Towards a Fabian Marx: A Response to Frederick Harry Pitts and John Cruddas MP

 
Olga Starikovskaya’s photograph of a statue of Marx in the fields of the Tver region, Russia.jpg
 

 

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Karl Marx, 1848

 

Last April, the Fabians unofficially put Karl Marx’s theory of alienation and commodification back on the table as a subject of open debate within the Labour movement.

John Cruddas MP and Frederick Harry Pitts, Fabians and joint authors of “Marxism revisited”, admittedly take pains to make clear from the outset that they are not dropping the Marx-bomb out of the clear blue sky. They rightly point out to the ways in which Marx has informed Labour thinking not only historically — even through the Blair years — but in the most “energetic” parts of the 21st-century left, namely in the “post-work” current swirling around such authors as Paul Mason and Nick Srnicek. To Cruddas and Pitts, Marx needs not so much to be rediscovered as reaffirmed. Indeed, it is against the backdrop of a Marx-inspired post-work discourse that the authors find cause to launch their arguments.

I can only welcome the recognition that Marx not only has a place in the Labour movement, but is actually occupying that place and should be recognised as doing so. Pretending otherwise is just that — pretending. Right-wing Labour MPs like Chris Leslie are not describing reality in pushing against Marx — they are attempting to prescribe their version of reality as a substitute for the real one. Socialism is impossible without Marx. It requires more than Marx, of course, but he is and always will be a bright star in our sky. 

And it is equally important that Marx have not just an important place in the Labour movement as a whole, but within the Fabians in particular. Any all-Party honour assigned to him can only be ceremonial; Labour is self-avowedly a big tent, and Marx can only be a universal figure of admiration when he is drained of his deep content. It is right that we share common starting points, and he should be one, but these can only be starting points. The various wings of the Party cannot, by dint of their basic values, all view the man in the same way. Marx reveals himself only by interpretation. The development of a specifically Fabian interpretation of Marx is essential. But if there is nothing to do with Pitts and Cruddas but support them, why write an essay instead of a tweet?

Part of what makes their article so special is that it marks the emergence of a totally unheard-of new way to twist Marx for ones' own purposes. With Pitts and Cruddas, for the first time theories of commodity fetishism and alienated labour are used to justify the reproduction of alienated labour under capitalism. One can imagine that the socialist technicians of International Marx-Engels Institute in Amsterdam are even now plunging the abyssal depths of the Gesamtausgabe in search of precedent.

Sarcasm, in this case, resolves(dialectically, of course) to its opposite. I really am looking at something that makes me stop and think in ways that are new to me. This is something to be thankful for. But let’s let Pitts and Cruddas speak:

“Marx speaks from the past to warn today’s radicals that the escape from or glorification of work or labour cannot be the overriding focus of radical politics. We must instead consider how the work we do is conditioned in certain ways by the relations that structure it and the forms which its results assume. In other words, a politics of production must be accompanied by a politics of consumption and beyond.”

"Consider how the work we do is conditioned", indeed. What strange new wreckage has the Angel of Benjamin piled up for us today?

 

I.

 

Pitts and Cruddas start with an outline of the various currents within Marxism that stress the "fetishistic" character of our relationship with commodities —  the basis of our alienated condition as labourers . This is standard Marxian fare - necessary throat-clearing before our authors arrive at their main point, which amounts to a spirited takedown of the various "post-work" strands of thought at work in the Labour movement. Pitts and Cruddas would have us believe that all this obsession with technology and automation is puerile fantasy, and that, somehow, Marx can support this notion. This attitude is most tellingly revealed here:

“The effect of automation on unemployment, for example, is contested to say the least. It may be that current public and political hysteria about this is nothing more than a moral panic in which the postcapitalist left themselves have been swept up.”

The whole article is worth reading. In a nutshell, Pitts and Cruddas are making an attempt to chart a different course for the Labour movement than the one being set out by people who they say view technology as having a mechanistic relationship with politics. They write:

"Whilst the most astute advocates of this[post-work] position claim to avoid charges of technological determinism – that technological change will automatically accomplish social and political transformations – the implication remains that we must adapt our politics to match the march of the machines, rather than vice versa."

But in Pitts and Cruddas' treatment, this amounts to a defense of work as we know it as inevitable. Whatever Pitts, Cruddas, or the social-democrats of the Second International would have you believe, this becomes a defense of wage-labour and therefore the commodity form. It’s one thing to stress the dignity of creative activity — no one is talking about the need to move beyond purposeful activity in general. Our authors are talking specifically about work as we know it, whether they admit it or not . This means  work under capitalism. Pitts and Cruddas would naturalise and eternalise such labour, against those who point out the pressures it is being put under by technological change.

They somehow manage to do this while drawing attention to the way in which Marx explicitly treats those very problems — wage-labour and commodity production — as impermanent and unnatural. They even go so far as to say that the “pessimistic” attitude with which Marx treats the possibility of change “within” capitalism is a valuable one, while simultaneously using his arguments to show how we should continue to think within capital, that is, within wage-labour and commodity production. Hopefully my readers can already understand by bewilderment.

From the outset, I should stress — and will continue to stress — that our authors are on the right side of history in describing Marxism as a non-deterministic system. There are, and have been, many vulgar Marxist or Marx-inspired thinkers who take technology, or more abstractly, the “development” of productive forces, as some kind of magical road to liberation. But laying claim to a non-deterministic Marxism is only a starting point.

If one really looks at what Marx wrote about the relationship between fixed and variable capital, about dead labour and living labour, automation appears as nothing more obscure and utopian than what it really is: industrial labour-saving technique of any and all kinds . To say, on the basis of a reading of Marx(of all people), that automation  is a “moral panic” is frankly shocking. One would have to have come to Marx yesterday in order to miss the significance of the pushing-out of the living workforce from the process of production and consumption as an essential core of his work.

We see in Capital a clear red line connecting productive technology and the experience of labour under capitalism when Marx discusses his "general law of capitalist accumulation". From this general law arises the idea of the "industrial reserve army", i.e., the mass of unemployed or underemployed workers relative to those employed, whose presence in the labour market ensures what we now call “flexibility”, i.e., a relative ease of hiring and firing that bosses — and all economics, not only Marxian — know keeps labour docile and wages low. From Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 25, Section 4:

“In the automatic factories, as in all the great workshops, where machinery enters as a factor, or where only the modern division of labour is carried out, large numbers of boys are employed up to the age of maturity. When this term is once reached, only a very small number continue to find employment in the same branches of industry, whilst the majority are regularly discharged. This majority forms an element of the floating surplus population, growing with the extension of those branches of industry … The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases therefore with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.” [My emphasis]

The end of child labour as described here has not altered the basic dynamics in play. Note that Marx does not even do our authors the service of describing technologically advanced production in 19th-century language that could be construed as meaning something other than “automation” by 21st-century readers. The term “automatic factories” plainly and literally describes automation. Or, contrarily, “automation” describes — with the techno-millenarian flair that our authors rightly look on skeptically — any improvements to industrial process that raise the productivity of workers such that workers are not needed as regularly or in as large quantities. Innovation in industrial technique is labour-saving technique, and any engineer will tell you so. That this has happened at scale across the world, displacing millions of working lives in its wake, is an uncontroversial historical fact. I have written elsewhere about the true severity of this displacement and explored the full range of evidence.

One does not have to jump through mental hoops to imagine what this means for workers in practical terms: unemployment, whether “cyclical” or “structural” — i.e., whether one is living through an acute depression or a long downturn like that experienced by Western economies since the 70s — means more acute competition between workers over work, which means longer hours, lower pay, fewer benefits, and harder work. These tendencies all manifest themselves today in the lives of millions who struggle to find and hold work while pay and benefits diminish and new technological and managerial techniques are constantly introduced to increase the relative productivity of each worker, from wristbands that track warehouse workers’ performance to mandatory smiling and jocularity for baristas and wait staff. This is the general law of capitalist accumulation as described, not in the fringes of Marx’s theory where our authors locate the alleged mistakes of others, but in the key passages of Capital.

What conditions the severity of this general law as it works its way in the world is the rate of exploitation — the rate at which surplus-value is extracted from labour. The higher the rate of exploitation, the more the general law is in effect, and for the capitalist, this rate should always be getting higher:

“The technical and social conditions of the process and consequently the mode of production itself must be revolutionised before the productivity of labour can be increased. Then, with the increase in the productivity of labour, the value of labour-power will fall, and the portion of the working day necessary for the reproduction of that value will be shortened.”

Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 12, Section 1

And what does it mean to increase productivity, to “revolutionise” the process of production? Revolution here means precisely what it means in the phrase “Industrial Revolution” — increased sophistication of industrial technique.

It is in this process that the meaning of Marx’s famous characterisation of capital as “dead labour” reveals itself:

“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.”

Capital, Vol. I, Ch. 10, Section 1

Capital is not simply the direct power of the bosses over the workers, nor the thing that the bosses seek to acquire(this would be surplus-value). Capital comes in two forms: fixed capital, that is, the means of production, which include labour-saving and productivity-boosting technologies, and variable capital, i.e., workers. Capital also has a composition: the ratio of fixed to variable capital in a given enterprise or economy can and does change. Marx describes this ratio, which he calls the “organic composition of capital”, thusly:

“The composition of capital is to be understood in a two-fold sense. On the side of value, it is determined by the proportion in which it is divided into constant capital or value of the means of production, and variable capital or value of labour power, the sum total of wages. On the side of material, as it functions in the process of production, all capital is divided into means of production and living labour power. This latter composition is determined by the relation between the mass of the means of production employed, on the one hand, and the mass of labour necessary for their employment on the other. I call the former the value- composition, the latter the technical composition of capital. Between the two there is a strict correlation. To express this, I call the value composition of capital, in so far as it is determined by its technical composition and mirrors the changes of the latter, the organic composition of capital. Wherever I refer to the composition of capital, without further qualification, its organic composition is always understood.”

Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 25, Section 1

The “technical composition” of capital is its “fixed” aspect, and the “value composition” is its “variable”. Together they form capital's organic composition. Marx shows how the technical composition tends to rise in relation to the other, which accounts for the increasing rate of exploitation and the whole working of the general law of accumulation:

“This is the place to return to one of the grand exploits of economic apologetics. It will be remembered that if through the introduction of new, or the extension of old, machinery, a portion of variable capital is transformed into constant, the economic apologist interprets this operation which “fixes” capital and by that very act sets labourers “free,” in exactly the opposite way, pretending that it sets free capital for the labourers.” Ibid.

Elsewhere Marx makes the distinction between these two forces, and the extent to which productive forces have been developed — that is, characterised by greater efficiency, which in real history is a synonym for more automation — the measure of how fully capitalism has developed itself:

“The most extreme form of this rupture, and the one in which the productive forces of social labour are also most powerfully developed, is capital.”

Capital, Vol. III, Pt. 3, pp. 422–433

All this, as stated, amounts, in mainstream economic terms, to a more “flexible” labour market — one characterised by precariousness and competition between workers; a vast reserve army of labour. In a word, structural unemployment and underemployment, which is a fact we have been dealing with for decades. This is the significance of Marx’s admittedly much-debated “tendency of the rate of profit to fall”, which, while contested by many intelligent people — Thomas Piketty most recently and thoroughly — is certainly not something one “reads off” from the margins of Marx’s work.

The central role of the development of productive technology must be kept in mind as crucial here, lest we assume that what is at work is a primarily sociological development in which the relations between labour and capital changes without change to the basis of production. In Capital, Marx criticises this perspective openly:

“… the confusion and identification of the process of social production with the simple labour-process … to the extent that the labour-process is simply a process between man and nature, its simple elements remain common to all social forms of development. But each specific historical form of this process further develops its material foundations and its social forms. Whenever a certain stage of its maturity has been reached, the specific historical form is discarded and gives way to a higher one A conflict then ensues between the material development of production and its social form.” [My emphasis]

Capital, Vol. III, pp. 861

There are serious implications for the Fabian project. Anthony Crosland made labour market inflexibility a central pillar of his argument in The Future of Socialism, which spelled out the Labour vision of the post-war world. It was infamously based, as we all know, on an assumption of continued economic growth, which would guarantee abundant jobs and therefore labour market inflexibility. This lack of competition between workers would guarantee — as it did, for a time — the kinds of industrial and political solidarity that translated into stable Labour Party leadership. Such hegemony could give the party the power to extend and preserve the gains made possible by this overall economic growth and stability. We all know what happened next: growth collapsed, the welfare state was put on the defensive, and neoliberalism mobilised as a political project to take advantage of this moment. Reaganism and Thatcherism didn’t cause the 70s downturn: they may not have helped, but the Labour movement should not put the cart before the horse when it comes to economic history.

Basic processes at work in the capitalist economy work simultaneously for and against growth. On the one hand, capital pursues new markets and occasionally opens up new industries with new inventions. On the other hand, technological development in general has tended to diminish workers’ purchasing power, which leads to crises of overproduction and periodic instances of what mainstream economics calls “market corrections”. The promise of socialism has always been about taking advantage of those moments made possible by capitalist development to point beyond capitalism, and throughout Marx we see that technology is inseparable from these possibilities, both within capitalism and beyond it.

It may be asked why, if Marx made so much of the tendencies here described, there has not been the kind of “jobs apocalypse” visible in the work of writers like Mason and Srnicek. The problem lies precisely in posing questions in such apocalyptic, "final" terms. Capitalism is an ongoing apocalypse — this is what we learn from Marx. One of the main reasons why it is necessary to even be having a conversation about “revisiting” Marx is because people — Anthony Crosland in Britain, Eduard Bernstein in Germany who inspired him — made a concerted effort to eject him from the socialist camp on the basis of his allegedly “apocalyptic” predictions about a final breakdown of capitalism which, of course, has not come to pass. We cannot rehabilitate Marx by committing the same errors that put him in a state requiring rehabilitation in the first place.

In his masterful treatment of the dynamics which motivate Marx's "general law", The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System, Henryk Grossman sums up the issue:

“Marx was perfectly conscious of the abstract, provisional nature of his law of accumulation and breakdown. Having presented ‘the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation’, he says that: ‘Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here’ (p. 603). Elsewhere, in describing the process of accumulation, he writes: ‘This process would soon bring about the collapse of the capitalist production were it not for counteracting tendencies’ (p. 246).”

Ch. 3, Modifying Tendencies

These counter-acting tendencies include things like the conquest of new markets, destruction of capital in wars, periodic crises which diminish capital output for a time and clear space to build it back up again, and so on. None of these have been enough to resolve the basic contradictions of capitalism — indeed, if depressions and recessions are ways to “correct” the market as mainstream economics claims, then we should look upon the health of the system as being little different from its sickness. War is certainly no way to run a sane society. And in the end it all amounts to a catastrophic burning-up of planetary resources.

All of this should be sufficient to show that in Marx we are dealing with theory which throws serious doubt on the long-term stability of capitalism, which is defined by the alienated condition of labour as our authors rightly point out.

 

II.

 

Let’s not mince words. What we see in Cruddas and Pitt's piece is a mishmash of Marxian concepts transparently employed in the interest of scoring points against thinkers whose ideas can easily be made vulnerable. Skepticism in the face of utopian claims is a Fabian tradition, and rightly so. The authors are doing true Fabian work in deflating some of the uncritical assumptions made by celebrity futurists. They are also right to criticise any sort of economic determinism. So right, in fact, that they take their correct stance towards what should be a relatively basic point as an excuse to elevate themselves above all others and make bold proclamations about what Marxism is for.

The authors’ logic has gone on a harrowing journey from the idea of commodity fetishism to the idea that post-work is “hysteria” and that what we really need, presumably, is to keep the wheel of commodity production turning, but somehow in a more critical, Marxist way. We are meant to find in their work a bridge across this unbridgeable chasm — rather than dream of an end to alienated labour, “We must instead consider how the work we do is conditioned in certain ways by the relations that structure it and the forms which its results assume.” From critically analysing the ways in which work is conditioned, we are then supposed to realise:

“The understanding of technology as a liberating force cannot be simply read-off from fragments of Marx’s wider project. This ignores — at a huge cost — what machinery means for workers engaged in production in capitalist societies where our human creative essence is subordinated to other ends.”

As we have seen, there is nothing "fragmentary" about Marx's writings on accumulation, productivity and machinery. It’s hard to imagine what Pitts and Cruddas really mean. The authors are not straightforwardly glorifying alienated labour, and yet somehow it seems as if we are meant to take the fact of alienation as described by Marx as some sort of perverse explanation for why it is a misinterpretation of Marx to imagine technology as pointing in any way beyond capitalism, as if the first principle of Marx’s historical framework of transition to socialism was not the full development of the productive forces under capitalism, i.e. proletarianisation and technological development. One does not have to go through the pages of Capital with a magnifying glass to find this notion on full display; it is given its first and most definitive life in The Manifesto of the Communist Party:

“Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule … The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.”

Manifesto of the Communist Party, Ch. 1

And again, in Capital:

“The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside with and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and the socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”

Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 32

We know that the authors are trying to say that technology should not be hailed as straightforwardly liberating in itself. In this much they are correct, and this is one reason why they are not wrong to criticise techno-socialists like Mason and Srnicek, who may perhaps have more work to do in separating their ideas from Silicon Valley boosterism. And yet by simply not being liberating in itself, technology does not disappear from the Marxian oeuvre or lose its essential character. We certainly cannot use Marx to support the claim that “automation” is a “moral panic”.

Describing technological growth and its attendant effects on the economy — and therefore political-economic possibilities  opened up— is not necessarily teleological. It is simply logical. An account of economics would be impossible without an understanding of economic change, and an understanding of this change would be absurd without an understanding of the Industrial Revolutions which Marx wrote in explicit response to. In is a total vulgarisation of Marx separate “the” Industrial Revolution from the ongoing, inherent process of revolutionisation he describes in the passages of Capital quoted above.

Avoiding determinism simply means making room for political consciousness, education, and development. Marx made this clear in a now overly-familiar line which, for Marxists of the critical stripe, settled the issue for all time:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Ch. I

Our authors are aware of this and make a criticism of economic determinism the foundation of their argument, and we cannot blame the dialectical, mutually-conditioning feedback of subjectivity and objectivity for the shaky edifice which Pitts and Cruddas attempt to build on top of it. Political judgment is a real and often a neglected part of Marxist thinking and our authors are right insofar as they say so.

But none of this can justify the erasure of basic economic realities immanent in every moment of the process of capitalist development from the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, realities over which Marx pored his whole life long. The substitution of dead labour for living labour is one of the most basic of those realities. That the authors have managed to come away from Capital without grasping this utterly beggars the imagination.

 

III.

 

All this would be worth only mild discourse, rather than vigorous debate, if the conclusions arrived at by this road of confusion were not so clearly partisan and couched in such dismissive terms. Equating the post-work left with hysteria and panic is taking criticism quite a bit too far.

Our authors, it seems, look back on the struggle — of which Sidney Webb was a key part — for an eight-hour day and assume that the number eight had some magical property associated with it, as if what workers really wanted was alienation and exploitation but only for that many hours, as if the demand of the Eight Hours Movement was anything other than a mediated — according to what was realistic at the time — expression of the real demand for less work and more life. The fact is that the Labour movement, historically, was — according to everyone, not just the kinds of easily-sneered-at intellectuals that our authors sneer at — about shortening the working day.

When people reflect on their lives, almost always what they regret is having worked too much. This should deeply move all socialists. This, ultimately, is why shortening the working day is a progressive demand. This demand has been abandoned in the course of the long downturn since the 1970s in which work, any work has been the desperate idée fixe of all parties. But in all that time, no one has yet managed to put heads together and find a way to make an economy where good, high-paying, stable, dignified work is available for all, because tendencies within capitalism — as Marx tells us — make this impossible in the long run. When it comes to stable, dignified work that can support economies without massively increased access to consumer debt, hyper-exploitation of remaining workforces and skyrocketing inequality, work has already ended.

This attempt by Pitts and Cruddas to tilt at the windmills of history deploys an interesting strategy — use of the very theory which illustrates the fundamental problem posed by labour under capitalism — in an attempt to resolve these problems by wishing them away. But it falls short - perhaps this is food for thought. Perhaps there is a reason why commodity fetishism and Marxian value theory have not been used to rehabilitate the commodity form and the law of value before.

This isn’t about being “utopian” — vague as that is as both a philosophy and as a description of someone else’s philosophy — and it certainly isn’t about assuming that technological development will make positive, fundamental social change happen “by itself”. But if we freeze this moment in time and think of work under capital as a natural category, we are not only failing utterly to understand Marx, we are failing to understand the reason why Marx has mattered to so many millions; a reason which he, as always, sums up best.

“ … the less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public-house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save — the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour — your capital. The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life — the greater is the store of your estranged being … “

Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 119

What makes all this so strange is that our authors cannot have simply forgotten the alienating nature of the commodity form, like others before them. It is easy to take from Marx, or from the socialist canon generally, a vulgar interpretation of history in which (alienated)labour is an eternal font of meaning which will lose its alienated character as soon as the state takes it under its own direction. Such was Stalinism, Trotskyism and the other classic 20th-century socialisms. But to read, as Pitts and Cruddas claim to, those parts of Marx's work specifically dedicated to calling labour as a category into question — those parts which show that capital itself conducts this interrogation — and come away from that with a theoretical cudgel to wield against the post-work milieu is bizarre to say the least.

We can criticise Mason and Srnicek, or at least those who repeat their claims uncritically, for couching their analysis in insufficiently sober terms. And we can certainly call universal basic income as a economic cure-all into question . In fact, Marx provides us with the sharpest tools here, by showing how commodity production(which UBI is explicitly meant to support, not replace) fundamentally undermines itself no matter what pains we go to to prolong its life.

But it is simply dishonest to say that Marx, much less Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, has anything to offer someone committed from the outset to proving that anxiety about work and economic stability is hysterical. Work has been precarious since Marx. Indeed the whole edifice of Marxist economic analysis rests on the fact, demonstrated throughout every expansion and contraction of industry, that the proletarian condition is defined by precariousness. The kind of labour we seek to get back to — stable, highly-paid, unionised labour under Fordism - is not the rule but the historical exception which warps our perception of what a proletarian really is.

To Marx, to be proletarian was to be at the mercy of caprice, constantly one step away from the gutter, going in and out of the factories at the whim of economic forces over which you had no control. Marx located the source of this instability — with all the terror and heartbreak that goes with it for individuals and families — in the dynamics of commodity production itself, and the technical revolutionisation which such production is subject to. It is absurd in the highest degree to think that we can use Marx to show how such precariousness is only a phantom of overheated intellectual minds.

The Fabian Society in the 21st century often undertakes these kinds of doomed crusades. Just when it recommends that Labour “sound patriotic” to win elections, historical circumstances — Brexit — highlight for the majority of Labour voters the importance of internationalism and the need not to turn inward. And now, just as economic and technological change(ongoing for centuries) reaches a point at which white-collar workers begin to learn what blue-collars learned long ago about the significance of change, Fabians start referring to worry over automation as “hysteria” and “moral panic”. One imagines this is an attempt to stake out a position as the “hard, realistic” left against the utopian left of post-work Acid Corbynism.

A critical understanding of Marx is necessary for gaining a competitive advantage over the Srnicek left. But Pitts and Cruddas' is not such an understanding. Rather than rush to the opposite end of theoretical contradictions in order to distinguish ourselves most sharply from our rivals, we should be thinking about why, exactly, we find ourselves in such a weak position relative to the post-work left in the first place. Rather than saying they are all hysterical, we should try to understand what kinds of real crises and possibilities their fractured worldview is working to understand, and why, in the absence of any compelling alternatives, people are drawn to those views rather than our own. The views of Pitts and Cruddas, in this case, amount to pretending the problems posed by post-work thinkers don’t exist. Marx shows us how to resolve these contradictions, not exacerbate them.

We need to understand that pretending the economy we have, or that we once had, is capable of existing forever is as utopian as imagining it will change overnight. Marx makes this clear. We can criticise basic income, but we shouldn’t blindly follow the income regime as it has existed thus far. In the short term we need to be thinking about how to ensure the mental and physical health of society by allowing people to work less while earning the same, which means exercising control over wage practices and working conditions. In the long term we need to be thinking about progressively moving away from commodity production in various aspects of life entirely.

We can’t count on a massively revitalised manufacturing base to provide the kind of broad-based stable employment necessary to replicate the Croslandian, Fordist post-war society. In “Raising the Bar”, a recent Fabian Ideas tract, just such a producerist notion was proposed by writers such as Craig Berry and Chi Onwurah. But they immediately undermine their own aims by stressing that investment geared towards such a new productive economy would have to be in “innovative” manufacturing. As if the bottom line in innovation were not absolutely set by the extent to which innovation “saves” labour — in Marx’s terms, the extent to which dead labour supplants living. This is what innovation means because in the long run it saves costs and boosts profitability. How British industry can simultaneously be competitive enough to actually survive and support economies while simultaneously being the most top-heavy in the world by employing millions superfluously is beyond me. And this Fabian Ideas tract made it clear that such a level of manufacturing employment formed the basis for all its other recommendations. These are the kinds of confusions endemic not only to the Fabians but to the Labour movement and society at large. Marx can help us overcome them, but only if he is taken for what he is.

Vulgarising Marx in order to fight other vulgar Marxists is a devilishly paradoxical trick of perverse dialectics which one can almost admire for its intricacy, but it is not the way forward. To play with Marxism is to play with it, in the language of the Manifesto, as a sorcerer plays with his spellbook: the forces one unleashes rapidly take on lives their own.

 

Originally published on Medium back in April, but edited for style and re-published here.