These days, seems like there’s a check-list whenever a new sci-fi flick comes out, a formula for articles, think-pieces, and commentary to be made, ritualistically whipping up the internet into a self-righteous froth. These last few days have been more-or-less the same.
Caught the new Blade Runner earlier this week, at the local Vue. Not our usual cinéma de choix, but they’ve implemented a pretty hefty reduction on Monday ticket prices – perhaps they’re feeling the financial pinch.
I’m not a Dickhead (though I’m certainly guilty of being a dickhead…), so I didn’t go into this overly invested. Well, that’s not precisely true – I was concerned by the cutting of some of the early trailers, which seemed to be action-heavy in a way that didn’t sync with my memories of the original film (it’s been about a decade since I saw it last – couldn’t tell you which version, though I recall overdubs – and I’ve not read any Philip K. of novel length) which seemed a shame. I allayed my fears remembering that it was Villeneuve directing (which was a leap of faith in itself – I’ve not yet seen Arrival) and was reassured that the atmos, at least, would be on point. I wasn’t disappointed.
More on the ritualistic criticisms, though – as per usual, there have been accusations of vacuousness (untrue) misogyny (kinda true) and racial insensitivity (pretty accurate). Maybe it’s because I’m not paying as close attention, but I don’t really get the sense that other genres, outside of the speculative like sci-fi or fantasy, get the same sort of treatment. This is not to say there are no criticisms lobbed at your latest Disney effort, or the most recent Scandi-noir police procedural or what have you – when these films are egregiously out of step they are rightly upbraided – but they don’t seem to have the same rubric of criticism applied. Perhaps it’s because, as speculative fiction, sci fi looks at the possibilities for the future, and a future that leaves out large chunks of the present is both morally and structurally myopic. Perhaps it’s because the audience of this genre overlaps significantly with the Tumblr crowd of rambunctious moral arbiters. Who’s to say?
I, white cis het male that I am, feel that the film for the most part avoids accusations of misogyny. It certainly portrays many of its female characters in an overtly-sexualised manner, but, insofar as I can tell, this does not a misogynistic film make—the portrayal of misogyny is not misogyny tout court. Importantly, and this is where the film stumbles on other criticisms, the portrayal of women in Blade Runner 2049 is in keeping with that of the original Blade Runner, insofar as the society’s approach to gender is concerned. The world of the original was a grossly sexist place, and so too is that of the sequel. As much as the Blade Runner-verse happens in a time-line adjacent to our own real-world one, it’s probably a faithful representation of what would happen to our society in a hyper-commercialised future – hell, it’s probably what we’re headed towards at the moment. It’s not as if the multi-story holographic adverts that dance above the street-level replicant manifestations of the product don’t have real-world analogues. This is just a dialled-up version of what we already have, with the pop-princess du jour filling our various media with a commodified sexuality, reinforcing and guiding the trends of society’s actual sex workers, the logics of pornography stamped into us day-in, day-out.
Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t revel in its portrayal of misogyny. It’s not lurid, it’s not exploitative. It definitely has characters that use women, or woman-analogues, in a less-than-positive light (the protagonist foremost amongst them), and shows a society that, much like our own, is pervaded by the otiose relish of the female form, but to do otherwise would be dishonest to the story it is telling. A protagonist who possesses all the right views on women, whilst also on the arc that the story requires of him, would jar. A society that is as steeped in a runaway capitalism as that of Blade Runner but also respects women is a contradiction in terms – sexism, just as racism, is concomitant with capitalism; they can’t be pulled apart. Hell, this is a society that is literally built on slaves – it’s the whole thrust of the story – why would you expect it to have anything but trash gender politics? But, even in showing all this, the film doesn’t become complicit in it. While it doesn’t go so far as to damn what it shows – it’s more harsh on the hollowness of these relationships than the power imbalance inherent – it doesn’t actively enjoy it, either. It has ample opportunity to: the “love scene” between the protagonist and his “partner” could have been much more sordid, aimed entirely at titillation. Instead, it is used to underline the core concerns of the series, that of the nature of personhood and the ambiguities, the uncanniness, of possible human-adjacent realities.
The more accurate complaint revolves around non-white people in the film, or, rather, the lack-thereof. The setting of Blade Runner 2049, much like its predecessor, is Los Angeles and its environs. Picking up on some of the now-standard cyberpunk tropes, this Los Angeles is doused in Asian culture, from signage to the sartorial to gustatory. However, there are few, if any, actual Asian people in evidence. I’ve seen some clever epicycles deployed to explain this, the best yet being a comparison with the diffusion of American culture in our own world. In many countries around the world, so the argument goes, be they European, Asian, or, increasingly, African, you will find American businesses and products, replete with English signage, despite the absence of Americans, on the ground, perpetuating and guiding the effort. This is a product of the success of American cultural imperialism, the victory of American propaganda world-wide, as it portrays itself as something desirable, as synonymous with “success.” It was just this that led to the cyberpunk trope in the first place – during the Eighties, when so much of this stuff was codified, Japan was economically bullish, and the future, so it seemed, belonged to them. Thus, anything set in the near future looked like a fusion of Anglo and Japanese culture, with the hegemony of Japan redesigning the way American streets looked, the language that was spoken there, the food that was consumed.
All good, but the original Blade Runner, unlike its sequel, had plenty of Asian people on the streets themselves, as well as the signage and culture and what all. Where have they gone in the intervening 30 years? There’s been speculation that the Asian countries could have “gotten their shit together” and gone off-world – the existence of the extra-terrestrial colonies is a feature that looms large over both the original and the present Blade Runner – but this can’t account for every individual, and certainly doesn’t make sense of the real-world demographics of LA. The original film had a key character in Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos, who drew from his own mixed background to try and give a poly-racial feel to the film. Gaff is relegated to a few lines in a single scene in 2049, and I can’t recall any other Hispanic character – with dialogue or without – throughout the film. Evidently, much of the shooting was done in Hungary, so I can understand the logistical difficulties in importing the right mix of extras simply for atmosphere. Even so, the absence of nearly any brown or black faces in such a melting pot as Los Angeles is a bit stark.
All in all, I think Blade Runner 2049 comes through bruised but whole. Not a perfect film, but this isn’t a Bergman we’re talking about. The cinematography is beautiful, with very tasteful CGI. The pacing is, contrary to my original concerns, true to the original, and this, coupled with the seemingly-trademark Villeneuve soundscape, allows for a sustained meditation on what it means to be human. Performances were neither stilted nor overdrawn to camp. Could the story have been more nuanced? Were all angles satisfactorily explored? No. Does the plethora of criticism find purchase? Yes. As ever with these things, your best bet is to take a look yourself, and make your own opinions. Especially if you can grab some steeply-discounted Monday night tix.
Comment on the American Election
Does Hillary Clinton face enormous amounts of misogynistic abuse? Without doubt.
Is this a major issue? You betcha.
The rhetoric that has been lobbed at Clinton in this election cycle, and back in 2008 as well, by both the left and the right is reprehensible in the extreme and needs to be countered in every instance. It is damaging to women everywhere, working to preclude eligibility to the highest office in America, and by extension, one of the most powerful positions in the world, purely on the basis of gender. Attacking Clinton on this level has rippling effects that reach far beyond this single presidential race.
This is not to say, though, that Hillary Clinton merits the Presidency. Her attackers may couch their positions in sexist rhetoric, and their aims are betrayed by this, but attacked she deserves to be.
What are the crimes of Donald Trump? Unscrupulous business practices, likely tax evasion, the whipping up of racial animus the likes of which haven’t been seen in a generation. These things have palpable, real consequences – hundreds of lives worsened or ruined, scores of individuals suffering physical assaults, businesses that people looked to for their livelihoods ripped apart. Donald Trump, while not a fascist in the ways we have known before, is a reckless, dangerous cretin, and to allow him access to the powers associated with the Presidency would be a grave mistake. What we have seen of him thus far, his blundering unpredictability, should give us pause.
How does Hillary Clinton stack up in comparison? The prospect of a Trump presidency is one that is all the more frightening for its mystery – we don’t know what he’d be able to achieve, how much damage he would be able to inflict. On the other hand, we know exactly what will come of an HRC presidency. She’s held enough high offices, been close enough to the power structure of the US now, for decades, to allay any questions one might still have.
Hillary Clinton is a murderous, corrupt, racist neo-con, and a presidency with her at the helm will be a continuation of the current murderous, corrupt, racist regime we’ve had for decades.
The damage that Donald Trump has been able to inflict upon the world pales to insignificance when compared with that of Hillary Clinton. When Secretary of State in 2009, Clinton supported the vicious military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Honduras, legitimating the violence and internationally-maligned illegal conduct of the actors. In the wake of this, violence against LGBTQ people has spiked, the economy has tanked, and organised crime has seized control of ever more of the country. Hillary Clinton has been hawkish for her entire political career – her opposition to regime change in Haiti in ’94 came not because she was averse to needless death but because the effort was ‘too disorganised.’ She voted for the war in Iraq in 2002, quibbling over her motivations only after the whole thing came apart at the seams. At the time, she vocalised her support for that most-American of policies, gunboat diplomacy: “I believe in coercive diplomacy.” Despite paying lip-service to not involving America in Pakistani engagements , the drone-strikes that have killed thousands of civilians since 2008, all reservations evapourated upon being confirmed Secretary of State. She was a proponent of the surge of troops in Afghanistan under Obama and was for regime change in Libya. In Syria, she has been a supporter of dumping ever-more weapons into the ring, supposedly to aid the ‘moderate’ militias, in truth untraceable once they touch ground. It is plausible that a Clinton Presidency will raise tensions with Russia to the point of disaster.
Racism, particularly against blacks, has been woven into the cloth of America from its start. That said, it was the policy choices of the Clinton administration in the 90’s that set the scene for the current rash of institutionalised violence playing out now – with 102 unarmed black people murdered by police in 2015, and, at last count, 36 this year. Adding those that were armed with anything deemed a ‘weapon’ causes both numbers to multiply steeply. The heightening of the racist war on drugs, the implementation of the fundamentally flawed 1994 crime bill, the scapegoating of urban ghettos and those forced to live in them as source of all of society’s ills – these actions have brought America to where it is today. And Hillary Clinton, with her talk of young, black “super-predators” vocally supported it the whole time. While it was Trump that took ‘the Birther Movement’ to it’s farcical extremes through Obama’s two terms, but it was her campaign in 2008 that sowed the seeds of distrust, questioning Obama’s status as an America. We saw the same tactic used this primary season, with the Democratic National Committee – which we know to have been in cahoots with Clinton’s team due to leaked emails – actively triangulating to undercut Bernie Sanders on grounds of his Jewishness and his atheism. Clinton has shown again and again that she is shameless in her use of racist rhetoric to achieve her aims.
Trump, with his “small loan of a million to get on his feet,” his multiple bankruptcies, his dozens of failed businesses, exemplifies what it means to be part of the moneyed elite. His conduct, the fact that he is not held to account, is symptomatic of the state of American capitalism in the 21st century. It is Hilary Clinton, though, who is complicit in the creation of this situation. Clinton has been the tool of Wall-Street for decades, participating in the repealing of the Glass-Steagal Act in 1999 that lead directly to the financial crisis and world-wide economic recession of 2008. She has opposed efforts to reinstate it and has said that she will not do so if elected president.
In what has quickly become the take-away soundbite from Monday’s Presidential Debate, Clinton reeled off a list of her undoubtedly impressive accomplishments when questioned by Trump on her stamina. It is true, she is possessed of a strong fortitude, especially when we recognise that she has risen to her position in a system stacked against her as a woman from the start. But as we can see from the sample above, it is just these accomplishments that preclude her from deserving the Presidency. Or would do, if it were not the case that, in this day and age, the division of the American people, the grovelling abetment of the moneyed, the callous interventions into other nations’ governments is exactly what the President is meant to do.
Hillary Clinton, scion to war-criminal Henry Kissinger, canny fixer for Wall Street, inveterate racist, would, in any other pairing, be without doubt the villain. It is a sorry state of affairs that she looks the lesser of two evils.
Singapore – Reflections
Now that I’ve put a bit of time, and geographical distance, between me and Singapore, I figured it might be worthwhile to go back over my experience and revisit some of my positions and assumptions.
I stand by my decision to wait until I’d arrived in Australia to post anything regarding my time there – as we saw, being foreign and merely publishing to social media is insufficient to avoid notice by the panopticon of Singaporean law.
What I think I missed in my earlier coverage was recognition of what Singaporean natives have achieved. While the city-state might be little more than a way station and changing house for global capitalism, there’s little natural reason that it had to be done there, specifically. Things looked pretty grim for the island post-independence: early efforts to hitch their star to the likewise freshly independent Federation of Malaya, which, alongside several other post-colonial territories, created the state of Malaysia, fizzled when the Singaporeans protested against the Malayan positive racial discrimination of bumiputera. Bumiputera, derived from the Sanskrit for “son of the soil,” sought to benefit ethnic Malay and indigenous groups within the new Malaysian state, counteracting what was not incorrectly perceived as colonial discrimination. It’s not hard to see why citizens of the country of other ethnicities would take umbrage at such a system. Contrasting this, Singapore has from the start held itself to a staunchly meritocratic system, a system that has a raft of its own failings, foremost amongst them the tendency for privilege and power to solidify all the more rapidly.
Suffice to say, Singapore found itself in a bit of a bind come the mid-60’s. Cut off from the resources and land it had hoped to share in, with a largely uneducated and impoverished population, its quick industrialisation, housing reform and robust trade must in some ways be credited to the hard work of its population. Though inviting capital’s rapaciousness into their house has seen the income inequality of their society soar – and the international community has done little to check or critique this – the argument could be made that those with the dubious honour of Singaporean nationality are ultimately better off for it. Without the sufferance of moneyed interests elsewhere, there is little reason that the city-state could retain its independence. For all their comparative poverty, Singapore’s citizens are far and away monetarily better off than their Malaysian or Indonesian equivalents, and the benefits are apparent.
Singapore’s Israeli-trained military plays a deterrent role on paper – as we’ve seen, neither Malaysia nor Indonesia, despite tight bi-directional business interests, are especially pleased with the city-state and its nascent success. More recently, though, the Singaporean military has taken point position in the area on anti-terrorism measures, following the American initiative in lock-step.
Rule of law and the rigorous policing thereof, even from a neutral perspective, makes a great deal of sense given Singapore’s precarious position. Chaos within the state could sink it just as surely as a concerted effort from outside, and draconian measures and allegiance to the foremost Imperial power can only serve to push against this. To this end also go the various restraints on personal/religious/cultural expression – the city is already a pressure cooker, and adding fuel to the fire can’t help.
Add to this the pseudo-democracy that obtains. The city-state, despite regular and, in so far as anyone has been able to prove, clean elections, has been run by the People’s Action Party for its entire existence (the last election saw them win 83 of 89 possible seats). The central figure of this party, up until recently, was Lee Kuan Yew – prime minister until he decided to step down in 1990, he continued to act as Senior Minister until his death in 2014. His son is now Prime Minister. Charismatic personalities and single-party chokeholds are emblematic of autocratic states – it’s just fortunate for the S’poreans that theirs have been relatively “well intentioned.” Thus far.
In passing, it’s worth commenting on the idea that Singapore is hailed as the “least corrupt of all states,” with an excess of 80% of citizens expressing confidence in the government. Given that the orientation of the government aligns entirely with the desires of capital – the skeletal labour laws, the lack of taxation, the absence of trade tariffs – what need for bribery and graft? Plutocrats have already achieved the end goal, without having to pay for it, because they owned the deck from the start.
It may be that, given the circumstances, the externalities, the state couldn’t be other than it is. Of course, it’s a nebulous thing to say on the surface – everything is the way it is due to the state of affairs that brought it about – but I mean it in a more robust sense than that. The conflicting desires of keeping the ethnic Chinese majority safe from the sort of blood-and-soil rhetoric of the mainland, while also offering to the Malayan and Indian populations enough nominal opportunity for advancement to prevent open rebellion, the desire to ride the dragon of international capital and make of it what they may, even the hope for an ecologically sound home environment, while directly financing the degradation of their most proximate neighbours – the concatenation requires of the state that it should exist as it does. It is imposed by the logic of it.
Given the particular circumstances, the more democratic, liberalised society that would be preferable, never mind the socialist one, may in this instance edge beyond the simply un-viable towards the impossible. Grim.
I’ve given up on active communist work, at least for the time being. Not because I think it’s wrong, on the contrary, I still count myself a socialist, I still believe that Marx’s critique of Capitalism is on point, even if certain elements of it have yet to be borne out or have been actively disproven. No, I still believe that Communism is likely the only way we’re getting out of the situation we’ve backed ourselves into. What brought me to this point is recognition of situation on the ground.
I don’t want to make recourse to something so nebulous as “human nature;” our conduct is inextricably wrapped up in our material circumstances, and the behaviour of today’s society is merely the product of past victories and defeats. That said, communism is too good for people as they currently are. Perhaps there was time, once, to show people the lies they’re being sold, the necessity of working together to build something better. No longer, though. Our societies end-date is coming up, quickly. No time to “build consciousness” especially with the political Left in a state of division, and those few efforts at rapprochement anaemic at best.
People, the average person, individual instances of the working class or the petite bourgeoisie (never mind the lumpen) don’t want, and don’t have, the capacity to direct their world. I’m not setting myself apart from this, as if I’m in any way better – one brief look at my own life would undercut that immediately. So, how can we expect any sort of success foisting on people a message they don’t want to hear, that they, in their shambling and mediated lives, couldn’t do much with anyways? At the end of the day, people want comfort – the driving desire of the working classes today is to get back what their parents and grandparents had – security in being told what to do with a sense of safety and material surfeit. Struggles for the defence of the NHS (or socialised medicine, more broadly), the fight for a “living wage,” these are emblematic of that desire, not of any yearning for a thorough-going communism. It’s true, unfortunately, that the majority will find no real security under Capitalism, that the basis of their desires will be forever frustrated under this system, but this doesn’t mean that people would be interested in following through on that logic. Even if it is true that we’re all getting a raw deal here, and people dislike it, it doesn’t mean that they are in any way interested in jumping into even a properly-working communism. People have trouble enough completing their tax returns, and we expect them to take responsibility for their lives in totality? Foolishness.
Every previous political economy, including Capitalism, came about organically, the summation of thousands of small changes, individual choices. What audacity to think we could implement one based on rationality alone! I recognise that, as Marx posited, the internal contradictions woven into Capitalism will be its downfall, even if this planet doesn’t render it impossible first. But that doesn’t mean that the workers will seize the State for themselves. It would be the rational thing to do, certainly, but we are far from rational, responsible animals.
What’s left to do, then? Common theme round these parts. Shore up the dykes. We are on the precipice of catastrophic change. We need to confront that with eyes open, and save what we can, what is worth the saving. Strengthen our communities, a tall order indeed in this period of social dissolution. Strive for flexibility, and not fetishise that which we wish to preserve – there is much of the Enlightenment that should be consigned to history, even if it is one of the few good things to come out of European civilisation. Find working solutions for situations at hand, politically and extra-politically.
And all that other soft-Left feculence. We don’t have the affluence of time to otherwise anymore, if ever we did.
What follows is taken almost whole-cloth from a public talk I recently gave on the subject. It’s not meant as an authoritative take on Marxist economics – it’s nowhere near long enough – but rather as a quick and loose intro with an eye to drumming up interest in a possible reading-group, that can more intricately examine the subject matter. A portion of the contents came about from my own research, but I owe a heavy debt to the English translation of Michael Heinrich’s An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital – the quotation in the section on Crisis is indeed lifted in full from there. I’ve broken the material into several different sections, starting with the classical economic genesis of Marx’s thought and carrying on to a contrast with modern theories, in order that the content be rendered more easily understood. Finally, there is a conclusion, which summarises some of the key points of each portion.
Without further ado:
Labour Theory of Value
Marxist economics is an example of what is known as the “Labour Theory of Value.” This theory was first formulated by the likes of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and during the time in which Marx himself was writing, the latter half of the 1800’s, formed the mainstream thought of political economic theory. The crux of the theory is that it is human labour, the application of human effort, that creates the value which we find in certain objects in the world. It should be stated here that the term “value” holds a special meaning, divorced from the way we commonly use it: “value” here is something very different from “price.” For example, we can say that undeveloped land, or diamonds, or things of this nature have a “price” but not a “value.” This is because they have not been worked on by human beings – the money that you pay when you buy a diamond ring is not tied to the “value” of the object, but rather determined by scarcity – more on this later.
The specialised concept of “value” is further subdivided in this theory – into what are called “Use Values” and “Exchange Values.” When we confront objects in the world with an eye to making use of them – sitting on a chair, typing on a keyboard – we interact with their “Use values.” However, when we begin to approach objects as commodities, as an abstract collection of goods meant to be traded, we don’t really care about their individual “Use Values.” Here, we are more interested in their “Exchange Values.” Only objects treated as commodities have both a “use value” and an “exchange value.” “Use values” naturally inhere in the object – they are determined by the physical make-up, whereas “Exchange values” are the product of a societal relation – the act of being associated with trade.
So, how do we get to the heart of what we mean by “value”? How do we figure out what things are worth? We see fairly quickly when we enter the level of exchange that commodities stand in relation to one another in more or less fixed ratios – it is possible for objects to be exchanged above their value, or below it, but this price does not affect their value. Marx, given the time he was writing, talks a great deal about textiles. He posits that you can take one coat, and exchange it for, say 3 sheets of linen. Further, you can take three sheets of linen, and trade them for several dozen yards of yarn. By the same logic then, you should be able to trade that much yarn for one coat. What is being measured here, in the comparison? The answer that the Labour Theory of Value puts forward is that it is what is known as “socially necessary labour time.”
“Socially necessary labour time” is just that amount of labour, within a society during a particular epoch, that is required to create the commodity. It is qualified by “socially necessary” because, as we see in practice, simply because someone should take longer at creating a particular commodity does not give it more value – no, this is tied to the average time across the whole society that it would take to do so. For example, just because it would take you, an unskilled labourer, a long time to make, say, a chair, that chair isn’t therefore “worth” more than one built by a skilled carpenter.
The way commodities stand in relation to one another we mentioned a moment ago sheds light on another aspect of the economy, that of money. Money, in this understanding, can be considered the abstracted relation between all commodities. I’ll speak to what are known as Bourgeois economic theories, those that we call “Mainstream,” a bit later, but it is worth noting that no other theory aside from Marxist economics can account for the money form in this way, and that, for this reason, all other economic theories are “pre-money theories.” Getting back to the subject at hand, Marx believed that the money form had to be tied to a particular money commodity, historically usually that of gold or silver. Of course, we know that that is no longer the case – money’s representative “worth” hasn’t been tied to gold since the end of the Bretton Woods system in ’71 – but this in no way complicates Marx’s position. We see money acting in several different ways – namely, as a hoard, where it is taken out of circulation, as payment, where it is exchanged in lieu of a commodity, or as the general abstraction – the “Universal Money.” Without the money form, Capitalism as a system would not be possible.
The Capitalist Economy
Things have been traded since the dawn of civilization, if not even before that. However, it is only under a properly Capitalist system that almost all objects are treated as commodities, able to be exchanged for others.
It is important to note the over-arching nature of Capital in its status as a system. As noted, we’ll look in more detail at Bourgeois systems later, but this is another failing of theirs, to not treat economics in a wide enough systematic manner. What is meant by that is, there are three main portions of the Capitalist economy: the realm of production, where commodities are created, that of circulation, where they are traded, and finally the realm of consumption, where they are converted back to use values and, for a time, drop out of economic consideration. It is necessary to take all three levels in view when approaching the subject of political economy.
In the Marxist approach, human beings are called Capitalists when they take up the role of Capital personified. Capital is more than just a large amount of money or wealth, it is what is known as “self-valorising value.” Its sole interest is in increasing itself. Thus, Industrialists, Bankers, etc., are only Capitalists when they act this out. This is why, for example, Thomas Piketty’s recent book, while it presents a wealth of useful stats, doesn’t actually address Capitalism as a system. Unlike the model we mentioned earlier, where a person heads to the market with their own commodity, exchanges it for a certain amount of money, and then either sits on it or exchanges that amount for another, different commodity, the Capitalist process starts with money. Capitalists advance a certain amount of money in the knowledge that they will get a larger return on it. It’s important to note that, though this advance generally takes the form of wages “purchasing” labour-power, and that this is described by both Capitalist and the worker as a form of payment for work done, this is untrue. It is a hallmark of Marxist Economics that the true workings of the system remain obscured to most actors, operating underneath the surface of apparent relationships. Though both Capitalists and the working class remain ignorant of the actual operations of the economy, this is no way impedes the process as a whole.
What is “self-valorising value?” For this, we have to look at the other side of the divide, the working class, also known as the proletariat. Unlike other commodities, which are mere carriers for use values and exchange values, labour-power has within itself the ability to create value. It is able to do this because of the particular way it is valued itself. Like other commodities, labour-power derives its “value” by the “socially necessary labour time” for its (re)creation. In this instance, that takes the form of the daily necessities for the continuation of life for the labourer, eg, the food, the clothing, the shelter, etc. Further to this, it also contains the cost of reproducing the labour, and so, alongside those more mundane commodities, carries with it those necessary to supply for the labourers’ offspring. The queer element of labour-power, however, is that it can achieve these things and more within one “working day.” Now, the concept of the “working day” is an important one, and one that we’ll return to later, but, for now, suffice it to say that a labourer produces what he or she needs for themselves, as well as an excess of value on top of that, within the working period.
Here we reach another term with special meaning – that of exploitation. As discussed above, the money advanced by the Capitalist in the form of wages, wherein they bought the labour-power of a worker for an agreed-upon portion of time, was reflective of the value of that labour-power. This, coupled with the fact that the application of labour-power, ie., labouring, produces value in excess of this, gets us to Marx’s conception of “exploitation.” The labourer is given money for the recreation of their daily labour, but the Capitalist takes the excess value, the “surplus value,” in the form of the commodity created with that labour. The time required to reproduce the labour potential is referred to as paid labour, while surplus-value creating labour is unpaid. Hence “exploitation,” for Marx, is a purely logistical affair, and doesn’t speak to a moral component. I think it’s worthwhile to hold a moment here, as the concept of exploitation is a central one. The idea of “unpaid labour” hearkens back to what we were discussing a moment ago, the reality that most of what transpires in Capitalist economics happens underneath the surface. It’s not as if labourers are forced to work without compensation, like we see in unpaid internships or work-fare or the like. No, it’s just that the wages that are given to the worker, while they appear to correspond to the hours worked, are actually tied to the necessary labour time to reproduce the labour-ability. The time after that, which we refer to, technically, as unpaid labour, creates surplus value, on top of the value of the labour-power itself.
Now that we have to acquired the concept of “surplus value,” we can better explain how commodities gain their value. Earlier we said that value is generated by “socially necessary labour time” – while this remains true, under the Capitalist system, it is further divided into a composite of the surplus value and the value transferred by the earlier advanced capital. This “earlier advanced capital” itself is an aggregate, which divides into what is known as “constant capital” and “variable capital.” Variable capital is the name for those commodities which are used up in the production process, namely, the paid-labour and the raw materials. Constant capital, by contrast, only partially transfers its value to the finished commodity. Constant capital takes the form of the machinery used to facilitate the process – as one can see, from this perspective, machinery on the factory floor can be used to create many commodities, and only gives up it’s own value in increments. Thus, the value of the finished commodity is a combination of three entities, the value of the consumed variable capital, a portion of the constant capital, and the surplus value created by the application of labour-power.
Understanding the nature of value in commodities sheds light on the nature of profit, which we will further explore in a moment, but also clarifies the nature of the working day and the process of Capitalistic production itself. Clearly, Capitalists are driven to maximize surplus value, as this is the ultimate source of profit. There are two different methods of looking at surplus value, one, the absolute surplus value, is tied to the length of the working day, while the second, relative surplus value, is connected with driving down the value of labour-power itself. The first, absolute surplus value, is increased when the working day is lengthened, allowing more time for what we called “unpaid” labour. This also includes more effective use of labour-time, both by intensification of the labour process and also by more efficient factory lay-out and the like. Of course, there are only so many hours in a day, which is why we arrive at the second method, driving down the value of labour power itself. While, on the face of it, this might seem counterintuitive, reducing the cost of labour-power, ie., those commodities necessary to reproduce labour-power, leaves more time in the day for “unpaid labour.” Some of the ways this is done include the adoption of machinery, in the sense of automating commodity creation, as well as the division of labour within the factory.
This process is part of the antagonism between the labouring class and the Capitalist class – the purchaser of labour-power, the Capitalist, like any good consumer, wants to get their monies’ worth. The proletariat, meanwhile, wants to sell their labour-power as dearly as possible, as one would do. Unchecked by regulating laws or the will of a united working class, the drive to increase surplus value leads to the immiseration of the workers, exposing them to bodily danger and stultifying the mind.
Now, turning to profit itself. If the rate of surplus value is determined by its relation to variable capital, the rate of profit is determined by the surplus value in relation to the combination of constant and variable capital. In that sense, it would make sense to refer to the combination of constant and variable capitals as the “cost price” of the commodity. For Capitalists looking to increase their profit, once they’ve done their best to increase surplus value over all, the obvious lever to pull is that of the constant capital – variable capital of course transferring all of its value immediately already. An increase in the proportion of constant capital can be achieved in three separate ways – the more effective use of it, the more effective use in the creation of it, and what is known as the acceleration in the turnover of capital, which refers to the heightened work pace.
These three methods grant access to the frenetic and unrelenting nature of life for the Capitalist – in order to remain a Capitalist, they must constantly reinvest their Capital. Because they are, by definition, driven towards valorisation, they must seek out the highest profit they can, lest they be outdone by their competing Capitalist brethren, and lose out on the expected return of their advance. The push towards innovation in the realm of constant capital, eg., the means of production, is undying, and comes out of a hope to better the ratio of surplus value to cost price. Coupled to this, however, is the attendant worry that some other Capitalist will innovate before them, rendering their own constant capital, their own machinery, outmoded and slower than the “socially necessary labour time.” Given the massive investments machinery represent, it is a perpetual worry that it will be outmoded before it can fully transfer its value to created commodities. From this comes the desire to never let it sit idle – so long as the rate of profit will allow for it, more shifts of work are tacked on, in the hope of constantly using the machinery.
In passing, it is worth noting that there isn’t a difference in kind between talk of value and talk of production price and rate of profit. Rather than some temporal difference, as if there were a transition from one stage to another, it is simply a matter of transitioning between levels of description.
Merchant Capital, Finance Capital
Of course, as we well know, the work done in creating commodities, whether it be done in factories creating textiles, on a farm rearing cattle, or in an auditorium with a concert orchestra, is only one portion of the Capitalist economy. The creation of commodities takes place under what is termed Industrial Capital, as does the sole creation of surplus value, which underwrites the whole system. The other two branches, at least for the Capitalist, are known as Merchant Capital and Finance Capital.
If surplus value is only created during the Industrial Capital stage, why would the Industrial Capitalist want to share it around with the others? Why share a portion of the profit they have “earned” through the advancement of their capital? Because the creation of surplus value is only one stage of the valorisation process, of course. The Industrial Capitalist, now that they have converted their initially advanced money into a valorised commodity must now exchanged this commodity for a second sum of money, larger than the first, to complete the process. Rather than sell directly to consumers at the market price, an Industrial Capitalist will often sell to a Merchant Capitalist below the market price, but still above the cost price, in order to get the finished commodity out of their hands and to advance the newly gained surplus value. This reduces the risk for the Industrial Capitalist of finding themselves sitting on too many commodities and not being able to get access to the fruits of their earlier advancement.
The Merchant Capitalist, for their part, finds the process worthwhile due to the margin between the price they acquired the commodity for and its ultimate market price. Those workers that labour to get the commodity to market, whether it be as truckers, sailors, or clerks, off-set the cost of their employment by way of the unpaid labour they do – but the money for the paid labour, the labour-power that goes into reproducing themselves, comes directly from the surplus value created earlier in the Industrial Capital stage. Unlike their Industrial colleagues, the Merchant proletariat’s unpaid labour is unproductive when it comes to surplus value.
The benefits to the Industrial Capitalist of Merchant Capital are fairly clear. What then of Finance Capital? Unlike pre-capitalist economies, Finance Capital, in the form of interest-bearing capital, does not occur as a crushing burden on the debtor. In pre-Capitalist eras, interest, or, as it was called, usury, would occur in such staggering rates that a loan was often a sentence to bankruptcy. It was this state of affairs that developed the moralistic distaste for lending money, that we see codified in the Bible and as a hold-over in our own times. Contrary to this, though, interest rates nowadays are much more manageable. Furthermore, much like the necessity of the money form, Capitalism could not operate as a system without the lubrication of Finance Capital.
Without going into too much detail, Finance Capital allows for liquidity within the Capitalist economy, in that it allows for the raising of funds to be applied in areas of high expected returns with alacrity, as well as providing a sort of force-multiplier for the Industrial Capitalist. Much like the relationship between the Industrial and Merchant Capitalist described a moment ago, the Financier receives their profit as a slice of the surplus value created earlier in the system. Just as the Industrial Capitalist strikes a favourable balance between the cost price and the market price, here they look for a reasonable balance between the average rate of profit and the rate of interest on the loan, which is in turn determined by the levels of supply and demand within the system as a whole. Access to large amounts of finance capital can act as a what was termed a force multiplier because it allows the Industrial Capitalist to advance greater sums into their own affairs, whether it be in the form of improved constant capital, which in turn benefits their rate of profit, or as the means to benefit from a temporarily high demand for certain commodities unmet by other market forces.
As well as benefit to individual Capitalists, Finance Capital, under the Capitalist system, is used by the working class. Some use it to set themselves up as Capitalists in their own right, while, on a systemic level, it provides some extra room for the consumption of commodities. For example, the end of stagflation in the 1980’s and the economic growth up until 2008 was due in large part to this extension of cheap credit to the working classes, who’s buying power over that time otherwise stalled. A clear indication of this is the widespread reliance on credit cards to maintain an accustomed style of living.
So, why oppose Capitalism? It seems like it has it’s good points – it is massively more efficient than any previous economic form we’ve seen, and it looks like it has the mechanisms to allow the working class, through savvy investment and thrift, to better their own situations.
We have, however, already numbered some of the internal antagonisms within the system – the way it pits Capitalists against the proletariat, the manner in which Capitalists necessarily compete amongst themselves. The greatest pitfall has yet to be mentioned – the constant, cyclical event of Crisis.
Under Capitalism, a Crisis occurs when a large percentage of the commodities produced are no longer saleable. This occurs not because there is no demand for them, but because there is no longer the “buying power” with which to do so. The interconnectedness of the system allows for a chain reaction when this happens:
“Commodity capital can no longer be completely transformed into money capital, so that the advanced capital is poorly valorized and accumulation decreases. The demand on the part of capitalist enterprises for the elements of productive capital—means of production and labor-power—also decreases. Mass unemployment and a decline in the consumption of the working class are the consequences, thus leading to a further decline in demand that further intensifies the crisis.”
During Marx’s own time, these periodic Crises of Capitalism would happen with more or less regularity every decade. During the Post-War years, however, it looked as if this had been overcome. Unfortunately, this was simply a product of the benefits of the modern industrial process: division of labour, mass production and the like. This became apparent during the previously mentioned period of stagflation during the 1970’s. It was no longer possible to drive down the relative surplus value by way of automation. This lead to the political choice to dismantle the gains made by the working class, undercutting the social-welfare state and destroying the power of labour unions, in order to make a reasonable gain in productivity. Of course, as mentioned earlier, this lead to the extension of cheap credit without increasing buying power, which has sense caught up with us. Unlike other efforts at understanding economics, Marx points to the internal workings of Capitalism itself as the creator of Crises. You cannot have Capitalism without them.
And what about those Bourgeois economists? Where do they go wrong? Quickly, I’ll take a brief look at two important schools of non-Marxist economics.
The first school is that which is commonly referred to as Mainstream Economics. It’s a combination of a few different styles, but mostly holds to the work set out by the Austrian School and the economist Hayek, and holds true to the affirmations of marginal utility theory. Roughly, this position assumes that the true focus of economics is the rationally acting individual who seeks their own benefit. Furthermore, they hold that markets should be left unfettered and that, given enough time, the storied “Invisible hand,” emerging from the individual actions of rational entities, will guide the greater bulk of commerce to the benefit of society.
Of course, as we have just argued, this is an entirely wrong-headed approach – Capitalism is fraught with internal contradictions which drive the creation of Crises, and, furthermore, it simply doesn’t make sense to approach political economy from anything less than a systematic view: the rationally self-interested individual is not the proper subject of economics, society is. If you cast your mind back to the tri-partite division of Capitalist economy we discussed earlier, the separate realms of production, circulation and consumption, it would be appropriate to think of Mainstream economics as solely focused on the middle portion, that of circulation, to the detriment of the other two. For this reason, they can say that all agents, in the market, are equal, and there is no imbalance of power between them. Of course, the inherent imbalances, the way that wealth tips the scale and monopoly over the means of production sets actors on different levels, only becomes apparent when you take the system as a whole, which they refuse to do!
Another approach to economics which has regained traction, in light of the Great Recession of 2008, is that of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes himself laid the basis of his economic thought during the Great Depression, and, unlike other Bourgeois economists, took note of the friction between the working class and the Capitalists. For Keynes, however, the problem of Capitalist Crisis lay in what is known as effective demand – rather than try to flatten out the market the way the laissez-faire Mainstream economists would do, Keynes argued that the solution was to halt the vicious circle of unemployment breeding decreasing demand by way of an injection of purchasing power back into the system, usually taking the form of Government stimulus.
However, this is to mistake the source of Government finances and the nature of value– the Governments of modern nation states do not create wealth ex nihilo – they acquire it through taxation. In a point of crisis, the working classes cannot afford an increase in taxation, and the Capitalists are mobile enough to avoid it. Of course, Governments can dip into the World Financial markets, but this is a short term solution, and one that we have seen to lead to disaster just within the last few years, what with the rather distastefully-named PIGS.
Thus, we have laid out a sketch of Marxist Economics, as well as some rough comparisons with other, Bourgeois, modes.
In quick summary, Marxist Economics rests on the Labour Theory of Value, which posits that value is created by application of human labour-power. Capitalist Production is the process of self-valorising value, which is derived from harnessing human labour-power and the creation of value-bearing commodities. Capitalists advance money, which is the abstract relation between all commodities, in the expectation that it will return a profit. The rate of profit is derived from the ratio of surplus value, created by the labourer, to the combination of constant capital and variable capital, where constant capital is the means of production, transferring its value in slices, and variable capital is that which is consumed in the productive process, the raw materials and the wages. Merchant Capital and Finance Capital, while necessary for the liquidity and flexibility of the system as a whole, derive their profit from the surplus value created under Industrial Capital. Because of its internal contradictions, Capitalism is not only prone to, but actively creates, periods of Crisis, which no Bourgeois theory can properly account for.