Numerous misinterpretations prevail. This blog attempts to clear up two of these: the environmentalist interpretation, and the ostensibly ‘materialist’ take. No blog of around 800 words could do Marx’s ideas justice – these are a few ideas that are intended to spur debate.
Firstly, the environmentalist interpretation holds that capitalism is destructive to the environment and must be reformed to enable a simpler type of existence that is more harmonious with the desires or interests of the planet. But Marx’s concern is only for human welfare – this depends on a functioning planet, yes, and also some concern for animals is appropriate to the extent they enrich human life. This is Big Anthropocentrism. Capitalism does degrade the environment, even to life-threatening levels as we are beginning to see with the growing frequency of extreme weather events constituting a new trend. And yes, part of the issue is indeed non-human species depletion or extinction. Today Marx would be horrified at the conversion of Africa’s big game into just another resource, or the undermining of the sustainability of coral reefs.
But this is because Marx the humanist is worried about things that concern us, rather than some kind of inherent non-human moral value floating within such entities. The solution to capitalistic environmental degradation is a new human society where our relationship to nature is considerate and rational rather than solely profit-oriented, that doesn’t preclude doing this or that where appropriate. Moreover, with concerted effort, capitalism can sometimes mop up ecological disasters, so the environmentalist critique is non-revolutionary, whereas Marx wanted to transform our whole relationship with nature so as to remove the powerful alienation that prevails under capitalism.
Because Marx wrote so much about economics, and academia has failed to link this to his earlier focus on alienated human relationships, some have claimed that the essential Marx was all about developing the productive forces, go for economic growth whatever the cost. This is erroneous firstly because it silences that most petulant of productive forces – labour. Although Marx clearly thought the good society massively develops machinery and the such, his main concern was on the freedom of the individual worker and their own self-development that capitalism negates. Capitalism reduces the individual member of society to an appendage to the machine and crushes them both mentally and physically. Thus, the emphasis on developing the productive forces is first and fore mostly about liberating labour from the drudgery of profit-driven society.
Secondly there seems to be a semi-conscious attempt to interpret Marx as a vulgar pro-growth materialist in order to let capitalism off the hook – to say that alienated human relationships and their impact on everyone are irrelevant to his overriding concern with fixing or ameliorating the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Thus, Phil Mullan’s recent book Creative Destruction that I reviewed here takes a very narrow interpretation of the oeuvre only in order to suggest ways capitalism might overcome some current barriers to growth. The role played by the theory of the falling rate of profit in Marx’s overall outlook is totally neglected.
The centrality of the theory of the falling rate of profit in Marxism is the final proof that the bourgeoisie would undoubtedly cease to be a revolutionary force in every country they reign, and that capitalism would have to undermine its own moral and intellectual foundations to persist. In other words, the quality of human life would necessarily deteriorate as long as capitalism persisted, not only in terms of the material standard of living but also in terms of the quality of human relationships in society at large.
Marx’s understanding of the consequences of his theory of the falling rate of profit upon the quality of human existence is borne out by subsequent history. Two world wars later and perhaps a third on the horizon, with only 36 minutes of peace known to the world since the end of World War Two, racism and brutality, the increased role of the state in social affairs, increased homelessness in the ‘advanced’ countries and massive destitution everywhere else, show capitalism has not fulfilled the claim it originally made to be an ‘Enlightenment’ society heading towards a new golden age. The falling rate of profit is not important because we want capitalists to make lots of money – who cares? – but because the consequences of it upon society are dire as the ruling class offer apology after apology and quietly drop the claims to liberty and equality they once made. Nowadays everyone hates everyone else, partly because economic life is so frustrating, and, filtered down, you get the new trend of horrendous school shootings in the USA.
To conclude, Marx was fundamentally opposed to capitalism because he was the most astute and consistent humanist that philosophy has ever produced.
The latest developments in technology point to an increasingly mechanised work process. The abilities of robots to perform tasks, and even to learn on the job, coupled with the way in which we are never away from our smartphones and other smart tech, seem to point to a future where machines are central, and humanity peripheral. Highly developed AI has won games of chess – and even beaten top players in poker – which shows the magnificent heights to which our creations can attain. In human culture, there is much fear, or conversely, celebration of the new machine age. From fear, we have movies such as The Matrix trilogy, The Terminator franchise, the recent Alien spin-offs where it seems that an android sets the whole debacle going, to warn us off putting too much faith in technology; from the celebratory side we are told that artificial intelligence is just a tool to help us with things like medical care and connecting people all over the world. Both these sides miss the fundamental problem with what is going on.
There is a new level of domination going on, but it is not out of machine’s malevolence, but the way production is organised. To that extent, it is not entirely new, nevertheless a quantitative shift can become a qualitative shift it we are not made aware of what is taking place, and it is that which this blog seeks to address.
The market develops by extracting surplus value from workers that is partly represented as ‘profit’. This ‘profit’ certainly helps business owners lead luxurious lifestyles whilst workers still effectively battle like rats over a piece of courgette that has fallen into a urinal, but that inequality is not the main problem. Profit also gets re-invested in new technology, to speed up production, make it more efficient, and to increase the productivity of labour. More gets produced, often to a higher quality and in less time. Thus, we are told, society ‘progresses’. But also involved in this is the stripping of the worker’s creativity. Value he or she has produced, once the surplus is re-invested in machinery, comes to turn his work into a series of just pressing buttons and supervising machinery – it requires less conscious process, and has thus become less creative. The labour from the past cycle is now embodied in a machine that leaves little room for creativity, hence you have a domination of ‘dead’ over ‘living’ labour. This is a process that has existed since the dawn of capitalism, and hence is nothing new, but what is new is that the level the process has developed into – seemingly, machines using algorithms to make judgments (including on the stock market), does show that high-tech capitalism leaves even less room for human productive-expression in the commodity. This self-relegation of the human species gives rise to the culture of fear over new technology where we cheer the sexy Sarah Connor played by Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) in Terminator: Genisys, for smashing things up. It also gives rise to the celebrationists – who it turns out, tend to be those with a vested interest in the status quo, or are simply brain-dead.
Of course, machines can never become self-conscious so as to pose a direct threat to human life. A good argument from the philosopher John Searle asked us to imagine an isolated room in which a man handles Chinese symbols he doesn’t understand. In “The Chinese Room” the man, let us say his only language is English, receives Chinese symbols through a hole in the wall. He doesn’t understand what any of these symbols mean, but has a set of rules for how to process them. So, he looks at his list of rules, and selects a different Chinese symbol to pass back through the hole. This is effectively what ‘syntax’ is all about. You have an input, a rule for processing it, and then an output. There is no conscious involvement, simply a rule-following procedure is sufficient for syntax to take place. Therefore, syntax is quite different from the world of semantics (the realm of meaning). All computers and robots, no matter how advanced, only still operate at the level of syntax, they have never, and can never, develop semantics. Without semantics, a being cannot develop its own wishes and desires and needs, and therefore can never pose a deliberate threat to any person. They will always remain our tools.
Nevertheless, although they really are just tools, this doesn’t justify AI celebrationism. As said, the incoming high-tech machine age poses a problem for the majority because it represents such a weight of domination of dead over living labour, and thus the end of labour as in any way a creative enterprise, as experienced at the individual level by the majority in society. The solution to this does not consist in the smashing up of machines (although that is morally admirable), but in the reorganisation of the mode of production. Instead of producing for profit, we need to produce to meet people’s needs instead, and have full social democratic control over this process, invoking new models of participatory democracy. A new post-capitalist mode of production does not see the surplus product re-invested in machinery, unless so desired by the freely-associating direct producers themselves. In that way, advances can and will occur, but only as a result of democracy rather than businessmen operating behind the scenes wondering how to extract more profit. If machinery only advances because it is democratically willed, then the alienating consequences of said machinery disappear. They really do become just tools, then.
Finally, this is no pipe-dream – humanity will necessarily be compelled to face these issues. Just as more of the surplus product is re-invested in high-tech machinery, so too many workers get laid off because their jobs have been replaced by machinery. This immediately is a source of protest. But moreover, with fewer people in employment, the capitalist ends up seeing his own rate of profit decline, because the source of profit always was labour, not the machines. Eventually he has to shut down the enterprise and try and recoup a scrap from a fire-sale. Expanding these principles worldwide, the most high-tech capitalist economies breakdown and collapse. This forces people to address the underlying logic of what was already going on, and wasn’t exactly experienced as a holiday camp in the first place.
Measured in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), which is a superior measure to GDP, global output in 2017 is forecast to be $126.7 trillion. Assuming a population of 7bn, in which 50% of the population work (a generous estimate), then everyone’s wages throughout the entire world ought to be $36,200 per year. Not bad, huh? But the mean average wage of a world worker that conflates the difference between a Luxembourger (the highest paid) and someone in the Third World, is only $18,000 at 2012 estimates (and it’s doubtful wages have risen much since then). So, where’s the extra money gone? Where is the other 50%? Not in wages!
Naïve people might think the missing 50% goes into paying for health services, education, welfare, or paying off national debt. Wrong! All these things come from taxes which are taken from the wage. They are not taken from the missing 50%, they are taken from the accounted-for 50%.
So where is the missing $60 trillion, each and every year, at current levels of development? We know that $32 trillion of it resides in off-shore tax havens. But that’s just a total, and doesn’t account for $60 trillion per year, every year. Obviously, some of it goes on elite hobbies such as the art market, yachts, racehorses, and squandering ¼ $1bn on footballer Neymar, etc. But such ultra-luxury consumption still couldn’t explain the size of the missing trillions.
The missing trillions, given the number of years this situation has gone on, are actually not trillions.
They are quadrillions.
Here is what a quadrillion looks like written out:
When right wing economists tell you we all need to work harder and create a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, it is worth bearing in mind that we already work hard enough thank-you, and perhaps a cybernetic future in which we all go around wearing VR headsets is a bit too much to stomach. The problem isn’t a lack of wealth, it is the way it is distributed. And this mode of distribution flows from a particular mode of production in which the surplus product becomes privately rather than socially owned.
When elites tell you ‘there isn’t enough money’ to fund this, that, or the other, we should now question what measure of wealth they are using. If they are talking about funds raised from taxation of the working class, sure, there isn’t enough money. But what if society, acting as a collective entity with purpose, took back our missing quadrillions? Perhaps if the surplus product, which is all entirely derived from the total work of the world, was in our hands, instead of a minority parasite blood-sucking vampire class, i.e. placing the surplus product under the democratic control of society, maybe something useful could be done?
Star Trek’s ‘The Borg’ are a good metaphor for understanding some fundamental aspects of social relations under capitalism. This does not mean people are like drones, quite the reverse. Breakdowns in the metaphor occur because our limited existences created by the capitalist mode of production are distortions upon human nature rather than its total annulment. And people’s massive discomfort with this state of affairs means they seek liberation from the Borg Collective which doesn’t happen with the Trek drones unless they are temporarily disconnected from the Hive Mind. In reading this blog, you are temporarily disconnected from the Hive Mind (chiefly the opinion of authorities), and I will set out arguments through which you may come to achieve full humanity.
The Borg expand through assimilating humanoid life-forms in the galaxy and beyond, rather like the expansion of the world market gobbling everything up. In the assimilation process, your individuality is crushed and you are made to serve the Collective (society). The Borg are incredibly successful because they are efficient and constantly perfecting technology to further their programme of expanse. What the Borg fail to assimilate, they physically destroy. The Borg represent the ideal dream of how capitalism attempts to remould society, yet the ways in which the Borg are successful come at a terrible cost: the crushing of individuality and the end of the liberty of the individual.
In contrast, the humans in Star Trek are free, their internal conflicts are resolved usually through discussion rather than force. The Borg on the other hand suffer no internal conflict, they are already ‘as one.’ But how do the humans in Trek become free? Why do they volunteer to do things rather than nothing at all? Because labour has become life’s prime want.
Under capitalism, labour is coerced out of the individual, disguised as a ‘free exchange.’ Yet the worker quickly comes to understand the selling of their labour power was anything but free. They had nothing else to sell, nothing else to live from. In work, there is an obsession with ‘increasing productivity,’ work is experienced as uncreative doldrums, it is unrewarding, undertaken under tight supervision (including by CCTV), the products of labour are owned by someone else (the capitalist), there are poor bonds with other workers, and there is no rational set of ideas why we are all doing this in the first place. Work is reduced to the means to the end of survival in a dog-eat-dog world. It is not something desired by the individual, no-one goes to work looking forward to it and with a whistle in their heart.
Labour becomes life’s prime want by removing all these inhibitions to its unleashing. We shouldn’t have to ‘sell’ our capacity to work – means of production should be free to utilise by all. The obsession with being ‘productive’ needs to be cancelled out – how productive you are ought to depend on your own will. Rather than production seemingly for production’s own sake, the worker now chooses when and what to produce according to personal will, hence it becomes creative and rewarding, and there is no-one to take the product from you without your consent (e.g. as a part of consciously determined human relations). There is no supervision, except perhaps in an advisory capacity. The free worker now enjoys good quality bonds with his fellows, giving rise to coherent ideas why we do what we do.
With labour now as life’s prime want, capitalist society now looks shameful and embarrassing. It was Borg-like because it prioritised efficiency and productivity over individual liberty and choice. What’s worse the fake left-wing politicians of capitalist society must now feel incredibly embarrassed – all they did was to take capitalist slogans and suggest their programmes could do it better, as opposed to operating on the terrain of critique, thus developing a superior notion of human moral value.
Capitalism is Borg-like, but the individual worker even under this system is never quite like a drone. Rather in a society where all sides have accepted ‘there is no alternative to the Borg,’ the individual worker’s aspirations become expressed through religious or fetishistic forms. Thus 75% of Americans are still religious in the 21st century. 25% are also on some form of psychiatric medication or another. These aspects are not the main problem, they are symptoms of the problem, like flowers growing on the chains. They would be superseded with genuine humanised spirituality and a deeper sense of our social interconnections after we take action to remove the chains. By contrast, the Borg regarded in this way are a poor metaphor for the human condition under capitalism because they have no delusions. Ironically it seems it is the capacity to be delusional that is a big thing currently separating us from a race of advanced machines. It is better to be a human with delusions than a robot without them. Furthermore, unlike the Borg, we have strong interpersonal contacts such as a family life and enriching down-time. It is only when considered in the sphere of work which takes up most of our waking lives that the human condition under capitalism can be considered Borg-like. So, let’s widen the distinction between humanity and the Borg further in the interests of full liberation by changing the way we work. We shouldn’t have to live as a poor advertisement of ourselves.
Nb. Since writing this blog, my views have changed. A revised review of the book now appears at http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/reviews-and-culture/monsters-vs-zombies-review-of-phil-mullans-creative-destruction.html Nevertheless I have chosen not to delete this older version since it is still useful in stirring debate and more importantly, was a ‘stage’ in my theoretical development, albeit a negative one dominated by emotion and ‘clearing out.’ That isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Revolutions in practice often contain reactionary and untrue elements – even the widely acclaimed French Revolution saw many participants believing libels against Marie Antoinette that she was having sex with her sons. The challenge then is to overcome the first negativity with a more promising and reasoned ‘second negativity.’
Phil Mullan, business manager and chief economist at the magazine spiked-online is, by his own admission, ‘obsessed with economic growth.’ This goal, alongside others, is also precious to Marxism, and Mullan lifts some of Marx’s arguments to make his case that we are currently living through a ‘Long Depression’ that began with the economic downturn in the 1970s. He makes a convincing case that GDP in Western nations has shrunk in relation to the levels of the post-war boom. Consequently, rises in living standards, which Mullan the humanist cares about, are held back. Appearances of dynamism in things like the stock market are essentially parasitic upon the real, productive economy where value is created. If that is seizing up, then finance is just another bubble like the dot.com bubble waiting to burst. Another Crash like 2008 is imminent in the context of the persisting Long Depression. The escape from the protracted depression, says Mullan, lies in increasing productivity for which it is essential to demolish zombification trends.
This review is divided into three parts. Firstly, I look at Mullan’s take on Marxist crisis theory to preliminarily clarify the issues at stake. Secondly, I probe Mullan’s proposed solution of a new industrial revolution from within capitalism. Finally, I sketch an alternative model of economic growth that I hope salvages what I see as positive in the book, whilst criticising other aspects.
Capitalism has transformed the world immeasurably in terms of creating an abundance of material wealth. This process, however, has never been smooth. Capitalism is prone to economic downturns that occur roughly every ten years. So, growth occurs only in the form of ups and downs. Some downturns are deeper than others, sparking an economic crisis where the system has to destroy some of its own wealth before it can re-accumulate. This doesn’t mean capital literally burns its own commodities (although that sometimes happens.) What becomes important in a crisis isn’t a physical destruction as such, but the destruction of value, the social substance whose body is the physical commodity and itself represents a definite amount of abstract human labour in a congealed form. But why can’t value just grow and grow without periodic crises?
The mechanism for its growth is active (rather than idle) capital, i.e. capital engaged in the production process. When capitalists deploy their money in production in order to gain more, what they seek is the highest rate of profit measured in percentage terms. There’s no point in investing if all you get back is the same, so capitalists are motivated all the time by the possibility of expansion and take risks in order to get that. Capital within the production process takes the form of a ‘constant’ capital (plant and machinery etc.,) and ‘variable’ capital (the amount spent on wages and employee perks). Capital grows as a mass of value when it is able to extract a ‘surplus’ value from the worker. But the mass of value is unmotivating to capitalists compared to the rate of profit. The quantity of the surplus divided by the value embodied in the constant and variable components of capital gives us the rate of profit. In order to increase the rate of profit, capital needs to increase the surplus value in relation to the constant and variable components. There are a number of ways it can do this. It can, for example, cut wages or other employee perks, or intensify the labour process with speed-ups. However, these things are socially unpopular as well as limited in application. More commonly, and especially during a period of growth, a capitalist will technologically innovate in order to increase the productivity of labour. The consequence of this is that more is produced in the same amount of time yet the sale price of the commodity remains temporarily unchanged. So more value is harvested by the capitalist. But when rival capitalists catch up with the entrepreneur and deploy similar technology – and they have to or go bust – then the price of a singular one of those commodities falls as less labour-time is embodied in it. If you sell all of the new increased number of commodities, you only get back the same amount of value as was previously embodied in the lesser number. So, the new situation is that you have spent all this money on increasing technology (part of the constant capital) yet the total product is fetching the same. Therefore, constant capital has increased whilst the surplus value is back to where it was before. Thus, in the ratio of surplus value divided by the constant and variable capital now shows a larger measure in the denominator. The rate of profit has therefore fallen. If the rate of profit falls too much, then employees get laid off and constant capital also needs to be destroyed in one way or another (usually as a written off asset), and this is the economic crisis. Mullan puts it like this:
“The profit arising from the new value created by labour in the production process tends to decline relative to the rising amounts of capital invested in fixed assets and materials. This means that the profit rate measured over all capital deployed – in employing people as well as in fixed assets and other inputs – will also tend to decline. This tendency of the general rate of profit to fall follows as a direct consequence of the development of the social productivity of labour since this is dependent upon increasing amounts of capital investment.”
Given that any further development of the productivity of labour (i.e. producing more with less labour input) is reliant on a healthy rate of profit, if the rate of profit falls too much, then productivity also stagnates leading to a general economic malaise. This is what has happened since the 1970s. Mullan says the annual productivity growth rate in Britain is now down to 1.1%, all things considered. This is not exactly an economy that is unleashing the human potential.
Note, the Marxist explanation of crisis doesn’t mean that each and every crisis is attributable to these reasons. Crises can also occur owing to a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami. The theory is therefore just one possible explanation that stands in need of empirical verification. One’s suspicion’s get raised when conditions are favourable to capital accumulation such as a more muted level of class struggle. When the crisis still takes place in those conditions, it is probable it can be explained with this theory, though it still needs to be empirically proved.
The chapter on this profitability problem is the strongest part of the book. However, there is no place in the book where Mullan explains the distinction between value and use-value. This omission is important because a reader unfamiliar with Marxism may believe that the declining rate at which labour productivity advances implies a falling amount of value in the world. It doesn’t. If the amount of labour-time deployed in a society remains constant, then the amount of value produced in that society also remains constant regardless of whether the quantity of use-values is going up or down. The amount of value in the world is limited by the size of the working population and the length and intensity of the working day. Contrary to commonly held belief, despite mountains of cash reserves, capitalism doesn’t actually increase the amount of value in the world, except to the extent it has drawn more people into production, increased the length of the working day, and increased labour’s intensity. Other than those things which can only be increased to a certain point, labour under capitalism does not produce extra value owing to productivity increases. As Marx says, “The same labour, therefore, performed for the same length of time, always yields the same amount of value, independently of any variations in productivity.” And also: “Take a certain working population of, say, two million. Assume, furthermore, that the length and intensity of the average working day, the level of wages, and thereby the proportion between necessary and surplus labour, are given. In that case the aggregate labour of these two million, and their surplus labour expressed in surplus value, always produces the same magnitude of value.”
There are places in ‘Creative Destruction’ where Mullan seems to be unclear about this point. He says “world output per person was US$467 in the year 1 AD, falling slightly to US$453 1000 years later, and rising to only US$615 by 1700. That’s an average annual growth rate over 17 centuries of 0.02% – effectively zero for influencing people’s life experiences.” It needs to be clarified that the extra value produced per head in the advancing centuries is not because capitalism has some magical value-increasing spell. The value of output per head can only rise if labour becomes more intensive or the working day is lengthened. Indeed, it is these factors that explain the discrepancy between 1 AD and 1700 AD, with bigger leaps since then. Industrial society most definitely does increase labour intensity and lengthen the working day. No rise in the value of output is determined by productivity. Nevertheless, productivity growth does lead to an increase in the quantity of use-values available to society. That is not the same thing as value, but it does justify why productivity growth is important for increasing living standards. Productivity growth disperses the value of an hour of socially necessary labour-time over a greater number of use-values. The number of use-values has increased but each use-value is now the bodily form of a lesser quantity of value.
The Weak Must Perish!
Whilst capitalism is crisis-prone, this doesn’t mean it collapses of its own accord. It has counter-acting tendencies that automatically activate when production is breaking down. Through these counter-acting tendencies, the system destroys some of its value through, for example, writing off assets, and is then able to regrow. One way of conceptualising the crisis was captured in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. There, the animals build a windmill, only for it to be burnt down the next day. Then they rebuild it and once again it is destroyed, and so on. The process of the accumulation of capital is much like this – it grows up to a certain point, then self-destructs, only to inflate again later, etc. Each post-recovery peak is slightly lower than the previous peak. It doesn’t exactly correspond therefore to a society in which the economy is genuinely progressing. Although the mass of use-values rises, in value terms the system is just jumping up and down on the same spot.
There are other counter-acting tendencies in capitalism such as intensifying or extending the working day that effectively increase the surplus in relation to capital investment, or slashing the wage bill which decreases variable capital. It is worth noting that with more women in the workforce now, a family unit conceived as a single entity now works for longer than in the 19th century. Back then, workers scored a victory with the 10 hours’ bill, but now in Britain a woman and her husband will often be found working 14 hours a day in total, excluding any overtime. Of course, gender equality is an important achievement of the Women’s Liberation movement, my point is only significant for noting that capital has effectively increased the length of the working day.
A counter-acting tendency that Mullan finds particularly appealing is that of ‘creative destruction.’ This is when the unprofitable companies go bankrupt and their assets are sold off cheaply (devaluing the constant capital) to a more profitable company who then is able to keep production going, or even elevate it to a higher technological level. The process of creative destruction is a healing, purifying mechanism for capital. By destroying some of the constant component of capital that has overaccumulated, a new round of production is able to get going. So ‘creative destruction’ is what it says: both destructive and creative.
However, Mullan’s originality as an author on the crisis consists here: he argues that the ‘normal’ processes of creative destruction are being held back by the state. Mullan argues the state is giving too many subsidies to unprofitable companies to keep them afloat, when really it should let them die. The state is propping up a zombie form of capitalism, says Mullan. If instead the unprofitable companies are left to die, then the state could invest its money on driving forward newer production at a higher technological level. Note, Mullan doesn’t think the job can be left to capitalists because they are too concerned with short-term profit whereas the high-tech stuff is risky and costly. In the absence of other collectivities in society then, Mullan wants the state to take a commanding role in rejuvenating the economy and he thinks this will create real progress. He has conceded this will mean the state borrowing a few extra trillion to fund this progress.
His ideas for progress involve employing the youth (who have suffered higher rates of unemployment since the 2008 Crash) in tasks such as building new aircraft made out of the new compound graphene which is lighter than the current metals. Furthermore, he wants more investment in driverless cars, quantum technology for, among other things, faster computers, and virtual reality. Production in these areas will create ‘decent jobs’, he believes. He says people who don’t want to go down this route of a high-tech state capitalism have a ‘loss of belief in progress.’ Whilst he recognises he holds a minority view, he thinks strong leaders will emerge that promote these ideas and ensure they have democratic approval.
Sadly, Mullan’s optimism is delusional. Firstly, the level of destruction he is proposing is so high, people are unlikely to go for it. “There are no pain-free routes out of the Long Depression. The processes of creative destruction will mean economic ruin, adding to areas already severely affected by deindustrialisation.”  Yay, economic ruin! To be fair, Mullan believes such ruin will just be a short-term part of the transition to a high-tech state capitalist society and also the people affected will receive welfare benefits as they learn the new skills required to become a quantum computing scientist. So, we are invited to sing ‘Kum-by-ya’ as millions get laid off.
The second criticism concerns Mullan’s notion of ‘decent jobs.’ Is there such a thing? Even if the fellow designing a quantum circuit board experiences this as rewarding because he is deploying a high level of skill, the production of enough quantum computers for the world requires hundreds of thousands more low-paid assemblers on the factory line. They are unlikely to feel particularly rewarded.
The third criticism is that Mullan is only tinkering around with one particular counter-acting tendency, that of ‘creative destruction.’ With the fundamental social relations of capitalism remaining intact, the new high tech state capitalism will still be crisis-prone. Indeed, with such a high level of constant capital, when its Crash comes, it will be incredibly severe, making 2008 look like a tea party. What’s worse is that if the employer is the state, all hell could break loose. No matter how much representative democracy you have, you will find the state qua capitalist-in-recession is going to be quite vicious in attacking variable capital when the crisis breaks. Note Mullan is recommending his model for all the Western economies. So, you have North American, European, Japanese and Australasian state capitalisms all crashing down. I’m sorry, but this is just a recipe for war. Mullan, who argues the Manhattan project to develop the atom bomb pushed science forward, will surely come to regret the recommendations he has made here.
It’s probably best for the time being that we stick with zombie capitalism, until such a point arises that revolutionary humanist theory has gripped the masses such that they are well-equipped to change the world in the interests of human liberation. Even though living standards may only be rising at 1.1% under zombie capitalism, this is little different to what it was in 1860 (a period Mullan thinks was ‘dynamic’ and ‘enlightened’). For the time being, we should stick with it rather than go down the Mullanite route of playing with fire. Ultimately, we need a radically different alternative, so it is to that I now turn.
Changing The Mode of Production
Mullan’s explanation for why he now backs capitalism (albeit rejuvenated), makes about as much sense as a chocolate teapot. He says:
“There are still some on the radical left who argue for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. This had meaning when the working class existed as a political force. But the working class’s demise brought that era of possibilities to an end. The question remains of how the existing system of production can be organised, or transformed, or transcended in such a way as to advance the best interests of humanity. Once we have escaped the Long Depression, the resulting phase of economic expansion would not be forever. Economic growth would at some time hit limits, just as the post-war boom did. Working out how to overcome the limitations of a profit-driven economy is not today’s priority.”
But some of us don’t want to live in either zombie capitalism, nor the 1950s. Mullan’s problem here is premised upon a misinterpretation of what the best bits of the Enlightenment were. He assumes its message of ‘progress’ dictates we stick with capitalism. In actual fact, many different traditions emerged from the Enlightenment which is unsurprising if you realise that the most dominant theme in the Enlightenment (as a diffuse body of philosophy) was that we have freewill and can choose our fate. Mullan’s commitment to capitalism is therefore a choice. It is not the case ‘there is no alternative,’ it all depends on what system we think has the most going for it. The truth-value of the ideas is therefore the most important thing, not the status of contemporary working class politics. If we focus instead on truth, and circulate those ideas, who knows what it might animate in the future? Indeed, ideas often have a ‘trickle down’ effect. The positive moments of the 20th century, although rarely ‘orthodox-Marxist’, were influenced by his raising of the stakes. Mini-socialism, e.g. the British Labour Party or social democracy in Europe, would not have happened without the effect of Marx trickling-down. The task then is for intellectuals to constantly seek truth, and refresh and renew truths discovered historically. Therefore, the contemporary status of working class politics is logically irrelevant to whether or not we decide to pursue Marxist ideas and attempt to circulate them. Mullanism is also unlikely to be implemented directly, but tragically a trickled-down Mullanism might pervade in the short-term, i.e. more Trumpism – a pro-capitalism that has disregarded the humanist bits in Mullan’s book. We have a mammoth responsibility to the future and therefore it is necessary to have the best ideas possible so that even if they are not directly implemented, at least some progress could occur in their trickled-down form. For these reasons, the rest of this section is dedicated to a Marxist alternative to the arguments put forward by Mullan. The reader is invited to decide at the end which vision he or she prefers.
Zombie capitalism really represents capitalism on its last legs. This doesn’t mean that one day it will spontaneously collapse – as Mullan notes, the system is highly resilient. What it does mean however, is that its failure to durably increase living standards for all, its failure to turn the increasing social productivity of labour into a shortening of the working day, its failure to make labour rewarding and creative rather than burdensome and monotonous, its failure to overcome brutalised and alienated social relations, its failure to overcome its crisis-prone nature, the persistence of famine and war, and the general sense that human beings are not in control of their own affairs – yeah, it seems capitalism is a pretty messed-up system. Mullan’s attempts to reform the beast, even if they worked on their own terms, wouldn’t solve many of these problems, but as I have argued, they wouldn’t work even on their own terms – high-tech state capitalism would end up being even worse than its zombie form. So, what we need is a different mode of production. Before we can work out how to get there, we need to probe a little deeper into the fundamental basis of capitalism. If we analyse that, then we can work out how to change the whole thing.
Various Marxist categories deployed in this review – e.g. capital, constant capital, variable capital, surplus value, wages, use-value and value – have as their basis commodities. Commodities are the basic unit of wealth in a capitalist society. Capitalism specifically is about the production of commodities. Any attempt to change capitalism into something else must therefore tackle what is specific to commodity production. Revolutions that have failed to change commodity production into something else have themselves always eventually failed.
The commodity has a dual character – the use-value side, which is the way in which it satisfies a concrete need, and its value side, i.e. how much it is worth, which can be expressed in terms of money or indeed any other commodity. Hence it is possible to say an apple is worth the same as a pencil, or each are worth 20 pence. Value is a representation of how much socially necessary human labour has gone into the production of the commodity, as an amount of time. Capital (privately accumulated mass of value), is the most dialectically developed commodity, but the fact it is also on its last legs, demands from us we understand both it, and the simple commodity.
As a privately accumulated mass of value, capital is therefore an appropriation of the labour-time of others. The nature of capitalism and all the attendant problems follow from this private appropriation of the labour of society. The problems are based therefore, not on personal character traits, but the very fact that persons are not in conscious control of their affairs. Even the capitalist isn’t free because he has to work under certain economic laws in order to survive as a capitalist. The private appropriation of labour has lowered the status of all human beings.
Hence value, from which capital springs, has to be regarded as an estranged form. It is a social substance that has become a threat to our very wellbeing. Thus, we need to get rid of it and turn the product of labour into just an article of use that is stripped of the value form.
To get rid of commodity production therefore requires that the first task is simultaneously to seize back the appropriated value that has been taken from us, and also, in order to prevent new value being taken from us, stop labour existing in the form of labour-power, i.e. as a commodity. Labour-power is a unique commodity because it is incorporated into a human being who is conscious. Thus, it is the only commodity that hypothetically can commence the chain reaction of getting rid of all commodities. To refuse point blank to sell your labour-power is therefore key, but it cannot be done alone. Workers of the world must unite as a giant collective and initiate a worldwide general strike at the same time as expropriating the expropriators, taking back what is rightfully ours. One of the slogans of the revolution is therefore “I AM A MAN, not a commodity.” This slogan immediately raises the dignity of the individual which is, as we shall see, the ultimate key to undo all commodity production. But this is only the first step.
Expropriating the expropriators certainly makes everyone a little more wealthy, but more importantly some of what the capitalists had expropriated from us exists in the form of constant capital. Therefore the collective taking back also involves taking the means of production into social ownership. The post-revolutionary society is now at the start of the lower phase of communism and can start to work towards the task of undoing commodity production. Labour has already self-emancipated in the sense that the commodity labour-power no longer exists. Furthermore, it has got rid of capital in all its forms.
That now permits the communist mode of production to begin to take shape. The working population now produces directly for society and individuals are compensated according to how many hours of labour they have put in. This constitutes an assault on the capitalistic law of value, and therefore an assault on commodity production. Whereas under capitalism the wage represents the value of the goods needed to reproduce you as a worker, i.e. chiefly your ability to regenerate yourself in order to resell your labour power the next day, the new compensation is a moral standard, i.e. a fair share in the social bounty. Value isn’t being measured but the amount of what you do is.
Nevertheless, there is still the problem that the products of emancipated labour still represent abstract human labour, i.e. they have economic value. The new products of labour aren’t strictly speaking commodities, but it would still be possible in the mind to think “1 apple = 1 pencil.” Really for value to disappear completely, such a thing needs to seem absurd, just as ancient religions seem absurd to the skeptic today. The persistence of value in the mind is a hangover from capitalism that will fade when the new society is metaphorically sober. Some logical steps will help the sobering up process occur. When you collect what you need with your labour certificate that says how much you are entitled to, you are not making a trade. You are not exchanging a commodity (money) for goods in a supermarket. You are simply collecting (or ordering via the internet or virtual reality) your goods. Thus, the products of labour are no longer strictly commodities, although they still bear value as a hangover. But what happens if some individuals start accumulating things in one way or another? – they would be amassing value which could become a threat to individuals within the collective. The problem wouldn’t exist if these objects were just use-values, but remember they still bear value. We didn’t just go through the risky business of emancipating ourselves from wage-slavery just to have someone re-accumulate value and thereby possibly seek to employ us. The new society therefore develops a constitution containing several features. The two that are pertinent here are ‘1: No individual is to sell their labour to anyone else. 2: While we have this problem whereby the products of labour still bear value, no member of the commune is to exchange their goods for anyone else’s. You can give the products to someone else (e.g., a child), but you are not allowed to make a trade. Our commune’s exchanges with other communes will only take place under strict control of participatory democracy.’ This policy enactment to be agreed by the communal participatory democracy should be sufficient to buy us enough time whereby the value embodied in the product of labour has finally withered away. But more developments that spontaneously arise from the new society ensure its victory in finally ridding the products of labour of value in order to complete the broader human liberation.
The equalization of different concrete labours represented in the fact that now 1 hour of brain surgery = 1 hour of smart phone assembly in a factory, in relation to the quantity of products you get back, raises the level of dignity of all labours. Far from being an underpaid oppressed creature, spending some time assembling the smart phones, (and rotating who does that), makes the experience far more pleasurable and rewarding. You are now an equally valued member of society. Knowing you are doing something vital and precious to the collective society, it follows the happy individual is likely to show more initiative and creativity. Meanwhile the dignity of the brain surgery has not decreased. If they save a child’s life, they will likely receive gifts from many members of society. Furthermore, training for skilled labour is compensated with a generous student package. So, they are still rewarded and prized by society without that desire impinging on the new fairness.
Meanwhile, the urge to technologically innovate also gets a boost in relation to the sluggish rate of technological progress under capitalism. The latter mainly only innovates when a company wants to gain the market edge. And when it isn’t profitable to do so, innovation slows. But under communism the thirst for new tech knows no bounds. Communism innovates on the basis of two motivations: i) because it is inherently rewarding work ii) to develop the productivity of labour that allows for even more creativity to be enjoyed by workers and a shortened working day.
As the lower phase of communism develops and happier people with more rewarding work, more products to enjoy, and tech that has become beneficial, human solidarity jumps light years. It develops to such a high point that eventually it becomes possible for society to successfully jump into the higher phase of communism. Herein, labour time ceases to be the measure by which you get your goods. People now put into society what they can, and take out what they need. For an analogy, it is like a family in a capitalist society. Unless it is dysfunctional and requires a written rota, family chores are usually shared nowadays without ‘exchange’ needing to take place or a sense of ‘what do I get out of it.’ You just do the cooking, someone else does the washing up, someone does the cleaning. Under the higher phase of communism, humanity becomes one giant family. But note, it is impossible to jump from capitalism straight to this phase. We are so used to putting a price on everything that takes place, human relations are too estranged and you cannot expect the milk of human kindness to be substantial enough, even after a revolution, to accomplish the goal. But this Marxist road-map shows the logical steps needed – revolution then reasoned evolution towards the good society.
You can buy ‘Creative Destruction: How to Start an Economic Renaissance’here.
 Mullan, P. (2017) “Creative Destruction: How to Start an Economic Renaissance” (Policy Press), p.124
Communism is not about forcing a false equality on people dominated by the kind of centralised state that existed in places such as the USSR. Those regimes never escaped capitalism. The main problem with capitalism is that it strips work – our life activity – of its creativity and potentially rewarding character. It traps the individual into a mundane monotonous rut where work is experienced as degrading, rhythmic, and exploitative. Producers are reduced to the level of appendages to machines without powers of thought or a myriad of talents to be cultivated and developed for their own betterment, or the enrichment of society.
Clearly however, the impetus of market relations has transformed the world for the better in material terms. In pre-capitalist societies, work often shares some of the aforementioned characteristics. One is a ‘carpenter’, a ‘baker’, a ‘butcher’, or whatever, as many surnames that are derived from professions attest. A fixed role in life was often defining to the individual, as it remains under capitalism. But the massive expansion of productive powers that has taken place under capitalism through the development of among other things, machinery, provides a potential basis for radical social transformation and the total liberation of the individual.
It is often difficult to see how our globalized economy *could* be stripped of the degrading character of work so that we have our cake and eat it – i.e., to combine high standards of living with a liberated workforce. But it’s not impossible. The trick is to understand that commodity production is not the same thing as production-for-others.
Commodity production is production exclusively for a market and your product is owned and sold by capitalists and their chain of command. You do not know where your product is going, who it will be used by, or see any satisfaction in that relation. You simply produce blindly, and worse still, your managers will seek to get the maximum out of you in return for a wage that makes the whole process highly coercive. The level of the wage is itself determined by what you need to reproduce your existence for the next working week, at a rate acceptable to society. It does not reflect how much you produce or how much effort was expended. The class relation concealed behind the wage – i.e., that you work for the capitalist class, means the surplus product is appropriated by them. This surplus value has held steady – bearing in mind ups and downs – at around a third of the total you have produced. It is as if for every meal you cook, a burglar invades your house and takes a third.
The problem of the lacklustre relation of specifically commodity production to human liberation however, would also hold even if there was no capitalist class and all producers were small businessmen or women. The same drudgery and tedium of being fixed in a role would persist, only you now pay yourself rather than are technically exploited. Besides, such a society is impossible to conceive, since in order to grow, a small businessman or woman would need to deploy their capital in employing others, hence class relations would emanate from this. So how does society escape the rut whilst maintaining (or even improving) the physical standard of living that high-tech capitalism has provided?
Production-for-others need not mean production for the market with all the negative consequences that entails. In a communally organised economy, the local community agrees through participatory democracy what needs to be done and the conversant individual decides to do it. This idea is not as far-fetched as might first appear to those whose only experience is within the confines of the market. Tribal societies that were once the dominant arrangement used this method all the time. With varying degrees of conscious control, they would sit around the campfire of an evening and work these things out. You didn’t have production for production’s sake, i.e. a brutalising state of affairs where the individual has no say and therefore experiences his or her life activity as alien to him or herself. Rather, production just took place to meet the needs of others. The length of the working day in these situations was usually far shorter since the surplus product was enjoyed by the collective rather than privately expropriated. And work was rewarding because you knew why you were doing it, knew who it was for, and had strong bonds with these people. Nevertheless, this is not to glorify tribal societies. There were usually hierarchies and technology levels were so low that lifespans were shorter and ridden with physical maladies.
But to extract what was positive about tribal societies and square that with our high-tech physically decent standards of living today, is a real possibility now that has become more immanent with the development of communication technologies. Thanks to things like the internet and smart phones, it would now be possible to have an economy that is consciously planned by those doing the work in direct accordance with the needs of society as agreed by local participatory democracy. The compensation for your time expended at work would be something like a certificate that guarantees you access to society’s bounty. Not every certificate would be equal at this point. In order to incentivise highly skilled work such as brain surgery or work that continues to be dull such as shovelling faeces, the quantity of goods you can get would be greater. You could be writing articles one week for a lower level of reward than someone who is shovelling faeces, yet alternate those roles or do something entirely different the next week according to the agreements reached by the participatory democracy. The faeces-shoveller of course would be able to acquire his Ferrari quicker. So, at this lower phase of communism, individuals are not yet equal in material terms, though they are equal in terms of political power. Moreover, it is worth noting that in this scenario, society is now totally incentivised to increase its technological level. In order that it doesn’t have to devote too many resources for both the highly skilled work or the dull work, society becomes obliged to develop smart robotics and other machinery that can annul the drudge. Insodoing, the new society is adopting a new economic law concerning an ever-increasing amount of liberation of the worker, freeing him or her to develop their creative powers and basically live the life of Riley. The capitalist law of value has essentially collapsed, providing the ground for the evolution of a post-money system. This is an entirely different mode of production to capitalism, and a vastly superior one at that. The starting point for the new society in relation to its emergence from capitalism, is the demand that the means of production become socially rather than privately owned.
The idea of ‘estranged labour’ simply refers to the character of work undertaken for someone else, under the pressure of coercion or force, and especially when the product of labour is acquired by your enemy. Labour under such conditions has to take on an ‘estranged’ character because it is not something pleasurable or creative, it is endured as a chore. With estranged labour, work is just a ‘means to an end’ – physical survival and reproduction of the next generation of labourers, and it is only after the working day is finished that the worker perceives his life begins, yes for those few hours of watching TV then falling asleep. This is our lives.
Estranged labour has been justified by the ruling class under capitalism in a number of ways. They’re never honest about it. The true motive for their imposition of estranged labour on the rest of the population is just to expand capital, the ruling classes’ own alien boss. If this was made transparent to everyone it is doubtful how long the system could last. However, they conjure myths about what you are working for, some idea of the ‘greater good’. In the past this has been ‘for Empire!’ or ‘for the Nation!’ Today, the justification is that we work for the ‘environment!’ Sadly, the only challenges to this symptom of estranged labour comes from people who just want to substitute one excuse for another – their new excuse is we should work for ‘Growth Growth Growth!’ To tackle estranged labour requires a far bolder critique, one which would situate necessary labour in terms of what people need, and reduce necessary labour time to the bare minimum for satisfaction of needs as technology develops (it’s already developed quite a bit, as I’m sure you’re aware!)
So firstly, the justification for estranged labour in terms of the ‘environment!’ Today we are told we are on the verge of environmental apocalypse (a lie), and that people must work to produce wealth that can be used to mitigate climate disasters, stem overpopulation (apparently Africans by virtue of their poverty reproduce too much), to fund expensive green energy projects that would be considered non-cost effective in more rational times, and in other ways to ‘preserve nature’. This lie for why we produce is bolstered by publicly funded ‘science’ that is open to question, and also structurally reinforced by rules on recycling your waste and monitoring your energy usage, as well as the fact we are bombarded with environmentalist messages all the time in the media. All of this is loosely banded together under the banner of ‘sustainable development’. There are critics of this, but as I shall argue later, they are even worse.
This situation, where the ostensible aim of production is for nature, is similar to ancient societies that thought they were working for the gods. As Karl Marx wrote of this:
“To be sure, in the earliest times the principal production (for example, the building of temples, etc., in Egypt, India and Mexico) appears to be in the service of the gods, and the product belongs to the gods. However, the gods on their own were never the lords of labor. No more was nature.” (‘Estranged Labour’, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844)
The gods, since they don’t exist, were never really the driving force for these labours, it was man’s own activity itself, just existing in an alienated form. And this alienated form emanated from the fact that you had divisions in society, e.g. with the Pharaoh on top doling out orders. When man isn’t free, you get a society of estranged labour. Society sustains this set up through the conjuring of myths. Today, with production for nature, the same thing is occurring. The great chasm between the capitalist with immense power at his disposal versus the atomised worker creates a new estranged labour and is sustained by the conjuring of the myth your work benefits ‘the planet’.
Hard environmentalists have criticised this situation because they think we are producing too much and still raping Goddess Gaia. But because no-one wants to regress to the stone age, their ideas aren’t taken seriously. A far more significant critique of sustainable development is that it is not progressive enough, with ‘progress’ here defined as mankind dominating nature even more, producing more. This attack on sustainable development that comes from both right and left political quarters holds that deifying nature comes at the expense of expanding the market and stifles growth. There is nothing humanist about this critique and do not be deceived by the occasions in which human needs are sometimes employed in the discourse to disguise the truth. The fact is you will still be suffering from estranged labour (because you work for the alien power capital), it is just that the justification for your hard work replaces ‘nature’ with ‘growth for growth’s sake’.
Marx continues: “And what a contradiction it would be if, the more man subjugated nature by his labor [whilst simultaneously deifying her] and the more miracles of the gods were rendered superfluous by the miracles of industry, the more man were to renounce the joy of production and the enjoyment of the product to please these powers.”
Here we have a clear indictment against the 21st century. Through estranged labour, we do not enjoy work in the slightest because it is not undertaken as part of a communal project, furthermore we cannot fully enjoy the products of labour. Witness today’s frenzies for calorie counting all foodstuffs, paying a penance to Gaia through recycling as if we have to apologise for consuming the products of our own labour, and the whole hoohar that we must reduce our carbon footprint – i.e. consume less, in an age where we have achieved a great plenty of goods to consume. From estranged labour flows estranged consumption – at no stage of life do we actually fully enjoy any of it.
There is a solution to all this which doesn’t fit the environmentalist critique (produce less) or the bourgeois-deviant critique (produce more). We need to change the social relations of production so that we all become equal partners in the production process. With equality, we can freely associate as autonomous beings, uncoercively producing as and when necessary (which doesn’t mean producing more), developing technology to make our lot even easier, and fully, sensuously enjoy what we produce with no estranged-based guilt trips.