Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Less Said........

I had no intention, honestly, of writing a single word about the "event" sponsored on November 14 by the Platypus Society at the New School in New York.  PlatypusNew School?  NYC?  I mean put it all together and what do you have?  A hit squad out to kill an evening.  Really. 

In my experience, the less said about, and to, the Platypus Society and its Platypus Review, the more better.   What can you say about a review that thinks its central task is to address the "disorientation of the left" and thinks that address represents some sort of break with the left, and the disorientation? What can you say except  "get me the f**k out of here"?  Seriously.

But the best laid plans of mice and men, and recombinant DNA versions of both... as the saying goes. 

Hell, I didn't even plan to attend the "event," the Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis panel featuring Loren Goldner, David Harvey, Andrew Kliman and Paul Mattick, but again best laid plans etc. etc. etc.  Blame it on fate.  I know I'm blaming it on somebody I don't even know in Egypt. 

So there I was walking the half-mile or so to 11th Street to witness Loren Goldner, David Harvey, Andrew Kliman, and Paul Mattick present their "radical interpretations of the present crisis." 

(Full disclosure:  I know Goldner and we consider each other friends. Disagree completely with his emphasis on permanent crisis, fictitious capital, primitive accumulation, but a friend is a friend.  Don't know David Harvey from beans-- read some of his stuff in the past and was convinced by that experience that Harvey isn't a Marxist, and doesn't think Marx should have been a Marxist.   So I no longer pay much attention to his work.  Don't know Paul Mattick at all.  Know the name but not the man, but I heard he's a snappy dresser.  Don't know Andrew Kliman but I sure do like his books, as I hope I have made clear. He, it seems to me, maintains a fidelity to Marx's critique, using the actual categories of that critique to explore and explain the present predicament, expression, manifestations of capital as the historical outcome, the historical necessity of capital's origin and reproduction as capital. )

So there we all were, maybe two hundred of us, waiting for the show to begin. 

First a word about the sponsors, or actually the format envisioned by the sponsors.  The sponsors proposed six topics to be addressed, and the six topics included approximately twenty five separate questions to be answered. 

The six topics were:  1) Do we live in a crisis of capitalism today, and...  2) Why are sophisticated leftists understandings of the world seemingly unable to assist in the task of changing it, and ...3) Did Occupy betoken a renewed salience of class, and...4) How does this present crisis compare with past crises of capital, and...5)How do your political views influence your understanding of capitalism and crisis, and...6)What is the extent of the present crisis and how has it been distributed globally, and...

Note:  5 is my personal favorite, evoking echoes of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle-- the act of observation creates a disturbance thus rendering impossible any calculation.  

Each of the panel participants was allotted 12 minutes to present his [these are all men, obviously] radical interpretation.  Being a whiz at simple math, that works out to 2 minutes per topic, and about 28 seconds per question. So to set the stage, let's just say we begin with an impractical format overcrowded with topics requiring answers to an inordinate number of questions in a ridiculously inadequate allotment of time.  Other than that, everything was arranged perfectly. 

Goldner led the parade as the panel members took their turns in alphabetical order.  Assisted by a hand-lettered visual aid that was rendered less than aiding by the fact that Goldner's handwriting is basically unreadable, Goldner rolled out his stump presentation about reduced social reproduction due to, or accompanied by, expansion of "fictitious capital" and continued "primitive accumulation."  Those familiar with Goldner already know that this analysis of capital is derived from Rosa Luxemburg's Accumulation of Capital as channeled through certain modern interpreters. 

According to Goldner, the "problem" for capital is that, in order to keep itself from collapsing, capitalism essentially engages in a continuous, and sequential, series of "bubbles," "balloons," speculative hyper-expansions.  And then?  And then we get the accumulation of "too many titles."  According to Goldner, the bourgeoisie accumulates its wealth as a mass of titles, of claims, but with the growth of fictitious, bubble, capital, the titles are produced without any corresponding "hard asset" in production. 

From that we get the inevitable excess, overshooting, and devalorization as profit migrates out of less profitable production of such hard assets and into the financial flows. 

There's more than one problem with this type of analysis.  First, it posits capital's "health" as being in the production of "hard assets," as opposed to "financial assets," when in reality no such discontinuity, opposition, exists in capitalism.  The bourgeoisie may or may not accumulate their wealth as "titles," but in so doing, all the bourgeoisie are doing is establishing the rule of private property.  The problem is not in the "inflation" of fictitious capital, or fictitious values, as an offset to the self-devaluation of capital.  The problem is that the speculative capital is essentially irrelevant to both the expansion and devaluation of the accumulation process.  For example, the flows into and out of the mortgage-backed securities markets did not determine the post 2003 expansion of US capitalism.  These flows did not determine the contraction of US capitalism beginning in 2007.  

Speculative instruments, Goldner's "fictitious capital," do not base themselves on a claim to hard assets.  The bourgeoisie are not competing over the ownership of the means of production.  Indeed, the entire purpose of such instruments, such as structured investment vehicles, asset-backed securities, credit derivatives, options, futures, is in fact to never take possession of a hard asset, but rather to liquidate the position without claiming the asset.  The speculative instrument does not need to correspond with any accumulation of assets as its claim is the claim against revenues, against earnings.  When the earnings decline, the holders of the instruments may seek to squeeze the dried blood from the dead stone by insisting on the liquidation of the hard assets, but the problem is not the shortage of hard assets, but rather the overproduction of such hard assets.  This is exactly what occurred in the period leading up to the recession of 2001-2003, and again in the recovery from that recession, particularly in 2006-2007, leading to the collapse of 2008.

Goldner was followed by David Harvey who demonstrated a remarkable ability, and agility to belabor the obvious, convert insight into banality and then repackage the banality as erudition.  Harvey presented the audience with the bombshell realization that Marx talks about contradictions of capital, and that he, Harvey, thought a primary contradiction was between use value and exchange value.  Surprise! 

Harvey then  informed the audience that housing under capitalism is produced as a commodity (audible gasps, "No!"  "Yes!"  "Say it ain't so!") and that the use value of housing is then lost by the conditions of exchange value.

Well, strip my gears and call me shiftless.  Who would ever have thunk that?  But Harvey was just warming to the subject as he made clear later in the session.

Harvey was followed by Andrew Kliman, who pretty much stayed to the territory he had examined in his The Failure of Capitalist Production.  He effectively dealt with the usual left-narrative about the "shift" in the conditions of capitalist reproduction occurring around 1980 with the election of the pitchmen and pitchwomen of the "free market,"  of those Pinochet laissiz-faire-ists,  to political power in the US, and Great Britain; about "financialization" encumbering the capitalist economy's  profits from industrial productionMost importantly, Kliman identified the source of the current predicament in the accumulation of capital as capital; in other words in its very great success in exploiting labor.   

(Note:  Though no fault of his,  I am unable to remember a single thing Paul Mattick said.  I'm sure he made remarks of some importance, but damned if I can recall a single one.  I can verify, however, that he is a sharp dresser).

After the first round of presentations there followed a round of 2 minute rejoinders and questions from each panelist to other panelists.  And then once again, "fictitious capital" claimed the spotlight as David Harvey seemed to compress the entire irrationality of capitalism into the creation of this  the escapee from box of Pandora, the credit system. 

First and foremost, the credit system is generated and regenerated by capitalism in the lags, delays, and differences in the rates of turnover of the various capitals.  The movement of credit allows the production process to maintain itself in, and as part of, the circulation process.  The movement of credit allows the circulation process to maintain itself in the midst of the production process.  Credit is no more fictitious, and no more irrational, than the wage relation; that is to say it is no less fictitious, no less irrational than private ownership of the means of social production.  Credit is no less essential to the production of value, to the self-expansion of value than the organization of capitalist property is to that production. 

However, the "separation" of capital into rational bits and irrational bits is Harvey's substitute for Marx's critique of the whole of capital's self expansion.  His is the classic "on the one hand......, while on the other hand.." interpretation, "understanding" of contradiction.    Harvey conflates social labor with value, ignoring the element fundamental to Marx's analysis that the subordination of all production to the production of values is an historically specific condition, defined by specific class relations, by a certain organization of labor that reproduces the conditions of its own dispossession, its own loss through the valorization process. 

Harvey wants to maintain on the one hand, value, while on the other hand, doing away with accumulation, ignoring with both hands that value is the social expression of social labor forced to present itself as wage labor; that wage labor is brought into being precisely for the purpose of accumulation of capital.   The production of value cannot exist separate and apart from the accumulation of value; and the accumulation of value cannot exist without the command over, and aggrandizement of,  the labor of others.

Harvey actually argued for a "new money"-- a money of "anti-accumulation,"  an "oxidizable" money as opposed to the money of the royal metals.  If I still smoked cigarets, or had had matches with me, I would have pulled out a dollar bill and set it on fire, pointing out that we have had "oxidizable" money for years.  Oxidation is burning, plain and simple.

 As a matter of fact, paper is so much more effective than gold for the purposes of capital-- easier to transport, easier to circulate, easier to recreate, and easier to devalue during that devaluation of all values so essential to capital's reconstitution. 

As it was, I no longer smoke and I don't carry matches, so I interrupted the proceedings to point out that my money's been oxidizing at an increasing rate for several years now without doing much to deter the bourgeoisie in their quest for accumulation.  Then I left.

I need to add just one more thing to my review of this dreary affair.  The presentation was incapable of, and oblivious to the need for, stirring the passion of the audience.  That Marx and the critique of capitalism can be made to appear so unengaged with, and so apathetic to the venality, bombast, pettiness, brutality, greed, and cowardice that define the bourgeoisie; so disengaged from the actual movement of the people who labor in the maquiladoras across the globe; so disengaged from the millions upon millions of (mostly) young women who have left village and countryside, migrating  to the SEZs of Asia, Latin America, Africa; to El Norte; that the word "bourgeoisie" was not uttered with unreserved contempt, not more spat than spoken,  shows how far off-target such efforts truly are.

Unfair criticism?  After all, you might say, the panel participants are more or less academics, intellectuals, who incorporate various degrees of activism into their professional investigations of capitalism?  Exactly my point.  The criticism is not of the panel members.  It is of those who stage these events and who boast in so doing of addressing the "disorientation of the left."

Oh... and for the record, those "contradictions of capital"?  They are all, each and every one, derived from a single contradiction:  the conflict of the labor process with the valorization process. 

November 17, 2012