New Criticals

Contradiction isn’t Enough

There are, according to Marx, objective contradictions in the unfolding of capitalism. Due to the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline there is, over time, a greater reduction in the rate of profit than there is increase in the rate of exploitation. This means that capitalist accumulation proceeds, as a whole, ever slower. This is a strong argument against the internal consistency of the economic system itself. This, we might say, is a strong or objective contradiction. Each individual capitalist’s attempt to increase efficiency and realize higher than average profit rates has the knock-on and accumulated effect of producing declining rates of return as a whole. This of course produces cycles characterized at one end by declining investment and over-accumulation. This in turn is also an underlying reason why capital is unstable and prone to crises. Capital survives not in peaceful, consistent, harmonious accord with the needs of consumers, but in uneven cycles of plenty and self-incurred scarcity. At certain points the greater development of capacities to produce what society certainly needs is itself hampered by the requirement that doing so be in the service of recuperating the rate of profit. In this way, the strong objective contradiction has its correlates in disjuncts between the aims of directors of discrete capitals and the social outcomes of all behaving in a like manner. The logical contradiction can be sharpened, softened, revealed, dulled, and covered by ideology or not, but it and its socially pernicious correlates are always operative.

As Marx repeatedly pointed out, one of the most harmful effects of the grand contradiction is what it does to the workers that make the system run. On one side growing efficiency reduces the cost of supplying what the working class needs (needs can here be understood from the standpoint of the reproduction of their labor-power, and are thus not needs in any robust sense), and on the other side, this efficiency means for the capitalist a reduction in number or compensation of the employed. A mass of un- and precariously employed join the exploited workers among the disadvantaged that keep the contradictory system afloat. In Marxist prognosis and organizational practice the mass is to fight against this abusive logic, and here we can see a transition from what I’ve called the grand contradiction of capital to the social contradictions at its constitutively unquiet basis.

I mean to say, the opposition of the working class to the capitalist class is itself riven with contradictions. For instance, the employed are subject to a constant downward pressure on wages and job-security, so fighting back means pushing up against the logic of increased exploitation. But here’s the issue: supporting a segment of the working class against capital means fighting for the reduction in the capitalist’s rate of profit. After all, the greater the wage, the less is capitalized. So fighting back exacerbate the objective contradiction of a declining rate of profit by adding a social cause. Now not only the objective logic of capital, but the subjective logic engendered by its social consequences contribute to reducing the rate of profit. This means every working-class victory exacerbates the instability of the economic order. Victories, wherever they occur, have further knock-on effects. In an attempt to recuperate profit-rates, every gain for the workers is simultaneously a seal, even if only a temporary one, on the release valve of capital’s combustible drive to stay ahead of a falling rate of profit. Every push back against exploitation prevents the capitalist from behaving in the logically capitalist manner: increase rate of profit by increasing exploitation of workers. But as in all closed system, this means local gains for groups of the working class are bad for the capital that employs them, and thus indirectly for the industry and capitalism as a whole. The indirect harm can be specified. It means capitalists will feel the pressure to increase exploitation of workers elsewhere. This just must be the case: locally higher costs of doing business create the objective requirement to recuperate the decline in profit rates elsewhere. The good for workers locally is thus likely bad for workers and would-be-workers elsewhere. This means the short term benefits of any group of workers is in contradiction first with capital but second, with some unknown other grouping of workers, or the class as a whole.

The conclusion then is that the goals of the working class, insofar as they are fall short of overcoming the objective logic of capital, risk being (at least implicitly) self-contradictory. In the absence of a struggle against capital by the class as whole, local struggles against individual capital will have likely dangerous and counter-productive knock-on effects.

For this reason there is understandable intellectual pressure to either: 1) idly hope for the objectively necessary sharpening of contradictions such that a universal workers’ movement arises or 2) work with local conditions and take a more incremental approach. The latter strategy argues that only struggle against capital and its guarantors gives workers the ability to recognize a shared source of disenfranchisement while simultaneously developing the experience necessary to recognize their objectively pernicious and unstable conditions. The classical hope is that through an eventual collating of struggles, the objectively problematic logic of capital will be overcome by mass worker-solidarity. In an uncomfortable twist, the logic of capital is actually to help realize the goal: When each local, isolated gain is compensated for by capital, which is to say, when capital harms workers or would-be-workers in other areas, this knock-on harm creates the further impoverished or precarious conditions which provide the same conditions for radical development here as well. In this way, as Marx famously held in the Manifesto, capital is to produce its own grave-diggers. There is, in other words, a dual logic of local struggle (with local benefit), and the development of the broader conditions (further impoverishment) in which solidarity can develop on the one side from victory, and on the other, the possibility of growing radicality.

This, as history has shown, was an optimistic analysis. It is true that capital’s numerous contradictions have not in fact produced credible international workers movements, and the many (here unexplored) contradictions internal to the working class itself augur against the success of the incremental, second option. Despite great and growing crises, a sober analysis of workers’ movement will give the lie to blindly optimistic prognostications.

In light of the contradiction between the optimistic construction of what may have been expected and our actual historical development, a variety of theoretical positions have been articulated and taken up. On one extreme, there’s been a return to passive-optimism articulated in current “Communisation” theory. On the other, no less extreme, there’s been a (rarely explicitly articulated) nihilistic passive-pessimism: it is too late, the moment of choice expressed in Socialism ou Barbarie is behind us, and the best bet is the enjoyment of what is possible while there are still enjoyments to be had. In direct opposition to both versions of passivity there have been active constructions as well. The first, what is sometimes called “Insurrectionary” adopts an active nihilism and through disobedient acts of disruption and destruction. The strategy is to maintain a purity in opposition to deeply problematic structures of domination. While spectacular and subjectively thrilling, the strategy seemingly has no coherent vision for a future. Finally, there actively constructive visions. These proceed via a tremendous diversity of organizational and prefigurative politics that accept the burden of incremental develop while, at their best, using an analysis of the contradictions of capital to inform their practice. The practitioners proceed locally but with unblinkered awareness of knock-on effects: one eye on victory and the other on broadening solidarity.

This, I’d like to say, is the alternative.