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Hiding behind the specter of Marx

A response to James Heartfield’s review of Andrew Kliman’s, The Failure of Capitalist Production.

Philip Cunliffe

Platypus Review 72 | December 2014 - January 2015

The Marx Lounge, 2011 installation by Alfredo Jaar.

"The Marx Lounge", 2011, an installation by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar.

 

There is a fair ammout one could take issue with in James Heartfield’s review of Andrew Kliman’s The Failure of Capitalist Production—not least the redundant polemical sideswipes that generate heat but do not shed light. But rather than arbitrating between Kliman and Heartfield, I want to focus instead on the main contradiction in Heartfield’s argument, as it is Heartfield’s argument that has the most far-reaching implications for how we might think about capitalism and the prospects for social change. This is because Heartfield argues that there has been a fundamental change in the nature of capitalism, but is unwilling to follow through on his own claims.
Heartfield has two mutually inconsistent lines of attack on Kliman. On the one hand, Heartfield attacks Kliman for jumbling up Marx’s theory and ignoring what is, according to Heartfield, masses of crucial and obvious empirical evidence. On the other hand, Heartfield charges Kliman with failing to live up to Marx’s spirit—or what Heartfield describes as Marx’s “underlying method” but is in fact Heartfield’s own theory about the risk-aversion of the capitalist class. One line of attack is a technical and substantive discussion on the basis of Marx’s categories and the interpretation of the empirical evidence. The other line of attack is based on Heartfield’s own claims about the low morale of the contemporary capitalist class and the “anti-growth” ideas that they have embraced. In short, Heartfield holds Kliman to account by two incompatible standards.
Heartfield’s review oscillates between these two lines of attack. On the first line of attack, Heartfield variously accuses Kliman of reifying the falling rate of profit by extracting it out of the wider dynamic of capital accumulation, of under-emphasizing the exploitation of labor over recent decades, of over-emphasizing changes in asset prices and capital depreciation, and of overlooking the importance of consumption goods for the reproduction of labor power. On the second line of attack, Heartfield accuses Kliman of ignoring the political defeat of the working class and the resultant drift and disorientation of the ruling class. Heartfield strains to compress these two arguments into one by arguing that the defeat of the unions in the West and expansion of capitalism into the old Second and Third Worlds can be translated into the terms of Marx’s economic categories (i.e., how the relationship between constant and variable capital is altered). But there are a number of problems with the way in which Heartfield does this.
For a start, the manner in which Heartfield translates these political changes into Marx’s most elemental categories is often assertive, and without the evidence such claims can only have the character of intriguing hypotheses. For example at one point Heartfield claims that the post-Cold War Eastern European imports of U.S. industrial goods and export of cheap consumption goods to the U.S. have been fundamental to U.S. capitalism. But while this would certainly be nice for Heartfield’s theory, he presents no evidence for it. At another point, Heartfield asserts that the defeat of the unions prompted the growth of the U.S. labor force that correspondingly dampened the effects of the falling rate of profit, but never bothers to measure de-unionization against such trivial things as population growth, immigration, the changing composition and the feminization of the labor force.
More important than Heartfield’s failure to substantiate such claims is the fact that at the most protean level of Marx’s theory, political defeats such as the crushing of the unions or implosion of the Eastern bloc only matter in as much as they impact ratios in the dynamic of capital accumulation. Heartfield sneers at Kliman’s use of “ratios” as opposed to “social relations” (relations that we can supposedly understand by communing with Marx’s “underlying method”) and charges Kliman with “over-objectifying” economic limits. But what are ratios if not relational? And what else is Heartfield describing but an objective social condition understandable in terms of a ratio of constant to variable capital? Heartfield claims that the capitalists’ political victories over the last forty years have allowed them to lay claim to a mass of surplus value sufficient as to stave off the crisis tendencies identified by Marx. If true, why would we expect them to behave differently? Capitalists invest for profit, not to satisfy James Heartfield. If they are making enough profits as a result of the defeat of the unions, why bother investing proportionately more in what Marx would call constant capital (technology, etc.)? Doubtless capitalists have become decadent as a result of their earlier victory in the class war. But Marx’s theory is about dynamics—ratios, even—that occur independently of the existential mood of the bourgeoisie. The organic composition of capital is not going to change if the capitalists fire all the risk consultants and tear up the corporate social responsibility charters. The agency of the proletariat and its political consciousness matters for Marx but the consciousness of the capitalists and their failure to live up to the self-serving fables of entrepreneurship is neither here nor there in terms of the relationship (one might even call it a “ratio”) between constant and variable capital.
Either: Heartfield can say that the defeat of the organized labor movement and global expansion of capital has led to under-accumulation in terms of Marx’s theory as against Kliman’s claims of over-accumulation. This underlying organic composition of capital can be plausibly associated with a particular set of social and political conditions, such as the ideology of eco-doom and social skepticism towards growth. Or: Heartfield can say that the defeat of the organized labor movement and the global expansion of capital led to a restructuring of modern society so complete and sweeping that commodity fetishism no longer applies and relations of constant to variable capital do not matter in the face of our rulers’ moral torpor and timidity. Or, in a word, that Marx was wrong. Instead of the subjective political struggle for socialism displacing and triumphing over the objective social relations of capital, the opposite process has occurred whereby the subjective attitude of the capitalists has displaced the objective relations of capital. If the latter is true, then Marx is not only wrong now but was always wrong, since evidently his theory could not accommodate such a drastic social change in the development of capitalism while it is still recognizably capitalism. There is—of course—nothing intrinsically illegitimate about either line of attack. But by seeking to combine them without at least trying to reconcile their incompatibility, the overall effect cannot but be disingenuous. |P

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