The ivory tower of theory: A critique of Theorie Communiste and "The glass floor" - TPTG

The ivory tower of theory: A critique of Theorie Communiste and "The glass floor" - TPTG

This is a critique of Theorie Communiste's erroneous idea that the December 2008 rebellion in Greece was born out of the "breaching of the social contract" on the part of the state and the "running out of future" for the proletariat as a whole. By criticizing their false notion of a generalized helotry we throw doubt upon their speculation that what is at stake today is the very survival of the proletariat and that because of this the proletariat will objectively be forced to treat its class belonging as something to do away with.

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Intesifythestruggo
Aug 13 2010 18:11

Cross-posted from anarchistnews, a terrific comment:

"TPTG are right to point out the way in which TC's theory is, for lack of a better term, fatalistic, and discounts the role of agency or subjectivity. They're also right to point out the schematic character of their periodizations (which are, nonetheless, still true, though in need of some complicating). But TPTG rely on a theory of history that is even more problematic than TC's -- namely, the idea, coming from Autonomist Marxism, that all crisis is, in fact, the product of working-class struggle or agitation or, conversely, ruling-class conspiracy. Such a theory is completely incapable of explaining where we are and what has happened, and their cherry-picked statistics and the fallacious arguments with which they surround them, don't prove a damn thing. . . In their view, capitalism is simply a neutral field with no historical tendency, no directionality, in which two classes struggle for dominance, potentially endlessly. Well, why then does capitalism look different today than it did 100 years ago? What can explain the way in which the type of work people do has changed, what can explain the fact that most accumulation today is financial and thus likely to vanish? The idea that an account of capitalism's historical tendency, its directionality, discounts the role of struggle is absolutely false -- it need not be mechanistic, or progressive, nor suggest that capitalism is, on its own, tending toward dissolution. The historical dynamic of capitalism includes struggle, struggle which does not necessarily happen one way or another, but that is, in fact, the natural reaction of people to their life under capitalism, a life that changes, grows better or worse. . .

Here are some flaws in their argument:

1) They suggest that the types of work people do hasn't really changed, and that there's been no increase in precarious or part-time work. But they rely on statistics for society as a whole (not the working class), and they confine themselves to arguments about precarity (which is a term that obscures the real issues). But a full-time job at Walmart of a coffe-shop or the Gap is still a shitty job, one which you can and do get fired from regularly, and the majority of jobs created in this country are of this sort. Wages have been flat (and if you remember that inflation numbers are rigged, then they've fallen). People have much less job security, and are harried in all kinds of ways in their workplaces. Full-time vs. part-time doesn't get at the restructuring of work in the US -- a restructuring which none of their selective statistics can do away with. Their attempts to analyse the term "service sector" are important but they don't support their argument. . .

2) They suggest that the wage-share hasn't really fallen, and that if you look at the statistics, it's the worker-demands for greater public assistance -- the welfare programs of the 60s and 70s-- that is the real problem, and that if you include this in your accounting, it's right to say that worker-demands have brought on the crisis. Yes, gov't spending has increased throughout the period of "neoliberalism." Medicare is one of the biggest culprits here. But why is that? Are workers getting a bigger share of this spending? Does this indicate a bigger claim on surpluses? Not at all. Medicare spending is a subsidy to the capitalist class -- not the workers -- and lines the pockets of insurance companies, drug companies, professionals, etc. The same can be said for "education." Their analysis continuously fails to distinguish class in the value terms, and falls flat. Medicare, for instance, can't be compared to food stamps, or welfare (which doesn't exist in this country).

3)On credit and debt. This is where they are truly at their worst. They suggest that, in fact, debt loads haven't increased for the majority of people, when every statistical measure shows they have. This is a big part of the depression of wages -- and yes, sometimes debt is an instrument of exploitation. What they don't seem to understand is that not all debt gets paid back -- it's a moving wall, in which one continuously borrows, continuously pushes back the point of payment into the future, and let's not forget how much debt got written down in the recent crisis. It's a mechanism both for keeping wages low and for gaining a little extra exploitation. They claim that the real source of disparity between consumption and income is the spending of savings by the top 20% in the US. This is unbelievably stupid, since this bracket includes owners of capital, and their consumption changes nothing, since, as a class, what they spend returns to them: a class which owns property and spends part of that property on private consumption will find what they've spent returned to them, and in fact, this is just what happened for this percentile. They're irrelevant to the argument, and if TPTG disarticulated this bracket from the others, they'll see just how high the debt-loads are. . .

3)I can't get in to the problems with their value-theory, which might not be relevant here, or interesting to @news readers. But one word on productivity: they imply that the real source of crisis is worker-rebellion and falling productivity in work, and thus the attempt to restucture the work-place has everythign to do with an intensification of work. But this confuses the term "productivity" with "intensification." Productivity hasn't fallen because of workers slacking-off, but because the kinds of jobs capitalism provides currently don't allow for productivity increases through mechanization. Service jobs typically are difficult to mechanize (by their nature) and thus capital must rely on intensification, managerialism, all of which runs into the limits of the human body and psyche. This is the problem -- a problem with accumulation, and the shrinking of the amount of labor-power society requires to reproduce itself. Tacking the problem up to worker's slacking off mistakes effect for cause. . . Where do they see accumulation occuring, accumulation of the sort that's stable -- contained in material investments? Most of it is paper money that will disappear in the next crash. The thesis that crises are caused by worker-rebellion certainly explains some developments, but the weird twisted logic that one has to resort to explain the recent crisis under these terms is, well, depressing. Suggesting that there's a tendential logic to accumulation doesn't in any way discount the role of subjectivity, indeed it gives an account of why people might rise up. To tack this up to some vague "alienation" explain nothing. Yes, alienation exists, capitalism is alienating as fuck, and has remained so. But why, then, haven't we had a revolution? If you believe as they do, you're left with a series of moral imperatives. . ."

dr.faustus
Aug 17 2010 18:33

To the administrator:

"The Ivory Tower of Theory" was posted on the anarchistnews site without our knowledge. What is more, it was reproduced there (and then on your site) in a bad format without the italicized phrases, the letters in bold and the 53 footnotes. Therefore, we would like to ask you to replace it and reproduce it in its entirety and in its original format, for the additional reason that some of the objections of the above reader of it -to which we will answer later- may partially be answered when he/she reads the whole text. You can find the original text here:

PDF format
DOC format

We would also like you to summarize our text in the following way:

This is a critique of Theorie Communiste's erroneous idea that the December 2008 rebellion in Greece was born out of the "breaching of the social contract" on the part of the state and the "running out of future" for the proletariat as a whole. By criticizing their false notion of a generalized helotry we throw doubt upon their speculation that what is at stake today is the very survival of the proletariat and that because of this the proletariat will objectively be forced to treat its class belonging as something to do away with.

In solidarity,
Katerina, for TPTG

Steven.
Aug 17 2010 19:27

hi Katerina, thanks for that, I have corrected the version on our site.

dr.faustus
Sep 21 2010 23:27

The anonymous commenter admitted on anarchistnews that his/her comments were hasty, so trying not to follow his/her example I certainly took my time in replying to him/her. When I finally decided to sit down and write in good faith an answer to the above “terrific comments” on our text “The ivory tower of theory”, I realized that they were worse than at first sight. That is because after he/she cleared it up that he/she had actually read our text in its full form (notes included), it became even more unclear to me what the basic purpose of these comments were. Our text, on the contrary, had a very concrete purpose: to criticize TC’s basic assumptions which constituted the foundations of their text on the Greek rebellion. However, the anonymous neither elaborates on what he/she supposedly criticises TC for (their discounting of the role of agency or subjectivity, their fatalism and their periodisation) nor takes a stand on our basic arguments as presented in the introduction of our text. Thus, his/her comments soon degenerate into an unsuccessful attempt to create negative impressions about the method and the data we use. The anonymous’ arguments are based on all kinds of fallacious reasoning: fallacies of evidence, irrelevant statements, ambiguity, vagueness, lack of clarity, fallacies of misleading context and prejudice, etc.

Let’s start from a fallacy of straw (wo)man. It is contradictory to argue that we conceive crisis as a product of proletarian class-struggle (note that we never refer simply to “working class-struggle”) and at the same time to say that we see “capitalism [as] simply a neutral field with no historical tendency”. If one sees class struggle as the very dynamic of capitalism there can’t be a neutral field. The recognition of the role of class struggle as the dynamics of capitalist development or dedevelopment and, furthermore, the potential creation of new social relations within the struggle exclude any idea that “capitalism is simply a neutral field”. On the contrary, the reason why capitalism “looks different today than it did 100 years ago” is the result of the history of the global proletarian struggles as well as of the struggles of peasants and native populations against primitive accumulation.

Analysing the development of capital (that is, analysing past class struggles) and trying to understand the present situation is a way to trace historical tendencies. But, is there really anything like THE historical tendency that he/she suggests? Except for an ambiguous generality that “struggle ... does not necessarily happen one way or another, but ... is, in fact, the natural [sic] reaction of people to their life under capitalism, a life that changes, grows better or worse”, he/she writes nothing about this “historical tendency”. If capitalism is something that “includes” struggle, this means that its dynamic is not only class-struggle but he/she is unable to get his/her point across to us: what else is included in the dynamic of capitalism? If “struggle…does not necessarily happen one way or another”, then how can there be ONE historical tendency? The anonymous commenter contradicts himself/herself when he/she simultaneously criticises TC for fatalism and for discounting the role of agency/subjectivity and on the other hand he/she writes about “a historical tendency of capitalism”, in which class struggle can be nothing more than the “natural reaction of people to their life under capitalism”. If class struggle can be nothing more than a “natural reaction” that means that it is determined by this mysterious “historical tendency” of capitalism, an objective process above class struggle. He/she makes serious logical errors but he/she doesn’t seem to be able to understand it.

As for me, I don’t know which is THE historical tendency, the direction towards which capitalism develops. I can only trace different and contradictory historical tendencies inherent in the capitalist relation, some of which are open to a radical change. Anyway, it is funny that the anonymous appears to differentiate him/herself from TC saying that we are right to point out their fatalistic point of view while at the same time he/she talks about historical “directionality”.

Secondly, it’s a fallacy of slanting to say that we don’t see changes in labour relations. Our point is that precarity is not a general condition even for the entrants in the labour market as TC and the anonymous commenter believe. See for example the data we provide for Greece in pages 6-8 of the “The ivory tower of theory”. As we show in our text providing a series of research data on western countries, “The identification, on the one hand, of Keynesian regulation and the fordist organization of production with stable, guaranteed labour and the development of state interventionism as well as the identification, on the other hand, of neoliberal restructuring and the expansion of the “diffuse factory” with a limitless mobility of industrial capital around the world, extreme expansion of precarious labour relations and the dissolution of the interventionist character of the nation-state is simplistic, to say the least, if not outright wrong since it is based on the equation of various tendencies of the capitalist relation with the general situation.” [p.11]

In our text, and especially in the third chapter on which the anonymous comments, we do not argue that there has never been an increase in precarious or part-time work. What we wanted to disprove is TC’s unsupported ideology of “precarity as the general situation of the proletariat”. Precarity is certainly higher in many European countries than it was in the early 70’s, but this increase is very moderate with the exception of young workers and entrants in the labour market. However, this is connected with the imposition of discipline and not with the establishment of an imaginary regime of “generalized precarity”. Criticizing TC’s false notion of a generalized helotry, we throw doubt upon their speculation that what is at stake today is the very survival of the proletariat and that because of this the proletariat will be objectively forced to treat its class belonging as something to do away with. Contrary to what the anonymous says, for us “precariousness is [also] a subjective situation to a great extent, since even a worker with a permanent contract may feel “precarious, especially in conditions of crisis and when “business is not going well” for the bosses. However, even part-time contracts are largely connected with stable jobs, both in Europe and in the USA.” [footnote 14 of our text] Precarity is not only lack of a permanent job as only a narrow mechanistic view like TC’s can claim. If the anonymous commenter had really cared to read our article he might have understood what we say on the issue and why we say it.

I cannot understand to what the anonymous commenter refers to when he is talking about our “selective statistics” that are supposedly confined to “arguments about precarity” or centered only on the relation between “full-time” and “part-time” work. What’s more, he/she doesn’t even say a word on the complete absence of any data in TC’s text. It’s also rather vague what the anonymous commenter refers to when he’s/she’s writing about “the restructuring of work in the U.S.” which we supposedly fail to grasp or why our attempts to analyse the “service sector” do not support our arguments. These claims seem totally abstract and devoid of any content. We never pretended to have written a text on “the restructuring of work in the US” or on “the service sector”.

Thirdly, concerning the increase of state expenditures related to health care, education etc the arguments of the anonymous commenter signify both a total misunderstanding of the function of the welfare state in the advanced capitalist countries after the second world war and of our critique of TC concerning this issue. The paragraph we devote to the welfare state doesn’t argue on labour’s big or small claims on “surpluses” in general. The term “surplus” we use denotes the “net social wage”, defined as benefits (related to all kinds of social expenditures -education, health, social security, housing, transportation, recreation etc) received by workers minus taxes paid by them. According to our sources mentioned in the text, TC’s claim that after the early-mid seventies and up until now the “restructuring has abolished all guarantees and welfare” simply doesn’t hold up. Especially in the United States and in Sweden the “net social wage” is negative during the so-called “golden age of the welfare state” and it becomes positive in the ’70s and during the period of “restructuring”. We also give some explanations for this: increasing working class demands, increased numbers of unemployed and poor people who become eligible for benefits, expanding needs of the reproduction of labour power. Health care expenses are nothing but a part of the reproduction cost of labour power and thus a part of the (collective) indirect wage. From this standpoint it is totally irrelevant and moralistic to say that “medicare spending lines the pockets of insurance companies, drug companies etc” since the reproduction of labour power is commodified in most of its forms (food, recreation, education etc). The real issue here is whether the increase of social expenditures is related to a sharing of poverty among proletarians through their direct and indirect taxation or if it stems from a relative depletion of surplus value through a taxation on capital’s profits. But this is “a question of the respective powers of the social combatants” as old Marx used to say, that is a question completely out of the reach of TC and the anonymous commenter. To say that “welfare doesn’t exist in the U.S.” is a ridiculous argument for someone who pretends to be interested in “why capitalism looks different today than it did 100 years ago”!

Now let’s see our “worst”: credit and debt. Here the anonymous commenter completely distorts our point. He writes that we “suggest that, in fact, debt loads haven’t increased for the majority of people, when every statistical measure shows they have”. But, in page 13 of our text one can read: “Of course, restructuring was not just a “defensive” strategy of capital, neither did it just stay limited to keep the demands of the proletarians in check. It introduced new forms of capitalist attack in the developed world, such as, for example, tendencies of increased precariousness amongst entrants onto the labour market, privatizations in a series of the sectors of the economy or the explosion of financial capital through the expansion of credit to proletarians. It also induced increases in working time, the intensification of labour, the reduction of the direct, individual wage but also the increase in employment (albeit the periodical numerous layoffs and the increase in unemployment in specific sectors of the economic/productive activity). The increase in employment led to the increase of the household income: more people are now working more than before in order to satisfy their increased needs, because of the transfer of a part of the cost of social reproduction to the workers themselves. If the initial phase of the crisis of reproduction of capitalist relations at the end of the 60’s was the result of multiple proletarian negations, the present phase of the reproduction crisis was accelerated by the, necessarily contradictory, neoliberal capitalist politics”. (One can also have a look at a paper we presented in an international meeting in early August this year –‘Burdened with debt’, soon to be posted on Libcom as well– to get an idea of how we understand debt-loads and the debt-crisis).

According to the anonymous commenter we “claim that the real source of disparity between consumption and income is the spending of savings by the top 20% in the US. This is unbelievably stupid, since this bracket includes owners of capital, and their consumption changes nothing, since, as a class, what they spend returns to them: a class which owns property and spends part of that property on private consumption will find what they’ve spent returned to them, and in fact, this is just what happened for this percentile. They’re irrelevant to the argument, and if TPTG disarticulated this bracket from the others, they'll see just how high the debt-loads are …” Here we have a classic fallacy of misleading context. What we really argued in the fourth chapter of our text [p.15] was against the idea that the crisis is an underconsumption crisis and we presented some evidence for his/her country that he/she doesn’t seem able to dispute. It is not us but the underconsumptionists or those, like TC, who try to combine a falling rate of profit theory with an underconsumption theory that lay emphasis on a “demand gap” generated by the greater share of profits to wages in value added. We showed that this “gap” is filled with by the consumption of the top 20% in the US (which is comprised mostly by the better paid off parts of the working class and to a lesser extent by CEOs and capitalists, whose luxury consumption should also be taken into consideration when somebody examines the underconsumptionist point of view). As far as the crisis is concerned, the main question for us is not the market question as such but if there is an expanding demand for capital goods, a steady supply of a disciplined labour power and a labour force productive enough to satisfy the profit requirements of a progressive capital accumulation. That’s why we are not underconsumptionists. What is the anonymous’ point of view on the question of consumption is unclear, hence his/her comments are irrelevant to the argument.

The anonymous commenter’s final attempt to create negative impressions about us is depressing. He/she starts with an incomprehensible murmur about value-theory and quickly turns to an “elucidation” on productivity. This part is indeed the most confusing one. He/she claims that we confuse productivity with intensification because we connect low increasing of productivity with “workers’ slacking off”. Naturally, the intensification of labour has a lot to do with the reduction of “dead production time” during the workday and the acceleration of the rhythms of the machines and thus it can contribute to the extraction of relative surplus value. Nevertheless, the rise of productivity is not connected only with the design and introduction of new machinery (and, contrary to what our anonymous commenter claims, computerized workflow systems are constantly installed in massive service sector workplaces such as call centres and elsewhere) but also with the skills of the workers and with the combination of information and knowledge stemming from the experience of the workers. The father of “scientific management” F. Taylor admitted that in order to design a better organization of production with the introduction of new machines, he had to observe the work process of the direct producers, to record their moves and the times in which they were performed. In this way, the direct experience of the workers is integrated in the machines against them. Therefore, the social character of production, the experience in problem solving during the operation of the means of production, and most importantly the disciplining of the workers are absolutely necessary factors to achieve a productive function of the machinery.

If he/she really cares to know what we say about the very low increases in the productivity of labour, we suggest to him/her to read footnote 17. He/she will find out that for us proletarian insubordination and “nomadism” are only some of the reasons for the low increasing of productivity rates. He/she discounts this factor because he/she understands proletarians as passive subjects subordinated to capital’s command, that’s why he/she writes that capital’s command “runs into the limits of the human body and psyche”, without being able to understand how workers resist this command.

In the same perspective of unverified certainties, he/she asserts us that there is a “shrinking of the amount of labor-power society requires to reproduce itself”. As a consequence of the acceleration of overaccumulation crisis the relative surplus population is rising but at the same time the absolute number of people who work is also rising. I won’t get into any statistical data. I will just let him/her find it for himself/herself.

I will stop here because it is very tiring to refute fallacious reasoning and at the same time try to guess what the anonymous means. Both TC’s and our point of view are very clear. If any sympathizer or follower of TC would like to defend them, they should raise themselves to the same level of clarity.

Katerina