Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ludd Was Right!

“In Letters of Blood and Fire – Work, Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism,” by George Caffentzis, 2013

Caffentzis is a Marxist philosopher in Maine, U.S. who writes in support of proletarian movements, no matter their formal content, while shying away from Leninism – or what passes for Leninism nowadays.  Oddly, he is probably more in tune with working-class anarchism and seems to be a ‘state capitalist’ in his analysis of pre-1989 Russia and present-day China.   He sees the class struggle not just in the activities of factory workers, but working people in every area of life.  This book is a series of essays, written from 1980 to 2010.  One of his main insights is that alienated work and the struggle against the alienated work regime is a constant thread in society.  Workers and ‘non-workers’ attempt to recover their time and energy from the capitalists, in either obvious, or in subtle and sneaky ways.  Your time, of course, is one of the main things capitalists purchase - or compel.  And ultimately you run out of time, while they plan to be here forever.

Caffentzis is a mercurial thinker, and covers many issues in a swirling analysis, but ultimately  concentrates on several key topics.  He takes on Sweezy and Monthly Review indirectly and several leftist thinkers like Jeremy Rifkin and Antonio Negri directly, debunking the latter two quite handsomely. He also enters into polemics with the ‘communitarians,’ the 'autonomous" Marxists and bourgeois neo-Freudians like Foucault.  I will track his essays, though of course I can only sketch them. 

In his first essay, Caffentzis quite literally comes out with all thoughts blazing.  This fruitful essay concerns the crucial period of the 1970s, when the ‘energy’ crisis and the ‘profit’ crisis came together.  Caffentzis asserts that high energy prices are the way capital can extract high profits across all sectors of the economy and all populations, and this is why ‘energy’ suddenly became key in the world-wide profit strategy.  He also points out that profit rates were at a low level during this period, given all the rebellions among youth, workers and women, which resulting in capital changing its basic strategy from a Keynesian one to a return to aggressive profiteering, society be damned.  I.E. neo-liberalism and the commodification of everything.

The two trends in capitalist thought on the ‘environmental’ issue are the technological fix and the return to primitive agriculture, both of which he rejects.  Caffentizis makes comparisons to physics as reflecting, not fully scientific ideas, but also capitalist ideas (see the review of “The Ten Assumptions of Science,” below), especially concerning the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.  The bourgeois attempt to get around the law of ‘entropy’ - the 2nd Law - is computerization, according to Caffentzis.  (Which oddly enough, corresponds to Borchardt’s theory that there are forces counter-indicative to the 2nd Law.) Caffentizis supports the theory that high ‘constant capital’ invested in many machines can drain profitability – citing Marx on the falling rate of profit.  This is due to the fact that labor is no longer being as directly exploited, contradicting Monthly Review who feel this was a mistake of Marx’s.  In essence, to Caffentizis the ‘intellectual’ workers of Silicon Valley at Apple are paid for by the labor of the Chinese Apple workers at Foxconn- the River Rouge of the modern economy.  High mechanization and computerization, replacing labor, essentially has to be compensated somewhere else, and it is the ‘low constant capital’ areas (or low organic composition of capital) where this happens.   Capital is a ‘system’ that aims for an average rate of profit across the whole web of exchanges, not just in each isolated unit, and hence capital flows between capitalists, not just between workers and bosses. 

Monthly Review does not mention the computer revolution as one of the key production waves that has kept capitalism profitable, unable to understand it is equal to the railroads and the automobile as a stimulus to capitalist profits.  I think this is because this contradicts their theory of a ‘tendency’ to constant stagnation.   I sent my review article on this issue, “The Ogligopolists Unite  - The Endless Crisis …“ (reviewed below) to its author, JB Foster, who never replied. 

Caffentzis is especially attuned to unpaid housework as part of the maintenance and reproduction of the working class, considering it as mostly a female issue. The rebellion by women on this issue was part of the women's movement in the 1970s in the U.S.  This was made an international issue by Marilyn Waring, a New Zealand parliamentarian and feminist in 1988, who wrote, "If Women Counted."  However, many U.S. working-class men contribute around the home by repairing cars or the house; by building additions; by doing the taxes, paying bills or doing yard work or other traditionally ‘male’ tasks.  Since the 70s, young men are also cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.  So unpaid ‘housework’ in a wider definition, has become more and more a burden on not just on women, but both members of the family in advanced capitalist countries.  In other parts of the world, women still ‘hold up more than half the sky.’ And it is still unpaid.

Essay Two is titled “Mormons is Space.”  Yes.  In essence, capitalism’s utopia would be the denatured astronaut/robots of space-work, who have no messy human or natural issues.

Essay Three is a refutation of Rifkin and Negri.  According to Caffentzis, both based their analyses on the growth of machine/computer technology.  Rifkin believed this would lead to the ‘end of work’ - except non-profit, volunteer work; while Negri, amazingly enough, believed this would create a class of ‘computer programmers’ who would be a vanguard of independent communists.  If you’ve spent any time around computer IT people, you know these people are many times contract workers; isolated in limited time project work; can be on a 24 hour call, so that the definition between work and ‘home’ is increasingly blurred; consider themselves to be independent, ‘sole contractors,’ ‘smart’ and intellectual, ‘above’ others; and are also always afraid of the cheap labor HB1 visa substitute coming in.  They are nowhere near any kind of collective ‘communist’ vanguard - though they may be a libertarian vanguard!  As to Rifkin, he was a right-wing leader of SDS in the 60s and wrote a dreadful, anti-communist book on that experience. His idea that computers and machines would replace work assumes that capitalism doesn’t need surplus value, rent and interest.  In addition, who maintains the machines when they always break, or mines the materials, transports the materials and builds the machines in the first place?  This is a total fantasy under a capitalist regime.  Again, you can see Caffentizis continues to understand the value of ‘labor power’ in every situation – never negating it. 

This essay is in contradiction to the thread of the ‘post-industrial’ society or the ‘knowledge society’ or the ‘service society’ that somehow replaced the nitty-gritty of agricultural, industrial, white-collar, pink or unpaid home labor in the imagination of the capitalist propagandists.   These kinds of theories are part of the magic of the ‘disappearance’ of the working class and work itself. When in fact the working class is the majority in the world, and with small farmers and peasants, constitute the overwhelming bulk of humanity.

Essay Four is about the continuing enclosure of the commons.  Caffentzis makes the odd statement that ‘capitalism has not fully started yet’ because it is still attempting to turn everything into a commodity.  Revolts against privatization are constant:  water (Cochabama, Bolivia - see review of “Secret History of the American Empire” and “Rebel Cities,” below); the forests (India – see review of “Walking With the Comrades,” below); artistic production (trade negotiations going on now between the neo-liberal US delegation and the French - from 6/7/2013 Guardian); intellectual property and the internet (Concerning free software and non-corporate sites. See review of “Cypher Punks” below.); charter schools (The Chicago Teachers Strike); GMO / Monsanto patented corn, etc. 

Caffentzis’ example is how hoboes ‘socialized’ the private railroads yards, cars and tracks in the 1920s and 1930s in the U.S., when the unemployed road the rails in their hundreds of thousands, which only stopped during World War II.  The U.S. Occupy Wall Street tried the same thing to ostensible ‘public parks,’ as did radicals in Egypt, Greece, Spain and Bahrain  Right now Turkish youth and workers occupying Gezi Park in Istanbul against Turkey’s neo-liberal Islamist government, have just been thrown out by police.  The government is trying to destroy a public park for a fake historical building and a mall development. (See review of “Rebel Cities’ below, on the geography of struggle.)

Essay Five continues his polemic against theories of post-industrial ‘cognitive capitalism’ presented by Negri and others. Caffentzis agrees that labor is key in the ‘knowledge’ economy (which he says actually has no definition according to these thinkers.  His definition is that it creates commodities of intellectual property...) and praises the ‘autonomous Marxists” for concentrating on the new (or increased) forms of work that have developed in the computer economy. Yet he maintains these are only more rarefied forms of commodified labor, paid for by low-capital investment labor somewhere else.  The autonomous Marxists claim that the work of IT/creative workers is so highly developed that capital no longer controls their work, and they have in fact broken its bonds.  They are in essence free agents, sort of like ‘rock stars’ who write their own ticket.  A, even very few rock stars write their own ticket, and b, most IT/creative workers are not Steven Speilberg.  Most rock stars, when taken over a lifetime, are actually temps.  It is the same with actors.  Reality is far more prosaic.

Essay Six is about a perpetual motion machine – an “SRA’ - a robot that can create and maintain itself, thus eliminating all human labor.  The capitalist dream, sort of the new version of alchemy. This seemingly theoretical exercise shows how a machine like this – or ‘tending’ in this direction, could be profitable even though they involve no human labor, thus create no surplus value.  But it could make profits because it would suck profits from low organic capital industries.  In a way, this explains what is happening in the world between high organic capital industries and low.   Caffentzis cites the prohibitively expensive ‘nuclear’ power industry as one such example of a system tending in that direction.  Profits in the system as a whole are ‘average,’ so a sweatshop that squeezes the most out of its human cattle must pay some bigger capitalist piper somewhere else, thus moving some of its profits upwards.  Caffentzis actually creates a picture that explains the present state of world-wide capitalist production and finance quite simply.   The Dickensian slums of Brazzaville and the tony suburbs of Silicon Valley are intimately connected.

Caffentzis says the next target for increased exploitation is Africa if any new kinds of high constant capital industries take off.

In a sense, Marxism explains crises through the stagnation of profits, debt and asset bubbles, over-production, imperial and class conflict.  Keynes explains crisis through ‘under-consumptionism.’  One mainly looks at all forms of labor as key.  The other puts its primary value on the consumer.  Caffentzis is quite rigorously on one side, not the other.   Any time someone starts babbling about the consumer having ultimate power, you know they are on the wrong track.  (See “No Local,” and “Reviving The Strike,” both reviewed below.)

The next several essays deal with an historical analysis of how Marx dealt with the question of machines, and the bourgeois ‘ideology’ of machines, as part of the political struggle in the 1800s.  The capitalist plan was that machines then, like now, were to overcome and replace humans.  Still hasn’t happened.  Caffentzis traces the machine ideology from simple machines, to ‘heat’ engines and now to the modern computer, or what he calls, as philosophers do when they can't find a simple word, the “Turing” machine.  Alan Turing developed the fullest idea of the computer in the 1930s, though Babbage had been influential, even in Marx’s time, on earlier ideas.  Caffentzis shows that Marx incorporated the first and second laws of thermodynamics in his theories, and that he was familiar with many writings on machines, though not Babbage.  Caffentizis wants to update Marx here and challenges theories that intellectual property is really created by ‘immaterial production,’ as some theorists assert.  He also repeats that machines alone do not create value. 

The last shorter essays are on war, crisis theory, social reproduction and the 2008 crash, invoking similar themes to the above. He ‘seems’ to take on Baran and Sweezy’s theory that military production is merely a sinkhole for excess profits, which I’ve always found somewhat suspect.  Without the ‘armed bodies of men’ where would the capitalists be?   How would they insure their global control?  In the imperialist era, the lead imperialist HAS to have a large military sector.  And two, military production is ALSO quite profitable, in spite of its high 'organic capital' composition.  The U.S. is the largest arms dealer in the world, and sucks billions of dollars out of sheikdoms, dictatorships, Isreal and so-called parliamentary democracies. They also benefit with ‘aid’ packages that countries use to borrow from the US for US weapons.  In other words, the military and financial sectors create more profits out of arms, not the reverse. 

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
June 16, 2013

Happy Bloom's Day - June 16, 1904.  Celebrate what critics have voted the greatest novel ever - "Ulysses," by the exiled Irishman, James Joyce. Today is the day that novel describes, a day in Dublin.  Joyce chose this day because it was the day Joyce first went out with Nora Barnacle, who 'made him a man.'  You don't want to know, but that was Ireland after all.

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