We Don't Agree on Capitalism

Marx's Account of Capitalist Rationality

Marx's theory of how capitalism proceeds is based on a fundamental assumption about the rational capabilities of capitalists and how that results in emergent behavior that are rarely made explicit by those discussing him.

So let's do that.

For Marx labor is a process by which people bring into the world things that previously existed in the mind.

We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.1

Capitalists do this through the employment of others.

The co-operation of wage labourers is entirely brought about by the capital that employs them. Their union into one single productive body and the establishment of a connexion between their individual functions, are matters foreign and external to them, are not their own act, but the act of the capital that brings and keeps them together. Hence the connexion existing between their various labours appears to them, ideally, in the shape of a preconceived plan of the capitalist, and practically in the shape of the authority of the same capitalist, in the shape of the powerful will of another, who subjects their activity to his aims.2

While the surplus value that capitalists gain through exploiting others is obviously unnecessary, Marx nonetheless believes that some rationality directing the process is necessary to achieve coordination at scale.

All combined labour on a large scale requires, more or less, a directing authority, in order to secure the harmonious working of the individual activities, and to perform the general functions that have their origin in the action of the combined organism, as distinguished from the action of its separate organs. A single violin player is his own conductor; an orchestra requires a separate one.3

This means a subsumption of individuals to the broader process to the point where they become mere parts of the machine.

In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool, in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machine that he must follow. ...Factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity.4

Furthermore the capabilities of the individual are completely dwarfed by the structure of the production process.

The separation of the intellectual powers of production from the manual labour, and the conversion of those powers into the might of capital over labour, is, as we have already shown, finally completed by modern industry erected on the foundation of machinery. The special skill of each individual insignificant factory operative vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity before the science, the gigantic physical forces, and the mass of labour that are embodied in the factory mechanism and, together with that mechanism, constitute the power of the ‘master.'5

Given the superiority of hierarchical, rationalized organization, it is easy to deduce that centralization begets centralization since larger enterprises are more rational, more advanced, and therefore more efficient.

The laws of this centralisation of capitals, or of the attraction of capital by capital, cannot be developed here. A brief hint at a few facts must suffice. The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities demands, caeteris paribus, on the productiveness of labour, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore, the larger capitals beat the smaller.6

Which in turn results in society being driven ever further towards centralization and economic rationalization.

Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process and the conscious technical application of science.7

This technical application of science firmly drives out prior forms of practice and organization built around ad-hoc approaches.

The implements of labour, in the form of machinery, necessitate the substitution of natural forces for human force, and the conscious application of science, instead of rule of thumb. In Manufacture, the organisation of the social labour-process is purely subjective; it is a combination of detail labourers; in its machinery system, modern industry has a productive organism that is purely objective, in which the labourer becomes a mere appendage to an already existing material condition of production

Yet the rationality unleashed by capitalism that is currently fractured across countless people all pursuing disparate interests can come together and organize things in a collectively rational manner.

Let us now picture to ourselves … a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson's labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual.8

This is possible precisely because there exists a general interest which can be realized.

The division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the "general interest", but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labour is divided.9

Communism then is the bringing about of a consciously organized society that has itself as the subject brought about by revolution.

In history up to the present it is certainly an empirical fact that separate individuals have, with the broadening of their activity into world-historical activity, become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them, a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market. But it is just as empirically established that, by the overthrow of the existing state of society by the communist revolution and the abolition of private property which is identical with it, this power, will be dissolved; and that then the liberation of each single individual will be accomplished in the measure in which history becomes transformed into world history. From the above it is clear that the real intellectual wealth of the individual depends entirely on the wealth of his real connections. Now this view can be expressed again in speculative-idealistic, i.e. fantastic, terms as "self-generation of the species" ("society as the subject"), and thereby the consecutive series of interrelated individuals connected with each other can be conceived as a single individual, which accomplishes the mystery of generating itself. It is clear here that individuals certainly make one another, physically and mentally, but do not make themselves.10

Which ultimately means planning.

The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan.11

I'm going to explore the implications of these assumptions later, but before we get there I want to stress how few people (be they anarchist or Marxists) have made explicit just how at odds this theory of how capitalism functions is with anarchist aspirations. If rationalized production is synonymous with increasing rationality and increasing rationality means centralized management and the only thing that can beat centralized rationalization are things that are even more centralized and coordinated (remember that the “harmonious working” of individual activities requires a “directing authority”), then by definition the decentralist autonomist anti-authoritarian aspirations of anarchists are anti-modern and anti-rational!

If this is the case, then the epithets Marxists throw at anarchists (lifestylists, romantics, petit-bourgeois, crypto-conservatives, infantile leftists, idealists, etc) are all definitionally correct!

If you accept Marx's premises, then the only thing that can substantially change the world is the unified working class. Which means the centrality that anarchists place on interpersonal ethics i but a sideshow to the real game being played. One-on-one oppression can be dismissed as being structurally irrelevant and those raise such concerns as putting up barriers to the necessary coalition required to change things. Similarly with to say nothing about decentralized autonomous activity (particularly of the economic kind!). Any good Marxist knows such individualism is a one-way ticket to the “anarchy of the market” and with that all the baggage of capitalism.

That for so long anarchists have implicitly accepted Marx's articulation of capitalism despite it being at odds with our ethical concerns is pretty funny. But what's even funnier is that the most comprehensive alternative to Marxism that was formulated by anarchists in the 20th century still embraces these assumptions about rationality. I am speaking about anti-tech green anarchisms which frequently located the roots of domination in technology and sometimes even in reason itself.