The Supersession of Private Property in the Means of Production

[Part 3 of 5 of the essay »Anti-economics and Anti-politics« by Robert Kurz, published under CC by-nc-sa]

The modified or “superseded” notion of the productive forces and its connection to the relations of production is obviously the precondition for solving the real problem: the supersession of the form of fetishistic value in social relations. On this point it is also necessary, first of all, to bridge the gap between the reductive conceptions, immanent to the system, of the Marxism of the workers movement and that of the alternative movement or the cooperatives. As in the question of the productive forces, we see these movements evincing a speculative and complementary attachment to fetishistic structures. Both political Marxism and the alternative movement reduce their goal to a critique and a supersession of private property in the means of production, although in different ways. When, however, one speaks of the institution, “private property”, it is clear that one is dealing with a moment of the commodity production system, i.e., of its juridical form. It is thus clear that this moment cannot be overcome alone, without overcoming the other moments of the value form and even the latter itself as such. The attempt to eliminate private property in the means of production and at the same time to maintain the forms of mediation of the commodity and money, can only lead to social paradoxes.

The fact that private property can be considered a factor in such an isolated way and that the responsibility for all capitalist evils are imputed to it derives from a typical, ingenuous error of the Enlightenment: private property is erroneously declared to be a simple “subjective force” at the disposal of the owners and “rulers”—the appearance of sovereignty and the alleged will on the part of the person found to be in command is accepted as a dogma. This is usually accompanied by the equally ingenuous and affirmative notion of capitalist wealth, which is only “distributed unequally and unjustly”. Some elements of this reductive concept of “private property” are also to be found in Marx and Engels, even though it was Marx himself who simultaneously provided the tools for the criticism of this conception.

Actually, the institution of private property is far from being resolved as a “subjective force”. Such a notion only sees the subjective calculation of the owners of the means of production, but not their formal objectivized determination which is imposed upon the supposed “powerful” as a principle of external coercion and instantly penalizes any deviation from the laws of motion and of the form of value. The evils of capitalism, therefore, must not be imputed to the subjective decisions of its functional agents, but to the subjectless and fetishistic form of reproduction and mediation itself. This experience was and still is necessarily learned by those who occupy factories in the attempt to take into their own hands an enterprise on the verge of economic collapse. During the 1980s, at the beginning of the crisis of the German shipbuilding industry, a publication of the old Marxism dazzled its readers with the title: “Just imagine! The shipyard belongs to us!” And what was gained by this? Absolutely nothing, since the laws of market competition continued to be in effect: the employees had to exploit themselves, and submit to workerist demagogy and rationalization, etc.; or else, with all the beauty which accompanies collective property, they would have to declare bankruptcy.

Both forms of property, cooperative and state-owned, which figure, in the reduced conception linked to a large extent to commercial production, as a supersession of private property, end up being deceived by that enlightenment error of “subjective power”. In reality, however, any form of property that rests upon the “valorization of value” and whose production can only therefore be socially mediated by market relations, is already, by definition, private property. The widespread and profoundly hierarchical functional division of social reproduction, which is not evident at first sight in ordinary communication and personal relations, but only a posteriori through the exchange of products, forms the matrix of a fetishistic socialization based on value, or on the apparent metaphysical quality of products, and not on the direct communication between people. This matrix imposes, a priori, the category of private property upon all involved units of production.

The value matrix is only remotely related to pre-capitalist money-commodity relations. In fact, in the old agrarian societies (not to speak of hunter-gatherer societies), the matrix of socialization was not value as a metaphysical quality of products, but a context of forms of subsistence that only marginally knew of commodity exchange, or only in their “interstices” (Marx); this means that only the surpluses or relatively few specific products entered market relations. A more extensive and profound functional division in the market is not, however, necessarily the result of the development of the productive forces, but is rather a logical consequence of capitalism, which makes value its social end-in-itself. Unlike what economic theory states, the functional division spread by the development of the productive forces does not lead, necessarily, to the totalization of money-commodity relations. This view confuses a historical fact with a logical datum. It is capitalism, as self-reference of value to itself (as a valorization machine), which makes the development of the productive forces appear to be identical with the universalization of the market. A universal and total market can only be born as a sphere of realization of the abstract production of surplus value. For bourgeois consciousness, this is identical to the developed forces of production, since the latter always appear to bourgeois consciousness in the form of the value matrix.

State and cooperative property remain, in accordance with their concept, within this determination of the fetishistic form. The State is the juridical and thus political abstract universality of a society of commodity producers, just as money is its economic abstract universality. Such a universality or totality of social members is abstract by reason of not being mediated by concrete communication concerning the physical and concrete material relations of their joint reproduction, but by the abstraction of value. If the State becomes the owner of commodity-producing enterprises, the juridical-political pole would usurp the economic pole of abstract universality, which can be explained by certain historical conjunctures in the development of the commodity production system, although it would be dysfunctional in the long term, since the replacement of the mechanism of economic competition by political directives causes an enormous loss due to the friction with the production of value or surplus value this would cause.

Meanwhile, the character of private property applies to State property in two ways. First, the State apparatus presents itself to the producers—whenever it does not represent their own concrete collectivity, but an abstract universality which is external to them as individuals—behind the mask of a paradoxical “universal private sphere” (as universal executor of the “valorization of value”) and thus requires that, in relation to it, they should likewise present themselves in the form of a private sphere, so that they should behave like private owners of their means of production, “labor power”. As citizens, the latter find themselves no more involved in the determination of the means of production in State property than the stable-boys, as Christians, were involved in the feudal property of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.

Secondly, the State apparatus, to the extent that it usurps entrepreneurial functions, necessarily splits into mutually opposed economic positions within the private property sphere, since, in the final accounting, the State enterprises are also mediated by market and money relations. In this manner the value form avenges itself on the totalizing pretensions of the State. Within the social circle of State Planning consonant with the categories of value, the State enterprises assume the opposed roles of isolated units of production, which can only appropriate social wealth in the monetary form and thus privately. In relation to this, the credulous declarations which descend from the political heaven possess scant importance. An analogous phenomenon, furthermore, occurs within capitalist enterprises, in the form of the neo-liberal project called “profit-centers”: it is no longer the enterprise as a whole that must be the vehicle of the “creation of value” but, directly, its isolated sections, which also behave among themselves like private producers, almost like “enterprises within the enterprise”. Over the long term, from the point of view of the enterprise as a whole, this project can only lead to paradoxical and dysfunctional outcomes.

Considered in its totality, State property is only a paradoxical form of private property. Nothing is changed when this State property is not administered by the bourgeois State, but by a “Workers State”, led by the metaphysical subjects of the “working class” and the (political) “party of the workers”. The structural relations that result from State property remain the same, independently of their social repositories. In this sense, the extremely controversial analysis of State Socialism made by Charles Bettelheim in the 1970s was inadequate and was still a prisoner of the conceptual horizon of the Marxism of the workers movement. Bettelheim conceived of the elements of the private sphere in a sociologically reductive way, as a mere subjective strategy of a certain sociological group—corporate managers—in the use of their “power”. He did not perceive that the form of private property, independently of sociological declarations of good will, is inherent to any mode of production based on value. What particular historical subject is constituted by the respective systems of commodity production is of no importance: this system always produces analogous kinds of functional elites corresponding to the forms assumed by the “valorization of value”. In this sense, every State is, by definition, a bourgeois State, since every nation is, in its essence, a bourgeois nation, all money, as a universal form of mediation, is bourgeois money, and commodity production, as a universal form of social reproduction, is a bourgeois production of commodities. The predicate is, strictly speaking, superfluous; it only has relevance for a consciousness that can only think within bourgeois categories and attempts to resolve the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production on the terrain of these real bourgeois categories. The problem ultimately resides in structural relations, in the way the latter are dictated by the fetishistic social form of value, and not in secondary sociological interests (related a priori to that structure) of sociological groups, categories or classes, whose very existence is a historical product of the value form.

Cooperative property does no better than State property in this regard, where it is a commodity-producing enterprise that assumes the form of a cooperative. The owner of this property is not, in fact, an abstract juridical-political universality of society, but a particular collective subject. Since this collectivity represents a unit that can be grasped by the individual, the idea of the cooperative was always linked to the embryonic form of a reproduction liberated from capitalism. The alternative movement itself at the beginning of the 1980s spread the idea of “meaningful production” in “egalitarian structures without bosses” as an element of an alternative and emancipatory way of life. From the very beginning, however, its alternative character was limited to the internal social space of a nascent commodity production. Its social mediation, on the contrary, “obviously” ended up on the market, where the products of the cooperative or the alternative enterprise had to be sold.

Naturally, an operation of this kind does not lead to the supersession of the commodity form. The alternative enterprises are still part of the universal market economy, which can only exist as the sphere of capital’s realization. As a result, they still comprise part of capitalist reproduction and submit to the coercive laws of competition. As “money earners”, the members of such enterprises will continue to submit, regardless of their intentions, to the economic form of private interest. The abstract universality of money must be imposed, in the last instance, as the determination of their way of life and of production. For this reason, cooperative or alternative enterprises either sink or swim by dint of “self-exploitation”, so as to ultimately be transformed, under the pretext of “professionalization”, into petit bourgeois workshops under the strictest discipline, with bosses, pressures to increase production, etc., in order to qualify for bank loans.

It is thus clear that all social mediation by means of the economic value form necessarily leads to the corresponding juridical form of private property, in whatever guise it may assume. This is particularly true when reformist emancipatory zeal dares to attempt to encompass, in appearance, its own form of mediation, but, instead of the supersession of value, it only proposes to invent some kind of substitute for value. This becomes absolutely transparent in the “monetary fantasies”—as Marx referred to them—of, for example, a Proudhon or an economic sect like that represented by the followers of Silvio Gesell. As their critique of the capitalist form of mediation is limited to interest-bearing capital, all they attempt to do is to introduce a kind of “interest-free money” as direct compensation for production units, without perceiving the problem of the abstract value form as such. Such a reductive critique of the capitalist form of mediation even fails to rise to the level of the critique of private property made by the old Marxism: since the solution appears to them, exclusively, to be “honest money”, for Proudhon, Gesell and his followers, private property in the means of production is particularly sacred. What they have in mind is no longer, by any means, social emancipation, but a society of petit bourgeois and the reduction of socialization through the commodity form to a capitalism of micro-enterprises, with all the repressive obtuseness of the fetishism of labor and production.

Even more obtuse and just as incapable of pursuing an emancipatory and critical trajectory are the “barter circles” which are now fashionable (and which, as a whole, are compatible with the Gesellian ideal). If the socialism of the cooperative still at least had in view emancipatory cooperation of an internal social space, and the latter was reduced, in the Gesellians, to a petit bourgeois capitalism of micro-enterprises, the “barter circles”, for their part, presuppose totally asocialized abstract individuals, who exchange services among themselves, without any involvement in the cooperative activity of production. The socioeconomic relation is limited to the organization of an alternative form of mediation of productive compensations, which flow parallel to the official market. Nor does this supersede private property; it is only restricted to the individual’s capacity to promote the exchange of any kind of production (child care, carpet weaving, etc.) with other individuals; the reproduction of those who are “weak in production”, like the disabled or ill, is absolutely not taken into account. Such a barter circle does not represent an alternative to the capitalist mode of production. It only offers an expedient, in dealing with secondary matters, to individuals who have completely surrendered their productive capacity of cooperation to capital and the State. In this sense, barter circles are not the promise of social emancipation, but just the latest decadent form of the old failed principles within the value form, today irremediably dissolved into social atoms.

These critical reflections necessarily lead to a second essential feature which distinguishes the embryonic forms of a new social emancipation from the old alternative movement: the new critique of State Socialism must not only take the side of the microelectronic productive forces against the capitalist relations of production, instead of rejecting these productive forces in favor of a lower level of unsuperseded “abstract labor”; for this same reason, it should not be organized in the form of commodity production cooperatives, nor should it be channeled into substitute forms for commercial exchange and “productive compensation” (“monetary fantasies”, barter circles). The task consists, rather, in persevering in the supersession of private property in the means of production, although no longer from that ingenuous Enlightenment perspective of a “power at the disposal” of a particular sociological group and, thus, not as a paradoxical State property, but as the disconnection of a social space of emancipatory cooperation from commercial exchange, the monetary relation and abstract productive compensation. In a word: it is about developing embryonic elements and forms of a “natural microelectronic economy” that fundamentally breaks with the principle of socialization of value and can no longer be assimilated by the latter.

At first sight, the expression, “natural microelectronic economy”, sounds paradoxical, since modern consciousness determined by the value form is accustomed to translate “natural economy” as “backwards agrarian social relations” and considers it to be incompatible with advanced industrial productive forces. It is, however, actually a neutral expression that merely indicates that certain reproductive activities do not assume the form of commodity production and that, as a result, they do not form part of monetary relations. In pre-capitalist societies, natural economic reproduction was linked to other forms of social fetishism that were not determined by value. It is not, of course, a matter of reanimating such forms, but of superseding fetishism in general with the help of microelectronics, utilized for emancipatory ends. In this context, “natural economy” only indicates that reproduction does not assume the form of value, and that the means of production will be treated in accordance with the physical and material character of the products and with a view towards human pleasure, that is, that they will no longer be subjected to the fetishistic abstraction of the value form.

The stale taste of the concept of “natural economy” also derives from the fact that, to a great extent, it is used as a synonym for “subsistence economy” and the latter is, in turn, understood as “reduction to pure survival”. To this one should add the observation that, in the crisis-rich history of modernization, the projects of natural economy or of subsistence were almost always, in fact, unplanned reactions to major economic or military crises, without any properly developed conscious perspective, and thus could only be manifested as simple emergency measures or as “technologies of survival”, whose precondition consisted precisely in the undermining of the pre-crisis level of socialization and the forced return of people to primitive methods of production for survival. Cooperation, in such cases, can hardly go beyond the context of the family and is enclosed within forms of “natural exchange” which obviously do not represent a perspective beyond the value form, since they are basically conditioned by the lack of an acceptable currency or by the general absence of means of circulation.

As everyone knows, this was the case in Germany after the Second World War, when “cigarette money” was used, and “domestic rabbit breeding” flourished in the hallways of buildings (I can recall as a child watching while my grandfather caught one of these animals that were raised in the shed, which my father killed with a hammer and hung from the kitchen door in order to skin it). Nor is it different today in various economically ruined regions of the world, when, for example, in the hamlets around Moscow, they have to feed themselves from their small gardens, when the families of Kazakhstan are content to own a cow or when pigs are fattened in the bathtubs of houses in Havana. Such a “subsistence economy” only seems to allow for the hope that, as soon as possible, the market economy should get moving again. In the past this was effectively what happened, and the temporary breakdowns of socialization alternated with new waves of development of the commodity production system, while for today’s crisis-stricken regions it is more than doubtful whether they will ever be able get on their feet on the terrain of the market economy.

The representatives of “orthodox” Critical Theory and the postmodern Left, who dodge the problem of the supersession of the value form and reject its concretion, largely stifle all debate concerning an emancipatory form of socialization, supposing that the latter is only capable of resulting in the petit bourgeois production of commodities or in a primitive subsistence economy whose praxis would consist of raising a cow in the garage or a pig in the bathtub. This blind polemic, which simultaneously rejects all critique of the capitalist structure of use value, only reveals a petit bourgeois fear in the face of the crisis and their incapacity and bad faith with regard to the possibility of rethinking the question of a supersession of private property in the means of production which transcends the Marxism of the workers movement and its Statist illusions. The same problem that already impaired their ability to address the question of the productive forces and their concept also handicaps, even more obviously, their ability to come to grips with the question of the supersession of the mediating bourgeois forms, defined by value.

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Next: 4. Disconnection from Commodity Production

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