Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Paul Mason's Postcapitalism - A Detailed Critique - Chapter 8(2)

Mode of Production and Mode of Distribution

Paul uses Alexander Bogdanov's 1903 novel “Red Star” as a vehicle to describe the failure of the USSR, not just as a consequence of Stalinism, but also as a consequence of the Leninist assumptions that underpinned the revolution itself. In the novel, Bogdanov describes a Martian communist society, in which an advanced industrial capitalism had developed production, on Mars, to such a degree that Martian workers were able to take over in a relatively peaceful revolution. Production was developed to such a degree that workers were all highly developed and engaged as mental labour, supervising machine production. Production is also so highly developed that there is sufficient abundance for everyone to simply take from the communal stores according to their needs, and workers move voluntarily from wherever there are labour surpluses to where there are labour shortages. 

I'll skip the obvious contradictions of how, given such abundance, these workers also voluntarily agree to commit suicide to reduce population, when there are resource shortages, or how such shortages lead to a debate about colonising Earth. The point that Paul is trying to make is that Bogdanov's view, as opposed to that of Lenin, is that socialism requires this high level of development of the productive forces, and of the working-class. Secondly, that just as capitalism became possible because capitalist property developed within feudalism, so socialism will require socialist property to develop within capitalism. 

I'm not sure about the difference between Bogdanov and Lenin on the first point as Paul suggests. Lenin knew that socialism could not be built in backward Russia without the support of socialist revolutions in the more advanced economies of Europe. Lenin's argument rested upon a belief that such socialist revolutions were imminent; that, as in 1848, a revolution in one country acts as a spark for revolutions elsewhere, and so a revolution in Russia simply breaks the chain at its weakest link; that, given the analysis of imperialism, it is not a choice between socialist revolution or the establishment of a bourgeois republic, but of a vicious reaction, and the division of Russia, by competing imperialist powers, as had happened with China. 

But, the second point is valid. For many of the same reasons, Lenin believed that capitalism itself was in the process of collapse. This idea, that capitalism had somehow reached its apogee, become absolutely reactionary, and was incapable of further developing the productive forces, has plagued the Left for the last century. Living in a time when a period of rapid expansion had again culminated in a period of crisis, war and revolution, it's understandable why Lenin and others should reach that conclusion. Living in the following period of stagnation and war, in the 1930's, it's understandable why Trotsky and his followers should cling to that belief. But, given the massive expansion of capitalism in the post-war period, given the tremendous development of technology and productive forces, the pace of which has accelerated, in the last thirty years, it is incredible how anyone worthy of the description Marxist can cling to that belief! 

But, that is precisely what all of the various sects do continue to cling to. Their papers, journals, blogs, Day Schools and so on are full of such nonsense, and their prayer for salvation is that catastrophe, the next recession, a long depression is always at hand, as the basis for workers somehow flocking to their banner, despite the fact that all history shows that where such conditions persist, the opposite happens, and it is the forces of reaction that prosper. Every drop in the rate of profit is attributed the the Marxian law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, whatever its actual cause. And, the reason for that is the supposed, but non-existent, relation between that law and the onset of crises. The irony is that the major crisis of recent times, that of 2008, was not an economic crisis, but a financial crisis, centred in the financial and asset markets. The spark for that crisis, as with the financial crisis to come, which is merely a continuation and completion of it, was not economic weakness or recession, but the opposite. It was rising economic growth, rising demand for labour-power, rising wages, and rising interest rates that burst the asset price bubbles, and as those factors necessarily reassert themselves, the even bigger bubbles blown up since 2008 will burst in even more spectacular fashion. 

Paul describes the failure of the USSR, the history of which is well known, and which I will not dwell on. He then also looks at the work of Cockshott and Cottrill, in drawing up detailed models of how modern computer systems and mathematics make planning the economy possible, in such a way as to be more efficient and responsive than the market. The importance of their work, Paul says, is that it shows exactly the path we should not take. Despite criticising the absurdities of soviet planning, it amounts only to “cyber-Stalinism”, of top down planning to the nth degree. 

The problem for Paul, however, on the basis he has proceeded, is this; he has located the determining feature of a mode of production essentially at the level of distribution – for feudalism obligation, and for capitalism the market – rather than production, or as Marx has it, property. The logic of Paul's position is that if the market no longer determines the means of distribution, in a post-capitalist mode of production, the most obvious, if not only, real alternative is the plan. Otherwise, we have to assume, which seems to be the conclusion that Paul arrives at, that the question of distribution no longer exists, that production has risen to such a degree that there is already abundance, and everyone can simply take from the community store according to their needs. 

Herein lies the problem with this approach centred upon distribution rather than production, and failing to address the property question. The real issue is not whether distribution is organised on the basis of a market or a plan, but is the question of property – the question of who owns and controls the dominant form of property, which determines the mode of production. As Marx put it in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, 

“Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labour power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?” 

As Marx says, in Capital I, human beings are merely representatives of different economic forces; they are the personification of different forms of property. The social relations between human beings are nothing more than the manifestation of the objective relations between these different forms of property. The class struggle is really a struggle between these different forms of property for dominance. 

“In the course of our investigation we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.”(p 89) 

This is the opposite situation to that in respect of commodity fetishism, whereby what is actually a relation between people appears as a relation between things. 

In Capital III, Chapter 27, Marx describes socialised capital, whether it is a co-operative, or a joint stock company, as the transitional forms of property. On the one hand, this property is capital and continues to operate as capital. That is it employs wage labour and extracts surplus value, it appropriates the average rate of profit, because it sells commodities at their price of production. On the other hand, the capital is “socialised”, rather than being privately owned. Its owned by the firm itself, as a legal entity in its own right, and the firm can only be personified in the associated producers within it at any one time, from the managers down to the labourer who sweeps the factory floor. 

Its on this basis that these associated producers, having paid any market rate of interest on money they might borrow, and any rent due, can democratically decide on how to utilise the profit. They can accumulate additional capital, so as to increase their productivity and their capacity; they can raise their wages, or they can set aside money reserves to cover any future slack periods, so that they can continue to work through them. In the worker-owned cooperatives this is apparent, but, in the joint stock companies, the political power of the capitalists has enabled them to create laws that give them control over property they do not own. 

The political struggle that characterises this transitional period, therefore, is that of control over the socialised capital. The capitalists seek to frustrate the expansion of the worker-owned cooperatives, and to extract as much in interest and rent from it as possible. At the same time, they resist any attempt to introduce industrial democracy, or requirement for them to relinquish control over the property which does not belong to them. This is the political struggle that arises between conservative and progressive social democracy

This socialised capital is the dominant form of property, and the more dominant it is, the more the state must defend it, as the basis of defending the state itself. It forms the objective and material basis of the social-democratic state. It is that which determines the nature of this transitional phase between capitalism and socialism, and not, as Paul believes the reduction of value to zero, as a result of info-capitalism. 

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