Thursday, October 9, 2014

Marx's Capital and Kafka's The Metamorphosis

One remembers clearly the protagonist in Kafka's story The Metamorphosis in the very first scene:  he wakes up to find himself turned into a gigantic bug, something sub-human, a change that happened while he slept, unaware.

Marx's basic assertion about the metamorphoses commodities experience in circulation (some raw material is exchanged for some value realized in price; the seller of the raw material buys more machines - for breaking up rocks, chemicals for cleaning the harvested ore, etc. - and hires more labor, with the money from the sale.  The buyer of the raw material - say, iron - processes the ore using a blast furnace and other auxiliary instruments of production - using more hired workers.   With what he has left over, he buys himself a new leather jacket.  In this way, the exchange has related the things exchanged as equivalents, or one as the bodily form of manifestation of the value of the other.  Their equality?  Well, that is the equivalent of their common property:  abstract human labor.  Miners, ironworkers, and coat makers do not necessarily agree to these exchanges.  Each is acting independently in the series of exchanges and branches of production which result in the social product, the embodiment of a definite quantity of average human labor power.  But all of the muscular, cerebral, and spiritual energy that was expended vanishes in the product.  Not an iota of it is presented to the consumer, who sees some utility, nor to the producer, who sees only a value, a potential Ideal value to be transformed into hard cash.  The inversion of places which the actors in this process, and those of their wares, is obvious.

But Kafka's character woke up to this change.  He became conscious of himself as a living human being, and self-conscious in his effort to regain that identity, only once he realized he was not human anymore.

This subjectivity in the laws of commodity production were glimpses by Marx in his rigorous empirical analysis of the treatment of labor-power itself as a commodity, and its wage the monetary expression of those commodities it needs for its life to be replenished, so that it may be used up again another day.

Really, Marx's labor theory of value, and surplus labor time, is a theory of time itself.  Since Aristotle and Aquinas, the relationship of time to epistemological processes and our subjective experience of determined social relationships has been a subject of inquiry.  By dividing the workday into the time necessary for the worker to replenish his or her existence, and the rest into the surplus, it is possible to take from behind his back some of his own product, and the power to appropriate it according to a plan determined beforehand in cooperation with other workers, from the shop floor level to the international level of the global economy.

What Marx only glimpsed - the reproduction of labor-power - is today something that capitalist processes have unleashed.  The real subsumption of labor-power (in contrast to the formal subsumption in which the 'productive consumption' of labor is used up during a definite period and in a definite place), has led to a qualitative change in Marx's own philosophical and economic categories of self-criticism.  Today,  immersive media, interactive social media, techno-culture, and powerful digital consumer technologies meant to 'empower' the consumer, actually become mediums in which they are controlled even when they are not at work.  The factory has become a social factory, open and de-centered, not an enclosed geometric space.  Ontologically, both the 'disciplinary regime' of traditional capitalist imperialism and the teleos of the 'good life' - represented in forms of media apparatuses as the existential power of individual choice - existed coextensively, alongside each other, each a semi-finished commodity used up in the production of the other.  Value becomes self-valorizing, as the consumer choices and their expression in technologies for capitalist market analysis of trends, ideas, wishes, fantasies, dreams, etc., are both constituted and constitutive of the global market regime.

But how does a social machine - an assemblage of human, animal, and natural bodies - which runs itself - an immanence of an infinite substance articulated by Spinoza, and later by Foucault - give any credit to human agency's capacity to disrupt it?  Especially if the human is a part of that machine?

Well, Spinoza denied that the machine always runs smoothly.  He admitted the existence of friction between its elements.  But even these 'crises' in the machine become a mechanism of refining capitalist techniques of power.  Each opens it up to its own class-consciousness:  the financial elite, the industrial magnates, and the commercial rulers become more and more, as Marx once described class consciousness, a class-for-itself and less a class-in-itself.

Even Marx's earlier writing show a tension between the struggle of the exploited vis-a-vis the exploiting class on the one hand, or whether each class struggles to reproduce its own existence, unleashing social upheavals independently of their will in this prolonged drama.

Historian Robert Brenner did an exhaustive analysis of some Marxist interpretations of the historical transition to capitalism from pre-capitalist forms of production, feudalism in particular.  He attacked most virulently the 'commercialization' model, which asserts the germ of capitalist ideas, market laws, and commodity production inhering in the hindering feudal bonds which they broke, to be too circular to explain the transition.  Some parts of his research have been discredited, but the general thesis is defensible, and has been elaborated upon by other authors, including E.P. Thompson.

The latter points out that in different countries, in the late Middle Ages, revolutions by the 'bourgeoisie' achieved very different political, legal, and economic contents.  In England, the landed gentry achieved political influence in parliament, and some social wealth accumulated in trade (maritime trade most of all).  In France, its series of revolutions brought about a centralized, quasi-authoritarian monarchic political dress, which used the levers of state power to introduce capitalist reforms as a means of stabilizing the social order from the discontent of the poorest strata of workers, who would be provoked into action by a radical bourgeoisie.

Having said that, today it is clear that capitalist laws of production rule over capitalists themselves.  They do not decide how to fix their moribund social order.  Its own flexibility on the one hand, and disciplinary rigidity on the other, preserve its existence beyond its necessity.

Some critics of this Marxism rejecting a strict determinism have pointed out that agricultural output in 18th century France and England were about the same.  True, but this elides the critical fact that the agricultural population in France was double that of England, the latter being the country to develop industry the fastest, and thereby accomplish the creation of 'relative surplus value' generated by the intensification of machinery's role in production, or what Marx termed 'constant capital' in his general formula for capital, 'c + v + s' for measuring the value of commodities.  V is the quantity of labor-power expended in wages, and S is the surplus accumulated during the surplus labor time.

Today, immaterial labor productive of immaterial commodities - images, affects, communication, abstract symbols - increase the diversity and quantity of commodities in circulation, and their diversity and quantity of uses.  What can be consumed for satisfaction can almost perpetually be absorbed into another immaterial commodity, with the terminus of this series of exchanges Marx identified deferred by increasingly intensive processes of production.  More simply, this intensity of production in actualizing some virtual ontology, compared to the extensiveness of imperialism's realization of the possible, and neoliberal deregulation of foreign markets, creates a hypercapitalist production, corresponding to a hyperimperialist market regime.  The administration of discipline is partly left to the subjects of this global imperial order, who are regulated by the market, rather than by a traditional State imposing the market's social relations on subversives.

But after all of this, revolutionary movements are not dismissed as an adventurist impossibility.  New forms of subversion corresponding to these new mutations of capitalist teleos open up new and creative methods of resistance.  The Arab Springs and the Occupy movements were embryonic flashes of such upheavals - spontaneity, direct action, and the reclaiming of public space were all tools in the arsenal of resisting power and disrupting its harmonious functioning.  The recent picketing of Zim, an Israeli cargo shipment cartel (and supplier of weapons, artillery, shells, and missiles) by the International Union Longshoremen local 10, in cooperation with activist groups and Palestinian justice groups working closely together to stage the unexpected picket, effectively preventing the ship from docking on the port of Oakland's berth, cost the company several million by some estimates.  Reports show that some companies are questioning whether to do business with Zim anymore.  This incident can be read about in the recent issue of Jacobin magazine, in an article by Kumars Salehi, 'Workers Against Israel'.

The historicity of Brenner and Thompson show that 'bourgeois' is not synonymous with 'capitalist.'  In different geographic and historical contexts, their development as a social subject followed very different trajectories, which today present themselves as a system of coexisting logics, much as the the coexisting properties of a commodity - a value and a use-value, a product of a particular form of labor and the embodies of universal, abstract labor.  But the ruptures produced by these tensions can mobilize militants, and an analysis of the post-imperialist paradigm of neoliberalism and its specific content is essential to formulating viable strategies and socialist alternatives.

We may not have wanted to become the bug in Kafka's fictional story, but we did by our own unleashing of forces outside our control.  And like the bug, the militant must find creative ways of surviving, fissures to crawl in, and a disruption in the circuity in the substratum of this regime to explode a new, radical constellation of collective values, enunciative practices, and cursive logics posed against the hegemonic power which it must struggle to converge on in the wake of a subjective Event.

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