Rent and the Crisis of U.S. Capitalist Production
“The old is dying and the new cannot be born: in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear.” Antonio Gramsci
The Crisis and Its Sources
Believe it or not, but Bloomberg does publish mildly interesting articles every once in a while, and by coincidence this one on the stagnation of U.S. manufacturing appeared last week (Carl Pope is a former chair of the Sierra Club):
Put aside the author’s no doubt special pleading for low tax, unregulated “green and clean” manufacturing. The fundamental point is correct, and supported by the statistical evidence: the bulk of manufacturing jobs have been lost “the old-fashioned way”, by the replacement of labor power by machines, and less so by the so-called neoliberal “wage arbitrage” of existing technique to low wage countries. Remember this the next time a Democrat or an American trade union official starts into beating on “China” with their chauvinistic and implicitly racist demagoguery. “The old-fashioned way” - in historical terms actually a new-fangled way of extracting a surplus product that emerged in force only in the mid-19th century – is what Marxism has called relative surplus value extraction, tending to raise the average organic composition of capital – the ratio of constant to variable capital, with “constant” representing the value of machinery, technique, raw materials, and manufactured means of production generally, and “variable” representing wages. This raises the productivity – the volume of commodities a single capital can put out with a given variable capital – of those capitals who can successfully reduce their variable capital with new technique, thereby raising the rate and mass of their individual profit at the expense of their competitors. It was counterposed by Marx to absolute surplus value extraction by means of lengthening the workday or workweek, and/or deepening the intensity of labor in any given work period. This latter is the true “old-fashioned way” of the capitalist extraction of surplus value, and the predominant way of the capitalist mode of production throughout its history before the 19th century.
The problem that Mr Pope is pointing to, translated into Marxian terms, is quite real: the conditions of production in the United States work against advancing capitalist production along relative surplus value lines. In other words, an “advanced capitalist” country where half the adult population believes a personal guardian angel watches over them, day in, day out, according to The Baylor Religion Survey (2008), may not be the most conducive to the advance of science and technology in production. These conditions are therefore both superstructural – involving the structures of the State, law, custom, ideology, culture – and infrastructural – this latter boiling down to the use of the land, water, air and ecosystem as a whole. These two aspects are dialectically interrelated as a whole with their fulcrum in the State – this after all the final arbitrator both the of the use of infrastructure and preservation of the existing superstructure – and have as their antithesis the reproduction of labor power in the form of wage labor. The question of all of these conditions for carrying on capitalist production in its specific “industrial” manufacturing sense are essentially those of the qualitative nature of the use values that comprise those conditions, and whose “solution”, should these conditions be a barrier to the advance of capitalist production – is therefore not immediately reducible to applications of the law of (exchange) value, a.k.a. neoliberal “market solutions”. As will be seen, the neo-liberal approach has been leading to a very different and even opposed result. The solution in historical fact requires the intervention of agencies operating outside the law of value: either the existing State, in what Antonio Gramsci called “passive revolutions”, conservative reforms “from above”, or the intervention of the masses, and especially the subject of the capitalist mode of production and the law of value, the proletariat, in a social revolution. Interventions from above and below occur simultaneously, of course, with the question being which class will get the upper hand. That is what the United States is facing today in the present crisis. Ever since the Civil War – and beginning with that war – the U.S. ruling class has solved the problem of the conditions of capitalist production (whether or not the ruling participants understood what they were doing is besides the point here) through a series of conservative “passive revolutions” that run through the Progressive Era – rightly called the “Triumph of Conservatism” by Gabriel Kolko (1963), though not for the reasons he thought – and most of all, the New Deal era, the greatest conservative triumph of them all, as can be seen when we observe the social terrain at present.