Let me end this reply by responding to Aufheben's broadest criticism of the book with a brief observation. The reviewers claim that the Midnight Notes collective "overemphasize[s] class struggle" and does not understand the importance of capitalist competition on the world market. If Midnight Notes would just tone down that struggle bass and amplify the competition melody, then perhaps they would play more agreeably, the Aufheben critic suggests. But this suggestion implies a parallelism between class struggle and capitalist competition, i.e., competition is intra-class antagonism while class struggle is inter- class antagonism. Are competition and class struggle just parts of a larger Hobbesian field of human antagonism? No. Competition operates by the rules of the capitalist game, within a given mathematical framework of risk and probability, and it helps determine the average rate of profit inside the system. Class struggle questions the very rules of the game (and so operates on a meta-level immediately), its mathematics is one of chance and possibility, and it results in the total surplus value that competition presupposes.
Midnight Notes is interested in action that violates the rules of capital, that opens up new possibilities and that reduces the total surplus value; that is the music the collective tries to hear and to play. Do we hear it, all of it, do we play it right? That is our problem. Does competition exist and is it important? Of course. But you don't need to open your window 'round midnight to hear that stuff.
A response to Caffentzis
In his reply, Caffentzis puts forward a seemingly formidable defence against our criticisms, the centrepiece of which is his insistence that in our review we have seriously misread Midnight Oil. We believe this warrants a considered response, which we hope will serve both to clarify and to refine our criticisms of Midnight Oil. Before responding directly to the points raised by Caffentzis, we should perhaps begin by placing our critical review of Midnight Oil in the broader context of how we see our relation to the work of the Midnight Notes and Zerowork collectives.
In devoting space to a lengthy review article of Midnight Oil we did not merely seek to highlight a counter-argument to the prevalent Leninist or liberal perspectives on the Gulf War and "imperialism"; nor did we merely seek to review critically a work that is influential amongst political circles with which we are engaged - although either of these reasons would have perhaps been sufficient in themselves. We did not hesitate to review Midnight Oil because we have had a long-standing respect and sympathy for the work of both Zerowork and Midnight Notes over the years. We have all, at one stage or another, been captivated by the audacious leaps of logic which, in drawing together so apparently disparate elements, broke free from the stultifying confines of orthodox Marxism; and we have all been inspired by the assertion of the primacy of class subjectivity and the political centrality of the "refusal of work". This is perhaps particularly true of Zerowork, whose path-breaking work in the 1970s seemed to grasp the salient featuresof the crisis of Keynesianism and the post-war settlements that were just erupting at the time.
Unfortunately times change. In the 1970s, state intervention in the economy had become increasingly frantic in the face of a growing working class militancy across the world. In such circumstances, the notion of two conflicting class strategies, around which the analysis of Zerowork revolved, seemed to have considerable credence. But since then capital has restructured. The "law of value" has everywhere been reimposed by the increasing international fluidity of capital which has been able to outflank the old bastions of working class power. With the rise of unbridled global finance markets, the power of the nation state to consciously plan and regulate capital has declined.
This change in circumstances has brought with it important political implications for the interpretation of the two strategies theory that had been developed during the proletarian offensive of the 1960s and 70s. On the one hand, with the retreat of the working class throughout much of Europe and America, many autonomists have simply sat round waiting for the materialization (or immaterialization as Negri might have it) of a "new social subject"), or else latched on uncritically to any half-baked liberal or nationalist struggle as a sign of the resurgence of a working class strategy. On the other hand, many erstwhile revolutionaries, in the face of working class retreat, have slipped down the slope to conspiracy theories and concluded that capital is omnipotent and able to impose its strategy almost at will.
In these changed circumstances, the weaknesses of the work of both Zerowork and Midnight Notes have come to the fore. Their audacious leaps of logic now appear all too cavalier. As a consequence, we have felt it necessary to try to move beyond the positions of Zerowork and Midnight Notes, without in the process falling back into the objectivism of orthodox Marxism. To do this it has been necessary to critically reconsider their work to see what must be preserved, at the same time as retrieving those useful aspects of traditional Marxism, which in their over-exuberance, they have thrown overboard.
This then is our work of "aufheben", and it is in this light that we approached the review of Midnight Oil. Caffentzis, however, argues that we failed to recognize the development and process of 'aufheben" within Midnight Oil itself. Caffentzis insists that with the reaffirmation of the "law of value" the later writings of the Midnight Notes collective stands in opposition to that of the earlier writings of Zerowork which had rejected the continuing validity of this law. Indeed, for Caffentzis, some of these later writings should be read as nothing short of a polemic against the excessive positions first put forward within the pages of Zerowork. For Caffentzis, what we see as incoherence is in fact the contradictory process of "aufheben" at work in the very pages of Midnight Oil, bringing together as it does fifteen years of theoretical development.
However, Caffentzis does admit that the Introduction overemphasizes the continuity of the various articles that make up Midnight Oil, and, as a consequence, fails to point out the contradictory process of development that had occurred over these fifteen odd years in which they were written. We would say this is a serious omission, particularly for readers who can only be unaware of the internal debates within the Midnight Notes and Zerowork collectives which presumably occurred more than a decade ago. However, we would be the first to concede that such a omission is perhaps understandable given the political imperative to present a distinct and unified intervention in the debates surrounding the Gulf War and its aftermath.
Also, in his reply, Caffentzis clarifies certain important points. Not only does he underline the reaffirmation of Marx's theory of value in his own and the contemporary writings of the Midnight Notes collective, he also makes clear his understanding of the concept of strategy. As he states:
For individual capitals and capitalists are not mutually repulsive entities, they form a system and a class. Can this system and class, though not conscious have a strategy? Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, Freud, Foucault and many others have taught us that strategies need not have self-conscious, Cartesian subjects owning them.
So it would seem, for Caffentzis, capital does not have a conscious strategy as such. The "strategy" of capital as a whole emerges out of the conflicting and competing strategies of individual capitals and their agencies such that, with hindsight, it appears as if it possessed a conscious strategy. With all this we can only concur. It would seem that we have indeed misread Midnight Oil - or that we have at least been guilty of interpreting it in the worst possible light.
But have we misread Midnight Oil? If we look at Midnight Oil again we find that nowhere is this crucial notion of strategy made clear, not even as an aside. Throughout Midnight Oil, whether in the earlier or later articles, the "as if" is elided. Indeed, in all the historical narratives that we find in Midnight Oil, capital appears as a predetermined totality possessing a conscious strategy whose only limit and problem is the counter-strategy of the working class. Even the most assiduous reader would find it hard put to discover Caffentzis's sophisticated notion of strategy in the pages of Midnight Oil, let alone discern a change in position on this point between its earlier and later articles.
So what of Caffentzis's reaffirmation of Marx's theory of value? Clearly there is a major change of position between the later writings of Midnight Notes and the earlier writings of the Zerowork collective. We would be the first to admit that Midnight Notes and Caffentzis make important points regarding the continuing importance of Marx's labour theory of value but we still think their account is ultimately inadequate. We shall argue that Caffentzis and Midnight Notes fail to really break from the earlier writings of Zerowork on this question and this is why they are unable to clarify the notion of two strategies in their historical narratives. This perhaps becomes clear once we consider Caffentzis's treatment of the question of rent.
The problem of rent was central in the development of Marx's theory of value, and would seem to be of vital importance for anyone concerned with the formation of the price of a natural resource such as oil. Yet, as we noted in our review, Midnight Oil ignores the whole question of rent in their account of the determination of oil prices.
In his reply Caffentzis simply dismisses the relevance of rent theory on what seems to be two grounds. First he asserts that, in general, rent is no longer significant in the determination and regulation of prices. Of course it can be argued that, with the development of capitalism, more and more of production is subordinated to the capitalist production process and as such capital comes to directly produce more and more of its own inputs. As a consequence, capital is able to escape its dependence on non-produced natural resources and thereby undermine the material basis for the existence of a distinct class of landowners whose ownership of natural resources allow them to pocket surplus-profits as rent.
But this is only an abstract tendency. It in no way means that rent is no longer significant, any more than the tendency for production to be automated means that we have now reached the stage that labour is no longer the measure of value! If nothing else rent still remains vitally important in particular sectors and industries. For example, how can we possibly understand the issue of housing or the capitalist organization of urban space without reference to a theory of rent? And perhaps more pertinently, how are we to explain the pricing of oil in terms of a labour theory of value without reference to a theory of rent!?
This brings us to Caffentzis's second grounds for dismissing the need to consider rent. In the particular case of oil, Caffentzis simply argues that it is absurd to think that the property rights of a few sheikhs can be allowed to interfere in the determination of such a strategic commodity as oil. For Caffentzis, although it may appear that the oil is owned by these sheikhs, or Middle Eastern governments, it is really owned by the USA. But oil is not simply owned, even formally, by a "few sheikhs". The oil is owned by governments who not only garner vast revenues from their ownership of oil but also possess some of the most formidable armed forces in the world. What is more, it is from these rights of ownership that some of the most powerful multinationals in the world - the major oil companies - obtain the concessions to produce oil. If the USA really owned the oil in the Middle East, rather than thinking they ought to own it - if all the Middle Eastern oil states were simply puppets of the American government - there would be no need for the US government to worry about Middle Eastern affairs. There would be no need to whip up propaganda about Libyan terrorism nor would there have been any need, for example, to have bombed Tripoli in 1986!
Of course this is not to say that armed force or sanctions, or the diplomatic threat of force or sanctions, cannot alter property rights or be used to modify the effect of property rights, particularly in relation to such a vital commodity as oil. But the notion that the apparent ownership of oil can be simply dismissed as an illusion, that such property rights can simply be dismissed out of hand when capital is founded on the mutual recognition of the rights of property, is typical of the cavalier logic that we find throughout Midnight Oil - a point driven home by the fact that Caffentzis seems to feel little obligation to substantiate such assertions.
This then brings us back to the question of value. It would seem that the notion that rent is no longer significant, at least in the case of basic commodities such as oil, might open the way for the conscious manipulation of oil prices which seems so central to much of the historical analysis we find in Midnight Oil, without at the same time requiring the complete abandonment of Marx's theory of value. While such a line of argument may be implicit elsewhere in Midnight Oil, Caffentzis himself refuses to take this way out. Instead, it would seem, he argues that it is the high organic composition of capital in the energy sector which allows the energy prices, such as that of oil, to escape in some way the "law of value" and thereby allow its conscious manipulation against the working class.
In "The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse", Caffentzis's analysis of the polarization of the organic composition of capital, away from the medium compositions exemplified by the car production towards the high organic composition industries such as nuclear power on the one side and the counter-balancing low composition industries such as fast foods on the other, offers us important insights. This is particularly true with regards to how this has affected how the working class experiences its exploitation. But neither in "The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse" nor in his reply does Caffentzis adequately explain how the variations of in the organic composition of capital allow energy prices to escape the "law of value".
In "The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse" Caffentzis, drawing on Marx's theory of the transformation of values into prices, seems to argue that because prices are necessarily much higher than values in industries with high organic compositions of capital (i.e., the price of commodities produced by these industries are above that warranted by the socially necessary labour-time added in their production) then this means that such industries are in a position to escape the "law of value" and therefore are open to manipulation. As we pointed in our review, this argument is far from being sufficient. Indeed, in his theory of the transformation of values into prices Marx was seeking to show the very opposite! With his theory of transformation, Marx sought to show how, although prices may deviate from values between industries with varying compositions of capital, such deviations are systematic and therefore are still regulated by the socially necessary labour-time embodied in their production.
Significantly, neither in "The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse" nor in his reply does Caffentzis explain the basis for standing Marx's theory of the transformation of values into prices on its head in this way. As a consequence, it would seem that Caffentzis fails to show how certain prices - such as energy prices - can escape the "law of value".
But, as we now know from his reply, Caffentzis doesn't after all see capital as a "Cartesian subject" with a conscious strategy. Since for Marx the "law of value" was the primary means through which capital constituted itself as a totality "behind the backs" of the conscious intentions of individual capitalists, then perhaps Caffentzis doesn't need to "escape" from the "law of value". But if this is so, how does this square with Midnight Oil's "two strategies" theory? And perhaps more importantly, how does it relate to the historical narratives in which various agents of social capital seem able to manipulate the prices of oil, food and exchange rate more or less at will? The answer would seem clear: it doesn't!
The fundamental problem that unites all the analysis that we find in Midnight Oil is that is fails to grasp the mediations through which capital as a totality must continually constitute itself. Caffentzis may seek ultimate refuge in the plea that he and Midnight Oil simply seek to emphasize class struggle which, when all is said and done, is the basis of all such categories as value, capital and prices. But, as he should know, essence must appear. It is necessary to see how and why class struggle becomes both reified and manifest in such categories as value, price and capital: that is, how capital as a totality constitutes itself out of its apparently disparate parts; and obversely how the working class comes to constitute itself against capital. And we have to make clear how such mediations and processes come to be circumscribed and modified in particular historical conditions and circumstances.
In the absence of any serious analysis of such mediations the reader has no option but to invoke capital as a "Cartesian subject" with a conscious strategy, or else arbitrarily nominate various agents of the capital in the form of the US government, the UN, the IMF etc.
In failing to seriously consider these questions of mediation, Caffentzis fails to overcome the fundamental problem of the analysis that is developed throughout Midnight Oil. As a consequence, his supposed process of "aufheben" at work in Midnight Oil between the early and late writings turns out to be little more than a rectification which produces more problems than it solves. In failing to seriously consider the question of mediations the analysis in Midnight Oil fails to stick together, it fails to cohere - it is incoherent.
Caffentzis concludes that ultimately it is all a matter of emphasis: while we want to turn up the melody of competition, he wants to turn up the volume of the bass of class struggle that breaks all the rules. We would conclude with a slight variation on his metaphor: however much you turn up the volume you can't hear the rhythm of the drummer without his drum.
Perhaps significantly, it was through the very development of his theory of rent that Marx came to show how "labour-values" determine production prices, and hence market prices.
Caffentzis claims in his reply that Midnight Notes do consider the question of rent in Midnight Oil. But to support this claim all he does is refer us to a couple of sentences buried deep in the article about the US bombing of Libya. Such a sketchy treatment of the theory of rent merely reflects Midnight Notes's position that the question of rent has little relevance in the determination of oil prices.
Having broken from the second claim, Caffentzis has not broken from the first!
If rent no longer applies then price of oil is no longer regulated by its value (the socially necessary labour required for its production). In terms of value, it becomes indeterminate, allowing a "degree of freedom" for political intervention in pricing.