Saturday, February 21, 2015

Thoughts on Varoufakis

This is a very interesting article by the finance minister of Syriza, Yanis Varoufakis.  It makes me think that we should be very keen on what is happening in Europe.

I am currently reading this article and his book, The Global Minotaur, which has a perspective towards the dollar and US double debt exploitation (trade deficit and budget deficit) related to being the currency of record still, not unlike Michael Hudson's less Marxist Super-Imperialism. 

"Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come."
One of the few antidotes to this view is his own Party's coming to power in Greece (Syriza) and the rise of the left populist Podemos in Spain (  However, I think on balance his point remains valid.
This is, however, a slippery slope:
"It is a confession intended to convince radicals that we have a contradictory mission: to arrest the freefall of European capitalism in order to buy the time we need to formulate its alternative."
"A radical social theorist can challenge the economic mainstream in two different ways, I always thought. One way is by means of immanent criticism. To accept the mainstream’s axioms and then expose its internal contradictions. To say: “I shall not contest your assumptions but here is why your own conclusions do not logically flow on from them.” This was, indeed, Marx’s method of undermining British political economics. He accepted every axiom by Adam Smith and David Ricardo in order to demonstrate that, in the context of their assumptions, capitalism was a contradictory system. The second avenue that a radical theorist can pursue is, of course, the construction of alternative theories to those of the establishment, hoping that they will be taken seriously.

"...wealth is collectively produced and then privately appropriated through social relations of production and property rights that rely, for their reproduction, almost exclusively on false consciousness."

"Both of them, in addition to their other errors (and, indeed, crimes) failed, to their detriment, to follow Marx’s lead in a crucial regard: instead of embracing liberty and rationality as their rallying cries and organising concepts, they opted for equality and justice, bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neoliberals. Marx was adamant: The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational, as it habitually condemns whole generations to deprivation and unemployment and even turns capitalists into angst-ridden automata, living in permanent fear that unless they commodify their fellow humans fully so as to serve capital accumulation more efficiently, they will cease to be capitalists. So, if capitalism appears unjust this is because it enslaves everyone; it wastes human and natural resources; the same production line that pumps out remarkable gizmos and untold wealth, also produces deep unhappiness and crises.
"Marx’s first error – the error of omission was that he failed to give sufficient thought to the impact of his own theorising on the world that he was theorising about. His theory is discursively exceptionally powerful, and Marx had a sense of its power. So how come he showed no concern that his disciples, people with a better grasp of these powerful ideas than the average worker, might use the power bestowed upon them, via Marx’s own ideas, in order to abuse other comrades, to build their own power base, to gain positions of influence?"

My view on this dilemma has always been that the powers that be are never perturbed by theories that embark from assumptions different to their own. The only thing that can destabilise and genuinely challenge mainstream, neoclassical economists is the demonstration of the internal inconsistency of their own models."
This is a rather succinct explanation of immanent critique entails and why it is more valid politically as well as philosophically.  To paraphrase Adorno, this society wishes to be judged by the character of its enemies, rather than by its own character, but it is only in showing how it fails on its own (immanent) terms can it really be undermined.  In terms of such, one does not counter falsehood with fact, but has to show that the truth content and the form of that content are also false, insofar as they are the ideas (the concept) of an untrue actuality.  Thus current economics, as Varoufakis points out in his book, cannot speak truthfully of its assumptions because to do so would undermine its assumption that the world is the way it must be, and that that is good.
"If workers and employers ever succeed in commodifying labour fully, capitalism will perish. This is an insight without which capitalism’s tendency to generate crises can never be fully grasped and, also, an insight that no one has access to without some exposure to Marx’s thought."
This is interesting.  He seems to have in mind that if human beings were actually reduced to mechanisms, they would have no capacity for surplus.
"For a start, a society of dehumanised automata would resemble a mechanical watch full of cogs and springs, each with its own unique function, together producing a “good”: timekeeping. Yet if that society contained nothing but other automata, timekeeping would not be a “good”. It would certainly be an “output” but why a “good”? Without real humans to experience the clock’s function, there can be no such thing as “good” or “bad”.
If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.
When Marx was writing that labour is the living, form-giving fire; the transitoriness of things; their temporality; he was making the greatest contribution any economist has ever made to our understanding of the acute contradiction buried inside capitalism’s DNA. When he portrayed capital as a “… force we must submit to … it develops a cosmopolitan, universal energy which breaks through every limit and every bond and posts itself as the only policy, the only universality the only limit and the only bond”, he was highlighting the reality that labour can be purchased by liquid capital (ie money), in its commodity form, but that it will always carry with it a will hostile to the capitalist buyer. But Marx was not just making a psychological, philosophical or political statement. He was, rather, supplying a remarkable analysis of why the moment that labour (as an unquantifiable activity) sheds this hostility, it becomes sterile, incapable of producing value."
I think Varoufakis is here struggling towards something akin to Moishe Postone's contention that value (not merely surplus value) is a social form, a human social relation, in which the dynamic between objectively dominated, waged living labor and objectively dominating, money-shaped dead labor forms the capital relation in its totality.  Without living labor, the value form and capital itself cease to be.  However, Varoufakis on p. 30 of his book seems to see consent as taking place in distribution, and thus I will be watching to see (I have a long way to go) if his critique of capital remains at the level of distribution rather than at the core of production.  Moments like this in the essay point towards the latter"
The problem of capitalism is not private appropriation, but that labor is itself, and thus the whole of "modern" production, a relation of domination.
The eventual reference to Kalecki is interesting and potentially illuminating.  Kalecki went down a road not unlike that of Sweezey and Baran in the U.S.
This is an especially good point:
Having failed to couch a critique of capitalism in terms of freedom and rationality, as Marx thought essential, social democracy and the left in general allowed the neoliberals to usurp the mantle of freedom and to win a spectacular triumph in the contest of ideologies."
Raymond Geuss makes a similar point in his book Philosophy and Real Politics and it is one we should beat every liberal and so-called Marxist with.
"Perhaps the most significant dimension of the neoliberal triumph is what has come to be known as the “democratic deficit”. Rivers of crocodile tears have flowed over the decline of our great democracies during the past three decades of financialisation and globalisation. Marx would have laughed long and hard at those who seem surprised, or upset, by the “democratic deficit”. What was the great objective behind 19th-century liberalism? It was, as Marx never tired of pointing out, to separate the economic sphere from the political sphere and to confine politics to the latter while leaving the economic sphere to capital. It is liberalism’s splendid success in achieving this long-held goal that we are now observing. Take a look at South Africa today, more than two decades after Nelson Mandela was freed and the political sphere, at long last, embraced the whole population. The ANC’s predicament was that, in order to be allowed to dominate the political sphere, it had to give up power over the economic one. And if you think otherwise, I suggest that you talk to the dozens of miners gunned down by armed guards paid by their employers after they dared demand a wage rise."
This covers much of the pettifoggery of "democratic deficit".  The political form is wholly inadequate to the task at hand, a point Marx made from the very beginning.
On the one hand, I think this is a fair accusation insofar as Marx over-estimated the objective, immediate revolutionary propensity of the proletariat of his day and the extent to which Marx intentionally curbed the making public of his own critique of his "best" followers.  His Critique of the Gotha Program did not see light when it should have.  His contempt for his German followers Liebknecht & Co. did not come to light publicly until much later.
On the other hand, it is not fair insofar as Marx did know their limitations and also reckoned against the limitations of the immediate prospects (the immediate subjective disposition or consciousness) of the organized working class.  This was clear in his decision with Engels to bury the International Workingmen's Association by sending it to New York City and his own letters to Engels and others regarding the limits of hat they could say in 1874 compared to what they had been able to say in 1848-50.
"Marx’s second error, the one I ascribe to commission, was worse. It was his assumption that truth about capitalism could be discovered in the mathematics of his models. This was the worst disservice he could have delivered to his own theoretical system. The man who equipped us with human freedom as a first-order economic concept; the scholar who elevated radical indeterminacy to its rightful place within political economics; he was the same person who ended up toying around with simplistic algebraic models, in which labour units were, naturally, fully quantified, hoping against hope to evince from these equations some additional insights about capitalism. After his death, Marxist economists wasted long careers indulging a similar type of scholastic mechanism. Fully immersed in irrelevant debates on “the transformation problem” and what to do about it, they eventually became an almost extinct species, as the neoliberal juggernaut crushed all dissent in its path."
I can't really agree with this one at all.  Marx's point was not mathematical models, but to try and grasp how the incommensurable and qualitative could be made commensurable and quantitative, in a sense, how capital was about equality of exchange and monetization.  Marx's critique has to come to terms with how everything can be expressed in that most universal, most meaningless of all forms, money.  This is key to Marx's critique of capital as social form.
It is hardly his fault that the leaders of the workers' organizations, good Lasalleans that they were looking for a fair day's wage and political equality, should have taken his critique of capital to be a manual of a "proletarian political economy" counterpoising good, productive labor to bad, unproductive appropriation.  Varoufakis himself seems subject to this error.
"In economic terms this meant a recognition that the market power, and thus the profitability, of capitalists was not necessarily reducible to their capacity to extract labour from employees; that some capitalists can extract more from a given pool of labour or from a given community of consumers for reasons that are external to Marx’s own theory."
Marx most certainly is aware of this, but if his concern is an adequate concept of the determinate social form, then he cannot start with the exceptions (one argument for why Marx could not, in Capital Vols. 1 or 2 as such, deal with other forms of labor or property.)  He must first have a concept of the determinate social form that allows other social forms to be gasped adequately.
His point on the immiseration thesis and Thatcher is spot on.
"A Greek or a Portuguese or an Italian exit from the eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps, while the rest of Europe is would be in the grip of vicious stagflation. Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the eurozone."
The end of the article is very open and decent, I think.  I do not know that saving capitalism from itself is our task, but neither is reveling in immiseration, as if empty bellies led to revolution rather than counter-revolution.
At least he is not claiming to save capitalism in order to build a new working class movement like that of old.  I take his view to be that if we allows the world to fall into the abyss, the future will be bleak, not bright, and thus we have to somehow stop that slide into the abyss long enough for the idea that we could have a better world rather than a worse one to find a material form.
However, I don't think he engages radically enough with the problem that we don't really know what a way out might mean.  Maybe he can't, but I would like him to pose the problem a bit more sharply.


No comments:

Post a Comment