[OPE-L:1218] capitalism as an organic system

Michael A. Lebowitz (mlebowit@sfu.ca)
Mon, 26 Feb 1996 00:55:32 -0800

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Gil has made a number of assertions, allegations and
challenges in 1166 and 1167 in response to my arguments
about his Chapter 5 argument, the validity of emphasising
the labour-power contract and his understanding of
capitalism as a totality. Some can be answered more easily
than others, but it will take a few posts to do so. Suffice
it to say that I disagree on most things but (at least at
the moment) there appears to be one surprising agreement. To
what I am sure will be Gil's great disappointment (which can
be anticipated even in sunny British Columbia), I want to
deal not at all with the value-theoretic question here but
with some broader issues about the conditions under which
capitalism can be considered as a totality.
In 1129, in support of my argument that neither
differential property endowments (which would establish the
condition for either labour hiring capital or capital hiring
labour) nor even the existence of the latter case ("labour-
market island") were sufficient to produce capitalism as an
organic system, I cited Marx in Vol I, Ch.28
(Vintage/Penguin 899):

It is not enough that the conditions of labour are
concentrated at one pole of society in the shape of capital,
while at the other pole are grouped masses of men who have
nothing to sell but their labour-power. Nor is it enough
that they are compelled to sell themselves voluntarily."

The combination of these statements appears to suggest,
further, that it is "not enough" that there be merely formal
subsumption of labour under capital. This was my point. I
continued in 1129 and argued that the normal reproduction of
capitalism has as a condition that workers look upon
capital's requirements "as self-evident natural laws" and
that, for Marx, the development of the specifically
capitalist mode of production was in turn a condition for

However, Gil has argued that I have misinterpreted both
the passage cited in full (as well as the subsequent one
containing the phrase "self-evident natural laws"). I would
suggest that it is the opposite--- Gil has misinterpreted
the page (and perhaps the chapter).
The point of the page (and chapter) is how in the
"historical genesis of capitalist production" (899), capital
requires the power of the state to keep wages low enough
(and hours high enough) for valorisation "and to keep the
worker himself at his normal level of dependence" (900). The
implication is that--- in the absence of such "direct extra-
economic force" (eg., "grotesquely terroristic laws") under
these conditions-- even though workers have been "compelled
to sell themselves voluntarily", they may be able to reduce
their dependence upon capital. As I noted, Marx saw the
experience in the colonies as proof of this: because of
labour-market conditions prevailing in that conjuncture,
"today's wage-labourer is tomorrow's peasant or artisan,
working for himself". There is a non-reproduction of wage-
labour; the wage-labourer loses "along with the relation of
dependence, the feeling of dependence upon the abstemious
capitalist" (Ch. 33, 936). Given this tendency for the non-
reproduction of wage-labour, the condition for the
reproduction of capital in this situation also is the
exercise of the power of the state: "In the old civilized
countries the worker, although free, is by a law of nature
dependent on the capitalist; in colonies this dependence
must be created by artificial means." (937)
Marx is very clear in Ch. 33 what keeps the worker
dependent in those "old civilized countries"--- the regular
reproduction of the reserve army (which is to say, the
regular displacement of workers by machinery). This, he
notes, confines wages "within limits satisfactory to
capitalist exploitation, and lastly, the social dependence
of the worker on the capitalist, which is indispensable, is
secured" and further reinforces the illusion that "this
relation of absolute dependence" is a free contract between
capitalist and worker. (935). This is also exactly what he
is saying on p.899 in the passages I identified as well---
with the development of the capitalist mode of production,
there is the constant generation of "relative surplus
population", which makes it possible to rely upon the
worker's "dependence on capital, which springs from the
conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in
perpetuity by them."
Marx, in short, was saying there that the sale of
labour-power and mere formal subsumption of labour under
capital is not in itself sufficient to ensure the continuing
dependence of workers upon capital, which is "indispensable"
for the reproduction of capital. Nevertheless, the
development of the capitalist mode of production, the
advance of capitalist production, "develops a working class
which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the
requirements of that mode of production as self-evident
natural laws."

So what is Gil saying in contrast? Gil argues (1) re
the condition that workers look upon capital's requirements
as 'self-evident natural laws' that it is "nowhere proven
that this is a 'condition' of capitalism's 'normal
reproduction', and the passage that Mike gets the phrase
from does not indicate this. It says that 'the advance of
capitalist production develops [i.e., is sufficient for] a
working class which by education, tradition, and habit looks
upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-
evident natural laws', not that this is an integral or
necessary condition of "normal reproduction of capitalism",
unless the latter term is understood to include the
condition *by definition* [which Marx nowhere requires]."
Secondly, Gil proposes that "if you read the passage
Mike quotes here, you'll find that it's ambiguous at best.
Mike interprets the phrase 'it is not enough' as though it
continued 'it is not enough {for the normal reproduction of
capitalism', but if you read the passage together with the
paragraph immediately preceding it, I think you'll find that
there's an at least equally plausible alternative
translation: '{Not only is it true under capitalism}that
the conditions of labour are concentrated at one pole of
society....{and } that they are compelled to sell themselves
voluntarily {, but furthermore} the advance of capitalist
production develops a working class which {etc, etc}.
I think that I have said enough to indicate that Gil's
readings are *not* equally plausible at all! I can't see how
can come to his reading in the context of the chapter.
Gil also raised here the question of how this relates
to Ch.5, but I'll postpone that answer (sorry, gil) to
respond here to arguments he posed about my understanding of
Marx's thinking about organic systems. In response to my
statement that "so long as there is merely formal
subsumption of labour under capital, capitalism is not yet
an organic system, " Gil proposed that I was introducing
"unspecified (and I think, suspicious) conditions as to what
constitutes an 'organic' system. Mike does not define the
term. I don't think *Marx* ever uses the term in this way."
Marx, however, does talk explicitly in the Grundrisse
(Penguin/Vintage, 278) in this very way about the conditions
constituting an organic system:

"While in the completed bourgeois system every economic
relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic
form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition,
this is the case with every organic system. This organic
system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and
its development to a totality consists precisely in
subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in
creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is
historically how it becomes a totality."

My not so suspicious conditions as to how capitalism
becomes a totality is that it does so when it produces its
own premises-- when it develops its own mode of production
(rather than resting upon historical presuppositions) and
produces a dependent working class which looks upon
capital's requirements as common sense.
There is an interesting argument that Gil has made,
drawing upon the first part of Ch. 25, which I will turn to
in a note which follows.
in solidarity,
Michael A. Lebowitz
Economics Department, Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6
Office: (604) 291-4669; Office fax: (604) 291-5944
Home: (604) 255-0382
Lasqueti Island: (604) 333-8810
e-mail: mlebowit@sfu.ca