[Marxism] revolution in the 21st century

bhandari at berkeley.edu bhandari at berkeley.edu
Mon Aug 13 13:38:05 MDT 2007

Michael Lebowitz writes:

"In a talk several years ago, subsequently published in Monthly Review
(June 2004) with the title, 'What Keeps Capitalism Going?', I stressed two
main points. Firstly, if we understand anything from Capital, it should be
that capital tends to produce the working class it needs - workers who
look upon its requirements 'as self-evident natural laws'. Why? The point
is really simple: (a) the wage necessarily appears as a payment for a
quantity of labour, thereby extinguishing every trace of exploitation; (b)
all notions of justice and fairness are based upon this appearance of an
exchange of labour for money; (c) capital, the product of workers,
necessarily appears as the independent contribution of capitalists and
thereby deserving of a separate return; and (d) workers, as individuals
within capitalist relations, really are dependent upon capital in order to
meet their own needs and, indeed, are dependent upon particular capitals.
Accordingly, in the absence of an understanding of the nature of capital,
even when workers struggle, these struggles are for 'fairness', for
justice within capitalist relations but not justice beyond capitalism -
i.e., at best, they reflect a trade-union or social democratic
consciousness which does not challenge the logic of capital. Given, then,
that the spontaneous response of people in struggle does not (and cannot)
go beyond capital, the responsibility of Marxists remains (as always) that
of communicating the essence of capital to workers and thus the necessity
to go beyond it. But, it's not enough."

I don't think this gets quite right how the capitalist relation
dis-simulates itself.

Keep this quote from Godelier in mind: "... the Marxist view was
that-and it was not proper to Marx-that a big part of ideology is a
presentation of exploitation as reciprocity. There was a very
fantastic idea discovered in the 19th century, that the pharaoh
deserved to be given your life and your work because he is a God; so
if you breathe, if you have water for your garden, it's because of
him and of the rituals he was performing. So the language of
exchange, and debt, not exchange only, is the seed, the milieu of
caste and class formation. It's not in the logic of direct violence
that you understand the violence of caste or class formations, but
it's in the milieu of debt, personal and collective indebtedness. You
cannot understand the milieu of power and the process of its
crystallization without a view of unequal exchange and imaginary


The real trick is not the capitalist pays the just amount for labor power
rather than
labor itself. If that's all Marx had to say about "the trick", then  why
does he return to exploitation in chapters 23 and 24 of Capital. 
Michael's argument never goes beyond chapters 5 and 6!

So Michael does not really explain what it is that Marx adds to this
theory of wage labor in these later chapters.

  The real trick is that the capitalist seems to advance wages or
variable capital and  appears as the fount of life.  The worker thus
appears to be indebted to the capitalist, so indebted that there is
no real injustice in having sold his labor power at discount. After
all the wage has been advanced, the worker is allowed to live before
the commodities are produced, much less sold. The capitalist appears
a benefactor to whom reciprocity (if not life) is owed. The Western
capitalist has in the eyes of everday man the mystical powers of the
Asiatic despot; so
much for cheap criticisms of Marx's Orientalism. The capitalist is
lauded for his ritualized asceticism and equanimity in the face of

  But if the wage is not in fact advanced but only part of the value
which has already been appropriated and allotted only on the
condition that labor gratis again be performed--and we can only see
this if we consider the impact on classes in the course of economic
reproduction--then the worker is in no debt to his putative
benefactor. Workers may be dependent on the capitalists,as Michael says,
but--and this is the crucial ideological point-- the capitalists not their

But again for the individual worker the relation is not this, for the
wage he is paid may not be part of the appropriated value he himself
produced. The individual worker is not treated unjustly; his wage is
in fact  advanced by the capitalist. The working class has a claim to
unjust treatment but the concept of justice cannot be stretched to
accommodate the unjust treatment of a class. There is indeed formal
but not substantive justice just as there is formal but not
substantive reciprocal exchange.

Having deflated somewhat the capitalist claim to justice, Marx does
not then go on to base his critique of capitalism on its injustice.

He does not patiently disentangle the substance of justice from its
juridical, case by case, slow frame film form to show that capitalism
can unequivocally shown to be unjust. He seeks other motivations for
working class demands now that he has disburdened the working class
of its apparent debt to the capitalist benefactors. Free of debt, the
working class is free of guilt, free therefore to pursue its life
affirming aims, even if they may be formally unjust.

Marx thought that there were two contradictory but self
consistent ways of looking at the wage transaction which the
transaction would not allow us to resolve, objectively. That is, the
classes' perception are contradictory. And  when
right meets right or one self consistent perspective meets another on
the same objective terrain, only force can decide.


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