The treadmill of capitalism

“In a society in which material wealth is the form of social wealth, increased productivity results either in a greater amount of wealth or in the possibility of a corresponding reduction in labor time. This is not the case when value is the form of wealth. Because the magnitude of value is solely a function of the socially-average labor time expended, the introduction of a new method of increasing productivity only results in a short-term increase in value yielded per unit time – that is, only as long as socially-average labor time remains determined by the older method of production. As soon as the newer level of productivity becomes socially general, the value yielded per unit time falls back to its original level. Thus, because the form of wealth is temporally determined, increased productivity only effects a new norm of socially-necessary labor time. The amount of value yielded per unit time remains the same. The necessity for the expenditure of labor time is consequently not diminished, but is retained. That time, moreover, becomes intensified. The productivity of concrete labor thus interacts with the abstract temporal form in a manner that drives the latter forward while reinforcing the compulsion it exerts on the producers. The value-form of wealth is constituted by and, hence, necessitates, the expenditure of human labor time regardless of the degree to which productivity is developed. The treadmill effect just outlined is immanent to the temporal determination of value. It implies a historical dynamic of production that cannot be grasped when Marx’s “law of value” is understood as an equilibrium theory of the market and when the differences between value and material wealth, abstract and concrete labor, are overlooked. That treadmill dynamic is the initial determination of what Marx developed as central to capitalism: capitalism necessarily must constantly accumulate to stand still. The dynamic becomes somewhat more complicated when one considers capital – “self-valorizing value.” The goal of capitalist production is not value, but the constant expansion of surplus value – the amount of value produced per unit time above and beyond that required for the workers’ reproduction. The category of surplus value not only reveals that the social surplus is indeed created by the workers, but also that the temporal determination of the surplus implies a particular logic of growth, as well as a particular form of the process of production.”

Source: Postone and Brick (1982) Critical Pessimism and the Limits of Traditional Marxism, Theory and Society, 11 (5) 636.

Peter Hudis – Alternatives to Capitalism

I have recently finished Peter Hudis’ book, ‘Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism‘. It is one of the most interesting and useful books that I’ve read in some time. Below, he discusses the topic of the book with reference to Occupy, worker co-ops and other contemporary responses to capital.

The audio significantly improves from one minute into the talk and his talk ends at 55 minutes when he takes questions.

Of particular interest to me is the outline his gives (around 36 mins in) of  what Marx deemed necessary to eliminate the conditions of alienating value production i.e. freely associated, non-alienated labour.

  1. Extend democracy into the economic sphere, into the workplace.
  2. Workers’ co-operatives. Direct ownership stake and control of the workplace.
  3. Eliminate the social division of labour between ownership and non-ownership. Workers have a direct stake in the outcome of labour.
  4. In control of the workplace, workers would make work less alienating, less harmful.
  5. Co-ordination between co-operatives is needed, nationally and internationally. Democratically elected planning authority, subject to recall.

Update 29th April 2014: Here’s another talk by Hudis:

Update 16th June 2014: Another good talk to the Workers and Punks University (discusses coops and councils from around 40min onwards)


Political Economy

Political economy abstracts from the social fact of landownership, to present rent as a quality of the land. It abstracts from the social form of wage-labour, to present wages as the recompense for labour. It abstracts from the social form of capital, to present profit as a quality of the means of production. It abstracts from the social form of exchange, to present exchange as an expression of a rational, natural propensity to ‘truck, barter and exchange’.

However this is an illegitimate form of abstraction, for it is only in a particular form of society that land generates a rent, means of production a profit, and labour a wage. It is only in a particular form of society that the private labour of individuals is related through exchange. To treat these categories in abstraction from their social form is to deprive them of any content, to make them into purely formal categories that exist wherever there are land, labour, means of production or co-operation. Thus the categories of political economy are given an eternal status, and are even applied to societies within which neither wages, nor profits, nor rent, nor exchange, actually exist.

Simon Clarke (1982) Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology

Writing, craft and method: Postone’s Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust’

Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust” (PDF)

I have read Moishe Postone’s article a number of times. Today, I sent it to a friend with the following message:

A bit off the wall, but I’ve attached one of my favourite articles. There’s probably a time and a place to read it and it may not be now. When it was first pointed out to me, I just didn’t get the significance of the argument, and very importantly, the *method* of argument. Having read it a few times now, I think it’s the work of genius.

In a profound and sophisticated way, it takes a general response to the film, ‘Holocaust’, and uses that moment in German popular culture to elaborate a critique of capitalism which offers an explanation for anti-semitism. The way Postone, the author, unravels his argument not only provides a superb discussion about the essence of capitalism vs its manifest form in anti-semitism, but also provides a structure for the critique of other manifest forms of capitalism. e.g. higher education, or whatever.

The article I am currently writing has been through four different drafts, each no less unsatisfactory as the last. As it currently stands, the article is much too long and in my historical discussion, I have so far been unable to move away from simply offering information (events, people, places), rather than an adequate explanation. This is a point that Postone makes about the media’s response to the film, Holocaust (1978).

The weaknesses of the understanding of anti-Semitism outlined above emerged with particular clarity in the discussions on the “Holocaust” film held after each showing on West German television. The panel members were at their best when presenting information: conditions in the concentration camps; the activities of the Einsatzgruppen and their composition (police as well as SS units); the mass murder of Gypsies; and the material difficulties and extent of Jewish resistance. They were at a loss, however, when they attempted to explain the extermination of European Jewry. (p. 98)

Working on the fifth draft of my paper, I have returned to Postone’s article once again to remind myself of his method here, which is one of the rare times (the only time?) that he has systematically applied his reading of Marx’s critique of capitalism to a historical event. Here, I want to examine the structure of his article in sufficient detail so as to borrow this methodological approach in my own article on the history of hacker culture and higher education.

The article is formally structured in five parts, which can be summarised as follows:

  1. A general introduction, providing context to the film and the popular reaction in West Germany, pointing out the weaknesses of that response. (97)
  2. A critical summary of the German New Left’s response to Nazism, National Socialism and the Holocaust. Argues that the past has been repressed. (100)
  3. The main body of his argument. Argues against a functionalist explanation of the Holocaust e.g. anti-Semitism as a form of prejudice, xenophobia and racism. Argues the need for “qualitative specificity” rather than generalised explanations (105). Distinguishes between anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish prejudice and Nazism. Begins to introduce the concept of abstraction. Argues that modern anti-Semitism attributes an “intangible, abstract and universal” power to the Jews (106). Aims to unite a socio-historical analysis of Nazism with an examination of anti-Semitism i.e. the concrete and abstract; a “historical-epistemological frame of reference.” Sets up objective in his own method: an explanation of anti-Semitism “in terms of socio-historical epistemology.” (107) Offers summary of where he is taking the argument: “a careful examination of the modern anti-Semitic worldview reveals that it is a form of thought in which the rapid development of industrial capitalism with all of its social ramifications is personified and identified as the Jew… In other words, the abstract domination of capital, which – particularly with rapid industrialisation – caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand, became perceived as the domination of International Jewry.” (107) Returns his argument to the distinction between substance and form, essence and abstraction: “the distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears.” (108) Compares abstract attributes of anti-Semitism to characteristics of the value form as analysed by Marx: value and use-value. Moves into a “brief analysis of the way in which capitalist social relations present themselves” (109). Proceeds with a discussion of the commodity form, the dialectic of its double character: money/value and commodity/use-value. Elaborates theory of commodity fetishism and extends it to epistemology (cf. Sohn-Rethel?). Substantiates this theoretical discussion with brief indication of historical examples. Leads to argument that the Jews became the personifications of capital rather than merely representations of it; the “biologisation of capitalism”. The ‘anti-capitalism’ of National Socialism was expressed as anti-Semitism. “The overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects became associated with the overcoming of the Jews.” (112)
  4. A very brief section discussing “why the biological interpretation of the abstract dimension of capitalism found its focus in the Jews.” (112) Offers historical explanation but focuses on the dialectic between the state and civil society –  the individual as citizen and person, as an abstraction and as a concrete human being. “The only group in Europe which fulfilled the determination of citizenship as a pure political abstraction, were the Jews following their political emancipation. They were Germans or French citizens but not really Germans or Frenchmen. They were of the nation abstractly, but rarely concretely… In a period when the concrete became glorified against the abstract, against ‘capitalism’ and the bourgeois state, this became a fatal association.” (113)
  5. The final section concludes the article by summarising how “modern anti-Semitism… is a particularly pernicious fetish form.” (113)  There is a very striking paragraph which argues that just as the capitalist factory is where value is produced, the extermination camp is its grotesque negation. “Auschwitz was a factory to ‘destroy value,’ i.e. to destroy the personifications of the abstract. “Its organization was that of a fiendish industrial process, the aim of which was to “liberate” the concrete from the abstract. The first step was to dehumanize, that is, to rip the “mask” of humanity away and reveal the Jews for what “they really are” – “Musselmanner,” shadows, ciphers, abstractions. The second step was then to eradicate that abstractness, to transform it into smoke, trying in the process to wrest away the last remnants of the concrete material “use-value”: clothes, gold, hair, soap.” (114) Finally, Postone ends by looking forward and cautioning the Left against pursuing

Any “anti-capitalism” which seeks the immediate negation of the abstract and glorifies the concrete – instead of practically and theoretically considering what the historical overcoming of both could mean – can, at best, be socially and politically impotent in the face of capital. At worst it can be dangerous, even if the needs it expresses could be interpreted as emancipatory.

The article warrants a very close reading – much closer than I have offered here, where I am more interested in understanding how Postone makes his argument, than what his specific object of investigation is.

In summary, the articles proceeds as follows: introduction > critical review > development of theoretical argument grounded by historical example > broad justification for preceding argument > conclusion and way forward. Section three is clearly the most substantive section and in essence it employs Marx’s examination of commodity fetishism and his labour theory of value in Capital Vol. 1, Chapter 1, to provide the analytical tools for a socio-historical and epistemological explanation of the Holocaust.

Wikileaks and the limits of protocol

In this chapter, I reflect on Wikileaks and its use of technology to achieve freedom in capitalist society. Wikileaks represents an avant-garde form of media (i.e. networked, cryptographic), with traditional liberal values: opposing power and seeking the truth. At times, appears broken and half abandoned and at other times, it is clearly operating beyond the level of government efficiency and military intelligence. It has received both high acclaim and severe criticism from human rights organisations, the mainstream media and governments. It is a really existing threat to traditional forms of power and control yet, I suggest, it is fundamentally restrained by liberal ideology of freedom and democracy and the protocological limits of cybernetic capitalism.

Published in Face the Future: Tools for the Modern Media Age. The Internet and Journalism Today.

Download this chapter.

Reading The Cybernetic Hypothesis

Tiqqun was a French journal that published two issues in 1999 and 2001.1 The authors wrote as an editorial collective of seven people in the first edition and went uncredited in the second edition. More recently, one member of the original collective, Fulvia Carnevale, has said that:

I would like to say that Tiqqun is not an author, first of all. Tiqqun was a space for experimentation. It was an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and a number of practices and certain ways of “being together”. It was something that existed for a certain time and that then stopped because the people working at it weren’t happy with the relation between theory and practice and that certain people had decided that Tiqqun 3 would be a movie.2

This space for experimentation amounted to to 450 pages over three years, producing several substantial texts such as Bloom Theory, Introduction to Civil War, and The Cybernetic Hypothesis.3

Published in Tiqqun 2, The Cybernetic Hypothesis is forty-three pages long (in the original journal) and divided into eleven sections. Each section begins with one or two quotes which are then critiqued in order to further our understanding of the hypothesis and develop the author’s response. The author(s) write in the first person singular. They quote from a range of sources but do not offer precise references.

What follows are my notes on the text. A much more extended version of my notes is available here. Neither of these are a review of the text, simply a summary of my reading of each section.

Section one provides historical references for the objectives of cybernetics and argues that as a political capitalist project it has supplanted liberalism as both a paradigm and technique of government that aims to dissolve human subjectivity into a rationalised and stable (i.e. inoffensive) totality through the automated capture of increasingly transparent flows of information and communication. The authors understand this subjugation of subjectivity as an offensive, anti-human act of war which must be counteracted.

Section two establishes cybernetics as the theoretical and technological outcome and continuation of a state of war, in which stability and control are its objectives. Developing with the emergence of post-war information and communication theory and corresponding innovation in computer software and hardware, intelligence is abstracted from the human population as generalised representations that are retained and communicated back to individuals in a commodified form. This feedback loop is understood as a ‘system’ and later as a naturalised ‘network’ which, drawing on the 19th century thermodynamic law of entropy, is at continual risk of degradation and must therefore be reinforced by the development of cybernetics itself.

Section three ends with a useful summary of its own:

The Internet simultaneously permits one to know consumer preferences and to condition them with advertising. On another level, all information regarding the behaviour of economic agents circulates in the form of headings managed by financial markets. Each actor in capitalist valorization is a real-time back-up of quasi-permanent feedback loops. On the real markets, as on the virtual markets, each transaction now gives rise to a circulation of information concerning the subjects and objects of the exchange that goes beyond simply fixing the price, which has become a secondary aspect. On the one hand, people have realized the importance of information as a factor in production distinct from labour and capital and playing a decisive role in “growth” in the form of knowledge, technical innovation, and distributed capacities. On the other, the sector specializing in the production of information has not ceased to increase in size. In light of its reciprocal reinforcement of these two tendencies, today’s capitalism should be called the information economy. Information has become wealth to be extracted and accumulated, transforming capitalism into a simple auxiliary of cybernetics. The relationship between capitalism and cybernetics has inverted over the course of the century: whereas after the 1929 crisis, PEOPLE built a system of information concerning economic activity in order to serve the needs of regulation – this was the objective of all planning – for the economy after the 1973 crisis, the social self-regulation process came to be based on the valorization of information.

Section four focuses on the role of information to both terrorise and control people. The sphere of circulation of commodities/information is increasingly seen as a source of profit and as this circulation accelerated with the development of mass transportation and communication, so the risk of disruption to the flow of commodities/information became more of a threat. In cybernetics, total transparency is seen as a means of control yet because the removal of risk is never absolutely possible, citizens are understood as both presenting a risk to the system and a means to regulate that risk through self-control. Control is therefore socialised and now defines the real-time information society. An awareness of risk brings with it an awareness of the vulnerability of a system that is dependent on an accelerated circulation/flow of information. Time/duration is a weakness and disruption to time is signalled as an opportunity to halt the flow and therefore the project of cybernetic capitalism.

Section five is a critique of socialism and the ecology movement proposing how these two movements have been subsumed by cybernetic capitalism. The popular forms of protest over the last 30 years have only strengthened the cybernetic objectives of social interdependence, transparency and management. This marked the second period of cybernetics which has sought to devolve the responsibility of regulation through surveillance through the affirmation of ‘citizenship’ and ‘democracy’.

Section six offers a critique of the Marxist response to cybernetic capitalism and finds it contaminated and complicit in its economism, humanism and totalising view of the world.

Section seven offers a brief critique of critical theory and finds it to be an ineffectual performance cloistered in the mythology of the Word and secretly fascinated by the cybernetic hypothesis. The section introduces insinuation as a mode of interference and tactic for overcoming the controlled circulation of communication. The author(s) indicate that the remaining sections of The Cybernetic Hypothesis are an attempt to undo the world that cybernetics constructs.

Section eight discusses panic, noise, invisibility and desire as categories of revolutionary force against the cybernetic framework. Panic is irrational behaviour that represents absolute risk to the system; noise is a distortion of behaviour in the system, neither desired behaviour nor the anticipated real behaviour. These invisible discrepancies are small variations (‘non-conforming acts’) that take place within the system and are amplified and intensified by desire. An individual acting alone has no influence, but their desire can produce an ecstatic politics which is made visible in a lifestyle which is, quite literally, attractive, with the potential to produce whole territories of revolt.

Section nine elaborates on invisibility as the preferred mode of diffuse guerilla action. A method of small selective strikes on the lines of communication followed by strategic withdrawal are preferred over large blows to institutions. Despite the distributed nature of the Internet, territorial interests have produced a conceivably vulnerable network reliant on a relatively small number of main trunks. Both individual spontaneity and the organisational abilities of institutions are valued but both should remain distant from cybernetic power and adopt a wandering course of unpredictability.

Section ten develops the author(s) tactics for countering cybernetic capitalism, through the application of slowness, disruptive rhythms, and the possibilities that arise from encounters with others. The cybernetic system is a politics of rhythm which thrives on speed for stability (as was discussed in section four) and a range of predictability. The guerilla strategy is therefore one of dissonant tempos, improvisation and ‘wobbly’ rhythmic action.

Section eleven is a final attempt to define the key categories of struggle against the domination of cybernetic capitalism. These can be summarily listed as slowness, invisibility, fog, haze, interference, encounters, zones of opacity, noise, panic, rhythm/reverberation/amplification/momentum and finally, autonomy. Combined, these constitute an offensive practice against the requirement and expectation of cybernetics for transparency/clarity, predictability, and speed in terms of the information communicated and regulation of its feedbacks. The author(s) do not reject the cybernetic system outright but rather see the possibility for autonomous zones of opacity from which the invisible revolt can reverberate outwards and lead to a collapse of the cybernetic hypothesis and the rise of communism.

Originally published in French in Tiqqun II (2001). Translated into English 2010

  1. ; []
  2. See the interview with Agamben. A video of the Q&A which followed his talk has since been removed but an English transcript of both the talk and Q&A can be found here: []
  3. Semiotext(e) (MIT Press) has recently published Introduction to Civil War and How is it to be done? in a single volume. A growing number of translations can be found on the web. The best source for these in English is: []