Marx’s Marxism or Undifferentiated Totality? A further reply to Chris Cutrone

By Andrew Kliman.

“[T]he existing society isn’t just capital.” — Andrew Kliman, June 3, 2009

“The present society is capital.” — Chris Cutrone, June 4, 2009

In a comment on Josh Skolnik’s recent essay on this site,  Critical Thoughts on Critical Theory: A Reexamination of the Holistic Critique of “Economism” (an essay which I think is extremely perceptive and profound), Chris Cutrone wrote,

I hope that Josh (following Andrew Kliman) doesn’t mean to say that we need a more adequate economic analysis to “figure out” the economic problems of capitalism before trying to “fix” them by proposing an alternative economic model!

But how does the view that Chris is trying to mock differ from what Marx did in the Critique of the Gotha Program (and elsewhere)? That critique was–inter alia, but predominantly and precisely–a critique of the Gotha Program’s inadequate economic analysis, which prevented it from “figuring out” the economic problems of capitalism, with the result being, according to Marx, that the Program tried to “fix” these problems by proposing an alternative economic model that would not in fact work!

Again and again during the course of that critique, far from putting forward a slogan such as “The present society is capital”–i.e., far from regarding present society as an undifferentiated whole–Marx emphasized that the Program proposed false solutions because it misunderstood the specific relationships among the different aspects of present society:

Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution [of the proceeds of labor] is “fair”? And is it not, in fact, the only “fair”‘ distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions, or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise out of economic ones? [emphases added]

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby. [emphasis added]

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! [emphasis added]

it was in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it. Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only aconsequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?” [emphases added]

Instead of the indefinite concluding phrase of the paragraph, ‘the elimination of all social and political inequality’, it ought to have been said that with the abolition of class distinctions all social and political inequality arising from them would disappear of itself. [emphasis added]

“The German Workers’ party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases. [emphasis in original]

Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. [emphasis altered]

I wonder what Chris (and zerohour, who also criticized Josh Skolnik’s essay in a similar manner) thinks of this analysis and critique of Marx’s.  Is it to be dismissed as “economic determinism” or “economism”?

The position of Marxist-Humanist Initiative on this matter is unequivocal.  As we have written in our Statement of Principles:

We reject the notion that Marx was exclusively a theorist of capitalism rather than socialism. In the Critique of the Gotha Program (and in the Poverty of Philosophy, theGrundrisse, Capital, and elsewhere), he dealt with the question of an emancipatory alternative to capitalism. He showed that the alternatives proposed by Proudhonism and similar tendencies would not be viable and would lead back to capitalism. And he worked out to some extent what would actually be needed in order to transcend capitalism and its indirectly social labor, alienated labor, commodification of labor-power, and “law of value,” and what would actually be needed for socialist society to develop to the point at which it can finally operate according to the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Along with Dunayevskaya, we hold that this pathbreaking work of Marx is “new ground” for organization. It is the basis of our organization’s opposition to capitalism and our vision of a socialist future, and it is the foundation upon which we build in order to work out the problem of an emancipatory alternative to capitalism.

(2) Chris’ slogan, “The present society is capital,” is not just a metaphor.  The equation of “present society” and “capital” is intentional and meant literally, since it is a direct response to my comment that “the existing society isn’t just capital.”  In other words, when faced with the distinction between “present society” and “capital”–in which “present society” is a broader, more inclusive concept than “capital”–Chris has denied that there is any such distinction.

But what does “The present society is capital” mean, when taken literally?  Indeed, does the slogan then have any meaning at all?  I don’t think so.  It’s just an empty tautology.  Here’s why:

If “capital” and “the present society” are identical, undifferentiated, then, whenever we say “capital,” we could instead say “the present society,” and vice-versa, with no change in or loss of meaning.  The slogan  “The present society is capital” could thus be restated as

“The present society is the present society”


“Capital is capital”

These are just empty tautologies.

If Chris wishes to avoid this conclusion, he can do so, not by saying that this isn’t what he meant to say (which is obvious), nor that he’s been misunderstood–I have understood the implication of the words themselves correctly–but only by introducing determinate distinctions between “the present society” and “capital.”

Undifferentiated totality yields, and can yield, nothing more than tautology.

5 Comments on “Marx’s Marxism or Undifferentiated Totality? A further reply to Chris Cutrone”

  1. 1Chris Cutrone said at 7:25 pm on June 17th, 2009:Obviously, there is a point to addressing “present society” colloquially (as in the preceding phrase) and not just saying “capital” all the time. But one might as well say just that, that “capital” refers to the present social-historical form of humanity, or the present “organization of society.” This is more than just a provocation to thought (or “slogan”); it could be an analytic as well. When Marx says in Capital that all time (including “leisure time”) becomes the time of the reproduction of capital, was he being literal, or just provocative?

    The trick is that “present society” seems to refer to a static proposition or snapshot view of things, while “capital” is meant (with Marx) to refer to a dynamic process. The point is how does “society” figure in the dynamic of capital, as something affected by it, or as an inherent aspect of it? The problem with the terms is that one must use non-dialectical categories to refer to a dialectical process. Does capital exist in society, or does society exist in capital?

    Dialectical reasoning is not (merely) tautological, though it may appear so.

    I think the terminological problem emerges in terms, not of different referents, but rather different levels of analysis. I am referring to what Marx called, after Hegel, rising from the abstract to the concrete, the “abstract” context for the concrete, or the “real abstraction” of capital. For capital is not the abstraction from the concrete, but rather the concretion of abstractions, as Marx, following Hegel, put it, the “unity of the diverse.” This is not a philosophical proposition valid for all time, but refers to the social-historical specificity of capital.

    I agree that Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Program is skewering the Lassallean “iron law of wages” etc. as bad economic analysis, but not only that. I think that “mode of production” refers to something beyond the “economy.” I think Marx’s category of capital refers to the overall process of social reproduction. “Capitalist mode of production” refers to concrete activities that are recognizable within capital as “capitalist.” But referring to the mode of production of capital, one could point equally well to a factory or to the (activity, in all spheres of life, of) human beings that comprise “present society.”

    On the issue of “undifferentiated totality,” I think that the fear is that if capital = society is taken to be a totality, it suddenly seems as if there is no basis for emancipatory transformation.

    I don’t interpret Marx to be saying that the self-contradiction of capital is that between use-value and exchange-value, or between concrete and abstract labor. I take capital to be the self-contradictory form of relation between these two (sets of) dimensions as a function of time. What this means is that the use-value dimension or the dimension of concrete labor in the value-form is capture-able by the dynamic of capital. It is this dynamic that must be pushed further towards emancipatory ends and ultimately transcended, but on its own basis; it is not a matter of trying to break that dynamic or somehow slip out of it.

  2. 2Andrew Kliman said at 1:21 am on June 18th, 2009:Replying to my post of yesterday, Chris Cutrone wrote, “I agree that Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Program is skewering the Lassallean ‘iron law of wages’ etc. as bad economic analysis, but not only that.”

    But that’s not among the issues I posed, Chris. The issues are:

    1. Does Marx’s critique of the Gotha Program exemplify the very method of challenging capital(ism), theoretically and philosophically, that you mocked in the following terms:

    “we need a more adequate economic analysis to ‘figure out’ the economic problems of capitalism before trying to ‘fix’ them by proposing an alternative economic model!”

    2. Do you agree or disagree that the textual evidence I presented shows that “[a]gain and again during the course of that critique, far from putting forward a slogan such as ‘The present society is capital’–i.e., far from regarding present society as an undifferentiated whole–Marx emphasized that the Program proposed false solutions because it misunderstood the specific relationships among the different aspects of present society”?

    3. What do you think of Marx’s analysis and critique of the Gotha Program? Is it to be dismissed as “economic determinism” or “economism”? If not, what makes Marx such a privileged character? Why is it okay for Marx to undertake, but something to be ridiculed and derided as “economism” and “economic determinism” when Skolnik and the MHI stress its importance and necessity?

    As for the other matter, Chris thinks that he can continue to put forward the notion of present society (= capital) as an undifferentiated totality, but nonetheless manage to escape from my charge that he’s peddling a empty tautology.

    He claims in effect that his slogan, “The present society is capital,” is not a tautology, even though both “the present society” and “capital” refer to one and the same undifferentiated totality, because “the present society” refers to the totality as viewed statically while “capital” refers to the totality as viewed dynamically. (He writes, “The trick is that ‘present society’ seems to refer to a static proposition or snapshot view of things, while ‘capital’ is meant (with Marx) to refer to a dynamic process.”)

    Nice try, Chris, but I’m sorry; this doesn’t work. There is no dynamics in an undifferentiated totality. That’s because there is no dynamics without internal differentiation.

    This is obvious once you think about it. Take the biggest totality there is, the universe. There’s movement within it, but that’s movement of parts within the whole. Let’s abstract from them and consider the whole, the universe, itself. Does it move; can it move? With reference to what? In order for it to move, there would have to be something outside of or in addition to the universe, some reference point, but once there is something outside of or in addition to it, it is no longer the totality, but only part of an even bigger totality (universe + something else). So there can be movement of parts within a totality (and self-movement of an internally differentiated totality–I’ll give an example of that below), but no movement of or within an undifferentiated totality.

    It is certainly true that, in Marx’s work, capital is a dynamic process, but that’s because capital in Marx’s work is not an undifferentiated totality. In fact, far from thinking that everything in present society is capital, Marx’s conception was that NOTHING in present society is, in and of itself, capital. Capital is simply and only the process (of self-expanding value) itself.

    Nothing else is capital–except when and insofar as it is part of this process: “in the circulation M-C-M … value … is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement.” Money and commodities are just “specific forms of appearance assumed in turn by self-valorizing value in the course of its life.” [Capital, vol. 1, chap. 4, p. 255 of Penguin ed.]

    Thus, for instance, even means of production are not capital for Marx, not even within “the present society,” except when and insofar as they are used in the process of self-expanding value.

    … So, since the static vs. dynamic thing doesn’t work, “The present society is capital” is an an empty tautology, as I said, when its terms are understood as the same undifferentiated totality. If you want to avoid this conclusion, Chris, you can do so only by introducing determinate distinctions between “the present society” and “capital.”

  3. 3Chris Cutrone said at 9:25 am on June 18th, 2009:I’m unsure what we are debating. But we are definitely talking past each other.

    What I am sure of, is that my main points in my previous post, about dialectic vs. tautology and “rising from the abstract to the concrete” (i.e., that Marx’s treatment of categories in Capital is not a logically deductive analysis, but an attempt to grasp the self-contradiction of capital in its movement), are being ignored in favor of turning my argument into a straw-man (by accusing me of making a straw-man argument).

    To return to the beginning: I don’t think that, from a Marxian approach, a positive economic program can be given that would lead to social emancipation. Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program is not primarily or even substantially a critique of the SPD’s economic program. More importantly, the point is the obvious one that Marx does not offer there or elsewhere a competing positive economic program.

    Marx was not an economist but he provided an immanent critique of political economy. This was done by Marx dialectically not tautologically, but many readers have dismissed Marx (and Hegel, et al.) for offering nothing but tautologies and mystifications. Again, I pose the question: According to Marx’s approach to the problem of capital, does capital take place in society, or does society take place in capital?

    Josh accused me of mystification, and cast me along with “critical theory” and “Western Marxism” as a whole into this dustbin, even implying that there was a conservative/Right-wing character to doing “cultural critique.” (I’m sure that Josh thinks that Nietzsche was a conservative or reactionary philosopher and doesn’t recognize him as an emancipatory — really, liberal — thinker. I’m sure that Benjamin and Adorno are mistaken similarly for being conservative.)

    My point would be that if you want to critique the present economic system and try to offer an alternative one, that’s fine. You could be inspired by Marx to do so, but you don’t actually need Marx, and it would be a distortion of Marx to claim that you were doing so on the basis of Marx, let alone that you were doing what Marx himself did.

    Why does this matter? Because I think that by leaving so much of Marx’s actual concerns out, you will end up affirming, at another level, what Marx sought to critically grasp and challenge about the modern society of capital. Such narrowing of concerns, from those I take to be Marx’s, I think, involves affirming capital/the present society in ways that I think are politically problematic.

  4. 4dola said at 12:41 pm on June 18th, 2009:Chris what would transcending the dynamic (of capital) on its own basis look like, both apart from and within the process of reproduction? What are some of the main positive historical lessons we can look to for example in this project?

  5. 5Chris Cutrone said at 7:24 pm on June 18th, 2009:I see overcoming capital on its own basis as democratically modifying and disarticulating socially necessary labor time through a process in which production on the “shop floor” as well as allocation of resources in society as a whole — at a global scale — is democratically determined, at a variety of levels and in different forms. At the same time that production and distribution are thus democratically determined, the political goal of diminishing labor, whether in producing what Marx calls the means of production or in the means of consumption, as the privileged site of social coordination, needs to be advocated throughout the transition, so that, for example, non-wage laborers (e.g., present-day slum city dwellers in the so-called “developing” parts of the world) are not unduly disempowered in the social-political process.

    Suffice it to say, I think that the compulsion to wage labor cannot be abolished at one stroke, but I do think that the democratic empowerment of wage laborers is the only way to overcome the organization of society around value production.

    So, while I’m not at all certain that such prior historical phenomena as soviets/workers councils will be sufficient for or even appropriate to overcoming capital, I think their precedent and how prior Marxists have understood their potential social-political role is an important model and aspect of grasping and further imagining what the democratization of value-production towards its eventual overcoming might look like.

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