Monday, 10 January 2011

The Importance of Generalisation

Why is it that, as society develops, different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking, different views about what is normal, or what is acceptable behaviour arise? The Marxist view is that this is a dialectical process, by which material changes, changes in the world around us, make possible new ways of producing, more efficient means of producing, and these changes themselves bring about social changes. But, also these changes bring about changes in the way people think. At one level that has an immediate feedback on the material forces themselves. New tools do not magically appear out of nowhere, but are themselves a product of conscious human thought.
But, its clear that there are limits to how far this thought can exist separated from the material world. Primitive Man, could go from using his hands as a tool for scraping the ground, to recognising the possibility for using a stick or rock for that function instead. It is possible to abstract from one activity to arrive at the other, but it would not have been possible to abstract from this activity to the immediate thought in the mind of a Primitive Man to the development of a personal computer, for example. That's not because the brain of the Primitive Man was physically incapable of understanding the science involved – in fact, there is no physical difference in the brain of Primitive Man 70,000 years ago, and that today – but solely due to the fact that the development of the computer can only arise on the back of a whole series of previous discoveries, which themselves were only possible on the back of other developments before them. But, at another level, the changes in thought also result in changes in the way we think about the way society itself should be structured.

In many ways, the basic concept of the dialectic, of a change of quantity becoming a change in quality is central to understanding this process of development. That process does not have to be understood as necessarily meaning that this quantitative change has to be a mechanical 50% plus. I want to argue that what is important is that changes become generalised. Generalised not in the sense of being dominant, but merely generalised in the sense of being commonplace.

Trade actually arises fairly early on in human societies, but it is a sporadic, accidental trade. Frequently, it arises in a kind of ritualistic fashion, for example, the exchange of gifts when the members of one tribe marry those of another.
Under this kind of trade, there is no reason, and no basis for evaluating the relative values of the things exchanged. Exchange becomes generalised as opposed to sporadic exchanges between tribes and communities of surplus products, as society develops, and particularly as settled agriculture allows a significant increase in output. This leads to Petty Commodity production. Large numbers of people can be involved in producing commodities – to this extent commodity production is already generalised – but the production of commodities accounts for only a small portion of total production. Every member of a society might produce commodities i.e. things to exchange, but if only 1% of what they produce is produced for this reason, and the other 99% is produced for their own direct consumption, then commodity production, although commonplace, and commodity exchange generalised, it cannot be said that such a society is one where production is BASED ON generalised commodity production. That is under Petty Commodity Production the economy is not based on generalised commodity production, but is based on the production of Use Values for direct consumption.
However, the fact that commodity exchange is generalised i.e. is a common phenomenon means that increasingly, these commodities can be compared with each other. Exchange is no longer dominated by immediate Supply and Demand determining the rate of Exchange, but leads to a calculation of the Value of the commodities to be exchanged based on Labour-time. This is particularly facilitated by the development of Merchants who have a direct economic interest in being able to undertake this calculation, and make profits from arbitrage.

Under Petty Commodity Production all Labour-time can essentially be treated as equal, because specialisation is undeveloped.

“Moreover, since the dawn of petty commodity production about 3000 B.C. all labour has been considered equivalent, regardless of its special character.
On the tablets, inscribed in a Semitic language, found at Susa, the wages in the household of a prince are fixed uniformly at 60 qua of barley for the cook, the barber, the engraver of stones, the carpenter, the smith, the cobbler, the cultivator, the shepherd and the donkey man.”

Clement Huart and Louis Delaporte “L’Iran antique” p83. From Mandel “Marxist Economic Theory”.

The comparability of commodities based upon Labour-time is what leads to Exchange Value. Yet, as Marx sets out in the Grundrisse, Exchange Value as a category has to be understood in its historical specificity.
The Exchange Value of petty commodity production is in reality an Exchange Value in the process of becoming. Marx demonstrates that it is only under Capitalism, when workers separated from the means of production, participate in the process of determining it, that Exchange Value takes its mature form, and makes possible the creation of a Surplus Exchange Value. The peasant producer who exchanges his commodities at their Value with another peasant producer cannot create Surplus Exchange Value. If A and B produce at the average then the Labour-time taken to produce commodity X, by A, will always be equal to the actual Labour-time expended by A. Likewise for B in the production of commodity Y. A Capitalist is only able to make a Surplus Exchange Value because, although they sell commodity A at its value, equal to the labour-time expended on its production (say 10 hours), the worker who produces it, is paid less than that (say the equivalent of 5 hours), equal to the Value of their Labour-power, or the Labour-time required for its production. Of course, the peasant producer might also only require the equivalent of five hours labour-time in order reproduce their labour-power, and if they work for 10 hours, they will have produced a surplus product. But, it is a surplus product that has an Exchange Value, and is only a Surplus Value in this limited, undeveloped form. The fact remains that, in Exchange, the peasant producer can only get back the same Value in Labour-time that they have themselves expended.

Yet, this limited development of Exchange Value on the basis of Labour-time is sufficient to lead to the need for, and creates the basis of, the development of a commodity that can act as a universal equivalent for all commodities – a money commodity – that facilitates the growing demands of trade, and means that it is no longer necessary for a sale to be matched by a purchase, as is the case under barter.
Now a sale can take place, and money received, which can be stored and used to make a purchase at some time in the future. Similarly, Money can be used to buy commodities not for consumption, but for resale. The possibility of a class of merchants arises who can live by making profits from such trade, arbitraging the differences in prices in different markets. In the sense that this Money expands in Value it has the appearance of Capital. But, like Exchange Value this “Capital” has to be understood in its historical specificity. In reality it is only potentially Capital, it is Capital in the process of becoming. In the Grundrisse, Marx sets out what Capital really is. Capital in its pure form is “Not Labour”. It can only exist to the extent that a complete separation has occurred. On the one hand, there must exist a class of Capitalists who have a Monopoly of the means of production. On the other, and as a necessary consequence, there must exist a class of Proletarians who have been completely dispossessed of ownership of the means of production, and who can only live by selling their Labour Power as a commodity.

In short, Capital is this social relation, which assumes physical form through the production, and accumulation of Surplus Exchange Value. Capital is only Capital within the context of this social relation i.e. to the extent to which it purchases and extracts Surplus Value from Labour Power.
The Capital of the merchant is not Capital, in so far as what it purchases is not Labour Power, but commodities. It makes a profit, not by the creation of new Value, and extraction of Surplus Value, but through buying commodities below their Value, and selling them above their Value. That is why at various points in history the development of this Mercantilism (which is what it should really be called rather than Capitalism) has resulted, not in the development of the productive forces, but in their destruction as the Merchants drove the producers into penury through the low prices imposed on them, and undermined the real basis of developing production.

It is only when trade expands sufficiently, and Money Capital accumulates to such an extent, that some Merchants recognise the possibility of reducing the Labour-time required for the production of the commodities they have been selling – most classically textiles – by directly employing handicraft producers in manufactories that the real development of Capital can begin, that the separation into two distinct classes can arise, that Exchange Value in its developed form can occur.

This is a lengthy historical process, and also involves some significant changes in human consciousness, thought and behaviour. Yet, today, we take the existence of these social relations for granted. Indeed, the majority of people see them as natural, eternal relations. As late as the 18th Century, Capital had difficulty getting workers to do a full week's work, because many workers continued to be able to obtain their means of subsistence from a continuing relation with the land, and only needed to work sufficient hours to obtain the money required to pay for those things that required a monetary payment. Yet, today, the social and moral norm is to believe that everyone should work, should voluntarily hand over a portion of their product gratis to the Capitalist.
As Nassim Taleb has put it in his book, The Bed Of Procrustes, “Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee.”

But, why is this? Why is it that people accept that this set of social relations are natural, and that they should have to work for someone else, hand over such a proportion of what they produce that those who employ them, and who do not work themselves, should enjoy such lavish lifestyles, should accumulate wealth not just a few times that of those who do work, but literally millions of times that of the ordinary worker?

The answer I think was provided in a programme I watched on BBC Four the other day, which examined “The Brain”. See The Brain A Secret History

In part of the programme, Michael Mosley looks at the work of one Jewish psychologist, Stanley Milgram who was led to wonder why it was that ordinary human beings had been led to carry out the most inhuman acts in the Nazi Concentration Camps.
His experiments showed that this was nothing to do with some proclivity on the part of the Camp guards, but that around two-thirds of human beings would do similar things in order to comply with the requirements of authority. He set up an experiment where people were asked to administer increasingly high levels of electric shock to other people whenever they gave the wrong answer to a series of questions. In reality, the people answering the questions were actors, and the shocks were not real. Although, many of the people responded to the pain and screams of those they thought were being shocked, two-thirds continued to administer the shocks when told to do so at levels they knew were sufficient to kill the recipient. In later tests to check that the participants were not acting in this way because they in some way sensed that the shocks could not be real, real shocks were administered to real puppies with the same results.
Mosley, then tested the second part of this research himself. It involved investigating the extent to which people would simply accede to a request to perform some action by someone who had no apparent authority over them. He approached many people sitting on benches, and asked them to give up their seats to him. Around half did so, unquestioningly. The reason appeared to be that there is something ingrained in human behaviour that leads to a willingness to respond positively to requests to conform. The main problem he found, as was reported in the initial experiments, was a feeling of discomfort himself in making what was in reality an unwarranted request, which again suggests that we are led to behave in ways that are themselves conditioned by accepted norms of behaviour.

I would argue that it is precisely the fact that certain relations become generalised that of itself creates a form of “authority”, which then has the power to compel people to act in certain ways. The generalisation of commodity production becomes itself a form of authority that leads members of society to see it as the accepted form of behaviour, and to respond accordingly.

This can be seen in a variety of instances. There are many things that we often see as being purely individualistic and subjective, but which turn out to be nothing of the kind. Fashion is an obvious example. We accept the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, but the notion of what is beautiful is clearly socially determined.
Even if we do not accept the exaggerated view of beauty as represented by the size zero models, the majority of people do tend to think of beauty in terms of a slim build, and for men an athletic build along the lines of the romanesque statues. Yet, go back a few centuries, and the paintings of Reubens and others shows that the view of beauty then was represented in a body shape that today would be considered obese.
And in Polynesia it is the more corpulent body that is considered beautiful, partly, at least it would seem because it is associated with being well fed, which is associated with affluence. Or take a completely different example. Today, the TV is full of programmes about cooking and eating. Food is no longer something we have to consume for sustenance, but has become a leisure activity in itself. Yet, go back to the 1960's, and I can remember when the attitude was completely different, and when the talk was all about the day when science would have developed to the stage whereby we would not longer have to waste time on the drudgery of cooking, eating, and washing up, but would be able to get the sustenance we need from a simple pill!

Of course,it could also be that some people are more likely to respond in this way than others i.e. are more likely to be Conservative in their attitude and behaviour, and more resistant to change. Some evidence of that has been uncovered in relation to political affiliation in a study of students at UCL, which found that those with right-wing views had larger “amygdala – a primitive part of the brain associated with emotion while their political opponents from the opposite end of the spectrum had thicker anterior cingulates.”Brain Link To Political Views. It would be logical that such a relation might exist, because the greater role for emotion might be seen as resulting in emotions such as fear playing a bigger role. Or as Yoda put it to a young Annikin Skywalker, “Fear leads to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to suffering.” On the other hand, as some analysis of the data suggested, it could also be that both the larger amygdala, and the right-wing views were both a product of the social conditioning of the individuals concerned i.e. the environment and life experiences they had. Yet, it would be foolish to ignore biological factors completely. As Marx, says in the Critique of the Gotha Programme rejecting the view of humans as being equal in the sense of identical,

“Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only -- for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored.”

And Marx and Engels themselves are an indication of this. They had pretty much the same life experiences as thousands of other bourgeois, and yet they drew completely different conclusions from those experiences.

The significance of all this should not be understated in relation to the attempt to change social relations, and human behaviour. In the US, one in four people belong to some form of Co-op. Yet, this is not the same as Co-operative production becoming generalised in the way that commodity production became generalised as a precursor to the development of Capitalist relations. At best it could be equated with the stage of petty commodity production. But, the positive aspect of this is that the more Co-operative production can be developed, the more it can become generalised, the more it will acquire that aspect of Authority needed in order that it can become accepted as a required form of behaviour, and will shape thought processes accordingly.

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