A spectre is haunting Europe and the US, the spectre of... productivist national protectionism from the Left. QQ and Mike Harman respond to Novara Media and Jacobin Magazine.
"One form of wage labour may correct the abuses of another, but no form of wage labour can correct the abuse of wage labour itself." – Marx (Grundrisse)
Recent articles in Jacobin Magazine and Novara Media represent a growing trend of social democratic insistence that the state is the best chance for solving climate change and myriad other problems. This trend is taking several forms, a retreat from a consistent anti-borders position to one that sees no-borders as horizonal; a call for nationalisation of large-scale industries as a way to fix climate change and provide jobs; and for alternative ownership models like workers co-operatives to be supported by the state. In all cases premised on a strategy of state-capture via elections.
On the 26 February, Jeremy Corbyn told an audience in Coventry that Britain “cannot be held back inside or outside the EU from taking the steps we need to support cutting edge industries” nor can Britain be held back from “preventing employers being able to import cheap agency labour”. Although Corbyn caught heat from some of his more radical supporters, much of the criticism didn’t go beyond highlighting his poor judgement using ‘clumsy’ language. That the tone rather than the content of the speech was under scrutiny, provides an insight into the direction that the Labour party is heading in. It suggests we are not merely revisiting a party that feigns reluctance in appeasing racist sentiment, in an attempt to recover voters that abandoned them a long time ago. Rather, to “support cutting edge industries” it requires labour unified by a common bourgeois identity – Britishness, with a return to the nativist labourism that dogged the workers movement up until the '80s. Rhetoric may vary between explicit conservative bigotry, nativist labourism or metropolitan neoliberalism, but all of these exact violence via border controls, whether at the level of the EU or the UK. Capitalist production relies on the control of labour power.
This politics of a seemingly bygone age not only demonstrates the fundamental limit of parliamentary socialism but is woven into the intellectual fabric of the left as a whole. Illustrative of this is Aaron Bastani’s “Fully Automated Green Communism”. Although not unique in its Keynesian ambitions glamourized in communist pretence, it provides us with a useful case study of the thought processes and wholesale misunderstandings underpinning the ‘radical’ project presented by the Labour party.
Broadly speaking, Bastani’s piece is an appeal to grassroots green activists to ‘scale-up’ (an insistence made by other members of the Novara outfit and the Inventing the Future crew), in that the best way to avert climate change is to utilise the state. Whether he personally subscribes to the climate catastrophe speculated in the piece is uncertain, however he certainly believes that the public spirit around climate change could be an effective vehicle in exercising his demand-side economic theories. The post-war period of “a competing utopia [and] countervailing geopolitical forces” was a huge boon to the arms industry and consequently for the wider economy (i.e. the internet began its life as U.S. military tech), and it is thought that climate change can serve the same function as the Cold War. There are specific reasons why a likeness cannot be drawn between preparing for a world war and climate change (that we will address later), but more broadly Bastani makes the classic mistake of thinking that the purpose of an economy is to allocate resources to meet consumption needs, when in reality the purpose of the economy is to produce capital.
Does abundance require growth?
Bastani insists in the piece that the green movement should abandon the idea of 'growth having limits', because renewable energy and asteroid mining will make zero-carbon production possible, that people should eat food from wherever they like, and travel as far as they like.
We'd also like to see a society of abundance, but abundance is not simply the quantity of commodities we consume, or the energy required to produce them. Most of the consumer goods we buy require replacement within a year or two, with the waste being pored over in toxic dumps by child labourers for recycling back into more consumer goods or just thrown into landfill. The rapid circulation cycles of capital this enables are counted as 'growth', they all contribute to GDP after all, but do nothing useful for anything except the balance sheet.World food systems are increasingly precarious, with one of the latest liberal environmentalist moral panics being around plastic food packaging, since plastic has been found in organisms living in the deepest regions of the sea. Just stopping the use of plastic would result in massive food spoilage; plastic is used in the first place to preserve food as it travels thousands of miles, for days or weeks. No amount of 'full automation', green investment, or ethical consumerism will fix the fundamental issues of supermarket supply chains, agribusiness, dependency on low-paid seasonal labour, and cash cropping. These, and the water table and soil depletion that goes alongside them are the result of production of food as a commodity rather than to feed people. Good luck harvesting soil nutrients and clean water from space.
Novara are not alone in advancing that nationalisation of energy companies can avert climate change. Jacobin magazine recently published "A Plan to Nationalize Fossil-Fuel Companies" by Peter Gowan using Norway's Statoil as an example. The author implies that Statoil was nationalised by the Norwegian State, and that this is why it is successfully starting to move away from fossil fuels. In reality, Statoil was privatised in 2001 with the Norwegian government retaining a majority of shares, and boasts on its website that it has increased oil and gas production sixfold since 2000. So a part-privatised company that's sextupled fossil fuel production in the past 18 years is being used as an example of nationalisation to reduce fossil fuel production. The world turned upside down, or just the camera? Like many energy companies, Statoil is trying to rebrand as a 'broad energy company' via a rename to Equinor, involving diversification into renewables, but there is no indication that it will reduce oil and gas production as a result, merely talking about more 'climate efficient' oil and gas production, as it also expands into new areas.
Gowan continues an inverted historical account by mentioning Harold Wilson's ability to cut as many mining jobs as Margaret Thatcher without the attendant miners' strike due to "its cooperation with unions, focus on full employment, and active industrial policy". What Gowan fails to mention is that Wilson cut 43% of mining jobs at a time of near-full employment, while Thatcher cut 80% of mining jobs at a time of high unemployment. Wilson was faced with a wildcat strike of miners in 1969, which exploded into the 1972 and 1974 miners strikes under Ted Heath. Once again, historically contingent labour shortages between 1945 and 1970 are attributed to genius Keynesianism.
We should be clear that when Gowan describes nationalisation, he doesn’t mean state expropriation with compensation, but mass share buying. At best it is a plan to shift the costs of de-carbonisation from private shareholders to the state. Even if the plan is successful and results in oil and gas being left in the ground, then it is merely a plan to shift the costs of de-carbonisation from private shareholders to the state - “privatise profits, socialise losses” as the saying goes.
Other socialist publications and the Labour Party itself are of the view that "with the national grid in public hands we can put tackling climate change at the heart of our energy system" (Corbyn, Feb 2018). In conceding the limitations of a centralised system, "the future is decentralised", via a shift toward alternative models of ownership: co-operatives.
In her account of the Mondragon co-operatives in Spain, Sharryn Kasmir1 concluded that far from democratising the workplace, the co-operative form itself generated a new found commitment among the managerial class while engendering apathy among workers. Successful managers moved into political positions, while workers could not make use of the lauded democratic structures. Additionally, in the immediate aftermath of the Algerian Revolution, workers routinely went out on strike against the growing bureaucratisation of state-administered worker's self-management. That the idea of worker self-management in a socialist Algeria was paired with a nationalist discourse subjected self-management "to an economic logic that undermined its very foundation"2 . After the co-option and demobilisation of factory and farm occupations, and the integration of the syndicalist UGTA union into the FLN under Ben Bella, the Algerian workers were unable to resist the outright suppression of the movement under Boumédiène.
In the long run we are all dead
Keynesian theory was a kind of bourgeois adaption of Marx’s critique of political economy,4 in that it acknowledged that capitalism’s crisis could be found in the declining rate of capital accumulation. For Keynes, this was because capitalists hoard profit for irrational reasons (“animal spirits”5 ), instead of investing it productively. Hence, to counteract a crisis, the state must intervene in the sphere of production through deficit financing to stimulate private spending and consequently private production. As Marx observed however, the problem of an ‘overproduction’ of capital isn’t because there’s too much capital, rather, there is too little relative to the scale of accumulation. In other words, because “the development of the social productiveness of labour, involves an increasingly large mass of total capital to set in motion the same quantity of labour-power and squeeze out the same quantity of surplus-labour”, when the absolute mass of profit is no longer sufficient to make continued accumulation possible (i.e. when the rate of profit falls quicker than capital expands) capital appears as excess because it cannot be profitably employed – after all “it must be so, on the basis of capitalist production” that “the absolute mass of the profit […] can, consequently, increase, and increase progressively, in spite of the progressive drop in the rate of profit”.6 For Keynes, a former British civil servant who once remarked that “the class war will find [him] on the side of the educated bourgeoisie”7 , the purpose of state intervention is to halt capitalism’s decline, meanwhile securing some level of social stability.
Although production generated by the state enlarges the capacity of overall production, because it cannot increase the profitability of private capital, there is a general agreement that the state sector of the economy be as small as possible. In fact, production generated by the state is usually found in industries where the produce is not consumable (e.g. defence), and as a general rule, state production will fall outside the market for it is reluctant to further frustrate private capital in an already diminishing market system (in 2009 Sweden, the benchmark for contemporary socialism, SAAB on the brink of bankruptcy, Minister Olofsson announced: "The Swedish state is not prepared to own car factories"8 ). However, because a growing national deficit cannot be repaid out of state production (after all, the state cannot tax itself), the state must make further inroads into the economy and hence further the decay of the private capital system. Incidentally, this is the source of bourgeois hostility to Keynesianism and its pitiful identification as socialism. However, much like capitalism reproduces a working population rather than an individual worker, capitalism reproduces a class structure rather than the social standing of an individual capitalist.
Adopting the disingenuous buzzword ‘post-capitalist’ indicates that Bastani sits on the more radical end of the Keynesian spectrum. We understand post-capitalism to mean that the acceleration of non-profitable production can transform capitalism into a system that is not capitalism altogether. However, it is only through taking seriously the general laws of capitalist development that the transient character of a distinct period of capitalism can reveal itself. Post-capitalism, or more accurately radical Keynesianism appears not as the transition stage toward ‘fully automated luxury communism’ but rather towards a state-capitalist economy. In which case, post-capitalism is nothing more than a theory of social reform and hence at complete odds with the goals of communism.
So, it is not at all a surprise that Bastani attributes all the ills of the world upon “contemporary globalisation” and an ideologically driven financialisation of the global economy, or evoking the late Mark Fisher's ‘capitalist realism’. Despite ‘Capitalist Realism’ being an altogether confused polemic sprinkled with some interesting thoughts, Fisher couldn’t have been clearer when he said, “capitalist realism need not be neoliberal” and “[i]n order to save itself, capitalism could revert to a model of social democracy”.9 In fact, the financialisation of the economy is proof of the overproduction of capital. For the only way “idle capital” can avert the collapse of profitability is “through the export of capital or through employment on the stock exchange”10 .
Capitalism is total war
Capitalist competition is a centralisation process, during which more surplus value is divided among fewer organisations. This takes place in periods of growth and in periods of stagnation, for centralisation is merely a change in the distribution of available capital. All the while, the market mechanism is drained of its purpose, and when capital ceases to expand, the market is no longer a sufficient mechanism to provide for the needs of social production. If a failure to satisfy such needs is considered a threat to social stability it will be propped up by way of state intervention. Thus, control of a declining supply of surplus value and its distribution (embodied as profit) is vital to the continued existence of capitalism and hence manifests itself as a function of the state. Jacobin is explicit in this when it says: "Market-based solutions can't attack climate change. Let's try nationalization".
Both liberal economists and evidently large swathes of the left regard capitalism in it laissez-faire (or free market) period as capitalism bona fide, characterised by unrestrained private capital accumulation and comprising of free movement of capital and labour. Although such a period has never existed (and certainly doesn’t prevail at present, despite growing protestation), some likeness to this appeared in an earlier stage of capitalist development. Liberals deify such a period because it granted an extensive and rapid accumulation of capital, which is why left-liberals too acknowledge that the market is broken and advocate a return to a more general competition via breaking up monopolies etc. Realistically, however, this period was merely a temporary monopolisation of the world market by a few countries. These monopolies could only be broken by using non-market means e.g. protectionism, war. But, and this cannot be emphasised enough, it is national capitals that compete on the global sphere and not capital in the abstract, even multinational corporations are essentially vehicles for national capital. Competition that is strictly economic has only ever been possible on the national level, and the dramatic albeit predictable collapse of the EU is testament to this. Nations cannot help but work toward an integrated global economy11 , however, given the class nature of capitalism, the national protection of capital is always in direct conflict with the destructive demand intrinsic to the international nature of capitalist competition.
It all comes down to labour
Therefore, Bastani is quite right to say that his plan requires “something akin to a war effort”, for the entire basis of Keynesianism was built upon carrying over war-time economic policies to a period of ‘peace’. However, many governments including the Third Reich carried out Keynesian economics, unaware of its ideology, with little success, until of course the war began.12 In contrast, the German (and Europe in general) post-war period of prosperity had little to do with the application of Keynesian theory and more to do with the tremendous destruction of capital during the Second World War that allowed for an equally tremendous amount of a capital expansion and reconstruction. The political situation unique to Germany and the basic impulse to survive ensured that the German worker handed over “huge levels of consent” to all the economic ‘innovations’ associated with war-time economics e.g. controls on labour. The German worker, in the post-war period worked longer hours than anyone else in Europe and for wages half that of a British worker.
Indeed, Keynesian economics is a kind of preparation for war and this fact is acknowledged (perhaps not consciously) by Bastani13 and those affiliated with him14 . It is too simple to regard military production as mere waste production, as the potential for war is built into capital accumulation. The business class oppose welfare spending on supposed ideological grounds, but ideology vanishes into thin air when it comes to defence spending. In so far as the objective of war is to weaken or destroy competing nations, war being competition and competition being a centralisation process, the gains of victor nations usher in a new period of capital expansion. In short, capitalist competition is total war. It is therefore difficult to see how one can convert war-time policy into green or “woke” peace-time policy. Indeed, the products of human labour in a war economy are required to be destroyed faster than they are created, and upon closer inspection the products of human labour also destroy their producers.
Although the water conflict between India and Pakistan and their statuses as nuclear powers is well documented, take the lesser known tension over the river Syr Darya between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan, driven by its prominent role in the global cotton industry, continue to build larger reservoirs for cotton irrigation to the dismay of Kyrgyzstan, an upstream nation, where it needs flowing water to produce hydroelectricity during the winter. There would be little surprise then to see disputes escalate when the laws of capital production come face to face with the laws of physics and chemistry, particularly since water supplies in the region are predicted to vary wildly over the next 50 years.
Bastani is reluctant to say it himself and leaves it to a quote from Paul Mason; nationalism is the only form of sociality that can be achieved under his conception of ‘green populism’. Given the antagonism existing between national capital and the international character of capitalist competition, in nationalising capital new ruling groups and institutions (or what Pannekoek would regard as “the class of intellect and knowledge”15 ) tied to the existence of the nation are created, in which their preservation and reproduction become synonymous with the national interest. In fact, nationalism can only serve to obscure the real and only market that determines capitalist production and that is the one in which labour is sold and procured. This includes a society where, in Marxian terms, surplus labour is converted directly into capital, or what Bastani would call ‘post-capitalism’.
While Keynes is a boring British technocrat who never claimed to want to see an end to capitalism, 'post-capitalism' itself can be traced back to the much sexier Italian post-autonomist Paulo Virno's obsession with the 'machine fragment' in the Grundrisse:
The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.
Post-capitalism takes from this fragment not the potential for communism being opened up by capitalism, but its actual realisation. Rather than the proletariat expropriating capital, abolishing the commodity form, capital, and itself as a class, and transforming production to meet human need; post-capitalism makes capital itself the subject of history, ushering in communism through an increase in the forces of production, with some helpful steering from leftist technocrats to keep it from accelerating into total disorderly collapse into barbarism.
In Virno's own words:
In the ‘Fragment’ the crisis of capitalism is no longer due to the disproportion intrinsic to the mode of production based on the labour time of individuals, nor to the imbalances related to the full workings of the law of value, for instance to the fall of the rate of profit. Instead, the main lacerating contradiction outlined here is that between productive processes that now directly and exclusively rely on science and a unit of measure of wealth that still coincides with the quantity of labour embodied in the product. According to Marx, the development of this contradiction leads to the ‘breakdown of production based on exchange value’ and therefore to communism.
Later in the 'machine fragment' though, Marx is clear that there is still a role for the proletariat, because at a certain point capital ceases to raise the forces of production, as it cannot provide a surplus. When we look at the massive capital destruction of world war and environmental crisis, the vision of full automation ushering in communism technologically looks a lot more like the old choice of socialism or barbarism:
If it succeeds too well at the first, then it suffers from surplus production, and then necessary labour is interrupted, because no surplus labour can be realized by capital. The more this contradiction develops, the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien labour, but that the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour.
The constant cyclical tendency of hyper-exploitation of some workers while others are cast aside, and massive capital destruction by war and human disaster as contracts and regeneration are parcelled out, is squared by post-capitalism's rebranded New Deal or Bevanite welfare state, basic income/services and other schemes which paper over the cracks of open class warfare.
How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb
It’s at this point that Bastani’s frankly comical interpretation of social relations being nothing more than liberal ethical consumerism and his genuflection to David Harvey begin to make themselves clear. In that the academic Marxist, Harvey, completely disposes the core building block in Capital, that labour power is the source of value. Harvey’s failure to grasp the different levels of abstraction in Marx’s argument has him arrive at the altogether bizarre conclusion that value appears like magic during exchange. For if we accept Harvey’s chicanery16 , we in turn reject the social relation that defines capitalist production; the one between capital and labour.
A lot is made of the much-promised technological revolution and the abundance it can supply, but we have been here before. In 1964, an open letter titled “The Triple Revolution”17 signed by various prominent socialists was sent to the then President of the U.S., Lyndon Johnson. The letter offers many of the same concepts and dilemmas mentioned in Bastani’s formulation of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”: basic income; post-scarcity/abundance; converting military infrastructure into civilian infrastructure etc. Decades later the predicted ‘triple revolution’ was described as “illusory” based on a dismal Malthusian analysis. The ‘revolution’, however, was illusory all the same, for the very simple reason that abundance is impossible in a class society. Of course, the promise of communism is found upon the potential for abundance, but it is contingent upon the complete destruction of class relations. Bastani much like his intellectual predecessors are both guilty of putting the cart before the horse.
In truth, since Bastani caricaturises grassroots movements, it is difficult to determine who exactly he is trying to sell the dream of Fully Automated Luxury Communism to, jumping from primitivists, to ethical liberals, to lifestylists only to find himself on a hiding to nothing. Equally striking is the absence of any mention of class struggle, or the revolutionary implication that struggles assume within a period of crisis, whether or not the working-class themselves envisage their struggles as the pathway to revolution. To be clear, the object of Marx’s analysis is not crisis per se but the capitalist process of reproduction in its totality. The tendency of machines producing "a relative surplus population, or the setting free of labourers"18 is a process that appears throughout the history of capitalism. It is therefore difficult to comprehend why merely bestowing this process with the exotic expression ‘automation’ all of a sudden posits issues that we haven’t seen before. Perhaps this provides ample opportunity to delay the certain proletarianisation of the middle-classes but for the working-class no historically unique problem appears.
Marx identified the tendency for fixed capital to increase relative to labour increasing productivity and creating surplus populations in the 19th century, not as a progressive thing to be continued for two centuries, but as a driver towards revolution, with the Haitian, French and English revolutions, then the Paris Commune all showing the potential for the working class to transform society.
Capitalism for Marx was a pre-condition for communism, something that by its own logic was heading towards crisis and revolution not merely something to be steered in the favour of the working class but to be overthrown. Communism means the abolition of the commodity form, direct production to satisfy human need, and thus the abolition of all authority, including states (regarded by Bastani as "the greatest instruments of collective action yet created by humans") except the will of the producers themselves - not merely a reconfiguration of social safety nets which have never been there for most of the world’s population. These remain urgent tasks a century and a half after the machine fragment was written, as the continual carnage of colonialism, international warfare, and - increasingly over the past fifty years - climate change, wreaks havoc on the international working class.
If we still regard the left as a relevant movement, it is to provide meaning to the class struggle within the context of capital production, not merely to realise some special program of our own. While Jacobin and Novara are fantasising about how they’ll manage the capitalist state after the next election, workers internationally are taking on both the state and capital in an uptick of class struggle not seen for over a decade. Teachers in West Virginia gained a 5% pay increase for all public employees after a weeks long wildcat strike. Teachers in both Kentucky and Oklahoma are on wildcat this week over schools funding without full support from their unions. All of these struggles look set to win major concessions against Republican state administrations, a Republican senate and a Republican president. In the UK there has been unprecedented strike action at universities by lecturers and support staff, bringing rank and file workers into direct conflict with the “the incumbent organisations of democratic representation – unions” as they protested at their own union HQ over an early attempt at capitulation. While these are defensive struggles over wages and conditions, the struggle against new oil pipelines and fracking in the US and UK continues with major protests such as in Dakota with #NODAPL. Social democracy is a politics of retreat and demobilisation of these struggles, no matter how much radical frisson it’s able to conjure up.
- 3Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform, 1923.
Full quote: "But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task, if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us, that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again."
- 4For a more detailed breakdown of this see: https://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1969/marx-keynes/index.htm
- 5Keynes, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money, 1936.
“Even apart from the instability due to speculation, there is the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits – a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.”
- 7Keynes, Am I A Liberal?, 1925
- 11As recently as March, more than 40 African governments signed a continent-wide free trade agreement under which they committed to cut tariffs on 90% of goods to bolster intra-African trade and boost growth. https://www.ft.com/content/1c153802-2d0f-11e8-9b4b-bc4b9f08f381
- 12For more on this see: Tooze, The Wages of Destruction, 2008