Sunday, March 13, 2011

Profit, Crisis, Catastrophe, and Subjectivity (On Antonio Negri's Marx Beyond Marx)

An older analysis of part of Negri's Marx Beyond Marx that I recently stumbled upon. There has been a notable backlash against the Empire project over the past few years. I certainly agree with many of the critiques of the project, most notably the critique presented by Paulo Virno in his recent work. However, it is notable that many of these critiques focus exclusively on the three texts of the collaboration, ignoring the substantial critical work that Negri produced in his exile. If one wants to produce a critique of Negri, it strikes me that one should engage with this substantial base, rather than the more fragile superstructure of the collaborations.

Chapter Five of Marx Beyond Marx enters the concept of the crisis. We’ve already been told in the first chapter that the Grundrisse is “a political text that conjugates an appreciation of the revolutionary possibilities created by the “imminent crisis” together with the theoretical will to adequately synthesize the communist actions of the working class with this crisis.” (8) We have even been introduced to a particular form of crisis at the end of the fourth chapter, the crisis that “the realization of capital becomes more difficult to the extent that it has already been realized.” (83) However, it is within this chapter, “Profit, Crisis, Catastrophe”, that crisis comes to a head as the subject of conversation.

This focus on crisis brings about a remarkable interpretation of the “law of the tendency of the profit rate to decline”. Negri’s use of that concept involves a radical shift of its meaning from its traditional uses. Traditionally, the theory of profit has been one that has been presented within a remarkably objectified form; a form read through a particular interpretation of Marx’s Capital, one that doesn’t explicitly underline the “organic composition of capital” with the “quantities defined by surplus value”. (101) This interpretation Marx as presenting a world of iron laws, a particularly Ricardian world, one that has an objectified, Borg-like quality. It is seen as a quality that has its objective conditions within capital itself. It’s one that either bores one to tears at best, or inspires a certain terror at worst. This traditional interpretation “eliminates the class struggle as a fundamental and rigid variable of the theory.” (101) The interpretation has a validity on the level of scriptural authenticity. It loses that validity when we enter the realm of political praxis.

At this point Negri enters. His interpretation of Marxism reappropriates the theory of profit within the terms of the class struggle and political subjectivity. This is an interpretation that reads the theory of profit through the Grundrisse and its explicit tie of the concept of profit to the concept of exploitation in the form of surplus value rather than through Capital. It pushes the question of politics back into the space that has been evacuated i.e. into subjectivity. It returns a form of subjectivity to the heart of the Marxian project that has been suppressed by the high priests of diamat. This occurs precisely because this reading would expose the exploitation that exists at the heart of their system, the so-called world of “actually existing socialism”, as well as the reform project at the heart of the remnants of the Second International.

Underlying this return to working class subjectivity and the whole problematic of Marx beyond Marx is a problematic that has found itself as an undercurrent of Marxian thought. Coming in fits and starts, discontinuous and highly differentiated, a path can be drawn from the critiques of Lenin by Luxemburg, the critiques presented by the POUM during the Spanish Civil War, the revolts of Hungary, Germany, and Czechoslovakia as well as the revolts in Western Europe. In short, a conceptualization of a Marxism that finds its power in the subjectivity of the masses/collective worker/multitude themselves rather than in an intellectual avant-garde capable of interpreting the laws of capital. This “subjective” perspective that follows the critique of Andres Nin, who points out that one should not lay the map of Russia onto Spain. Or to put in the terms of Althusser. “There are nothing but exceptions.”

But before I overwhelm myself with too ecstatic a vision, I will lay out the structure of my argument around the theory of profit. It’s necessary to lay out a definition of profit itself, and it’s function within the conceptualization of surplus value. This will lead into a presentation of the exacerbation of the tensions that are implicit within the theory of surplus value. It’s precisely at this point that we can return to the issue of the law of profit properly. More precisely, we can look at the framework of the law in terms of the subjectivity and class hatred of the proletariat emphasized by Negri.

But let’s move into the concept of profit. Negri points out that the theory of profit within the Grundrisse has been frequently criticized. “Rosdolsky has noted how in the section on the process of production the expressions “rate of profit” and “rate of surplus value” are not rigorously distinguished from each other and even seem identical at times.” (89) But Negri points out that there is a certain reasonableness to this overlap in that profit is nothing but a particular form of surplus value.

But profit is not surplus value itself as Marx points out: a situation can exist where the rate of profit becomes lower while the amount of surplus value increases. This can be seen to be explicitly tied in with the use of machinery. Marx shows on pages 383-4 of the Grundrisse an operation of value in two examples. The first involves a higher degree of labor with a low expenditure of capital for machinery. The second involves an operation with a higher expenditure of capital into machinery and less labor time expended. The rate of surplus value is higher in the second example despite its rate of profit being lower. Also it has a greater overall surplus value. The machinery leads to a greater degree of exploitation of the labor involved. The lowered profit rate deals with the increased capital expenditure. However the increase rate of production leads to the increased surplus value overall.

So what is the particular function of profit as a form of surplus value? Negri lays this out in the following paragraph on page 90. “Profit is the consolidation and fixation of surplus value, it is non-multiplying labor consolidated in a stable form, the theft of the productivity of labor, the indifference to living labor. But the distinction does not touch the nature of the exploitation: both surplus value and profit are based on the subjugation of living labor—but in the case of surplus value living labor is considered within the production relation, while in the case of profit it is set against the conditions of production, to the totality of accumulation.”

Profit thus acts as an “expansion, and extension to a social level of the antagonism implicit within the law of surplus value.” (91) There is something particularly naked about the form of exploitation that profit takes. It is disconnected from the relations of production. It doesn’t represent the need for new machinery or the expansion of production; rather it represents the social level of exploitation within the society and nothing more. Profit has no real form of legitimization, other than in terms of force.

Profit is therefore the form of surplus value par excellence. “Profit begins to concretize not only as the sum of surplus values and as the equalization of individual profits, but also as a political force, as a pole of social antagonism—political at this stage, but slowly ever more charged with reality.” (93) Profit is the act of capital separating itself from living labor. Once again within this concept we can see a particularly Negrian reading of the Grundrisse in this reading of “profit”: a pushing forward of all forms of antagonism to their breaking point.

Capital separates itself, creates its own logic, valorization, etc. “A capital of a certain value produces in a certain period of time a certain surplus value. Surplus value thus measured by the value of the presupposed capital, capital thus posited as a self-realizing value—is profit; regarded not sub specie aeternitiatis, but sub specie capitalis, the surplus value is profit; and capital as capital, the producing and reproducing value, distinguishes itself within itself from itself as profit, the newly produced value. The product of capital is profit.” (Marx 746)

But this separation allows for a new subjectivity, the autonomy of labor, the opposition of the time of capital, the interchangableness of things and their appropriation with the time of labor, that which can only be exchanged through its alienation and exploitation. “The more labor is objectified into capital and capital is increased; in other words, the more labor and productivity have become capital, all the more living labor opposes this growth in an antagonistic fashion. The more capital posits itself as profit-creating power, as a source of wealth which is independent from labor (and in so doing represents each of its constitutive parts as being uniformly productive)” (90) the more we can see an antagonist response on the part of labor.

It is at this point in the argument that we reenter the territory of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, but this time we will enter it on the terms of the class struggle. “The law of the rate of profit is a double one: on the one hand it exposes the tendency capital has to subsume more and more the conditions determined in the production process and made social in the circulation process; which is to say the tendency of capital to an ever more definitive appropriation of these conditions, as well as to the transformation of surplus value into a factor of profit. On the other hand it reveals the new antagonism which is determined by the development of profit from surplus value to social surplus value (profit), from capital to social capital. The simultaneously progressive and destructive sign, of which the law of profit is the bearer, is determined by its relations with living labor.” (91)

To put this in blunt terms, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is explicitly linked with the subjective political pressures that the working class brings to bear on the situation. The old cliché about German beer drinkers and French wine consumers can be brought in again. Or to put it more precisely, the rate of social reproduction is defined within the terms of the class struggle. The crisis occurs within the pushing forward of this struggle, in the demand for more time outside of the time of capital.

This revolt of living labor against profit takes many forms. There are its most obvious forms in the strike, the barricades, and the union. But this revolt can be seen within the call for the reduction in working hours. This reform has implicit within it a radical shift in subjectivity, a call for time outside of the production of capital, where labor is allowed to engage in projects geared towards its own subjectivity and use value. These tasks include education, culture, and the ability to supply those needs to the worker’s children.

Working class revolt also takes the form of denigration of the bourgeoisie. The capitalist is presented as the highest form of parasite within republicanism, the aristocrat. The attack on profit can be most explicitly seen in those comparisons of the bourgeoisie to the lazy and opulent aristocracy of the past. To put it in its most extreme terms, there can only be one solution for the bourgeois aristocracy within this form of social Jacobinism—off with its head.

But this revolt of labor also takes other very explicit forms within the class struggle, in acts of sabotage. One can see it in the acts of English workers throwing their wooden shoes into the guts of the machinery at the beginning of the industrial revolution—the very namesake of the term sabotage. But one can also see revolt in more subtle forms, such as absenteeism, loafing, etc. Although these forms are not necessarily recognized as forms of revolt, they are, in an explicit manner, ways of changing the time of surplus value into the time of “non-work.” To make this concept personal and local, time on the clock can be used, for example, to eat a meal or return videotapes.

Such forms of revolt bring a particularly cogency to Negri’s concept in the following sentence. “The tendency to the fall in the profit rate bespeaks the revolt of living labor against the power of profit and its very separate constitution; a revolt against the theft and its fixation into a productive force for the capitalist against the productive force of the worker, into the power of social capital against the vitality of social labor: because of this living labor reveals itself as destructive.” (91) It’s precisely in those forms that Marxists all too often ignore that a particularly important type of revolt occurs. A type of revolt that slowly gnaws away at the profit rate of capital.

Negri shows the consequences of pushing this revolt of living labor to its very limits: “Let’s imagine that at a certain stage of the development of the development of the class struggle, the rigidity of the proletarian front induces a stagnation and/or fall of profit. Let’s imagine that this situation lasts for a while and that the extension of class resistance is socially homogenous. Now, on this terrain, we will have not only a decrease of the profit rate, but also a decrease of its sum. The last twenty years of class struggle in the advanced capitalist countries prove to us that the situation just described is not unrealistic.”

But before we become too self-congratulatory, we must also recognize that these modes of class struggle take much less attractive forms. Class struggle has taken the form of the revolt against any number of shibboleths from Jews, “intellectuals”, homosexuals, to communists themselves. The aristocracy that is described above has often been translated into a gay aristocracy, a Jewish aristocracy, etc. Not all of the forms discussed above are necessarily productive political acts. After all, one of the oldest forms of revolt in rejection of work is drinking. Certainly this is detrimental to capital, but it also is amazingly destructive to workers themselves, from accidents to many other of the effects that this has on workers’ families.

Also capital has shown that each of these modes are fully recoupable to capital. The best example I can think of is the case of education. What began as an attempt on the part of workers to create a cultural space that is distinctly theirs has by in large been enveloped within the need for “continuing education” that Deleuze describes in “Control and Becoming.” Every attempt to create spaces on the part of workers has proven itself to be eventually productive for capital.

But at the same time the contradiction becomes more and more explosive at every attempt at mediation. At the same time, many activists and academics who are sympathetic cannot recognize the new forms of revolt, in part because they see revolt only in old forms and in part because they want to present the conflict between capital and labor as a Manichean one. But the conflict doesn’t work that way; workers are not pious, and capital only wears horns when it is profitable. One would be better to think of it within Deleuze’s term of “lines of flight.” Instead of a dialectic of good and evil, we have a multitude of lines of flight, some times individually, sometimes collectively. At the same time, capital continually tries to contain those lines and use the energy for its own use.

This movement in commenting on the last twenty years of the class struggle is precisely the valorization of the political struggles mentioned at the outset of the paper: namely against the fixed Fordist mode of production, with all of its compromises and reification. This struggle can be seen both in the revolts that occur in the “Paris, Rome and Berlin” of 1968 and beyond and the uprisings in Hungary, the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia. It is the revolutionary subjectivity that allows us to be brought to our present moment, the moment of Empire.

In effect, crisis-class struggle moves into a new terrain, catastrophe-revolution. At each moment of crisis, the reconstitution of capital pushes towards greater and greater crises. “To really overcome, to avoid the crisis: this is what capital cannot do.” (96) Every reconstitution of capital produces more and more explosive contradictions, new possibilities for revolutionary subjectivity.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Robert- really fascinating, and nice timing for me, as I've been reading Wage Labor & Capital and Value, Price, & Profit...