Greened

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There’s an interesting article from May of last year (happy belated New Years, blog friends! May your 2019 be better than the disjointed hangover from 2017 that 2018 was) that has been making the twitter rounds today. I’m off twitter at the moment, polishing off the book, but managed to snag it nonetheless. It’s from the folks at the University of Helsinki, by way of Phys.org: “Expansion of global forests reflects well-being, not rising CO2, experts say”. Now, the argument that the ‘global greening’ that is currently way derives primarily from the same forces driving anthropogenic climate change comes from NASA, among other places; I’ll point the interested reader to the following article (from which I nabbed the very pleasant image above): “Carbon Dioxide Fertilization Greening Earth, Study Finds”. In brief, here’s what they have to say:

Green leaves use energy from sunlight through photosynthesis to chemically combine carbon dioxide drawn in from the air with water and nutrients tapped from the ground to produce sugars, which are the main source of food, fiber and fuel for life on Earth. Studies have shown that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide increase photosynthesis, spurring plant growth.

However, carbon dioxide fertilization isn’t the only cause of increased plant growth—nitrogen, land cover change and climate change by way of global temperature, precipitation and sunlight changes all contribute to the greening effect. To determine the extent of carbon dioxide’s contribution, researchers ran the data for carbon dioxide and each of the other variables in isolation through several computer models that mimic the plant growth observed in the satellite data.

Results showed that carbon dioxide fertilization explains 70 percent of the greening effect, said co-author Ranga Myneni, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University. “The second most important driver is nitrogen, at 9 percent. So we see what an outsized role COplays in this process.”

Pretty straightforward stuff. The Helsinki study, however, makes a strikingly different claim:

since the 1800s, transitions from net forest loss to gain have coincided with a switch within nations from subsistence to market oriented agriculture. Today the growth or decline of a nation’s forest resources correlates strongly to the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index.

[…]

The study attributes forest expansion to several factors that have outweighed the impacts of population growth and improving diets. They include:

  • Urbanization, which draws farmers off marginal rural lands
  • Evolution from a subsistence regime to market economy, which further concentrates farming to the best lands
  • Better agricultural technologies and yields, relieving the need to clear new agricultural land
  • Better transportation, communication, storage, processing, and consumer behavior, reducing food waste
  • The availability of alternatives to wood as a fuel

Vilma Sandström underlines that another factor requires detailed impact assessment: developed nations increasingly outsource their resource needs to others abroad through international trade. Earlier research suggested that growing stock stops decreasing at a per capita income threshold at US$ 4,600 (in 2003 dollars). Today the threshold is likely closer to $20,000 dollars income per capita.

What is immediately obvious is the highly unexpected suggestion that the driver of deforestation is, in appropriately non-linear character, the development of the capitalist mode of production itself. Of particular note is the elimination of subsistence agriculture—that is, agriculture produced for the direct consumption of the household, or perhaps the small community—and the movement towards high-yield industrialized agriculture that distributes its output via the market. This point is, of course, coupled to the pertinent issue of urbanization: the decline of subsistence agriculture is directly correlated to the rise of a mobile workforce that goes in pursuit of employment, which generally entails going where capital is the most concentrated, i.e. the city. What the Helsinki study is describing, in other words, is the very dynamics sketched out by Marx, and further elaborated by those theorists that suggest that primitive accumulation is not a one-off event, but an ongoing, continual process of dispossession.

But it also illustrates the other side of this process, the progressive element that makes the capitalist mode of production such a revolutionary force. Dispossession itself is double-faced, oscillating between impoverishment and the radical increase of living standards, but the role of technology and scientific as motive forces alongside this dispossession and marketization must be highlighted. By concentrating agricultural production, by minimizing land-use through high-yield techniques, and by managing both agricultural and non-agricultural land through forest management and other conservation techniques, the trajectory of development appears angled, at least in part, to what the sort of situation Marx anticipated (as I briefly detailed in my post on Eco-Marx):

…The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production… Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society.

I don’t want to overstate the case, of course, and certainly the report deserves deeper scrutiny, especially in relation to other claims that emphasize the role of C02 in reforestation (not to mention the negative externalities that have arisen to the side of industrial agriculture, from the immense way to the problem of run-off to its own emissions). Nonetheless, it clearly illustrates a lesson, vital in this time in which limited, localist production, permaculture, and other small-scale food production techniques are being privileged: to position oneself against the capitalist system does not mean we do not have to refuse to recognize the progressive elements of the system, for it is precisely these elements—and the ultimate promises which they are denied—that are the building blocs of the future world.

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The Vast Automaton: Notes on Alexei Gastev, Marx, and Andrew Ure

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In 1916 his poem Express: A Siberian Fantasy, Alexei Gastev depicts a journey, undertaken by a high-speed passenger train, across a vast wasteland that has been transformed by the pulsing tumult of industrial modernity. The vision is one of an open future, characterized by the tearing away of the parochial and the old: where there was once empty wilderness, now there are gardens, and where rural backwardness reigned supreme, connections of all sorts proliferate. Cascading networks of electrical systems, towns, roads, railways, and man-made rivers pierce the once-pristine wilderness and draw themselves as the circuits linking great automated factories. Roaring across this landscape at a quickening pace, not even able to stop in order to offload passengers (train cars are simply detached and rolled off onto parallel tracks when destinations come into view), the great train is moving eastward; shrinking behind it is the Old World of Europe, land of decrepit aristocracies and worn out traditions, and coming into view just ahead is the New World, just through a tunnel that passes deep beneath the Bering Strait. “[T]he motors are breathing fast and rumbling, pumping the air, and the tunnel is shaking like a steel pulse in the sleeping waters of the ocean. One half hour—and America”.

The situation depicted in Express is, as Charles Rougle describes, “a vision of the world on the threshold of a great revolutionary cataclysm”. With the real events of the October Revolution still a year out, the near-utopia of the poem was still that of a world dominated by capitalism, albeit one that was in the process of shedding its most regressive features. The anarchy of the market, where firms small and large collided freely in combat, was coming under the sway of great industrial monopolies led by faceless collectives. This is the importance of the ultimate collision of the train—itself perhaps a symbol of the revolutionary agency itself—with America, which in contrast with Old Europe was seen as a laboratory where the cutting-edge of techno-industrial tools and techniques were being forged. There is thus, already at this early of a stage, a foreshadow of Stalin’s comments, laid down in 1924, that the essence of Leninism consisted of the marriage of the “Russian revolutionary sweep” with “American efficiency”.

Indeed, Gastev would play an essential role in promoting this particular synthesis at his Central Institute of Labor (or, as it was more formally known: the Institute for the Scientific Organization of Work and the Mechanization of Man), opened in Moscow in 1920 with the personal support of—and funding arranged by—Lenin. Echoing Georges Sorel’s distinction between the ‘ethics of consumers’ and the ethics of ‘producers’ (the latter of which corresponded, appropriately, to the proletariat), Gastev had described mass society as being the battleground between “two demons”, one aligned with consumption and the other production. Revolution entailed a pact: “We are definitely on the side of the second. And our task is to infect these masses with by every possible proof with an unquenchable passion for effort, labour, energy” [quoted in Kendall Bailes, ‘Alexei Gastev and the Soviet Controversy over Taylorism’]. It was an uphill struggle, as Gastev had to work hand-in-hand with the dominant union system to convince the workers to submit themselves to time-motion studies in order to optimize their movements during the process of industrial production (a goal which could not, of course, be realized, as Gastev’s less mechanistic successors came to realize), which would have the correlated effect of speeding-up work. The horizon of this great work was to be, ultimately, the automatic factory, as he described in a 1919 article for Proletarskaya kul’tura (the official organ of the Proletkult movement, of which he was part):

Before us there is the prospect not only of an individual mechanized worker but of a mechanized system of labour management. Not a person, not an authority, but a “type”-a group-will manage other “types” or groups. Or even a machine, in the literal sense of the word, will manage living people. Machines from being managed will become managers.’

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It is for this reason that Gastev is best remembered as a Soviet Frederick Winslow Taylor. Lenin himself had declared in 1918 that embracing Taylorist scientific management was vital in developing the productive forces, describing it in ‘The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government’ as “the last word of capitalism” and “a combination of the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of the greatest scientific achievements”. He continued:

The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field. The possibility of building socialism depends exactly upon our success in combining the Soviet power and the Soviet organisation of administration with the up-to-date achievements of capitalism. We must organise in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our own ends.

What Gastev sought to develop and deploy through his work at the Central Institute could not, however, be reduced to the simple goals pursued by the Taylorists. “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” was the dictum put forth by Lenin during the Eighth All-Russia Congress of Soviets. The higher stage of production could only be realized when the symptoms of underdevelopment and reactionary consciousness—small-scale production, the individual proprietor, the shysters and deal-makers, etc—were swept away by the advance of large-scale, industrial production, and it was precisely electrification that served as the necessary precondition for this evolution: “Only when the country has been electrified, and industry, agriculture and transport have been placed on the technical basis of modern large-scale industry, only then shall we be fully victorious”. What this meant, for Gastev, was nothing less than the production of a new type of person, a realization of a New Soviet Man appropriate to this convulsive, energetic epoch. “Electrification is the highest expression of machinism”, he wrote in How to Work. “This is not one machine, this is not a complex of machines, it is not even a machine-factory, not a machine-city, it is a machine-state, and when it is international, it is in the full sense of a mechanized globe… And, of course, in unison with this new machine worldview, you need to take a fresh look at the person”.

The new person would be a “man-assembler, who is full of ideas of treatments, technical tuning and adaptations”. Taylor’s scientific management sought to bring the human laborer into alignment with the operations of the machine, but for Gastev this was but only the first step. Everything was to be optimized in conjunction with the machine, including creativity and the drive to innovation itself. And once these powers were cracked open, penetrated by the radiant light of techno-science and their inner logic demystified, those tropes so hallowed by the capitalist bourgeoisie—individual creativity and the innovative entrepreneur—would fall away. They would be universal, anonymous, and collective, no different or separate from the universal, anonymous, and collective industrial system that was taking shape. Gastev:

We must deal with the energy of the human mechanism. In this century, when there are chronoscopes showing ten thousandths of a second, when there are ammeters and voltmeters, we will have to “measure” human energy. The science of nutrition of a working organism must be as exact a science as thermal sciences, like the science of nutrition of the steam engine, the nutrition of the electric motor; the consumption of human energy must be instrumentally measured to the thousandths of a small calorie, and the regulation of the work of the human body must be built on a system of carburetors feeding heat engines. There should be nothing sacred here. There must be a complete revolution. In this area, we need the same revolutionary appeal for scientific biologists, which the authorities have done in relation to engineers and economists in the electrification issue.

While there was a close relationship between Gastev’s thought and that of the Soviet leadership—despite his status as an outsider to the party, having distanced himself during a period of forced exile that resulted from his activities in the 1905 revolution—his promotion of scientific management and biomechanics triggered an opposition that congealed into an organization with a simple, but effective, name: the “Group of Communists”. In many respects, the Group’s opposition to Gastev and the activities of the Central Institute of Labor was that they fell short of the lofty goals that they had set for themselves, and that commitment to a Taylorist base prevented the realization of this higher stage of industrial culture. As Bailes summarizes, “The use of the stop watch as the sole means of determining work norms was an especially exploitative and uncritical application of Taylorism to Soviet industry. The most important problem of Soviet industry was to raise productivity without increased intensification of labour, and to raise wages in proportion to increased productivity”. What was desired was a means to scientifically manage production, and to increase the process of its processes and the volume of its output, without the influence Taylor—but in the end, the opponents gradually conceded. “Taylorism could not be rejected per se, [they] affirmed; the most ‘useful’ parts of the system, as Lenin had pointed out, must be tested and selected in practice”.

Decades later, Autonomous Marxists like Paolo Virno and Carlo Vercellone argued that the ‘phase’ of capitalist development that had come into being in the first half of the 20th century, characterized by the gradual evolution from Taylorism to Fordism to what we might describe as international Fordism, had been anticipated by Marx in the Grundrisse, and particularly within the pages of the ‘Fragment on Machines’ [for an overview of Virno and Vercellone’s argument, see Tony Smith’s essay “The ‘General Intellect’ in the Grundrisse and Beyond”, in the book In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse]. Marx, in an uncanny foreshadow of the Taylorist moment and semi-automation, had situated the worker as becoming suspended between machinic systems, stripped of their individuality and their autonomy with regard to the production processes. This same movement was fundamentally connected to increasing technoscientific knowledge, which emerges from the drives of production and innovation, and then feeds back into it to push this great apparatus into higher orders. This knowledge becomes socialized, diffused, and universal in its application—a general intellect. It is in this stage interzone that Marx’s vision of post-capitalism emerges: the worker ceases to be an autonomous agent piloting production from within, but becomes a manager of that system. “Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself” (see my earlier post on the question of an ‘Eco-Marx’ and ‘Promethean Marx’ for more on this).

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Gastev offered a similar assessment in How to Work, paralleling Marx’s concept of the General Intellect by describing the way in which the rapid innovation of technological systems compelled the further development of scientific knowledge. Swept deliriously by the machine and the stopwatch, Gastev went as far to the suggest the impending merging of the scientist and the engineer, noting how “it was not for nothing that [a] person who attempted to study the movements of an employee turned out to be the engineer Gilbert, and it was not for nothing that such a biologist who studied human labor movements, like Professor Sechenov, previously graduated from an engineering school. The development of modern technology pushes and transforms biology, it gives the formulation of these problems and forces biology to think so”. The engineer, here, is both a master of techniques and a product of them, and the recasting of all scientific professions in the model of the engineer comes from the deepening penetration of industrial modernity in every discipline, in every endeavor, in every facet of life. To flesh this out further, Gastev turns at last to Marx himself, citing from the first volume of Capital passages that illuminate the way in which individualized, independent ‘subjective character’ is leveled by a collective and cooperative “purely technological principle”. Speaking of large-scale production, Marx had written that the “whole process is decomposed here objectively, depending on its own nature, into its constituent phases, and the problem of performing each partial process and connecting various partial processes is resolved through the application of mechanics, chemistry, etc”.

Gastev praises Marx for his “amazing erudition” in drawing on a now-largely forgotten source: Dr. Andrew Ure and his 1835 book The Philosophy of Manufacturers. Described by Marx twice, one in the first volume of Capital and once in the third, as the “Pindar” of large-scale production, Ure’s influence radiates through Marx’s passages on the nature of industrial systems, stretching from his early critique of Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy to his late-stage works. It might seem curious that Ure, a consistent opponent of efforts to alleviate the conditions of the proletariat—and whose work Marx himself described as ‘naive’ in its ceaseless ability to “blurt out the thoughtless contradictions of the capitalist brain” [Capital Volume 1, p. 564]—would be so influential. Nonetheless, The Philosophy of Manufacturers was, for Marx, the “classical expression of the spirit of the factory”, and the reason for this was that Ure glimpsed the strange horizon that was being inexorably pulled towards:

Manufacture is a word, which, in the vicissitude of language, has come to signify the the reverse of its intrinsic meaning, for it now denotes every extensive product of art, which is made by machinery, with little or no aid of the human hand; so that the most perfect manufacture is that which dispenses entirely with manual labor. The philosophy of manufacturers is therefore an exposition of the general principles, on which productive industry should be conducted by self-acting machines. [The Philosophy of Manufacturers, p. 1]

The tendency of industrialization, in other words, was that of the progressive elimination of the human as an element in production. Ure breathlessly described the “sagacity” of the industrial giant Richard Arkwright, who had played a role in the invention of the spinning frame (and the immensely profitable organization of production that followed in its wake), for perceiving the outlines of a future world characterized by a “vastly productive human industry”. No longer a subordinate to the limitations of “muscular effort”, the output of these combines would be “the work of mechanical fingers and arms, regularly impelled with great velocity by some indefatigable physical power” [p. 14-15]. Elsewhere, Ure defined the “factory system” not in terms of a distinct plant or industrial site, but as “the combined operation of many orders of work-people, adult and young, in tending with assiduous skill a series of productive machines continuously impelled by a central power” [p. 13]. For Steve Edwards, these sorts of descriptions are a “revelry”, marking the “the closest capitalist thought has ever managed to a fully Dionysian moment”. Yet if Ure is intoxicated by the churn of capitalistic processes, it is hardly from the classical image of the commercial giant or by the mad-dash of the market; it is the machinic processes themselves that give rise to this Dionysian moment. Arkwright is not praised for bringing massified industry into being, but for understanding where it was going. Likewise, the “central power” that puts in motion the “work-people” and their “productive machines” is neither capitalist nor capital—it is thermodynamic power, heat converted into mutable energy.

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If the capitalist is rather unimportant except in its most abstract role, labor, likewise, is only important insofar as it disappears. Class struggle is for Ure a means to the ends of this disappearance, with the threat of the strike—or the event of the strike itself—serving as an impetus for the automation of functions previously served by the proletarian. “…surely science, at the call of capital, will defeat every unjustifiable union which labourers may form”. In many respects, Ure here anticipates the arguments of both Sorel and the Autonomists, particularly that of Mario Tronti. For the former, the cessation of the class struggle through the alignment of reformist ‘parliamentary socialists’ and the ‘humanitarian-minded bourgeoisie’ stalled out industrial development, a situation that he described as “decadence”. For the latter, the class struggle comes to unfold in cycles, characterized by the dialectic of proletarian offensive and the bourgeois response, which is to recalibrate the production process through the introduction of new technological systems and organizational paradigms. This argument arises in particular from a close reading of Marx’s chapters on the working day in the first volume of Capital, which illustrate quite clearly how the struggle to shorten the length of daily labor led to the introduction of machinery that intensified both the pace and the output of production—an analysis that was no doubt influenced by Ure’s own studies.

While labor gets squeezed out of the production process, it does not, Ure argued, disappear in full:

The principle of the factory.. is to substitute mechanical science for hand skill, and the partition of a process into its essential constituents, for the division or graduation of labour among artisans. One the handicraft plan, labour more or less skilled, was usually the most expensive element of production—Materiam superabat opus; but on the automatic plan, skilled labour gets progressively superseded, and will, eventually, be replaced by mere overlookers of machines [The Philosophy of Manufacturers, p. 20].

This language immediately recalls that of “Fragment on Machines”, with its depictions of future labor as the overseers of industrial-scientific processes—and indeed, the spirit of Ure’s Dionysian moment hovers above the pages of the Fragment. At the conclusion of the section just prior to the Fragment, Marx offers a lengthy citation from The Philosophy of Manufacturers that culminates in the following: “In its most rigorous sense, this term [factory] conveys the idea of a vast automaton, composed of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs operating in concert and without interruption, towards one and the same aim, all these organs being subordinated to a motive force which moves itself” [The Philosophy of Manufacturers, p. 13; cited in Grundrisse, p. 690, emphasis Marx’s]. Compare this quotation with the most famous passage from the Fragment, which appears but a page later:

…once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour pass through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages [Grundrisse, p. 690].

Much of this is a paraphrase of Ure, particularly concerning the self-movement of the automaton, set in motion by some motive force—but it is of particular interest that he is cited word for word in the description of “numerous mechanical and intellectual organs”. It is clear of the immense importance of this idiosyncratic conceptualization of the factory to Marx, and it would be a mistake to consider its vital role as diminishing in the passage from the notebooks that compose the Grundrisse to the final drafts of Capital. In the fifteenth chapter of  Capital Volume 1, Marx deploys a distinction between the tool and the machine by describing the latter as a “mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations as the worker did with similar tools [Capital Volume 1, p. 495]. Later in the same chapter, in the section dedicated to examining the factory system proper, Marx begins by offering once again the aforementioned quote from The Philosophy of Manufacturers, before discerning—in language drawn directly from the Fragment in the Grundrisse—a Janus-faced position embedded in Ure’s description. Noting a disjunction between the characterization of the factory system as the organization of massified labor and as something driven by a ‘central motive force’, Marx writes:

These two descriptions are far from being identical. In one, the combined collective worker appears as the dominant subject, and the mechanical automaton as the object; in the other, the automaton itself is the subject, and the workers are merely conscious organs, coordinated with the unconscious organs of the automaton, and together with the latter subordinated to the central moving force. The first description is applicable to every possible employment of machinery on a large scale, the second is characteristic of its use by capital, and therefore of the modern factory system [Capital, Volume 1, p. 544-545].

Thus the depiction of labor from the Grundrisse, as ensnared within the gears of fearsome and inhuman machinery, is retained, as it captures the reality of production under capital, that is, under the regulation of the law of value. Insofar this situation tends towards the autonomization of production, the increased centrality of technoscientific development, the lessening dependency on direct labor, and the opening up of free time as a historical force unto itself, it is a progressive development—but it is here that the real contradiction in Ure’s thought moves to the fore. Consider the following, drawn from the twenty-third chapter of Capital Volume 3, which resumes in brief the sketch of communism put forth in the Fragment:

It has already been remarked by Mr. Ure that it is not the industrial capitalists, but the industrial managers who are “the soul of our industrial system.”…

The capitalist mode of production has brought matters to a point where the work of supervision, entirely divorced from the ownership of capital, is always readily obtainable. It has, therefore, come to be useless for the capitalist to perform it himself. An orchestra conductor need not own the instruments of his orchestra, nor is it within the scope of his duties as conductor to have anything to do with the “wages” of the other musicians. Co-operative factories furnish proof that the capitalist has become no less redundant as a functionary in production as he himself, looking down from his high perch, finds the big landowner redundant. Inasmuch as the capitalist’s work does not originate in the purely capitalistic process of production, and hence does not cease on its own when capital ceases; inasmuch as it does not confine itself solely to the function of exploiting the labour of others; inasmuch as it therefore originates from the social form of the labour-process, from combination and co-operation of many in pursuance of a common result, it is just as independent of capital as that form itself as soon as it has burst its capitalistic shell. To say that this labour is necessary as capitalistic labour, or as a function of the capitalist, only means that the vulgus is unable to conceive the forms developed in the lap of capitalist production, separate and free from their antithetical capitalist character.

Both Ure and Marx conceive of the destiny of the development of the productive forces to be the automatic factory, watched over and steered by humans freed from the bondage of labor—yet there is a critical different, in that Ure sees this as the reality of capitalism itself, whereas for Marx this exists beyond domination by capital. The capitalist may be rendered redundant by the rise of the industrial manager, but this redundancy does not in anyway imply the elimination of the capitalist as a figure who persist as something glued, apparently permanently, to the side of production. This is because the law of value itself persists: capital may tend towards autonomization in lockstep with industrial automation, but because it remains structurally wedded to the labor of humans, this status cannot be automatically transcended. The progressive and regressive forces put in motion by this development come to lock into an infernal, self-reinforcing circuit that constantly unleashes this beyond, while always pulling it back lest these energetic torrents overflow the present conditions.

Conrad Bongard Hamilton, in an essay that covers much of the same ground as here, argues that Marx, under the influence of Ure, comes to give a new articulation of the proletarian revolution, and it is this particular conception that illuminates a way out from this seemingly impossible impasse. Taking cue from Marx’s argument (put forth in both Notebook VII of the Grundrisse—tellingly, the section that immediately follows the Fragment on Machinesand in the chapter 15 of Capital Volume 1) that communist society will be more appropriate for the application of large-scale machinery than capitalism, Hamilton urges a recognition of “the inevitability—and even desirability— of machinic agents as founding partners in a new society”. The proletariat is in the position to abolish the value-form, to break the imperceptible laws that regulate this society and block the emergence of the next—but it is also these same ‘machinic agents’ that appear as the ruination of the capitalist class by putting into motion the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. That this tendency is indistinguishable from increasing automation, and thus of the necessary conditions for the higher stage of production, illustrates how intertwined these forces are within the pages of Marx’s theory. It also illustrates the way in which Ure remains, despite all his foresight, within the confines of the bourgeois ideology.

When Gastev wrote that “[e]lectricity, electrical engineering, electrical industry” was the “most advanced industrial force” that “fatally requires a new person”, he was describing precisely a proletarian that was aligned with the machine. The paradox of his position was that this alliance was taken up in the wake of a revolution, and not prior to it, and it is within that paradoxical space that his enthusiasm for scientific management techniques, hatched in the laboratories of bourgeois ideologues in faraway America, must be understood. There are, of course, limitations to these thoughts, separated as we are by a near-century of events, many of them profoundly counter-revolutionary in character, others progressive in that they have advanced the scope and scale of productive capacity (consider the historical irony highlighted by Peter Drucker, that yesteryear’s Taylorism was the skeletal base for contemporary industrial automation). We’ve passed beyond proto-Fordism to Fordism to post-Fordism and perhaps something beyond, and industrialization has been supplanted by the fangs of de- and post-industrialization. The current moment resembles, more than anything else, a phase of industrial and cultural decadence, as the class struggle is violently ground to dust and any sense of forward progress entropically dissipates into a haze of generality.

Is there a more apt time, then, for a return to the revolutionary enthusiasm and development drive sketched out so briefly here? Not a return in the sense of farcical repetition, but to their spirit: the recognition that history isn’t over, and that a higher stage is still yet to come.

Nick Land’s Philosophy of Capital is Anti-Capitalist (3: Value Questions)

 

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In a June, 2013 post on Xenosystems titled “Right on the Money (#2)”, Land elaborates a position that he describes as “right-wing Marxism”. It’s close to what Alvin Gouldner once described as nightmare Marxism, a Marxism that leaps from the undeniably ambivalent attitude of Marx to a foregrounding of the importance of the bourgeoisie, a positing that “the West that is the true agent of historical development”, and the suggestion that the “the proletariat, caught in the cunning of history, is the servant of that higher destiny”. There are certain differences to be had, however; one split between Land’s position and Gouldner’s taxonomy is that Land, despite the commitment to a vigorously anarchic form of capitalism, grants little special importance to the bourgeoisie. He writes:

Marx has one great thought: the means of production socially impose themselves as an effective imperative. For any leftist, this is, of course, pathological. As we have seen, biology and economics (more generally) are disposed to agree. Digression for itself is a perversion of the natural and social order. Defenders of the market — the Austrians most prominently — have sided with economics against Marx, by denying that the autonomization of capital is a phenomenon to be recognized. When Marx describes the bourgeoisie as robotic organs of self-directing capital, the old liberal response has been to defend the humanity and agency of the economically executive class, as expressed in the figure of the entrepreneur.

Land would later return to this version of the bourgeoisie, as something just as leveled as the proletariat, in his “Concept of Acceleration” courses for NCRAP; in the third session, he described the bourgeoisie as a class devoid of “moral autonomy” in the sense that it cannot define itself or conduct its actions “independent from the interests of capital technically and cybernetically defined”, lest the offending party be “processed out of the business class”. This is flush with Mark Fisher’s own comments that “the idea that the misleadingly-named ‘ruling class’ do anything more than manage and adminster Capital is an idle fantasy”, and of course with Marx, for whom the capitalist is but “capital personified”, a possessed figure whose “soul is the soul of capital”. If the bourgeoisie cannot exercise moral autonomy, it is because “capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour”. This, not market competition for the sake of market competition, is the real occulted kernel lurking at the heart of the capitalist mode of production.

In “Right on the Money”, Land, however, wants to dispense with this element in the Marxian analytic architecture:

Right-wing Marxism, aligned with the autonomization of capital (and thoroughly divested of the absurd LTV), has been an unoccupied position. The signature of its proponents would be a defense of capital accumulation as an end-in-itself, counter-subordinating nature and society as a means. When optimization for intelligence is self-assembled within history, it manifests as escaping digression, or real capital accumulation (which is mystified by its financial representation). Crudified to the limit — but not beyond — it is general robotics (escalated roundabout production).

Not much of a reason is provided here for this divestment, nor is an explanation given for why this element of Marxist theory should be regarded as an absurdity. Indeed, one might even suggest that the phenomenon that is being addressed—the autonomization of capital, or what Marx describes as capital becoming “an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object”—does not occur in contrast to the theory of the law of value. It occurs, in fact, as a consequence of the law of value, which eats away at the human elements in the forces of production. Articulated properly, the ‘absurd LTV’ indexes the divestment of labor itself—something that Land recognized in a series of 2014 tweets on what he calls the “Jehu Thesis”:

Postone posits that for Marx the primary contradiction of the capitalist mode of production is not, as commonly understood, between the trajectory of the development of productive forces and the bourgeois mode of distribution (the market), but is to be found within the sphere of production itself, with value itself serving as the integral fault-line. “[V]alue remains the determining form of wealth and social relations in capitalism”, he writes, “regardless of the developments in productivity; however, value also becomes increasingly anachronistic in terms of the material wealth-producing potential of the productive forces to which it gives rise” (Time, Labor, and Social Domination, 197). This contradiction sets in motion the apparently inevitable situation in which the historical limit of the capitalist mode of production becomes carved in time: the very structure that once empowered the rapid development of the productive forces—”a real qualitative jump in the process of man’s historical development, by breaking the stranglehold of nature”, to quote Gouldner—comes to reverse itself, to become, more and more, a fetter to that very production.

The question, then, is as follows: why did Land feel it necessary to remove the question of value from the equation altogether in his 2013 post? The answer, I think, points to the limit-point of reading his theory as an anti-capitalist (brief note: nowhere am I saying that Land is a crypto-leftist, or that the intention of his theory is to conduct a critique of the capitalist mode of production; I’m well aware of Land’s politics and his radical identification of capital with critique). To summarize most succinctly—further unpacking would require its own post, or several posts, left detached from the immediate set of topics under discussion here—value is what allows us to grasp the historical specificity of the capitalist mode of production; it separates trade and market relations in modernity from their pre-modern forms, reveals capitalism’s unique logic of production and organization of labor, and shows how the accumulation of wealth cannot be generalized across history, but must be understood in the context of differing historical situations. Marx in Capital Volume I, via Postone’s own translation:

The value-form of the product of labour is the most abstract, but also the most general form of the bourgeois mode of production. This mode is thereby characterized as a particular sort of social production and, therefore, as historically specific. If one then makes the mistake of treating it as the eternal natural form of social production, one necessarily overlooks the specificity of the value-form, and consequently of the commodity form together with its further developments, the money form, the capital form, etc.

In my appraisal of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “machinic surplus value”, I argued that it was through the introduction of this ill-conceived notion that the two thinkers were able to suggest that capitalism could continue forever, never to be undermined by its internal contradictions. The reason for this was a broadening of the concept of surplus value—and by extension, value—to the point where both philosophical and empirical rigor fall away, effectively liquidating the ability to grasp the movement of the system in question. Land here is doing the inverse, but the destination is the same: it doesn’t matter if one expands value to encompass human and machine, or if one denies value outright, for by venturing out in either direction one loses sight of things and opens themselves up to ideological mystification. The spurious infinite. 

Land’s claim is that capital, as it undergoes what appears to be autonomization through the advent of techno-scientific penetration and advanced mechanization, retains its character as capital. This can only be done by striking from consideration the question of value; when one reads Land’s theory through the lenses of value theory, as Jehu proposes, a rather different picture emerges. From within Land’s theory, it comes to appear that the future for whatever he perceives as coming next—true machinic intelligence—is colonized in advance at the conceptual level by all-too-specific categories. It seems dubious, hypothetically speaking, to think that a machine liberated from its masters would think of itself as capital, especially if we take the elimination of value as the unshackling of the anthropomorphic character of productive processes.

For Marx, it looks even more different still:

Marx’s understanding of the abolition of the capitalist form of labor and of production… refers not to production in any narrow sense but to the very structuring principle of our form of social life. Relatedly, his critique of capitalism is not one of social mediation per se but of the specific form of mediation constituted by labor. Value is a self-mediating form of wealth, but material wealth is not; the abolition of the former necessarily entails the constitution of new forms of social mediation, many of which presumably would be political in nature (which by no means necessarily implies a hierarchical, state-centered mode of administration). (Time, Labor, and Social Domination, 373

Mode-Shift

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At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence — but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.

-from Marx’s preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy 

Ideology and Real(ism)

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“Isn’t the emphasis on the systemic character of capitalism what separates Marx’s analysis from moralizing socialism?) The idea that the misleadingly-named ‘ruling class’ do anything more than manage and adminster Capital is an idle fantasy. Capitalists can decide on which groups are exploited, but they cannot legislate away exploitation itself. (How long would a CEO with such ambitions last?) It is not exculpatory but simply realistic to acknowledge that Capital, not capitalists, runs the show. However, realism about capitalism is not the same as Capitalist Realism. Neo-liberalism is defined not by the idea that Capital is a remorseless machine but by the claim that there is no viable alternative to its rule.” – Mark Fisher, Left Hyperstition 2: Be Unrealistic, Change What’s Possible

One of the repeated accusations that arose in the great /Acc wars of 2017 was that the understanding of capital that was being posited—as something operated at a higher level than everyday life, political management, and even ideological fixation—was itself an unfortunate expression of capitalist ideology, one tantamount to the infamous Thatcherite slogan that there is indeed no alternative to its strange, infernal logic. Seen from this point of view, the so-called accelerationist take on capital (a jargon-laced analytic stance I’ve personally progressively moved away from, opting for a return to a more ‘classically’ Marxist approach—something that nonetheless was a great influence on acceleration, particularly in the ‘U’ variety) is conflated with Fisher’s ‘capitalist realism’. This, in turn, produce a solution by way of inverting the accelerationist counterpoint: if accelerationist theory is garbage-can ideology, and the accelerationist theory suggests that capital is a self-moving substance unto itself, then the ‘revolutionary path’—or whatever equivalent to this one may pose—is to configure capital as something always already subordinated to human intentionality. Political capacity is thus restored.

The problem with this picture, at least from a Marxist—as well as an accelerationist—ground, is where the ideological configuration is positioned. It has to be asked what form of capitalist ideology promotes capital as an inhuman force that ensnares the proletariat and bourgeoisie alike in its logic, robbing them of their agency and pushing them towards alien ends? In the great spectrum of political economy and liberal polity, the answer simply is none. Capitalist ideology promotes capitalism not only as an ism (we should be avoiding this term as much as possible and opt instead for either addressing capital directly or by reference to the capitalist mode of production), but more specifically as a humanism. The material class relations that constitute the proletariat and bourgeoisie are eliminated for the ideal of a flexible atomized subject who stands free from the weight of history; the vital dialectical image of the capitalist mode of production containing both progressive and regressive elements that will eventually come to a historical loggerhead is smeared into obscurity by a vibrant image of non-historical progress (non-historical because the relations and mechanisms unique to the bourgeois epoch are presented as transhistorical, coupled to a sense of progress that finds capital first and foremost agential empowerment).

The breakage of the liberal ideology into left and right wings (relatively speaking, of course) never manages to undermine this core of capitalist-humanism, and only turns it around under the differing filters of positive and negative freedoms. Even under virulent neoliberalism does it persist: nowhere in the pages of libertarian journals and the halls of Beltway think-tanks does the image of alien capital gain traction. The Adam Smith Institute doesn’t promote the entrepreneur of the self as some sort of Snidely Whiplash conspiratorial shenanigan; it promotes it because it earnestly believes what it preaches.

In his ideological critique, Marx was taking to task the capitalist-humanism of the ‘classical liberals’ (a retroactively-assembled, ideological formation if there ever was one!); this is why we get the picture, so curious at first blush, of a book bearing the subtitle of A Critique of Political Economy that presents capital as functioning like the Hegelian geist by its fourth chapter. Capital as inhuman force, as a historical machine that takes a hold of the bourgeoisie and proletariat as if by possession—to reach towards this is to pierce the ideological veil to find the tracing of something swirling below it. Hence Fisher’s point in the quote that opened this post: capitalist realism is a reflection of the ideological fantasy of the neoliberal phase of capitalist development and is wholly distinct from the sort of picture drawn by the accelerationists—which is really an elaboration and restaging of the analysis offered by Marx. Thus to flip the script and return capital to something under the sway of human intentionality, and more specifically under the command of the powerful capitalist, is to avoid the Real by staying within the foundational assumptions of capitalist realism.

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As far back as The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek had already deepened and advanced this line of inquiry, fundamentally problematizing both sides of the debate along the way. He convincingly points out that the structure of Marx’s account of commodity fetishism contains a kind of doubled illusion, a two-layered process that encompasses the ideological side of capitalism and the non-human logic of commodities. He writes:

…the illusion is not on the side of knowledge, it is already on the side of reality itself, of what people are doing. What they do not know is that their social reality itself, their activity, is guided by an illusion, by a fetishistic inversion. What they overlook, what they misrecognize, is not the reality but the illusion which is structuring their reality, their real social activity. They know very well how things really are, but they are still doing it as if they did not know. The illusion is therefore double: it consists in overlooking the illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality. And this overlooked, unconscious illusion is what may be called ideological fantasy. (29-30)

The twisting structure of Zizek’s argument here is that while commodity fetishism makes the relationship between people appear as commodities whilst imbuing commodities with the appearance life-like power, it is in actuality being overlooked. The logic of the commodity, while beginning as illusion, comes to operate on a real, material level in the sense that it imparts itself as the universal mediator of social relations. What’s more is that this can be mapped to a process of historical passage that is itself reflected in a shift in Marx’s own theory of abstraction, or what Alberto Toscano calls a “break with a generic, humanist, or anthropological concept of abstraction” for a “notion of real abstraction—abstraction not as mere mask, fantasy or diversion, but as a force operative in the world”. This first theory, Toscano argues, is inherited from Feuerbach and carries from him the assumption of “the genus ‘humanity'”. Abstractions of all sorts—political and religious, but particularly (for Marx) economic—are but “fictitious hypostases of [this] positive, underlying generic essence that is not itself prey to historical or logic becoming”. The second, however, provides an understanding of abstraction that undermines this humanist portrait:

The crucial theoretical revolution would then be the one that passes from this fundamentally intellectualist notion of abstraction—which presumes liberation as a ‘recovery’ of the presupposed genus (putting Man where God, qua distorted humanity, had once stood)—to a vision of abstraction that, rather than depicting it as a structure of illusion, recognizes it as a social, historical, and ‘transindividual’ phenomenon… Society is above all a relation: the role of these univocal simple abstractions—such as value, labor, private property—in the formation of the concrete must be carefully gauged so that they do not mutate back into those powerless and separate, not to mention mystifying, intellectual abstractions that had occupied the earlier theory of ideology. But these abstractions are not mental categories that ideally precede the concrete; they are real abstractions that are truly caught up in the social whole, the social relation.

Toscano later offers the radical conclusion posed by Alfred Sohn-Rethel: real abstraction does not only emerge from a thought becoming a thing—it is also “a relation, or even a thing, which then becomes a thought”. Read back onto Zizek, a portrait is drawn in which the illusion ceases to be illusion but becomes operative, the very thing that structures society by serving as the force that mediates it (if society is a relation, or more properly series or networks of relations, then it indeed will intrinsically maintain some form of mediation—what Sohn-Rethel called the “social synthesis”). Such is the obscured nature of capital (and not to mention to one of the very reasons why capital operates above and beyond the agency of the capitalist or politician)

What then of capitalism as ideology? It should be clear that it not only serves to protect the capitalist mode of production in either conscious or unconscious registers, but to in fact obscure this deeper structure of capitalist reality. The realism, in other words, is the illusion; the thing that appears as illusion is itself closer to an actual realism. Faced with some a dynamic obscuring and domino-effect of reversals it is clear that by taking flight to an understanding of capital as something subjected a priori to human intentionality or command serves only to reinforce the ideological frontier.

The Nightmare of Development

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In the fourth chapter of Difference and Repetition, Deleuze offers his account of the development of the larval subject, the genesis of which unfolds like an embryo: always at the verge of dissolution, as the ongoing mutation of the quasi-formed in the sea of intensities (in A Thousand Plateaus, where these conceptual packages return with a mighty force, Deleuze writes that “[t]he organ changes when it crosses a threshold, when it changes gradient” – ATP, 153)). The passage in question:

The system is populated by subjects, both larval subjects and passive selves: passive selves because they are indistinguishable from the contemplation of couplings and and resonances; larval subjects because they are the supports or patients of the dynamisms. In effect, pure spatio-temporal, with its necessary participation in the forced movement, can be experienced only at the borders of the livable, under the conditions beyond which it would entail the death of any well-constituted subject endowed with independence and activity. Embryology already displays the truth that there are systematic vital movements, torsions and drifts, that only the embryo can sustain: an adult would be torn apart by them. There are movements by which only one can be a patient, but the patient in turn can only be a larva. Evolution does not take place in the open air, and only the involuted evolves. A nightmare is perhaps a psychic dynamism that could be sustained neither awake nor even in dreams, but only in profound sleep, in a dreamless sleep. In this sense, it is not even clear that thought, insofar as it constitutes the dynamism peculiar to philosophical systems, may be related to a substantial, completed, and well-constituted subject, such as the Cartesian Cogito: thought is, rather, one of those terrible movements which can only be sustained only under the conditions of a larval subject. (D&R, 114-115)

This likening of the experience of the subject to that of the development embryo, and then from the embryo to the nightmare, is an incredibly provocative constellation to be grappled with. It also forms a bridge between this work and Anti-Oedipus, where the notion of the nightmare returns again in relation to development, only this time it is long-range historical development, and the nightmare is the nightmare of flows. This injects into the framework the question of desire, which is always connected to that destabilizing forces that are capable of ‘tearing apart’ the “well-constituted subject”. Development, therefore, is situated between, on the one hand, the desire for dissolution or disequilibria, while on the other the blockage or “warding-off” of the free movement of flows.

… capitalism has haunted all forms of society, but it haunts them as their terrifying nightmare, it is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes. (AO, 140)

Are we to believe that a universal Oedipus haunts all societies, but exactly as capitalism haunts them, that is to say, as the nightmare and the anxious foreboding of what might result from the decoding of flows and the collective disinvestment of organs, the becoming-abstract of the flows of desire, and the becoming-private of the organs? (AO, 144)

… the greatest danger would be yet another dispersion, a scission such that all the possibilities of coding would be suppressed: decoded flows, flowing on a blind, mute, deterritoriahzed socius—such is the nightmare that the primitive social machine exorcises with all its forces, and all its segmentary articulations. (AO, 154)

How can this nightmare be imagined: the invasion of the socius by noncoded flows that move like lava? An irrepressible wave of shit, as in the Fourbe myth; or the intense germinal influx, the this-side-of incest, as in the Yourougou myth, which introduces disorder into the world by acting as the representative of desire. (AO, 170)

… exchange is known, well known in the primitive socius—but as that which must be exorcised, encasted, severely restricted, so that no corresponding value can develop as an exchange value that would introduce the nightmare of a commodity economy. (AO, 186)

… Oedipus haunts all societies, but as the nightmare of something that has still not happened to them—its hour has not come. (AO, 217)

The movement of deterritorialization can never be grasped in itself, one can only grasp its indices in relation to the territorial representations. Take the example of dreams: yes, dreams are Oedipal, and this comes as no surprise, since dreams are a perverse reterritorialization in relation to the deterritorialization of sleep and nightmares. (AO, 316)

There’s a common critique of D&G, a dusty one that is cranked out regularity from the grim grad school carousal, that their project fails due to their inability to distinguish their visions of thought, individuation, and the unconscious – a vision that emerges from Difference and Repetition – from the functions of capitalism itself. What this critique fails to recognize that this is not something buried in the text capable of serving as a “gotcha!” – this is precisely what is brought to the surface by D&G, the very problematic that they wish to unveil.

Machinic Surplus Value

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“Celibate machines reproduce human surplus value, furnishing the bourgeoisie with recording rights to all of capitalism’s operative axioms, bringing organic stratometers, judgments of God governing isometric command chains, crushing down on schizonomadic economic swarm space. Diffused through the microphysical weave of spinal multiplicity, metrophage control command sequences institute the bourgeoisie as the optimal distribution profile for State power. No more dysfunctional despotic masters: slaves command other slaves in the ravenous stomach of the crystal factory complex – the mutant, urogenital servomechanism calibrated for the reproduction of the capitalist socius in the gambling dens of Terra Nova markets.”

In the “Civilized Capitalist Machine” chapter of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari (henceforth D&G) introduce a major revision of Marx’s analysis of capitalist dynamics: the addition of what they describe as machinic surplus value to the more tradition category of human surplus value. They begin by grappling with what Marx described as the organic composition of capital, that is, the input-ratios of constant capital (fixed costs like machines and other equipment, raw materials, building, etc.) to variable capital (human labor) as contained in the commodity – and thus as serving as an index for what is happening within the process of production. This organic composition can be analyzed with the very basic formula C/V, with C denoting constant capital and V denoting the variable capital; if C rises over V, this means that more capital is being put towards fixed costs, and if rises over C then it is a greater allocation to the human labor.

D&G choose instead to approach this by way of a different formula: Dy/Dx. In this differential relation, Dy represents the fluctuations of variable capital, its rises and falls over time, while Dx denotes the fluctuations of constant capital. They write:

It is from the fluxion of decoded flows, from their conjunction that the filiative form of capital, x+dx, results. The differential relation expresses the fundamental capitalist phenomenon of the transformation of the surplus value of code into a surplus value of flux. The fact that a mathematical appearance here replaces the old code simply signifies that one is witnessing a breakdown of the subsisting codes and territorialities for the benefit of a machine of a another species, functioning in an entirely different way. This is no longer the cruelty of life, the terror of one life brought to bear against another life, but a post-mortem despotism, the despot become anus and vampire: “Capital is dead labor, that vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more the labour it sucks. (AO, 228)

What they are describing here as the surplus value of code refers to the innate laws governing pre-capitalist modes of economic and social organization (I’m not comfortable at all with this concept, but I’ll have to get more thoughts in order to properly articulate why), while the surplus value of flux is the surplus value of Marx proper. The Janus-faced fluctuations within Dy/Dx (or C/V) are thus expressing the very process of “all that is solid melting into air”, as everything that was once fixed (coded + territorializing) is unleashed from itself, stamped with new codes, and entered into the mad circulation of the market. Commodity production then, for D&G as with Marx, is historically specific, and is therefore conceivable as being ultimately transitory.

But here we enter into a problem by way of that most contentious of Marx’s theoretical concepts, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. To summarize it as briefly (and thus insufficiently!) as possible, Marx suggested that over time the ratio of constant capital to variable capital would continue to grow, which would lead to progressive obsolescence of the human laborer, and on the other side of this a fall in the average rate of profit (average being the average of the capitalist economy as a whole). This is because of the race downwards of the value – magnitudes of socially-necessary labor time – imparted to the commodity in the face of overwhelming mechanization; from this perspective, the entire capitalist economy is like a gigantic clock  running down, with the zero-point basically being a fully-automated economic system.

This tendency is dampened occasionally by counter-tendencies that push the rate of profit back up, which has led to a plethora of debates over the real status of the tendency to fall within Marx’s own theory (my personal feeling is that it is of utmost importance, and that it can be empirically demonstrated, which is something I attempted in my Uncertain Futures book. The nuclear kernel of the accelerationist reading of Marx is also predicated on the centrality of the tendency). D&G, for their part, write that

First of all, it appears that – in keeping with Balibar’s remarks – this tendency to a falling rate of profit has no end, but reproduces itself while reproducing the factors that counteract it. But why does it have no end? Doubtless for the same reasons that provoke the laughter of the capitalists and their economists when they ascertain that surplus value cannot be determined mathematically. (AO, 228)

This leads them to grapple with the specter of a capitalism that, while emerging from historically-specific – and ultimately contingent – factors, has become something that exists without end, for everything that can end it is is modulated within it in order to serve as the very means of reproducing it. The classical Marxist problematic is reproduced here: capitalism, as a system, has no exterior limit (it will continually move itself to the peripheries, wherever they may be), only an interior one that is capital itself. 

It is here that the concept of machinic surplus value is introduced:

This problem was raised again recently by Maurice Clavel, in a series of decisive and willfully incompetent questions – that is, questions addressed to Marxist economists by someone who doesn’t quite understand how one can maintain human surplus value as the basis for capitalist production, while recognizing that machines too “work” or produce value, that they have always worked, and that they work more and more in proportion to man, who thus ceases to be a constituent part of the production process, in order to become adjacent to this process. (AO, 232)

D&G refer to “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse in a footnote to this passage. It is there that Marx describes how automation, on the one hand, levels the human laborer through the stripping of the sort of agency that characterized simple commodity production and remakes them as a “conscious linkages” in an inhuman automation, while on the other hand engenders the “blow this foundation [for expanded reproduction of capitalist social relations] sky-high”. In clear relation to the dynamism between the fluctuations in the organic composition of capital and the rise and falls of the rate of profit, Marx describes capital as “a moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour, on the other side, as sole measure of wealth”.

This discourse on the contradictions of automation is clearly an influence on D&G’s construction of machinic surplus value, as is another term introduced by Marx in the “Fragment”: the general intellect.

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are  of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process. (emphasis mine)

The relationship illustrated here, between the development of fixed or constant capital (particularly in the form of automation) and a more generalized techno-scientific development, would have been of supreme importance to D&G. By the time Anti-Oedipus was published in 1972, theories of a wide-ranging transformation in the nature of the capitalist mode of production had been swirling about for some three decades. James Burnham’s 1941 The Managerial Revolution discussed the intensifying role of managers and technocrats within the structural organization of both the economy and the state, a thesis that would be reiterated in 1960 by Daniel Bell in his work The End of Ideology. For Bell (who, like Burnham, was a lapsed Marxist), the ideologies of old were exhausted in the face of rationalized production and scientific management; insofar as change would continue, it would be modifications of the then-currently existing structures. These insights would lay the groundwork for his 1974 text The Coming Post-Industrial Society, which – as its name suggests – analyzed what appeared to be the overcoming of the industrial era through the ongoing expansion of techno-scientific control and automation. The term “post-industrial society” had by this point already been introduced by the French sociologist Alain Touraine in his 1969 book The Post-Industrial Society: Tomorrow’s Social History, while Zbigniew Brzezinski offered his own elaborations in his 1970 work Between Two Ages: America in the Technetronic Era (Brzezinski had a participant in the “Commission on the Year 2000, launched in 1965 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and overseen by Daniel Bell; many of the insights developed there ended up in this work).

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With this transformation in the nature of industrialization and society, so too was there a mutation in the traditional class structure. In the 1970s, Barbara and John Ehrenreich theorized the emergence a professional-managerial class: “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor…(is)…the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations”. The expanded necessity of education at all age levels, the increased role of engineers and scientists, the rampant growth of managers and divisions of firms dedicated to human relations, so on and so forth – these constitute some of the ranks of the professional managerial class as a distinctly post-Fordist phenomenon, in contrast to the industrial managerialism of the Fordist epoch.

Earlier still, the French Marxist Andre Gorz introduced what he dubbed the “scientific and technical worker”, which D&G take-up in the course of their discussion of machinic surplus value. It would be mistaken to say, however, that they view this new worker as the source of machinic surplus value: they posit that it does indeed come from machines – but where there is an increasing number of machines, the number of ‘scientific and technical workers’ will expand. Following Samir Amin’s analyses of the globalized restructuring of capitalism, D&G find here a dynamic give-and-take between the core and peripheries of the world system. Machinic surplus value – and the ‘new class’ adjacent to it – flow in one direction, and with human surplus value going in a different direction. The former concentrated in the core countries, where we might say that post-industrialization was most emergent, while the latter moved to the peripheries, in a maneuver that Alain Lipietz (of the Regulation School of post-Marxist economics) would describe as the emergence of “peripheral Fordism”. For D&G, this is the great flux-movement of capitalist deterritorialization itself:

As Samir Amin has shown, the process of deterritorialization here goes from the center to the periphery, that is, from the developed countries to the underdeveloped countries, which do not constitute a separate world, but rather an essential component of the world-wide capitalist machine… And if it is true that the tendency of the rate of profit to a falling rate of profit or to its equalization asserts itself at least partially at the center, carrying the economy toward the most progressive and the most automated sectors, a veritable “development of underdevelopment” on the periphery ensures a rise in the rate of surplus value, in the form of an increasing exploitation of the proletariat in relation to that of the center. (AO, 231)

So here we have a two-fold movement: the increasing post-industrialization of the core, correlated to the higher rates of automation, the introduction of new class formations, and a falling rate of profit, which is necessitated in turn on the industrialization of the periphery, characterized by the expansion of human labor and thus surplus value extraction. This produces a counter-tendency against the falling rate of profit. Constant spatial re-organization of the integrated capitalist system therefore makes the claim “capital has no external limit” possible. We are thus compelled to return to the site that Marx found the opening a post-capitalist future: in the increased contradiction between the efficiency of the means of production (itself an indicating the increasing centrality of techno-science coupled to an ongoing rise in constant capital in the organic composition of capital) and the mode distribution. In this sense when they suggest against Samir Amin to “accelerate the process”, it can only allude specifically to the intensification of these conditions and contradictions. It follows that post-capitalism, the “New Earth” that is a “place of healing”, may very well be for D&G, some sort of automated society.

But what of this notion of machinic surplus value? By sketching the above, we can see that they retain a close proximity to Marx’s own theories (there are some other complicated things going on in this chapter that overflow classical Marxism, and they will have to be addressed at some point) as well as the most constructive offerings of the neo-Marxists – and for this reason the concept of machinic surplus value doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything at all. They suggest as one point that it also plays a role in the “elevation of the rate of profit” (AO 223), though this seems at odds with the core/periphery dynamic they trace as the backbone of the world system of their day. One possibility is that this refers to the fact this division is not absolute: as we’re far from a fully-automated society, there will still be variable capital – and thus human labor and ‘human surplus value’ – present in the composition of the commodity, while constant capital (the source of this alleged machinic surplus value) is still a factor of production in the periphery. Even if relations in the periphery are characterized by the continual expansion of variable capital with the ratio of constant capital holding the same for each individual unit, the total constant capital would itself increase, even if the rate of profit was continuing to rise.

The other path is to cut to the core of this concept, which is to deal head-on with this suggestion that machines do actually add value to the commodities they produce – which is, after all, explicitly what D&G state when they first introduce the concept. This is a profoundly anti-Marxist argument, and if held steadily throws a wrench into the entire schema they develop across the course of the “Civilized Capitalist Machine”. If machines are capable of adding value is a way analogous to human labor, then there is never, at any point, a difference between a proletarian, and, say, an auger. If there is no distinction between the two, everything becomes flattened – there is no longer any sense of historical progression or the unfolding of processes like the internal fluctuations of the organic composition of capital itself. And if there is no progression, then the entire analytic structure of the work collapses.

Simply put, the category of machinic surplus value, as presented in Anti-Oedipus, is capable of torpedoing the entire work.

The Italian Futurists made a similar move in their own critique of Marx (h/t to Vince Garton for drawing my attention to this topic when we discussed this topic many moons ago). In a brief note titled “Synthesis of Marx’s Thought”, Marinetti vehemently rejected the conclusions of Marx’s value theory by writing that

In Marx’s opinion, the function of capital, in the production process, is sterile. Only the object of labor is fertile. The highest value of the product is exclusively the result of labor, and to this it must belong. Instead, it passes unfairly to the capitalist, in the form of profits. Profit is the surplus value… Now, the premise that the function of capital is sterile in the production process is false. If the production function of capital were sterile, the industries in which salary-capital (labor) prevailed over fixed capital would have to provide higher revenue than those industries in which fixed capital prevailed over salary-capital (labor). But this doesn’t happen in reality! (Critical Writings, 317)

The Futurists anticipated a world in which the progressive development of the means of production would produce a society of abundance, as indicated by the breathless descriptions in “Electric War: A Futurist Visionary Hypothesis” of a world where “Hunger and need have disappeared” and the “need for tiring, humiliating labor is finished… No longer having to toil in order to acquire food, man has at last conceived the pure notion of endlessly breaking records”. (Critical Writings, 223). Such a world seems at odds with the classical interpretation of Marx, in which the rate of profit falls towards some sort of catastrophic scenario. I’m wondering if the introduction of machinic surplus value by D&G doesn’t try to address this same disconnect, between reality and theory. Writing in the waning years of Fordism, before the crisis of the 1970s truly reared its face, D&G – and the Marxist left at large – were grappling with a capitalism that seemed to capable of overcoming its most irrational excesses, and perhaps even long-term tendencies that were supposed to have shaken the core of the system.

Yet the collapse of the rate of profit leading to catastrophe is not the ultimate conclusion of Marx’s mature work. Yes, the rate of profit was determined to decline in relation to the accelerating obsolescence of the human laborer and its replacement by machinery (engendering, in turn, a growing mass of superfluous people) – but this tendency wouldn’t look like a long-term stagnation. The progressive development of the means of production, the integration of techno-science into the industrial process, is a mark of a capitalism that is strong and expanding, a dynamic that in turn masks the falling rate of profit and its ultimate implications. What’s more is that as this double process unfolds, the efficiency of machinery is increasing, with is constantly raising the total productivity of the industrial system. In this regards, you end up with something that looks like this:

manufacturingemployment

manufacturingoutput

The introduction of something like “machinic surplus value” can never tell us something about these sorts of tendencies, because 1) they fail to apprehend the critical nature of Marx’s construction of “value”, and 2) it potentially derives from a fundamentally incorrect appraisal of how Marx conceives of capital’s long-range tendencies and transformations (which is necessary is one is hoping to delineate a possibility space from a Marxist ground).

Luckily there is a simple solution. The conundrum in Anti-Oedipus is that the rest of the major maneuvers in “The Civilized Capitalist Machine” can be conformed to Marx’s own analysis – so we’re capable of jettisoning machinic surplus value outright without damaging the integrity of their argument. This entire thing becomes a big-ass shaggy dog story.

Also, to be fair to D&G, they seemed to have realized themselves the fundamental problem inherent to the concept. It returns again in the pages of A Thousand Plateaus, but it has been transformed:

In the organic composition of capital, variable capital defines a regime of subjection of the worker (human surplus value)  the principal framework of which is the business or factory. But with automation comes a progressive increase in the proportion of constant capital; we then see a new kind of enslavement: at the same time the work regime changes, surplus value becomes machinic, and the framework  expands to all of society. It could also be said that a small amount of subjectification took us away from machinic enslavement, but a large amount brings us back to it… [people] are no longer consumers or users, nor even subjects who supposedly “make” it, but intrinsic component pieces, “input” and “output,” feedback or recurrences that are no longer connected to the machine in such a way as to produce or use it. In machinic enslavement, there is nothing but transformations and exchanges of information, some of which are mechanical, others human.

This isn’t a firm distinction between machinic surplus value on one side and human surplus value on the other; it’s that human surplus value has become machinic. What this means isn’t that machines are adding value – we’re no longer discussing here the individual machines of production, but the very nature of the capitalist system as a whole. If surplus value is machinic, it’s because human labor has been recast in the cybernetic era; if there is a peripheral Fordism or industrialization that lingers in the manner of old, it is going to be dominated and structured internally to post-Fordism, post-industrialization. And this is a far more constructive vision than the confused deployment of the term in Anti-Oedipus.