Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Value Critique and Politics... or Not

Elmar Flatschart, who writes for the journal Exit!, has recently produced some interesting materials available in English. The first item is actually a talk he gave sponsored by the Platypus Society on the connection, if any, between value-form theory or value critique and a communist politics. The second, which I will deal with in the next entry, is the essay “Critical Dialectics for the Social Sciences: Towards a Mediation of Critical Realism and Critical Theory” which suggests that Critical Realism 's (most famously put forward by Roy Bhaskar) treatment of philosophy falls prey to the same kind of limitation as analytical philosophy of science in treating philosophy as “an underlabourer and occasional midwife” of science. This treatment resonates with, but approaches the matter somewhat differently from, Richard Gunn's “Marxism and Philosophy” from Capital & Class #37.

In his talk on Marx and Wertkritik, Flatschart argues for a strict separation of Marxian critique as “the abstract critical theory of society... from the contradictory practical attempts to overcome capitalism.” As he states early on, There is no new program or a master plan for emancipation that can be developed out of the abolition of value. Rather, it can be seen as a condition of emancipation from value and the abstract system of oppression it represents.” Just because we understand the need to abolish value, labor and all the forms derived from the value-form does not mean that we have an actual politics deriving from this in practice. At most, we can say that the imposition of a direct form of domination is no replacement and that any attempt to overcome capitalism that leaves labor, and thus the value-form, intact, that is, production relations as social relations, we do not actually overcome capitalism.

There is thus a gap between the conditions of emancipation and actually producing new relations, emancipated human relations (Marx refers to it, in his references, as “association”, but it is in no way clear what this entails.) Flatschart believes that the outcome of the work begun by the Frankfurt School and then Hans-Georg Backhaus began to account for a new situation, in which “There is no one vanguard party but many situated politics; no one system of oppression that covers all, but an abstract notion of reified domination (verdinglichte Herrschaft) that realizes itself in various ways; and no one strategy for revolution, but contradictory relations that, although graspable only in the negative, we have to confront wherever we meet.” (italics mine)

And is there a political program? No, “There are neither programs nor utopias, only a hard laboring through these contradictions that we face in struggles, wherever they occur.”

He concludes with a summation that is very interesting:
It is not the task of abstract critique of society to give you immediate steps to social revolution. Rather, it seeks to develop the most radical critique of society, but that project is in no way tied to an equally elaborated notion of revolution. That was also a problem of older approaches that had this package-deal mentality, which was essentially politicist, as it proved to be with Lenin and the Marxist-Leninist tradition. As value-diremption critique sees it, revolution is not the task of the abstract critique of society; rather, revolution is the task of concrete theories of praxis and immanent political theories, which is different from and more complex than theorizing society. We need to keep those separate.”

If we pull this apart a bit (keeping in mind that is a talk and that therefore imprecision based on extemporaneous formulations are always possible), the whole comes into view.

The first sentence strikes me as utterly commonsensical, but it is by no means taken as such. The organized Left, whether referencing Lenin's fabled unity of theory and practice or simply following on from a liberal activism at best suspicious of and at worst utterly hostile to intellectual independence which might seek to disabuse it of its direct access to “obvious truths”, has little liking for such a view. Even some its best representatives in intellectual and academic circles, such as Adolph Reed, Jr., fall prey to this view (see my comments on the “Introduction” to Class Notes or better yet, read it yourself.) Nonetheless, I believe it is no accident that Marx highly valued those times when he could fall completely into his work without the distraction of immediate political engagements and certainly it would be even more difficult to find in Capital any directives to concrete political action or a road map from the present to the revolution, much less to its success.

The second sentence seeks to extend this point a bit, however. While most certainly the job is to provide, if not the most radical politically, then the most truthful critique of society, this so happens to be the most radical in the sense of going to the root. However, the next proposition rests somewhat on the verbs used, which are not unambiguous. I'm not sure what it means for a radical critique to be “tied” to an “equally elaborated notion of revolution.” The word “tied” assumes a lack of organic connection, and this is in fact what Flatschart has stated all along. Yet what would an “equally elaborated notion of revolution” entail? A blueprint? A model? If this is what he has in mind, I also find it unobjectionable, but the point itself needs elaboration. For example, he had previously noted that the critique of this society is largely negative. This negativity is not merely one which negates or even which refuses, but one which is open-ended. It admits of no certain end, no pre-given expiration date, no necessary progression of stages, but it also takes critique as internal, that is, the critique follows from the internal limits, the self-contradictions, of society itself. That critique now must encompass not only what Marx specified in his day, nor Lenin, Luxemburg, or Gorter in theirs, nor Mattick, Debord, or Camatte in theirs. We must renew that critique for our time and add to it those things which have failed, even the most cherished.

However, this renewal is not, and here my objection begins, abstract. The Marxian critique is never abstract, even when it is most completely categorial. If it were abstract it would run into the problem that Hegel repeatedly notes in the Phenomenology of Spirit: it would be inessential, and that which is inessential cannot get to the root, cannot possibly be radical. Critical theory is obliged to make a concrete critique of society, that is, one which takes up the changes in the phenomenal forms of capitalist society. It is not enough to critique capital, it requires that we take up the modes of existence of capital at a given moment. As the concrete is the outcome of many determinations and the abstract is abstract precisely because of its lack of adequate determination, it is necessary, for example, to reckon with the actual determinations of value, money, market, and so on. (This is of course what I find so critical in the work of Hans-Dieter Bahr, Serge Mallet, Andre Gorz, the Italian operaists and the like vis-a-vis the labor process.)

If what we have then is not an obligation to an abstract critique, but to a concrete one, however categorial, does that change our relationship to praxis? This depends on what we mean by praxis, or rather who we think has a praxis. The praxis of the intellectual is critique and its renewal. What seems more difficult to specify is a programmatic praxis that might apply to an organization, vanguard or mass, laying claim to a project of consciousness raising and mobilization. The assumption is that there is a political object with political interests, a positive class in need of organizers to tell it its historical mission and immediate interests. If the proletariat is indeed a negative class, that is a class that is no class, that has no interests that can be satisfied within the capital-labor relation, but only through the abolition of its own existence and the existence of said relation, then it would seem that a programmatic praxis is a categorial mistake.

It may be that there was a moment in which liberation seemed possible as the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship in the sense of a proletarian state (councils, soviets, or even of the vanguard party under specific circumstances), and, sooner or later, the establishment of worker's control of production. However, for a variety reason outside the scope of these notes, the period in which the working class, appearing as an estate defending its interests as an estate, existed in this position and in this manner has irrevocably passed. If in working out the concrete critique of society under these conditions, we can't draw any practical conclusions then maybe the problem is not necessarily a the absolute diremption of a critique of social forms and “concrete theories of praxis”. Maybe this diremption is just a dualistic split between a properly negative critique and an opportunistic positivism in politics? More likely the result will be less an opportunistic political action of its own than an apology for the political practice of others, such as John Holloway's uncritical support of the EZLN and Subcommandante Marcos.

This is ultimately my concern because I do not hold out much hope of large “working class parties” of the old sort because the predicates of their existence are gone. This in no way relieves us of the practical critique of “the Left” such as it is in its morass of opportunism and adventurism, nor of actual movements as they come into being, peak, and fade away.

On the overall point that the critique of society does not tell us what an emancipated humanity will look like, I believe Marcel Stoetzler has put forward a similar proposition in a very interesting fashion in his talk from the 2011 Historical Materialism Conference in New York City, NY, USA.

In his words:
Communism does not automatically follow out of the inherent contradictions of the capital relation. It emerges only as a potentiality, as one of the options; in other words, communism is born out of freedom not out of necessity. Freedom is what communism essentially is. In other words, the abolition of capitalism creates a chance that we have the freedom also to spoil. Only because we can spoil it we can also make communism, and we already make some communism, as that Blochian present absense, because mostly we don’t. In other words, we have two historical tasks: task 1, the relatively easy task of abolishing capitalism (a rather precarious, vulnerable, derivative, dependent, long doomed, idiotic, arrogant and irrational structure, still extremely dangerous, perhaps more dangerous than ever, but on its way out) and the much more difficult task 2 of creating communism.”

However, he notes that we actually can distinguish between practices that are prefigurative of a better world, but not likely to help bring down capitalism; to articulate the critique and rejection of reactionary opposition to (aspects of) capitalism by asking “is it bad for capitalism?” and “is it good for communism” and a third level of “if it is bad for capitalism is it at least not bad for communism?”

Quite wittily, he then delineates the following:
It allows us to argue that strategically we should be very enthusiastic about actions and practices that earn two ticks (bad for capitalism, but good for communism), we should be reasonably enthusiastic about those that tick one box, i.e. that are neutral in terms of destroying capitalism but good for communism, or neutral in terms of communism but destructive of capitalism, and we should somewhat more quietly and discretely enjoy those that are good for capitalism but also good for communism (the category into which most of my favourite things tend to fall, I have to admit). We should very much oppose, though, all the various forms of managerial reformism, positivistic authoritarianism, conservative revolution, populism and fascism, in spite of the fact that they are revolutionary to the extent that they bring down the liberal and probably most productive and sustainable forms of capitalism, forcing capital into political and cultural forms that seem at most temporarily to be in the best interest of capital: the crap capitalism of countless shades of bolshevik, authoritarian and fascist regimes under whose surface unhappy capital dreams of morphing into shiny good-quality capitalism. Some comrades, well-trained in deciphering the ironies of history, might be tempted to applaud crap
capitalism because it is less than ideal for capital (although good for electrification and exterminating the peasantry, not very good at all at mobilising the collective creativity needed for long-term successful accumulation), but the all-decisive point for us is that it is disastrous for communism, amongst other things because it tends to reinforce the authoritarian character structures that liberal
capitalism produces in the first place but also partially offsets.
[Footnote: We don’t mention here the multitude of the socialists of the chair who applaud and promote crap capitalism as a superior form of capitalism that paves the fast track to communism. Their misapprehension of communism is obviously born from their misapprehension of capitalism.”

In this set of ruminations, we may actually engage with the politics of the present politically and not uncritically, and reliant on our critique of capitalism without which the preceding points make no sense.

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