The Concept of the Productive Forces and the Microelectronic Revolution

[Part 2 of 5 of the essay »Anti-economics and Anti-politics« by Robert Kurz, published under CC by-nc-sa]

If we are not to allow ourselves to be confused by the past, we have to attempt to elaborate socioeconomic definitions of an embryonic form, beyond commodity production, at the current level of socialization, without falling into a vulgar practicality. It is thus not by any means a matter of direct plans of action (which can only be developed, furthermore, within the context of a social movement), but of theoretical and practical reflections to concretize the critique of value. The question of the embryonic form of a reproduction no longer mediated by monetary and commercial relations has to be approached historically, analytically and theoretically.

We can start with a celebrated Marxist problematic: the question of the productive forces and their relation to the relations of production. It is not by any means necessary, however, to accept a deterministic sequence of “increasingly progressive” social formations, whose crowning achievement would ultimately be “socialism”. In a way, one can say that the productive forces are always developing, since the human spirit never rests; this development, as is clear, can take completely different directions (and, for example, withdraw from production itself understood in the crude economic or material sense, when we understand social reproduction and its “forces” in an all-inclusive and consequently cultural sense). The direction taken by the process of development is decided in social confrontations. Concerning which, one can say that, in the late Middle Ages, after the plague, it was not absolutely certain or even determined that capitalism’s “time had come”. In that era, completely different directions of development were still possible, which might not necessarily have led to capitalism (or necessarily to direct emancipation from the forms of fetishistic relations, for that matter). This is a question that would be worth the trouble to investigate, since it could provide a measure of contrast with respect to the rigid historical determinism of the old Marxism. With another direction taken and another form of development, the very question of social emancipation would obviously be formulated in different terms.

But after capitalism, with its specific form of development of the productive forces, was imposed in the middle of the 19th century, the questions of social emancipation and of the supersession of a blind and unconscious sociability could only be formulated in the form of the supersession of the specifically capitalist fetishism and of its mode of socialization. Since, however, the fetishistic forms of production and consciousness established by the capitalist commodity exercised a predominance based on their long history of affirmation and even determined the mental framework of social critique (the Marxism of the workers movement provides obvious testimony concerning this fact), this formulation of emancipation initially had to remain an undercurrent within history and underwent a long period of incubation. Over the course of an entire epoch one could only investigate the historical disequilibrium within the husk of the modern system of commodity production, which means that the question of emancipation could only be posed in a truncated sense, a sense that was immanent to the immediate historical context—which took the form of the bourgeois emancipation of the working class as citizenry, or social reform, or even of the bourgeois emancipation of catch-up “modernization” in the historically backward societies of the capitalist periphery.

This constellation of ideas, whose heritage oppresses us today, is not by any means the result of an ontological predetermination, but is itself the consequence of an originally open and controversial history. But after the commodity production system was brutally imposed and became the universal form of consciousness, what Marx predicted in general terms came to pass in the social process: once a system is historically established, one cannot go back: it must go through, so to speak, its life cycle, until it becomes exhausted and reaches its internal limits. These limits are reached when the development of the productive forces arrives at a point where the latter become incompatible with the relations of production. The petrified shell of the objectivized social forms then breaks apart violently with catastrophic eruptions, which must take place so that transformed and superior forms of sociability, compatible with the new productive forces, can be realized.

This schema of “historical materialism” must be subjected to criticism because it precipitously generalizes, in a suprahistorical form, what is probably only valid for the specific history of capitalism. Since we are, however, living in that history, we cannot simply discard Marx’s schema. In fact, he is not by any means “objectivist”, as his leftist critics always supposed, but only took into account the effective objectifications of fetishism, which are at the same time recognized as fundamentally vulnerable to being superseded. This supersession still represents a moment of historical conditioning, and the latter is the necessary moment of a movement from capitalism to non-capitalism, from fetishism to non-fetishism. An immediate supersession of conditioning would be a contradiction in terms. The Marxism of the workers movement remained within the horizons of bourgeois society not because it had accepted the moment of conditioning, but because its forward progress was incapable of going beyond the fetishistic form of value.

Marx’s schema concerning the role of the forces of production was mobilized by historical Marxism only with respect to the internal history of the commodity production system, but not in connection with the supersession of that system. In reality, the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production only leads to the absolute crisis at the end of the system’s history of development and at the threshold of its supersession. But since the beginning the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production was also the internal motor of capitalist development, which led to relative crises (“crises of affirmation”) and surpassed the obsolete historical formations of the commodity production system, without touching upon its basic form. Only in this “weak” form was Marxism capable of comprehending Marx’s concept of transformation, since it was the prisoner of the still-unconcluded history of the development of modernity. It was for this reason that socialism took possession of the legacy of liberalism, just as the latter took possession of the legacy of absolutism. Protestant or Calvinist reform and absolutist centralization, French or American revolution, the Russian Revolution of October or national and anti-colonialist liberation movements form one single continuum in the history of the affirmation of socialization by means of the commodity form, in which each and every moment of emancipation from the respective previous situation represented a new stage of repression and prohibition.

The State Socialism of the East and the national liberation movements of the South today find themselves so fundamentally discredited as paradigms of social emancipation that only historical idiots can cling to the “weak” concepts of transformation associated with these paradigms. If we understand the collapse of these paradigms, in accordance with their historical classification, not as a “victory” of western capitalism, but as the beginning of an absolute crisis of the commodity production system, in whose end all the historically-evolved chains of the value form are broken, then the “strong” version of Marx’s transformation schema makes its entrance onto the stage. On the plane of the productive forces, it is undoubtedly microelectronics, as a universal technology of rationalization and communication, which leads to the threshold of a kind of transformation that is no longer immanent to the system. As the microelectronic revolution becomes the productive force that induces the crisis of the commodity production system, it might also become a productive force of social emancipation from the fetishistic forms of value.

This possibility already sheds light on a fundamental difference between the potential emancipatory use of microelectronics and the alternative movements of the seventies and eighties. The old notions of a “different way of life and production” were to a large extent linked to a “reactionary critique of the productive forces”. Microelectronics, computers, and the potentials for automation in industrial production were excommunicated. This critique of the productive forces could not and did not want to link the question of social emancipation to the supersession of “abstract labor” but, to the contrary, to the return to a lower historical level. Thus, the alternative movement remained imprisoned in the “jobs” system: it sided with “labor” (which had to be perfected in a supposedly alternative and socially satisfactory manner) against the productive forces created by capitalism. In this form, it even became compatible with conservative and culturally pessimistic ideologies, which since the end of the 18th century—in the shape of, for example, literary, political and socioeconomic romanticism—tried to make the wheel of history turn backwards (although this simple impulse was not the only concern of romanticism). In most cases, some earlier stage of development within the history of the affirmation of capitalism was fantastically transfigured and transformed into a “black”, reactionary utopia. The alternative movement was not identical with political and cultural conservatism but, to the extent that it wanted to resolve the question of social emancipation in retrograde terms, against the productive forces, it opened the door to the entry of politically conservative ideas into the “new social movements”. In the Green Party, all that was left of the debate on principles of the decade of the 1980s was almost exclusively the flirtation of the political coalition of a cabal that was “conservative with regard to value” with the CDU [the Christian Democratic Union], the governing party.

In opposition to this tendency, one must return, with reference to this point, to the radical movement of opposition proposed by Marx, that is, to the meaning of the “strong” transformation, to siding with the productive forces of microelectronics against the relations of production of capital. But this cannot be a mere continuation of the old Marxism and its fetishism of the productive forces—which is thoughtless and rests upon a superficial and simplified critique of value. This applies as much to the concept of the productive forces as to the question of their relevance in a transformative embryonic form of social relations not based on the commodity form. Most importantly, there must be an “improved” reworking of Marx’s concept of transformation rather than its simple repetition.

It is precisely this problem that the majority of the representatives of what remains of Critical Theory and “orthodox” Marxism neither want nor are able to comprehend. They think they can refute the alternative movement’s critique of the productive forces with a simple repetition of the Marxist fundamentals concerning the relation between the forces of production and the relations of production. In this manner they ignore a decisive moment, which always constituted the weak point of Marxism: the fact that the critique of the natural sciences, of technology and industrialism is not exclusively reactionary and irrational, but that it also—and not incorrectly—warns about the destructive and repressive character of the capitalist development of the productive forces (see “Weltgesellschaft ohne Geld” [“World Society without Money”] by Norbert Trenkle, in Krisis, No. 18). Marxism wanted to absolve the scientific and technological aspect of modernization of its repressive role, and to make repression an exclusive product of property and capitalist profit (which could only be conceived in an equally sociologically reduced form). Natural science, technology and industry had to be assimilated into “socialism”, without modification.

This corresponds, however, to the “weak” version of a simple transformation of internal history, in which Marxism/socialism involuntarily assumes the task—as was true of its still weaker Keynesian cousin, during a certain era—of representing the most progressive (Fordist) productive forces of the time within a new wave of development of the commodity production system. Thus, the destructive and repressive side of capitalist use value in production and consumption could not be included in the critique as was the basic fetishistic form of value. This results necessarily in a double correlation: a critique limited to the internal history of the now-obsolete stages of development of the not yet exhausted commodity production system and a blind affirmation of the latest and most novel technical-material shape of capital comprise a unity as indissoluble as, conversely, a radical critique of the basic form of value and the corresponding critique of capitalist technical structure and use value. Since Marxism did not understand and could not criticize the “real abstraction” of value, it was inevitable that the very close logical and historical correlation between the liberated commodity form and scientific abstractions should also escape its understanding. In this manner, one aspect of the critique of capitalism remained obscure (even for Marx himself), which allowed its irrational adoption by reactionary romanticism, which accompanied the advance of modernization under the commodity form like a shadow.

Starting in the 1970s, when it became increasingly clear that the crisis of the Fordist stage of development also implied an ecological crisis, and when the terrible environmental devastation in the States of real socialism reached the public, the alternative movement of the Greens, successor to the revolt of 1968, largely abandoned Marxism and cast its lot with the anti-industrial trend and the critique of science. One can describe the then-ascendant ecological critique of the simplistically defined concept of the productive forces, in the sense of the Hegelian logic of supersession, as pure and simple negation. This negation was doubly insufficient: along with its destructive and repressive moments in the history of modernization, the development of the productive forces was rejected in general, which is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Consequently, this critique of the productive forces did not arrive at a critique of the value form and its fetishism, but only at various notions of petit bourgeois commodity production, so as to later regress, in “green political economics”, to Keynesian models. The Marxism of the workers movement and its ecological deficiencies were not, therefore, superseded, but only ideologically repressed.

As the absolute crisis of the commodity production system and, therefore, the “strong” transformation, become visible, the second negation becomes necessary in the matter of the productive forces, the “negation of the negation”, which, as is known, does not lead back to the starting point but instead supersedes the unmediated antagonistic elements. It is therefore necessary to take the side of the microelectronic forces against the capitalist relations of production but, at the same time, it is also necessary to overcome the destructive use value of the capitalist structure of production and consumption. This superseding critique must distinguish between the essence and the appearance of the microelectronic revolution. The essence of these new productive forces is the potential, or rather the possibility, that capitalism would not produce for its own benefit, but for the abstract end-in-itself of valorization. The apparent reality of that potential cannot but be affected by such a fact. In accordance with its material configuration, the concrete appearance of the microelectronic productive forces is also capitalist, and must be superseded together with its social form.

This negation of the negation is all the more necessary since, ironically, the postmodern left—as an unmediated reaction to Marxism’s inadequate, single-stage negation—now seems to be turning once again to the vulgar fetishism of the old workers movement in opposition to the critique of the productive forces made by the green alternative movement. Without any kind of reflection upon the totality (global or structural) of the conditions of reproduction within the social and ecological arenas, the “last word” in the technology of capitalist consumption becomes a “must”, without even perceiving the painful limits of imbecility and the threat to the public.

The fetishistic inversion of social and material relations, which is also manifested in the aspect of capitalist use value, is acclaimed as a positive vision of the future. Such a stance renders all the emancipatory pretenses of the postmodernist left risible. It is not surprising that this postmodern tendency is accompanied by indifference with relation to the tacitly assumed forms of mediation of money, whose supersession does not constitute a serious topic of consideration for this tendency. The old Marxism of the workers movement, the alternative critique of the productive forces proclaimed by the Green Party, and the postmodern left, only represent variants of the same incapacity to address (and of the same distaste for) the overcoming the commodity production system. Against this, one must advocate a supersession of the fetishistic value form, which includes the supersessive negation of both the apparent form of the mediation of money as well as the phenomenal form of capitalist use value, taking advantage of the potentials of the microelectronic revolution precisely by means of the critical selection of capitalist artifacts, instead of unquestioningly submitting to the repressive logic of their use value.

This debate only becomes more confused when the question of the embryonic form is considered. Fearful of falling to a lower level of capitalist productive forces, critical Marxism and part of the postmodern left insist upon an immediate revolution affecting society as a whole even if, on the other hand, they criticize (at least in part) statism and politicism. Here a certain obscurity and incoherence is manifested, since the rejection of an embryonic form of socioeconomic reproduction that transcends value is necessarily linked to a statist conception of the revolution made “from above”, that is, from an Archimedean perfect vantage point.

The reference to councils as organs of social representation is also insufficient, since the councils, ultimately, have to represent something, that is, they must be composed of elements. The misery of the historical council movement consisted precisely in the fact that it was only capable of representing capitalist forms of “labor” (businesses or enterprises which establish the mediation between home and market), but not embryonic forms of a reproduction independent of socialization by means of the real abstraction of value. For precisely this reason, the councils’ organizational form falls back into the bourgeois form of the political party with a statist orientation, and for that reason was manipulated and absorbed.

This misery, of course, has something to do with the character of the productive forces at the culminating point of capitalist development. In a way, the old Marxism of the workers movement could cite, in favor of its statist and centralist concept of transformation, the situation of the productive forces themselves: from the time of the steam engine and the railroad to the heyday of the Fordist industries, the aggregations of the technical-scientific potentials were only representable in fact, on a relatively large social scale. This was applied, literally, to the machines, buildings and technologies of energy supply. The individual was small compared to monstrous machinery. And “big” was synonymous with progress. From this fact also resulted, so to speak, a certain childish megalomania: businesses and nations competed to construct the largest turbine in the world, the world’s largest building, the largest oil tanker or the largest warship.

As a consequence, the scale of organization was also big in order to create and mobilize such productive forces. This already constituted a factor in the spontaneous generation of capitalism. Actually, the oldest embryonic form of modernity, with reference to the productive forces, was a destructive force: innovation in firearms. The powerful cannons of the beginning of the modern era and the megalomaniacal fortifications characteristic of the same period could no longer be represented in the decentralized and autochthonous form of the old agrarian societies, but demanded the mobilization of the armaments industry, of permanent armies, of a money-based economy and social centralization.

The embryonic forms of the capitalist mode of production could only develop upon that basis. And all the supporters of the onward march of development of the commodity production system, including socialism and its parties, remained prisoners of the idea of a hyper-centralized and pyramidal form of socialization. Not only the dictatorships of “catch-up modernization”, but also the most highly developed western democracies are negatively utopian “States of the Sun” and pyramid builders, without exception. The bureaucratic apparatuses and the vast national or continental markets correspond to productive or destructive forces whose aggregations can only be put into motion by enormous “armies of labor” and of war.

The microelectronic revolution, in relation to this issue of the monstrous scale of labor mobilization of capitalist modernization, not only renders the living substance of capital, abstract “labor”, nugatory, but also transforms the social centralization promoted by the States and markets into an archaic and inconvenient form of organization, rendering modernity’s megalomania ridiculous. To the same extent that capitalism is technologically impelled to participate in a race for miniaturization by means of the productive forces it has itself created, not only does its substance disintegrate, but so does its external form. If, a few decades ago, the old computers filled entire rooms and required the mobilization of the capital of giant corporations, today laptop computers have much greater capabilities and can even be acquired by ordinary people.

Socialization does not lie in the vastness but, quite to the contrary, in the smallness of technology. The most developed potentials of computers, of robotics and communications media are mobilized on a small scale and no longer require any “labor armies” or social centralization. Reproduction can return to a decentralized form, but not to the decentralized and comparatively isolated and dispersed forms of reproduction of agrarian society, which were only superficially linked by structures of domination; in higher stages of development, it would have to evolve towards a decentralized structure, linked in a network of communications. Furthermore, this applies not only to microelectronics but also, at least potentially, to the replacement of fossil fuels by solar energy. If the energy systems of fossil fuels require large-scale technologies and centralized organizational forms, solar technology, for its part, is as decentralized and as utilizable on a small scale as microelectronics. Perhaps the representatives of capital are afraid of the inevitable development of solar energy because they foresee that it could cause capitalism and its centralized forms of domination to disappear.

The link between electronics and solar energy opens up the possibility that man could escape capitalism (partially, step by step) and break with its totalitarian pretensions, something which, in the past, was only possible by means of migration to regions unexplored by the latter (in the pioneer epoch of the United States, for example, this happened with the exodus bound for the far west, which was also often a flight from capitalist demands, which sounds unpleasant today and is thus silenced). Only today this possibility of flight, in a totally new and different way, has been created by the development of the productive forces themselves. The domain to which we can flee is no longer external or territorial, but internal and social. Nor is it a matter of a return of socialization to the primitive state, as the alternative movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s sought—that movement which criticized the productive forces and was, in the worst sense of the word, “romantic”. On the contrary, in the pores and upon the ruins of an increasingly archaic capitalist socialization the embryonic forms of a system of reproduction no longer dictated by the commodity form can flourish, which can dispute and exchange with capital, affirm their right to exist and, finally, supersede capitalist reproduction in its totality.

The analysis of the relation between the forces and the relations of production in the context of the age of microelectronics also makes it clear that there is no longer the need for a central fulcrum, with direct support in society as a whole, for the “strong” transformation. This kind of thinking is still beholden to the old conception of the world of the pre-microelectronic modern productive forces. Today, the character of society as a whole appears, instead, when viewed from this perspective, as a form of movement, and not as a central act of the revolution. In the same way that the North American pioneers temporarily escaped capitalism, despite having brought tools (albeit simple ones) produced by capitalism, so also one can today, in a higher stage of development, escape from capitalist territory, using microelectronics and solar energy for the benefit of non-capitalist forms of reproduction.

But this also means that an embryonic form of social reproduction beyond value will not begin with the production, but with the utilization, of microchips. In fact, the production of the basic element of microelectronics requires a greater amount of capital than the old Fordist productive forces, but without their “labor armies”. The costs are concentrated above all in the complexity of the microchips’ conditions of production, which today even obliges international corporations to enter “strategic alliances” for the development of the next generation of technology.

Part of the reason for East Germany’s collapse into bankruptcy was its attempt to develop and produce its own microchips at any cost, which consumes many resources, instead of buying them at more modest prices on the world market. But this error in calculation was not by chance. It goes back to the inveterate understanding of centralized socialism that the metaphysical subjects, “party and class”, must from the beginning exercise absolute control over all of production, basic industries being especially decisive in this regard. For this reason socialist attention was concentrated, at the beginning, on the coal, iron and steel industries, whose employees were defined as the “nucleus of the class”. This reasoning was transposed to the microelectronic productive forces. A movement of supersession of the value form would attack the system of reproduction from a totally opposite perspective. Basic industrial production will not be the touchstone but the keystone of transformation. It is not a matter of centralist control, but of the constitution and development of social spaces of emancipation.

Something entirely different arises with the question of the use of microelectronics for emancipatory goals. If the technology of production must remain, for now, in the hands of capital, its use, on the other hand, does not need to correspond to models dictated by capitalism. And this comprises the first point of departure for a critique of the capitalist structure of use value. The apparent forms of utilization of microelectronic productive forces are absolutely directed towards capitalist ends of production and consumption, in which the end-in-itself of value and the fetishistic reification of the commodity are manifested.

While the postmodern Left clearly sees the reified and, with regard to its effects, highly destructive communism, this only causes it to swerve towards the field of capitalist action and the socio-psychological mechanisms of consumerist status and the self-affirmatory struggles of competition. The claim that this society has necessarily surrendered any claim to embody a critical potential as a result of (or solely and exclusively due to) the fact that capitalism is no longer capable of satisfying the needs that it has itself produced, is very simplistic. To the degree that the structure of needs results from the structure of specifically capitalist use value, it will be an integral part of the fetishistic abstraction of value and, therefore, of man’s tutelage under the subjectless social forms. For this reason the appeal to these needs, for which a sufficient monetary income will no longer be produced, will never lead to an emancipatory movement. The contradiction between capitalism and the potentials that it has itself produced resides on a completely different plane and cannot be so easily mobilized.

The useful potentials of an embryonic emancipatory form cannot be found in Nintendo video games. Furthermore, even the specialists themselves debate whether the transition from vinyl to CDs, for example, represented an advance with regard to use value (that is, with regard to sound quality). That innovation only had the objective of attaining new levels of production, towards the end of keeping the labor machine running. This is only one among various examples of the fact that the end-in-itself of valorization has long since taken the structure of consumption into account. In opposition to this, a social movement against the commodity production system must direct the potentials of microelectronics towards emancipatory ends of reproduction. If the microelectronic apparatus increasingly consists of modules which reduce the opportunities for their users to engage in transformatory initiatives, or even to make simple repairs, this tendency not only obeys economic reasons (“planned obsolescence”) but also the intention of social control: the treatment of the people with the products cannot be neutral; they have to follow, like fetishist idiots of consumption and labor, the predetermined structure of capitalist use value.

This is why the emancipatory utilization of microelectronics itself must be reformulated and subjected to experimentation, that is, a suitable combination of hardware and software has to be developed, determined by previously defined goals. The corresponding knowledge and participation of people capable of struggling with the potentials of microelectronics is therefore necessary. Ultimately, an effort will have to be made to disseminate this knowledge, in the form of, for example, a “polytechnic vocational training” in microelectronics and solar energy, which can just as well be organized autonomously as taught according to the requirements of the educational system. The old socialist ideas are therefore susceptible to complete restoration in analogous forms adapted to new tasks. The goal of emancipation cannot be the 100% automated idiot, but the self-reflective person, who consciously regulates the context of his life and is not dominated by dead things. This goal must figure in the embryonic forms of reproduction, since otherwise they would not merit the name.

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Next: 3. The Supersession of Private Property in the Means of Production

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