Sunday, October 31, 2004

Deja Vu All Over Again

1. In his opening chapter of Capital, where he describes the contradiction and interpenetration that makes up the commodity, Marx essentially, and successfully, reduces the complex organism of capital, to its single cell and that single cell to its genetic components. In the existence of commodity as both object and value, there resides the class organization of production; the ownership of the conditions of labor as private property and the existence of labor as labor power, as an unencumbered, detached commodity, useful only in its need for exchange. From this single cell flows the genealogy of capital; the ongoing conflict between the means of production and the relations of production; the recurring, necessary, overproduction; the problems of reproduction; the essential attacks on wage rates and living standards; the ultimate destruction of the means of production themselves.

That at every moment in its development capital has relied, sustained, restored "backward" modes of exploitation, where labor is enslaved, indentured, encumbered by land-debt is above all the exact manifestation of the conflict at the core of capital, between private property and expanded production. The great plasticity of the capitalist markets easily absorbs the products of those modes as if they were commodities produced by free labor, while condemning these pre-existing modes to temporary, peripheral, roles in the continued development of capital itself.

At every equal moment, and against the alliance of property owners, capital has disturbed, disrupted, initiated the impulse to the transformation of those same exact modes. The as if nature of the pre-existing modes then confronts the modern conditions of labor, the development of the class of wage-laborers. The reproduction of capital involves the reproduction of all the anomalies, deviations, deformations surrounding the emergence of capitalist property and wage labor. It could not be otherwise.

2. Those members of the hydrocarbon depletion cult can point to the victory of the Boston Red Sox in the misnamed World Series as one more sign, one more ominous omen, that the universe as we know it is about to end. This combination of ecstasy and obliteration, long a staple of religious sects, secret societies, and trance parties, has its origins in nothing other than the sanctions against sexual pleasure, where the ecstasy of orgasm triggers torrents of guilt and the wish for punishment.

Ecstasy and obliteration have their part to play in capitalist reproduction, but they play those parts as moments in that reproduction; temporary manifestations, designed for and destined to be eclipsed by the conditions of profit.

There is little evidence of hydrocarbon depletion. Reserves of coal have hardly vanished; the truth about natural gas is that supplies have barely been explored, much less developed; that oil reserves and production are economic, not geological, categories, driven by terms of profit.

In fact, the overproduction of oil is the driving force in the world markets. A declining rate of return in the petroleum industry has always prefigured the OPEC price interventions, and this one, since 1999, is no exception.

Now overproduction has nothing to do with need. The aggrandizing of wage-labor, the expropriation of value and its realization as profit, turns the object of production into a mere host. And here, oil plays host to capital's core contradiction. The means of production have overgrown their ability to return enough profit quickly to sustain the reproduction of capital. Private property, the preservation of such property, stands arrayed against any and all terms of development. And so the price of oil lashes the general economy forward into more intense overproduction as every capitalist enterprise presses harder upon wage-labor in order to reduce cost and increase yields, and then the price of oil brings the process to a screeching halt, depleting these enterprises, redistributing their momentary profit recoveries to the oil companies.

The oil majors themselves are awash in cash and, confirming the current overproduction, are distributing some of that cash to their shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks, rather than increasing exploration and development budgets. The seven major Western oil companies are expected to generate free cash of some 73 billion dollars. ExxonMobil already has a cash reserve of $20 billion, this after buying back $7 billion dollars worth of shares. The CFO of Total is on record as stating that giving cash back to shareholders is a better use of funds than investing in capital intensive projects that may not reap adequate returns.

In the masked world of commodity production, history is banished by inevitability, society by nature, and the useful objects themselves by the conditions of profit. If the commodity itself is but an object transformed into a host, then the ideologies and ideologists of shortage, scarcity, depletion, entropy are but hosts for this transfer of profit, and for obscuring the social, class, origins of the current predicament. Despite professions of radicalism, inevitability and always the scarcity theorists are driven to conclude that class is nothing, geology is everything. All that can be accomplished is, at best, a reduced rate of descent into those pre-existing modes of production capital has maintained throughout its existence.

3. Class is everything, however. It is the essential component of commodity production, of the expropriation of labor power, its transformation into value, the value's realization of profit. It, class, is the as if facilitating all exchanges in the world market. In deconstructing the commodity at the core of capitalist production, Marx exploded political economy--the ideological obfuscation of capital's fundamental social relation of production; the masking of capital's inherent conflict between means and relations of production, between private property and social development; the necessity of overproduction. Most importantly, Marx identifies that particular agent of change, that specific social formation that can emancipate itself from the overproduction, the attacks on living standards only by emancipating production itself from private ownership.

A program of transformation then becomes the concluding volume of Capital, a volume that emerges with all the deformations, approximations, deviations of the conditions surrounding its emergence, a volume edited through and by the class struggle itself.

In the current predicament, the outcome of the US elections are immaterial. Certainly the campaign of Ralph Nader is worthy of critical support: support in that no element of Nader's program can be realized without changing the class basis of the institutions of government; critical that nowhere in Nader's program or Nader's organization is there any recognition of that need.

The strands of revolutionary development-- weak, fragile as they are-- pass through manifestations such as the Million Worker March and those actions putting forth a class-based political party.

S Artesian

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