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Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Tenth Post

Before moving on to Index Numbers, let me pause briefly to reply to the comments posted by Noumena and Amato to Part Nine. The easier one first: Amato asks where I stand on the question of the inevitability of world revolution. The simple answer is, I don't think it is going to happen. This is actually one of the central questions of my paper, "The Future of Socialism," which is available on the web. As far as Materialist Dialectics is concerned, I think that is just lousy nineteenth century metaphysics. But Marx did have a substantive set of reasons for expecting a socialist revolution, growing out of his analysis of directions in which capitalism was evolving.

Briefly, he thought the following [I go into this in more detail in that paper]: First, capitalism will continue to evolve in the direction of larger and larger accumulations of capital; Second, progressively, the traditional hierarchical structure of the working class will be destroyed as more and more workers become semi-skilled machine operatives, thus facilitating class unity; Third, the corrosive rationalizing effect of capitalism will eat away at all ethnic, racial, national, religious and other forces that might tend to isolate capitals from one another and workers from one another; Fourth, ever greater booms and busts will afflict capitalism -- crises of over-production and under-consumption; Fifth, the dog eat dog competitiveness of capitalism will stop capitalists from cooperating to save capitalism from these periodic crises; Sixth, the rationalization and internationalization of capitalism on the side of capital will generate an ever more unified and international working class; and Seventh, there will finally come a world economic collapse from which no segment of capital is protected, in the wake of which the organized and more and more self-conscious international working class will rise up and seize the now fully developed forces and means of production.

This was not a stupid analysis or series of projections, given the world Marx was looking at in the 1850s and 60s. Some of it he got right [the ever greater centralization of capital, the internationalization of capital.] He even correctly predicted a world-wide economic crash, although it came somewhat later than he expected. So what did he get wrong? Well, to put it in a nutshell, World War I, Keynes, and the Income Pyramid. The willingness of French and German workers to march docilely into the trenches and slaughter one another demonstrated that the forces of irrationality -- nationality, race, religion, ethnicity -- are very much more resistant to dissolution than Marx thought. My grandfather and other American socialists were appalled by the failure of the workers of Europe to resist the capitalist war. Furthermore, when the predicted crash came, capitalists proved capable of working together to manage the gyrations of capitalism. Keynes and Roosevelt saved them from themselves. And the working class, rather than becoming homogenized, remained set in a pyramidal structure of wages and salaries that persists to the present day. As I have often remarked, we old lefties used to describe the stage of economic development we were living in as "late capitalism." That phrase is now a wry joke.

OK, now for Noumena. Noumena asks two questions. The first can be parodied like this: So if capitalism is so mystified, how come you can see through it? The second is more provocative: "Why not think that Marx was to state capitalism what Adam Smith was to laissez-faire capitalism -- an optimistic early apologist for what turned out to be just another way for the wealthy and powerful to exploit the poor and oppressed?" Oof! With friends like that, who needs enemies?

The second question first. Marx wrote in excess of five thousand pages of economic analysis of capitalism, and no more than a few pithy phrases about what socialism would be like. He said that socialism would only be possible after the productive forces of capitalism had been fully developed, and that socialism would develop "in the womb" of the old order. Neither Russia nor China was, or even now is, ready for socialism. I could not care less what the Bolsheviks or Mao said they were doing. They were not instituting a socialist economic order. State Capitalism is as good a name as any, and it is not at all what Marx was talking about. I do not blame Marx for Stalinism and Maoism and more than I blame Jesus for the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials. By the way, that is a misreading of Adam Smith also, but who cares?

Now on to mystification. Just as there have been many men and women who could penetrate the veil of mystification cloaking the Altar and the Throne, so there are people who manage to penetrate the mysteries of the marketplace. But the crucial point here, which I make at some length in Moneybags, is that even those who succeed in seeing the mystification of commodity production are still in its grip. All of us experience commodities as quanta of embodied value, even though to think that way is, as Marx says in CAPITAL, verruckt [crack-brained.] Let me give you a personal example of what I am talking about.

Across the street from my condo building is a supermarket, in front of which is a parking lot. A while back, I noticed a car with the North Carolina license plate "116 Bway." This intrigued me, because Broadway and 116th street is where Columbia University is located. When I walked over to look at the car, I discovered that it was a Bentley. Now, that particular model Bentley goes for around $250,000! I am as sophisticated a critic of capitalism as you will find, but nevertheless I experienced a tingle of commodity fetishism when I realized that I was looking at one of the most expensive cars in the world. [By the way, although it has lavish soft leather seats, it is otherwise not especially gorgeous.] I feel the same way in the Louvre when I see the Mona Lisa, even though I do not much like the Mona Lisa. The point is that we experience the world of commodities as mystified even while we are analyzing the mysteries and attempting to dispel them. As Marx realized and said, it is not enough to understand the mysteries of commodity fetishism. To defeat its power, you must change the world.

Well, as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers say on National Public radio, I have wasted another entire blog post without getting to index numbers. Tomorrow, I promise I will start. Then I will take off a couple of days to go to New York and deliver the keynote at a one day Teachers College conference.


David Sucher said...

"A while back, I noticed a car with the North Carolina license plate "116 Bway." This intrigued me, because Broadway and 116th street is where Columbia University is located. When I walked over to look at the car, I discovered that it was a Bentley."


Any more to the story? Some '60s Columbia student got rich?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I haven't been able to find out. The car has been in the parking lot several times. I mean, who drives a Bentley to the supermarket?

Noumena said...

Thanks for your reply. And sorry for being a bit hyperbolic yesterday.

Brenda said...

The Bentley must be the maid's and the supermarket owner owns the Rolls.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No doubt, Brenda, but which one of them went to Columbia?

Brenda said...

The maid, of course. She was the one smart enough to get a job with no financial responsibility but with a Bemtley.