For those who haven’t yet updated their links, I wanted to mention that Ryan/Aless’ massthink is now back online after a brief hiatus, recharged and with a flurry of fantastic posts. The most recent post asks the question “What Is Capitalism?”, a question that Ryan/Aless answers using a fairly conventional form of Marxist theory:
Capitalism (let’s not mystify it) is simply an economic system where a group of people (the capitalists, the bourgeois) owns the means (i.e. the raw materials, the machines, the factories, land, etc., i.e. the investment money used to buy these, i.e. capital) of production (the process by which a society produces its economic goods) while the rest do not. The rest-the workers, the proletariat-have only their skills, their talents, their abilities, i.e. themselves. As such, in order to survive, in order to buy the goods (since they are, after all, also human beings who have needs) produced in the production process (managed, since they own the means of production, by the capitalists), the workers sell their skills, their talents, their abilities-labor (hence the designation laborers)-to the capitalists.
Ryan/Aless then goes on to unfold a notion of contradiction/internal tension that involves pointing to how labour differs from other means of production:
But man is not a commodity. He was not produced by the economic system; he (unlike a piece of bread, or a table, or computers) was not a product of capitalism. Sure, his labor might have been trained, honed by the economic system (through the educational ISA, the workplace, the family)-but not even his whole labor at that. Some of his talents, his abilities, he inherently has, i.e. he already has labor even before he enters the economy. More importantly, man himself is produced outside the commodity system. He was not born as some kind of good to be used, some commodity to be exchanged (or are we?). Yet, in capitalism, by virtue of the wage, that precisely is what he is: something bought and sold, i.e. a commodity. And if he can be bought and sold, someone must be doing the buying and the selling: the capitalists. The worker, then, (since bought) must be owned by someone (more accurately: something): the capitalist system itself. Man, paid for, is a MoP owned by capitalism.
I unfortunately don’t have time to pick up adequately on this point now, but I want to suggest (1) that this particular narrative of what capitalism is has been historically very important in the development both of movements for the humanisation of capitalism and for the political self-assertion of the working class, but (2) this form of theory tacitly identifies capitalism with a particular form of group domination – with personal relations of domination – in a way that may compromise our ability to grasp the distinctive qualitative characteristics of capitalism, and may particularly impede our ability to understand capitalism as a contradictory social form.
Speaking very, very briefly here, Ryan/Aless’ identification of capitalism with relations of personal domination (the domination of workers by a group of capitalists) suggests that capitalism as a social form will be overcome by the abolition of this concrete social relation. In the form presented above, it also suggests that the essential contradiction is between social relations that are conceptualised as arbitrary or artificial, on the one hand, and an ontological property of labourers, on the other (“More importantly, man himself is produced outside the commodity system. He was not born as some kind of good to be used…” – italics mine) – so the critical standpoint of this form of theory (the standpoint or position from which the critique is being offered) tacitly aligns itself with something more natural, against an artificial social. This form of theory thus breaches an immanent frame of analysis, positioning the theorist as someone who has access to a “natural” perspective from which the social can be recognised as a contingent and arbitrary human creation. At the same time – and to step outside the issues thematised by Ryan/Aless’ post – I would suggest that this form of theory leaves unclear how to grasp peculiar qualitative characteristics of capitalist society that seem at best arbitrarily related to the class relation posited here as central: the dynamism of capitalist production, the specific (and, I would argue, noneconomic) qualitative characteristics of capitalist production, including its unique “instrumental” character, the resonance of distinctive forms of subjectivity characteristic of the capitalist era, including forms of subjectivity constitutive of specific kinds of oppositional movements, etc. (I say all this very much as a placeholder, with full awareness that there would be no reason for anyone to take the point seriously as formulated here).
I mention all this, even though I don’t have the time to develop the point in any meaningful way here, as it’s occurred to me that it might not be clear that some of the theoretical positions I’ve been unfolding here recently – on abstraction, counterfactuals, and immanent theory in particular – are intended to unfold an alternative conceptualisation of capitalism. One that understands capitalism in terms of impersonal forms of domination (within which personal forms of domination may then be situated) that constitute an unintended, nonlinear dynamic of historical transformation – a dynamic characterised by contradictory pressures for the dissolution and reconstitution of the need to expend human labour in particular concrete forms. Although I cannot develop this point here (gestures have been made in earlier posts), the point of this kind of theoretical approach – of redefining capitalism so as to grasp its impersonal social dimensions – is both to open up to a theory of capitalism many of the salient qualitative characteristics of capitalist society – including forms of subjectivity and practice that point beyond this social form – and to avoid a form of critique that tacitly replicates the classical liberal philosophical distinction between artifice and nature, by explaining how capitalism itself generates this distinction as a moment in its own cycle of reproduction. I would argue that such a move is required for a genuinely immanent critical theory of capitalism – one that voices its critique in terms of the contradictions within capitalism, rather than as a contradiction between capitalism and something else (whether natural or social) – and that this approach can also begin to help us make sense of some of the historical dynamics that have been stacked against movements that articulate their opposition to capitalism in terms outlined in Ryan/Aless’ post.
I say all of this as a placeholder in the most emphatic sense: Ryan/Aless can and should dismiss what I’ve written here as ungrounded – or, if feeling particularly generous, he could perhaps advance me some time over the next few months to see whether I can develop the point in more adequate detail. 🙂