Capitalism is a Structuralism
Thesis: Capitalism must be understood as a wholly structural concept; in contrast to moralistic concepts, we cannot judge it by right/wrong, but rather instead look at its internal contradictions. It is not created/maintained by one person or a group of people, but rather instead, the result of countless abstract societal relations and understandings.
Quite arguably, the most important legacy left by Marx's work was the “science of socialism”. This move to rationalize the socialist movement, of course, would contrast heavily with the utopian tendencies of the socialists of his time.
For the utopians, socialist society was their logical starting point; their analysis of the world around them and the process of socialism had to be extrapolated from their vision. While this allowed for stretched imagination and expanded discussion, it was not something sustainably pursuable. There had to be a move forward towards something more concrete.
While there is debate over whether Marxism is technically a science or not, the sort of cold, objective attitude associated with science was definitely present. More specifically, the “science of socialism” usually refers to Marx's structural analysis of capitalist society itself; the utopians formulated their critique in relation to their ideal, while the critique of Marx had to begin with the negation of the present.
And following the fallout of the Cold War and the breakdown of Marxism-Leninism, we seem to have reverted back to a state that hasn't just rejected structural analysis, but has instead forgotten it. Unable to conceive anything outside of capital, social democrats, anarchists, and state socialists have found themselves all retreating back to the same view of socialism as a moral struggle; this is exactly why I feel it is necessary to restate the structuralism that is capitalism.
The Historical Basis of Economy
It's important to include a historical element to our analysis, not just for establishing precedent, but because history gives us a look into how production evolves and manifests. History isn't static, and limiting yourself to one frame of reference, whether it be past or present, prevents you from getting a fuller picture of the situation at hand.
This section is a relatively brief restatement of historical materialism, as a simple matter of laying foundation.
As materialist historiography dictates, we see history take upon different stages that gradually brought a dispersed humanity consisting of hunters and gatherers into a society based around industrialization.
While there is a lot to be said regarding the specifics of the various stages, I'd like to focus on the key insights we get here.
Firstly, that the catalyst of this process is the introduction of trade into human relations. We can tell this for two reasons:
- One, we see a coherent pattern arise when discussing historical progression, in that the evolution of production and society always precedes the evolution of society. Production itself is an extension of the relations of trade.
- The trade relation is inherently axiomatic in that it presupposes all other social and material relation. Concepts of currency, ownership, industry, and value rely on this as a foundational justification for their existence.
So what exactly is the trade relation? I think the best way to explain it is to start by constructing a controlled environment; obviously there's going to be issues doing this empirically, so we'll have to rely on a hypothetical here.
Assume you are one of two people in a pre-civilization world. You have an excess of fruit you've picked, and the other person has an excess of crude knives they have crafted. For whatever reason, both of you want to eat some chopped fruit, so you decide to give him some of your fruit if he gives you some of his knives.
It's a rather basic example, which is why it's useful for a closer analysis. The first question each participant has to resolve is: how much fruit is worth how many knives? Intention is unimportant here; whether or not they are looking to make a fair deal or get a bargain, they still will need to make a mental judgement on this in order to decide.
Whatever answer they come up with determines the exchange value of each product. And once you begin creating more and more trade relations between different products, you create a relative system of value.
- Currency acts as a universal language of exchange-value, so to speak, aggregating all these trade relations into a numerical scale. As currency becomes the language of commodities, it becomes a necessity to survive: you accumulate currency by selling goods you produced, and industry is born out of many people producing and trading simultaneously.
- In order to ensure that a commodity can be produced steadily, industry takes control of resources that are essential to reproducing these commodities, control justified by claims of ownership, claims we call property.
- Because ownership is fundamentally exclusive in nature; there are going to be those who do not own property. What they do own, however, is their own productive capacity, their labor, which is a key component of transforming a raw resource into a commodity that can be traded.
- In order to convert that labor into the exchange-value necessary for survival, they negotiate with those who own property: they supply their labor to ensure the reproduction of the commodity being produced, and the property owner supplies them with just enough compensation to ensure they able to continue working and reproducing said labor.
- Ownership in name only doesn't do much; a person who rejects the claims could take whatever is being owned for themselves. So in order for the ownership to be protected and recognized, a state must be created, able to use force to maintain the validity of the claims of ownership.
Of course, there's a lot of concerning implications to this, but that's not the focus right now. Right now, above all else, what we are establishing is that, yes, all of this is interconnected and foundationally based upon the trade relation. I must stress this because before we can even get into criticizing structural economy, we have to first acknowledge that structural economy even exists.
The Necessity of Capitalism
So now, we have established economy as a structural process, but we still haven't talked about capitalism: after all, capitalism is not synonymous with economy but, rather instead, a stage of economy.
And in this sense, capitalism is a necessary evolution: it's an unsustainable and ultimately contradictory one, but it must be maintained it is necessary, not in the sense of “holding together the glue of society”, but rather instead necessary as the predecessor to communism.
It's an angle a lot of socialists seem to ignore, and the ones that don't usually misunderstand this as evidence supporting a gradual approach.
And I think its that conflation with reformism which tends to scare a lot of revolutionary socialists from acknowledging this fact. When we refer to communism as “seizing the means of production”, this has to be understood as an appropriation of it, not as the disowning of it. In simpler terms, there has to be production to seize before one can seize it.
And this truth reveals itself rather morbidly when we look at what capitalism has brought us.
- English becoming a language of international communication required the ruthless destruction, erasure, and subjugation of countless communities and cultures.
- Rail, telephone wiring, canals, and infrastructure required the central planning and the enslavement of countless in order to make sure things didn't just advance technologically, but also advanced in a coordinated fashion. It's much easier to build a new road than it is to build the entire interstate from scratch.
And it is precisely here we see Marxism break from moralism. Was any of this right? No, not in the slightest. Did the advances at all “redeem” or “justify” the countless atrocities in its wake? Absolutely not.
This analysis of capitalism is where Marxism immediately breaks from moralism; because capitalism is structural as opposed to humanistic. Yes, these actions have morality to them, but the morality has to be assigned in a non-structural context; those who do have to either reject Marx's approach, such as in the cases of the post-structuralists, or create a different structural interpretation as in the case of Federici.
The Structuralism of Class
One of the most glaring examples of this sort of structuralist/moralist divide can immediately be seen in the intense contrast between Marxist and “leftist” class analysis.
The common conception of class seems to be rich/poor, the haves and the have-nots. These are vague and relative terms, easily to project your own ideals onto. This is why politicians may be comfortable talking about the “one percent”, the “billionaire class”, or “the establishment”. It lacks any concreteness to be offensive. To the moralist, the billionaire has a duty to be a “responsible capitalist” and to fail to do so is a moral failing. It ultimately fails to do much beyond making people feel good and passing the buck to “the bad apples”.
The structural approach takes class in reference to its role in maintaining economy.
- The proletariat is defined in clear and objective terms as the class of labor, key to the production of value. They do not own productive property, and they are forced to sell their labor to survive.
- The bourgeois are defined as those who own the means of production, and thus own others' labor.
This distinction isn't meant to be one of good/bad or us versus them, but rather instead one that acknowledges the intense divisions and specializations of the whole productive process.
The proletariat isn't privileged for their moral superiority or their victimhood. Sure, they may resent the bourgeois, but that is due to the nature of class conflict; their interests remain diametrically opposed, and they only find freedom in the repression of the other. No, rather instead it is that as the class that is responsible for generating value, they alone are the only class inherently capable of putting an end to the capitalist structure.
Dangers of Humanizing Capitalism
And this humanization of capitalism is what tends to leave so many leftist tendencies and organizations stuck in the possibilist trap.
- For the social democrats, they humanize the politicians, media figures, and brands whose ideology they deem “closer to the left”, regardless of if their actions match their words or not.
- For the Marxist-Leninists, they humanize the states that take upon a communist aesthetic, despite their economies still maintaining the very same economic base as the countries they deem “the real capitalists”.
- For the anarchists, they humanize unions and co-ops, even though “boss-less capitalism” is still subject to the repressive forces of economy itself.
To some of you, this sort of totalization in left-wing ideology might sound familiar, and that's because this criticism has been leveled before, most notably by the post-left. The Situationists, acting as a bridge between Marxism and this post-left current, echo this sentiment in their theory of the Spectacle.
The Situationists' seminal text, Society of The Spectacle, defines the Spectacle as the following:
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation. The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living. The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation. The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.
I've gone through the trouble to bold the important parts here, read the full text if you wish, it's actually incredibly insightful. The whole book is a collection of theses, so the prose might be rather jarring. I'll try my best to restate exactly what is being said.
In the same way economy reduces all material relations to trade-relations, we witness a similar phenomenon occur as commodity begins to enter the realm of ideas. These social relations: our politics, our goals, our virtues, get reduced down to representation, or more specifically, imagery.
Taking this into context, we see the “human capitalism” for what it actually is. It's the incorporation, or more specifically, the recuperation of ideas into the totalitarian reign of the commodity.
It might be easy to shrug it off as a few idiots buying merch, and I most likely would've assumed the same, if there wasn't a fundamental connection.
- They start by humanizing individual structural entities; this is important because what the humanization does is that it fundamentally rejects capitalism as totalitarian. We know this because the idea of “good apples” and capitalist totality are mutually exclusive.
- All of these fields (geopolitics, electoral politics, industry) require either cooperation with the current hegemony or a sufficiently competitive counter-hegemony.
- Regardless of which strategy you take, you are eventually going to end up participating in the “game of capitalism” and in good faith, no less. Bad faith actors are crushed before they can centralize power, and by the time you do, your organization is too far in to consciously back out.
- Participating in the game means generating commodities, in this case, images. Unions need members, politicians need voters, and countries need a military. All of these, as you see in the above examples, require popular appeals, which can only be found by competing in the marketplace of spectacles.
- And as part of the marketplace of spectacles, you become just another face of the capitalist singularity.
Structuralism and Humanism
There's a reason I'm juxtaposing the terms humanism and structuralism with capitalism, and that's because there is a sect of Marxists who refer to themselves as “structural Marxists” in order to separate themselves from the “Marxist-humanists”.
It should be noted that the above discussion relating to capitalism is different from structuralism/humanism in the context of Marxism. Within Marxism, this refers to the debate between those who see the individual as subject to the structural and those who see the structural as subject to the individual.
To put it more simply, we've established capitalism as structural, but there still is the question of the individual, and whether or not the individual is capable of acting independently of the structure.
Arguments against the individual's agency usually cite the same social-relations we discussed earlier, which would be correct, if we were assuming capitalism itself is a totality. It is totalitarian, yes, but it is only totalitarian in the sense that it is converging on totality. It has not reached totality. For capitalism to have reached totality, it would have had to have transformed all relations into economic relations.
And this is where Marx's theory of alienation comes in. Alienation implies a dissonance; reification attempts to eliminate that dissonance. However, this proves more difficult than one may think; alienation isn't just man's dying breath, but rather instead evidence of an underlying contradiction, arguably the ultimate contradiction in capitalism. The contradiction of the workers' bond to their work and the economy's claims over everything. For the individual to have been totally recuperated, they would cease to become proletarians, for without alienation, they would remain just as exploited as a machine.
And this is where I do think the theory of the Spectacle outdoes Althusser's ideas of interpellation. Althusser attempts to demonstrate the subjection of the individual first by tying the terms “you/I” to a subjection, and then tying that subjection towards social structures itself. But in the process, he makes an incredible amount of assumptions and equivocates hard on the identity of the subjector. The concept is vaguely in the right direction, but its not concrete enough to carry the claims Althusser makes regarding humanism and the individual.
For Debord and the Situationists, the subjector was clear; it was representation through imagery. And this makes sense, because we can demonstrably see how symbolism is capable of turning abstract ideas into commodity. Flags and logos can be bought and sold, labels for people, movements, and ideas can be tossed around the same way one tosses a brand around.
And its through this understanding of how ideas become integrated into economy, that we get a clearer picture of alienation and how consciousness can come about. Because the individual's subjection requires their expression as an image, there are some avenues for self-autonomy. The Situationists experimented with the subversion of existing imagery to create a distance between the symbol and their actions.
And it proved incredibly effective in the age of liquid-modernity. Of course post-modernity has recuperated irony, but that is to be expected; the Situationists aren't meant to be a movement continuously clung onto for the rest of the time, but rather instead an example, that even during Althusser's time, it is possible to act independently of the structure.