John Francis Bray

Lionel Walden Tutt'Art@ (44)

Back in early part of the summer I finally got around to looking into one of the so-called Ricardian socialists whom I was unfamiliar with – John Francis Bray. As it turns out, Bray’s status as a Ricardian socialist is disputed: unlike Thomas Hodgskin, John Gray, and others who suggested that a socialist society would naturally result from the proper application of laissez-faire principles (the sort of argument you later find in the writings of Benjamin Tucker and Kevin Carson, or at least in his early phase), Bray seemed less interested in the cultivation of the free market as the cure to society’s ails, and more so in a very idiosyncratic solution that drew from, but broke with, the organizing principles of early capitalism. Bray’s socialism was a kind of joint-stock socialism, something I find deeply humorous (and intriguing!) given the high premium placed upon this kind of corporate form in the writings of Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land.

Bray’s ideas were incubated during his time associated with Chartism, a working class reformist movement that emerged in Great Britain during the 1830s. He had been connected with the Chartist faction in Leeds that was centered around Feargus O’Connor and his newspaper, The Northern Star, which essentially served as the organ for O’Connor’s “Land Plan”. The Chartist movement had initially been catalyzed by the Reform Act of 1832 and the subsequent Poor Laws of 1834; the latter legislation had intended to eliminate various relief programs for the impoverished, while the former reinforced the requirement of land ownership for voting rights. O’Connor’s Land Plan aimed to remedy this state of affairs through peasant land ownership: 4 acres of land to working people and to the unemployed. The effect, O’Connor reasoned, would be three-fold: 1) it would bring those who had been barred from voting into the legislative mix, 2) it would lessen the dependency of the worker on the capitalist, and 3) it would shrink the numbers of what Marx would later describe as the ‘industrial reserve army of the unemployed’, which would in turn increase the bargaining power of those employed.

In order to finance and organize the venture, the National Land Company was established. Initially proposed as a “friendly society” – an economically-oriented mutual aid association – the company was formally launched as a joint stock corporation. Unsurprisingly, O’Connor’s plan was to ultimately be, for quite a few reasons, a dismal failure (check out this wikipedia list of flaws in the scheme for a good overview).

It’s hard to determine if the National Land Company and its joint-stock organization was indebted in any way to Bray. He had developed his ideas in essays in the Northern Star and in speeches given to Leeds’ Chartists – but the actual content of his vision was sweeping and comprehensive, in contrast to O’Connor’s piecemeal reformism. As the quote in the tweet above shows, Bray anticipated that the joint-stock model would operate beyond the division of the political and economic, with all production coming together through the joint-stock corporations and series of “alliances” between them that would be managed by trade boards. This transformation would be vast, as he described in his book Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedies:

Without, for the present, entering into a consideration of the possibility of effecting this change, let it for a moment be supposed that the whole five millions of the adult producers in the United Kingdom are formed into a number of joint-stock companies, containing from 100 to 1000 men each, according to locality and circumstance – that each of these companies is comprised of men of one trade, or confines its particular attention to the production or distribution of particular commodities – that these companies have in use, by hire and purchase, the land and fixed capital of the country – that they are set in motion and kept in motion by a circulating bank-note capital equivalent to £100 for each associated member of the community, which, taking into account the women and children connected together with the five million of producers, will comprise altogether, about twenty millions of individuals, and a capital of thousands pounds sterling. Supposing the productive classes of the United Kingdom to be thus associated together, for the production and distribution of wealth – that they trade together with a floating capital of £2,000,000,000 – that all their affairs are conducted through the instrumentality of general and local boards of trade, comprised of the most able and business-like men that can be found – that the members of the companies, after the manner of the present system, are paid weekly wages for their labour – what there is now accomplished in respect to production and distribution, either by joint-stock companies or individual capitalists, which could not likewise be accomplished by the productive classes thus associated?

These ideas were also partially influenced by the theories of the British Ricardian socialist John Gray, who was both an associate of the Chartist movement and of the various co-operative movements inspired by the efforts of Robert Owen. The circuit of influence here is important, because it is in this relationship that Marx glimpsed what he perceived to be the infrastructure of Proudhon’s thought, which he subjected to critique in The Poverty of Philosophy. “How deeply this utopia”, wrote Engels in his preface to the German edition of the work, “has struck roots in the way of thinking of the modern petty bourgeois – real or ideal – is proved by the fact that it was systematically developed by John Gray back in 1831”. Marx, meanwhile, declared in the second chapter of the critique to “have discovered in him [Bray] the key to the past, present and future works of M. Proudhon”.

Indeed, it’s easy to see in the efforts of people like Bray and Gray both the kind of crank reformism criticized by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, and – particularly in Bray’s joint-stock socialist model – something close to Proudhon’s ‘agro-industrial federation’ that, for him, would constitute the proper organization of industry after it had been transferred out of the hands of propertied and moneyed classes and into those of freely associating workers. Yet despite this, Bray’s influence appears to have lingered, not only within the American labor movement with which he later became actively involved in after immigrating to the continent, but with certain Marxists as well. Case in point was Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, who had the following to say in a 1897 essay titled “Socialism in France from 1876 to 1896”:

…they [bourgeois reformers during the Congress of 1876] proposed to avoid the rocks of socialism by advocating such methods of ameliorating the lot of the workers as co-operative production, mutual credit, and people’s banks. They trotted out again all those small shopkeeper’s utopias which Proudhon advocated before 1848. The institutions that the Congress of 1876 wished to establish were the equitable labor exchanges, which had started at Bray’s instigation in the year 1840, in London, Sheffield, Leeds, and other towns, and which, after absorbing vast capital, had gone bankrupt under scandalous circumstance. But Bray, in his remarkable work, “Labor’s Wrongs and Labor’s Remedy” (Leeds, 1839), had at least refrained from calling these exchanges a solution to the social problem. They might be that to Proudhon; to Bray they were only a means of smoothing over the transition from the capitalist to the communist regime.

The ‘equitable labor exchanges’ alluded to here were, as Rosa Luxemburg summed up succinctly, “so-called ‘bazaars’… [where] goods were bought and sold to be exchanged without the intervention of money, strictly in accordance with the labor-time they contained” (and thus were akin to Josiah Warren’s Cincinnati, Ohio-based “Time Store”, which ran successfully between 1827 and 1830). One might wonder, too, whether or not the joint-stock concept falls under this criteria as well – as mentioned above, it receives its full elucidation in “Labor’s Worings and Labor’s Remedy”, right alongside the debuting of the equitable labor exchange system. LaFargue is silent on the question, but something of an answer might very well be found in Marx’s own comments, found in the Critique of the Gotha Program, on proletarian self-activity and the transition to communism might look like. Three key points:

1. The ability of the proletariat to develop co-operative societies:

That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois.

2. The persistence of the bourgeois system of rights:

…equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case. In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.

3. The persistence of key elements of the capitalist mode of production that will regulate labor-time and the activities carried out in that time:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor.

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Postone on Capital and History

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This Moishe Postone lecture has been the soundtrack to this morning’s chores. It’s really great, and provides a straightforward unpacking of a lot the stuff going on in his dense-but-awesome 1993 work Time, Labor, and Social Domination.

One of the very intriguing points that Postone makes in his book is the way that, in chapter four Capital Volume 1 – the chapter that introduces the classic M – C – M’ ‘feedback loop’ schema – Marx resurrects Hegel’s depiction of the Geist, as an independent or self-moving substance, to describe capital itself. It’s an incredibly important point for understanding what is going on in Marx’s mature work, as undoes the common perception of the proletariat or humanity (ascending to the realization of its species-being) as the ‘subject’ of history, and attributes this position instead to capital itself.

Postone delves into this in the lecture above, and it’s worth reiterating here because it is stated so clearly. Speaking of the inner dynamics of the capitalist system (this starts somewhere in minute 37), he states:

On the one hand, it is characterized by ongoing, even accelerating, transformations of production and of social life. On the other hand, this historical dynamic entails the ongoing reconstitution of its own fundamental conditions as an unchanging feature of social life. Namely, that value is reconstituted, that social mediation ultimately remained affected by labor, and that living labor remains integral to the total social process of production, regardless of the level of productivity. So the historical dynamic of capitalism, and I think people only usually get one side, ceaselessly generates what is the same while always generating what is new. As I will elaborate, it both generates the possibility of another organization of labor and of social life, and at the same time hinders that possibility from being realized.

This dynamic, generated by the dialectic of abstract time and dialectical time, is at the heart of the category of capital, which for Marx is a category of movement. It’s value in motion. It has no fixed material embodiment. Now since this is an institute of philosophy, it’s significant that when Marx first introduces the category of capital in the book Das Kapital, he describes it with exactly the same language that Hegel used with reference to the Geist in the Phenomenology. The “self-moving substance” that is the subject of its own process. People like Althusser say to just forget all of this Hegelian language. In so doing, Marx suggests that Hegel’s notion of history, as having a logic, as the dialectical unfolding of a subject, is valid, but only for capitalist society. Moreover, Marx does not define Hegel’s subject with the proletariat, or even with humanity. Instead he identifies it with capital: a dynamic structure of abstract domination that, although constituted by humans, is independent of their will.

What I’m suggesting is that Marx’s mature critique of Hegel does not involve an anthropological inversion of Hegel’s idealist dialectic. Rather, I’m going to suggest that this is the idealist dialectic’s material justification. Marx implicitly argues that the rational core of Hegel’s dialectic is precisely its idealistic character. It is an expression of a mode of domination constituted by alienated relations – that is, relations that acquire a quasi-independent existence vis-a-vis individuals, exert a certain form of compulsion on them, and that because of their dualistic character are dialectical. Notice that categories like historical subject, totality, labor have now become the objects of Marx’s critique, not the standpoint of his critique.

The first part of the above quoted clearly speaks the central concern reiterated by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, that of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, of constantly putting things into play, producing the new, even things that threaten to overwhelm itself, but also restraining these things, cutting them off, appropriating and recoding them, or even dredging up archaisms to repress them. In the language of Difference and Repetition, we might describe this situate as the subordination of difference to the Repetition of the Same – and it is probably by no mistake, then, that in the very second paragraph of the book’s introduction Deleuze writes of equivalence as a generality, that is, “a point of view according to which one term may be exchanged or substituted for another”. For Marx, money – an expression of the law of value, that which flows through the self-expanding, self-moving, cyberpositive process of M – C – M’, plays the role of the general equivalent, the special category of commodities that all other commodities can be translated into or otherwise mediated by.

Elsewhere in this lecture Postone posits a Marxist understanding history that is neither linear-determinist or strictly contingent, and in this he comes close to that which has haunted all debates in the accelerationist sphere, the Kantian antimony of causal determinism and spontaneity – or to put it in more contemporary, system theoretic terms, the troubled intermingling of lock-in effects and self-organization. Or again, as the esteemed Thomas Murphy once put it, the Deleuzian problematic of hierarchies and anarchies, ‘solved’ in the form of the morphogenetic crowned anarchy.

Post-Autonomist Questions

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Whilst thumbing through Hardt and Negri’s tome Empire this morning, I came across this interesting footnote (#26 for the chapter titled “Postmodernization”):

A number of Italian scholars read the decentralization of network production
in the small and medium-sized enterprises of northern Italy as an
opportunity to create new circuits of autonomous labor. See Sergio Bologna
and Andrea Fumagalli, eds., Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: scenari
del postfordismo in Italia (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1997).

Sergio Bologna, like Negri, is a veteran of the nebulous Autonomia movement of Italy in the 60s and 70s. His best known work – outside of Italy, at least – was his 1977 text “The Tribe of Moles“, an examination of class composition in late-Fordist Italy and of how the ‘autonomous class’ developed within it. While personally quite close with Negri (a biography at the end of an interesting interview notes that the two were among the primary founders of Potere Operaio in 1969, had both worked in the same history department of Padua University in the early 1970s, and together edited a series on Marxist theory in 1972), the two underwent a theoretical divergence in the dawn of the New Economy of the 1990s. Negri would develop his theory of the immaterial laborer as the key social subject of the post-Fordist epoch, while Bologna would look to the “autonomous worker”.

There are deep similarities between these two approaches. On the one hand, Negri’s immaterial labor encompasses the capture and commoditization of affective, cognitive, and creative activities, and emphasizes the role of the internet and industrial autonomation in engendering this transformation. On the other, Bologna’s autonomous labor is akin to what we today might refer to as ‘precarious labor’ or the ‘gig economy’ – the great mass of would-be proletarians, shut-out from yesteryear’s world of Fordist industrial production, forced into part-time, temporary, situation-based work. For Bologna, however, such things compose what he calls the second generation of autonomous labor, in contrast to the first generation of independent artisans, merchants, and assorted professionals (doctors, lawyers, so on and so forth).

Sadly, I’ve yet find a translation of Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: scenari del postfordismo in Italia, much less a pdf in Italian (plz drop a link in the comments if you have one!), but the description given by Hardt and Negri here – that the work offers the decentralized production in Northern Italy as a means of transforming the conditions of the autonomous laborer – is intriguing, especially in light of this recent post of just the other day. The area they are describing is Emilia-Romagna, an administrative region known for its robust industrial economy based on small-to-medium sized enterprises, flexible specialization, craft production, pull-based commercial dynamics, and worker co-operatives. Manuel Delanda has juxtaposed this region the top-heavy Fordism of American-style automobile production, while distributists have found in it as evidence for the durability of their socio-economic proposals. An interesting report cited by Kevin Carson (who elsewhere has referred to Emilia-Romagna, alongside Shenzhen’s Shanzai manufacturing, as a “model for the economic future”) has this to say about the organizational tendencies governing the region:

There are 90,000 manufacturing enterprises in the region, surely one of the highest densities per capita in the world! Small, medium, enterprises (SME’s) predominate. One person in twelve is self-employed or owns a small business. In recent years the region has produced the highest GDP per capita in the country, and it now ranks with the ten best in Europe…2/3 of the citizens of Bologna belong to a co-op…45% of the GDP is produced by co-ops…(and) 85% of the social services in Bologna are delivered by co-ops… Some of Emilia Romagna’s manufacturing companies that are world class high performance companies are cooperatives. Other private companies and cooperatives work together in flexible networks that combine a number of smaller firms into joint projects. And government has played a powerfully positive role in creating sector-based service centers that assist smaller companies in being competitive in the global economy… “Social Cooperatives” provide various services to the mentally and physically disabled—“privatizing” what historically were state services but to cooperatives that are frequently preferred by professionals because they permit creativity and the delivery of high quality services and work experience for the disabled….

Not everybody is as jazzed on Emilia-Romagna as the above, but nonetheless the convergence of so many different radical perspectives on a particular organization of production and exchange – that is, small-to-medium sized enterprises based on the miniaturization and localization of production technologies and rapid-response to demand – is noteworthy in itself.

Transformation

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In his recent post on modernity and myth, Vince Garton notes Sorel’s interest – in sharp distinction to the majority of Marxist currents of his day (or today, for that matter) – in small-scale, workshop-based production. Vince writes:

Against the mainstream of Marxism—and against later theorists such as Schumpeter who would decisively identify the trajectory of capitalism with indefinite industrial concentration—Sorel’s vision of the far future self-abolition of capitalism was one of distribution, the internal development of workshop organisation; we may say, in the tradition of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity.

An exceedingly brief thought (and a sideways preview of a work in progress): industrial disintermediation  will be the process through which hyper-capitalist atomization is converted into subsidiarity. 

Edit: If communism is to be based, as Xenogoth suggests, on otherness and differentiation, then a neo-Sorelian perspective on industrial disintermediation – and the question of ethics that are tangled up in this complex – is of immediate interest. After all, such processes constitute the fragmentation of the current industrial order, which on the one hand opens up escape routes from the present through the increased ability to produce independently, while on the other hand it poses hard questions fully-automated, luxurious Walmart Socialism advocated by so many on the radical left.