How Capital's Progress Became Society's Retrogression

IP was first constituted (1985) as an “external faction” of the ICC, with the aim of defending the platform of that organization in the face of its own degeneration. It quickly became apparent, however, that the degeneration of he ICC was not just organizational, but programmatic; that its capacity to grasp the trajectory of capital, both current and throughout what it designated as capitalism’s phase of decadence (beginning in 1914) was woefully deficient.

While the ICC had the merit of clearly drawing the class line, based on the contributions of both the pre-war Italian (Bilan) and German-Dutch left, and that of the Gauche Communiste de France (1945-1952), its clarity in that respect was not matched by a comparable theoretical grasp of the development of capitalism as a mode of production and civilization in the period inaugurated by the cataclysm of World War I. Indeed, it became clear over the course of time, and as a result of much discussion, that the very theoretical bases upon which the platform of the ICC rested was, and had always been, inadequate to the task of grasping the trajectory of capital. Thus, in the course of its own evolution, IP came to reject core elements of the platform of the ICC, and its theoretical underpinnings: its vision of the accumulation process and its contradictions based on the theory of Rosa Luxemburg and the role of the disappearance of pre-capitalist markets as the veritable basis of capitalism’s crisis tendencies; its concept of the decadence of capitalism as a halt, or at least a dramatic slackening, of the growth of the productive forces; its concomitant vision that capitalism in its phase of decadence precluded an increase in the standard of living of the working class; its vision of state capitalism based on the model of Stalinist Russia (seen as the mirror in which the whole of the capitalist world could view its own future); its insistence that aside from very short periods of reconstruction, decadent capitalism, in the absence of proletarian revolution, was condemned to live through a cycle of crisis/world war/crisis/world war.

Even a cursory glance at the period since 1945 will reveal the vacuity of the ICC’s claims to grasp the trajectory of capitalism. Despite the evident fact that pre-capitalist markets cannot have provided the effective demand to absorb the capitalizable portion of the surplus-value produced by global capital (or even an appreciable portion thereof), capitalism has not experienced the catastrophic global crisis that according to Luxemburgist theory should have befallen it. Nor can the deus ex machina of reconstruction or state capitalism rescue the “theory,” inasmuch as according to the ICC the phase of reconstruction following World War II was complete by 1968 (quite apart from the fact that on the strict basis of Luxemburg’s theory any phase of reconstruction is precluded), and no real explanation of how the state could substitute for the effective demand lacking on the part of pre-capitalist markets has been proffered by the ICC. Moreover, the ICC’s claim that there has been a dramatic slackening in the growth of the productive forces since 1914 is contradicted by all the indices that measure the growth or diminution of the productive forces. Indeed, there have been few periods in the development of capitalism where the growth of the productive forces has been so prodigious over so long a period as that which we have seen since 1950. Linked to that very development there has also been a significant increase in the standard of living of the working class in the advanced capitalist societies, at least into the 1980’s and the end of the Fordist epoch. The vision of Stalinist Russia as the model for state capitalism has been dramatically refuted by the collapse of that regime and the repudiation of that model of capitalism even where Stalinist parties still rule. Finally the imminence of a third World War as capitalism’s sole recourse once reconstruction is complete, and in the absence of massive class struggle or proletarian revolution, which has been the gospel of the ICC, has also been refuted by the actual trajectory of capitalism. Despite periods of open economic crisis over the past fifty years, global capital thus far has been able to continue the accumulation process without recourse to world war.

Confronted by such theoretical and programmatic failings, IP has sought to grasp the realities of capitalist development, and its perspectives, in a series of texts that preserve the class lines that separate Marxist revolutionaries from their class enemies, and that, at the same time, provide a development of Marxist theory that is adequate to grasp the enormous transformation that capitalism has undergone in the twentieth century, and, in particular, over the period since the end of World War II. A Marxist theory adequate to the demands of the present time must, in our view, acknowledge and grasp both the progress of capitalism in the present epoch, its capacity and imperious drive to develop the productive forces as a condition for its own survival as a mode of production, and its social retrogression, its devastating consequences for the human species and the very real danger that its continued existence represents for the world. What the ICC denied, the possibility that capitalism could progress even in an epoch of social retrogression (decadence), is the reality in which we today live. And if we are to politically confront the capitalist Moloch, it is vital for Marxists to theoretically grasp the transformations, the reshaping of the social, political, cultural, and class, landscape that it has wrought.

The theoretical glue that links together the various positions that we are in the course of elaborating, and that gives it its coherence, is provided by the vision of capital as undergoing a transition from the formal to the real domination over society. What that means, is that the operation of the capitalist law of value penetrates society as a totality; that every pore of society is invaded and transformed by the operation of the law of value; that all the domains of social existence are tendentially reshaped by the law of value. What prevents such a totality shaped by the law of value being a totalization from which there is no escape is that the law of value has its own internal contradictions; contradictions that provide the bases for its own overcoming. Politically, that means that concomitant with its domination of society, the law of value also generates the possibility of resistance and struggle against it; the prospect of revolution, then, is no less real than the social retrogression wrought by capital, which is why the theoretical project that we are engaged in is also a political project. However, it is the elucidation of the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital over society, and its significance, which we want to undertake in this text.

The concepts of the formal and real domination of capital, of the formal and the real submission of labor to capital, were first formulated by Marx in “The Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” the sixth, unpublished (until the 1960’s), chapter of Capital, and it was then elaborated upon by a number of militants linked to Bordigism. Marx himself had linked the formal submission of labor to capital to the extraction of absolute surplus-value, and the real submission of labor to capital to the extraction of relative surplus-value, confining the concepts of formal and real domination to the immediate process of production; at any rate to the economic domain. A number of thinkers who originally encountered the concepts of formal and real domination on the fringes of the Bordigist movement, have contended that the transition from formal to real domination was completed by the 1850’s (Robin Goodfellow), a view echoed by the ICC in its critique of IP’s use of the concept. Others coming from Bordigism who have utilized the concepts of formal and real domination (Communisme ou Civilisation), while insisting on its significance for an understanding of the trajectory of capital in the twentieth century, have nonetheless continued to limit it to the economic domain in the narrow sense of the term. Still others, like Jacques Camatte (also coming from Bordigism) have expanded the scope of the real domination of capital beyond the economic domain, but have insisted that: “When capital achieves real domination over society, it becomes a material community, overcoming value and the law of value, which survive only as something ‘overcome.’” Camatte thereby extends the real domination of capital to society as a whole, as do we, but completely detaches it from the law of value, whose expression we believe the real domination of capital to be.

This view of the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital, then, rests not just on Marx’s distinction between the extraction of absolute surplus-value and the extraction of relative surplus-value, but on its expansion from the economy to society as a totality; from the process of production to the processes of reproduction – the reproduction of the capitalist social relations, the core of which is the value form. This reproduction, therefore, involves demography, technology, science, the modes of subjectivation of the human being, the political and cultural domains, as well as the economic, and the vast realm of ideology, understood not simply as false consciousness, illusion, or mystification, but rather as consciousness, beliefs, actions endowed with a material existence, and inextricably linked to the no less material existence of a determinate mode of subjectivation of the human beings, and the classes, that inhabit that civilization. Thus, in contrast to the formal domination of capital over society, in which only the immediate process of production is subject to the capitalist law of value, and the other domains of social existence still retain a considerable degree of autonomy from it, the real domination of capital over society entails the penetration of the law of value into every segment of social existence. Thus, from its original locus at the point of production, the law of value has systematically spread its tentacles to incorporate not just the actual production of commodities, but their circulation and consumption too. Moreover, the law of value progresses and comes to preside over the spheres of the political and ideological, including science and technology. Thus, with respect to state capitalism, where the ideological progenitors of the ICC saw a restriction of the field of application of the law of value, at least within the borders of the regime itself, we see a vast expansion of the operation of the law of value into every pore of society. Indeed, we agree here with Bordiga, for whom: “State capitalism is not a subjugation of capitalism to the state, but a firmer subjugation of the state to capital.” (Proprietá e capitale) With respect to science and technology, the penetration of the law of value occurs not just through the transformation of scientific and technological research (and the institutions in which it takes place) into commodities, but especially through the infiltration of the value form, and its concomitant quantification, into reason itself (the triumph of a purely instrumental reason), and the reduction of all beings, nature and humans, to mere objects of manipulation and control. While the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital over society began in the industrial metropoles in the nineteenth century, its triumph, consolidation, and global spread, has been a twentieth century phenomenon, one that has transfigured the social landscape particularly over the past half-century and that continues now into the twenty-first century.

The transition from the formal to the real domination of capital over society constitutes the progress of capital since 1914. Yet that progress has been bought at the price of a horrifying social retrogression, such that the continued existence of capitalist civilization and a mode of production based on the operation of the law of value risks leading the human species to devastation on a scale never before seen in history; a devastation so great that it could extinguish the material and cultural progress inaugurated by the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the critical attitude that has been the positive and revolutionary side of capitalist modernity; an outcome that could destroy the very possibility of communism, of the creation of a human Gemeinwesen.

While the transition from the formal to the real submission of labor to capital entails an increasing reliance on the fruits of science and technology, and a concomitant recomposition of the working class that transforms the very meaning and nature of productive and unproductive labor, no matter how many changes occur in the forms and techniques of production, according to Marx, capitalism remains a mode of production whose “presupposition is – and remains – the mass of direct labour time, the quantity of labour employed, as the determinant factor in the production of wealth.” (Grundrisse, Penguin Books, p.704) However, the historical trajectory of capitalism produces a growing contradiction between its unsurpassable basis in the expenditure of living labor to produce exchange-value, on the one hand, and the actual results of its own developmental tendencies on the other: “But to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production …. [a]s soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange-value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth …. (Grundrisse, pp. 704-705) In short, when the production of real wealth is no longer dependent on the extraction of surplus-value (absolute or relative), no longer inextricably bound to the expenditure of living labor, capitalism ceases to be a necessary condition for the progress of the human species; ceases to be a progressive mode of production. Moreover, the perpetuation of value production, its continued progress in the form of the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital over society, then constitutes not just an obstacle to the progress of the human species, but a form of social retrogression! The more capital progresses, as it has since 1914, and especially after 1945, the more that progress reveals itself to be retrogressive or regressive; a mortal threat to the continued existence of human kind. The creation of a vast surplus population, the exploitation of which by capital is no longer necessary or profitable (at any wage), has sown the seeds of new and more devastating orgies of mass murder, deliberately orchestrated by the capitalist state.

The prospect of a re-division of global spheres of influence, the formation of new continental imperialist blocs, in the coming decades, of which today’s murderous local wars are but portents, awaits only the outbreak of a global economic crisis and the collapse of the current neo-liberal regimes, and the hegemony of the Anglo-American world market upon which today’s globalization of the economy is based, to make nuclear war a danger that stalks humanity once again. The technologies unleashed by capital, and inextricably bound to it, in its unending quest for surplus-value, portend ecological destruction on a scale that may interrupt the very metabolism between “man” and nature that has been the veritable basis of human existence since the birth of our species.

Capitalism has progressed, has continued to transform the world. The first task of revolutionaries today, the necessary basis for their intervention, is to grasp the nature and direction of that progress, of those transformations; to comprehend the implications and ramifications of the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital over society.

Mac Intosh

Home Issues of IP Texts Discussion IP's French site Links