I initially wrote this as a reply to Jake off my previous post about capital being “diseased”. I’m trying to apply some of the ideas I’ve been picking up from reading Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically. I’m also trying to put them together with the more philosophical readings of Marx (which Cleaver would probably reject). But I thought the ideas in my reply were important and controversial enough to reproduce them in their own post.

I don’t think the capital social relation is idiotic or stupid exactly. (Though I do think it is counterintuitive and destructive.) It has a rationality to it, and understanding capitalism is equivalent to understanding that rationality. But to my mind there has been no comprehension of the essence of the capital social relation that was more fundamental than that provided by Karl Marx in Volume 1 of Capital. And what Marx shows there is that the rationality of capital is inherently contradictory. This contradiction is more often than not understood as the inevitability of “crisis” in capitalism. It is less often understood as the inevitability of resistance to capitalism by the working class.

The difficulty lies in understanding how something can be both contradictory and rational. We tend to think that a contradiction in something (particularly an argument) is an indication of its irrationality. But the sorts of contradictions Marx speaks of when he talks about “immanent contradiction” and “absolute contradiction” in the Contribution and in Capital are ontological contradictions, not propositional ones. The contradictions belong to things, not to theories or arguments about things. The rationality of capital does not lie in its being “valid” in the sense of an argument. That wouldn’t make any sense. Nor does it lie in the fact that is an efficient organization of production (or one that matches “nature”). The rationality of capital lies in the fact that it is a social process that behaves in accordance with an essence or a real nature. That essence consists in the imposition of the commodity-form on labor-power. It is a fusion of form (commodity-form) and content (actual labor power and techniques of production). It is the fusion of these two things that is contradictory, but this is indeed the “nature” of the capital social relation. That’s what it is at all places and times. What’s different at different places and times is the degree to which this form is being imposed (and therefore the efficiency of the theft of surplus from the workers) as well as the degree of resistance of the working class to this imposition and exploitation.

This brings me to your [Jake’s] second claim: “It’s highly adaptive, it seems, absorbs what it can and squashes the rest.” It absorbs what it can and squashes resistance where it can, but it’s also important to notice that it cannot crush or co-opt all resistance, and the degree to which it is successful at doing this is not the result of the spontaneity of the capitalist class and their degree of social technology; rather, it is correlated with the degree of working class resistance to the imposition of the commodity-form on labor. Resistance to this imposition is just as essential to the capital social relation as is the imposition itself. This follows from Marx’s analysis, but it is also visible in reality at all times and all places. Resistance not only took place through the party politics of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It took place with equal force in the space between the wars (the workers’ councils in Europe). It took place in the “developing world” since the 50s up to today. It was and is visible in the struggles of the unwaged: students, blacks, prisoners, Native Americans, women, and houseworkers. It’s still taking place in the movement in Argentina to take over factories and in Chiapas. It took place in Cuba – sometimes with the cooperation of the state, sometimes without – during the “Special Period” when workers had to come up with innovative ways to deal with the first wave of Peak Oil in the 90s. And so on.

To ignore the actual struggles by the working class produces the sorts of one-sided theories of Marxist political economists like Baran and Sweezy as well as the equally one-sided “cultural” or “hegemonic” interpretations of the Frankfurt School. We want to reject theories which treat capitalism as something “irrational” just as much as we want to reject theories that treat it as something “hegemonic” which co-opts all resistance. What we want instead are theoretically grounded (”scientific”), strategic accounts of capitalism, beginning not just from what the capitalist class is doing but also taking into account the new and novel forms of resistance to the imposition of the commodity-form on labor. We want to take stock not only of the enemy, but of our own forces on the battlefield as well. We need to understand where we are, because that is in large part determining what they are doing.