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Matt Huber’s and Leigh Phillips’s “classical Marxist critique” of Kohei Saito

Summary:
I have expressed my disagreement with Kohei Saito's Slow Down and Marx in the Anthropocene in previous posts. I welcome Huber's and Phillips's critique of Saito at Jacobin. They get much right in their criticism of Saito's Utopianism and implicit primitivism but they share with Saito a fundamental misreading of Marx. This misreading is based on a speculative interpretation of a stirring but ambiguous passage in Marx's Preface to his 1859 Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes

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I have expressed my disagreement with Kohei Saito's Slow Down and Marx in the Anthropocene in previous posts. I welcome Huber's and Phillips's critique of Saito at Jacobin. They get much right in their criticism of Saito's Utopianism and implicit primitivism but they share with Saito a fundamental misreading of Marx. This misreading is based on a speculative interpretation of a stirring but ambiguous passage in Marx's Preface to his 1859 Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

The misreading of the above became canonical as the "classical Marxist theory of history" as expounded by Lenin, Stalin, and a host of Second International luminaries. As Georges Sorel complained already in 1908, though, "many liberties have been taken with this preface, which so many men cite without ever having studied it seriously." Not only had they not "studied it seriously," they did not yet have access to a much longer and more historically specific elaboration of the "fetters on the development of the forces of production" Marx had worked out in unpublished notebooks from 1857 and 1858.

On page 415 of the 1973 English translation of the Grundrisse, Marx enumerated four contradictions that impose inherent limits to capital, both from the standpoint of accumulation and of development of the forces of production. 

The stages of production which precede capital appear, regarded from its standpoint, as so many fetters upon the productive forces. It itself, however, correctly understood, appears as the condition of the development of the forces of production as long as they require an external spur, which appears at the same time as their bridle. … These necessary limits are:

(1) Necessary labour as limit on the exchange value of living labour capacity or of the wages of the industrial population;

(2) Surplus value as limit on surplus labour time; and, in regard to relative surplus labour time, as barrier to the development of the forces of production;

(3) What is the same, the transformation into money, exchange value as such, as limit of production; or exchange founded on value, or value founded on exchange, as limit of production.

This is:

(4) again the same as restriction of the production of use values by exchange value; or that real wealth has to take on a specific form distinct from itself, a form not absolutely identical with it, in order to become an object of production at all.

Martin Nicolaus, translator of the 1973 edition, had earlier commented on those limits in his 1968 essay, "The Unknown Marx": 

While a proper analysis of the implications of these rather cryptic theses would require a book, it is immediately apparent that these four ‘limits’ represent no more than different aspects of the contradiction between ‘forces of production’ and ‘social relations of production’.

What Nicolaus described as cryptic theses in 56 years ago have become more intelligable over the decades as there have been more studies of Marx that get away from the fetters of the classical Marxist critique. I consider one of the most coherent discussions to be Derek Sayer's Violence of Abstraction, which directly confronted Gerald Cohen's defense of what he called "the old-fashioned historical materialism." 

Huber and Phillips also adhere to what they extol as the classical Marxist critique, which they construe as "Marx’s thesis that socialism would release production from the fetters of capitalism..." They go on to state their view that:

It was elementary for Marxists that at a certain point in the development of the forces of production (basically scientific knowledge, technology, labor, land, and natural resources), they become constrained by the relations of production (the way that production is organized, which under capitalism means, roughly, owners of capital selling commodities on markets for profit and hiring owners of labor power in exchange for wages).

As Sayer pointed out, "[p]roductive forces are... an attribute of human beings in association, their collective capacities, not a set of things as auch at all." Machines are not productive forces. Technologies are not productive forces. Natural resources are not productive forces. Even skillls are not productive forces. They "only become productive forces in so far as they take on social characteristics." To overlook this is, in Sayer's words, to fetishize the notion of productive forces.

This raises a rather daunting question, if our fetishizing habits of thought lead us to fetishize even the most coherent attempts to cure us of our fetishing habits of thought, how do we escape the dilemma? Marx posed the answer in his third thesis on Feuerbach. Whether it is a satisfactory answer is hard to say.

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

How do Huber and Phillips conceive of revolutionary practice? 

...humanity is already always and everywhere surrounded by natural limits, by constraints on what we can currently do.

It is science and technology, shackled to egalitarianism (or as midcentury Marxist Hal Draper put it, “Prometheus plus Spartacus”), that allows us to overcome those limits.

Matt Huber's and Leigh Phillips's
Prometheus Sculpture at Chernobyl

Curiously, Draper did not tether Prometheus to "science and technology" as implied by Huber and Phillips's parenthetical citation. In fact, Draper only mentioned science once and technology not at all. He also stated that "Prometheus scarcely appears again in Marx’s writings..." and elaborated in a footnote that a  notable exception is in Poverty of Philosophy where Marx ridiculed Proudhon's enlistment of Prometheus to play the part of Robinson Crusoe:

First of all, Prometheus emerging from the bosom of nature awakens to life, in a delightful inertia, etc., etc. Prometheus sets to work, and on this first day, the first day of the second creation, Prometheus’ product, that is, his wealth, his wellbeing, is equal to 10. On the second day, Prometheus divides his labour, and his product becomes equal to 100. On the third day and on each of the following days, Prometheus invents machines, discovers new utilities in bodies, new forces in nature.... With every step of his industrial activity, there is an increase in the number of his products, which marks an enhancement of happiness for him. And since, after all, to consume is for him to produce, it is clear that every day’s consumption, using up only the product of the day before, leaves a surplus product for the next day.

What did Marx have to say about M. Proudhom's Promethean pantomime? 

This Prometheus of M. Proudhon’s is a queer character, as weak in logic as in political economy. So long as Prometheus merely teaches us the division of labour, the application of machinery, the exploitation of natural forces and scientific power, multiplying the productive forces of men and giving a surplus compared with the produce of labour in isolation, this new Prometheus has the misfortune only of coming too late. But the moment Prometheus starts talking about production and consumption he becomes really ludicrous. ...

Marx dissected this ludicrousness to Proudhon's pretention that he has "proved by theory and by facts the principle that all labour must have a surplus." To which Marx scoffed in reply, "The 'facts' are the famous progressive calculation; the theory is the myth of Prometheus." 

Huber and Phillips ludicrously make their Promethean myth "more concrete" by invoking the progressive calculation of "science and technology":

...one of the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s planetary boundaries is a limit to the amount of greenhouse gas that we can emit, largely as a result of the use of fossil fuels for energy, before causing average global temperatures to exceed those optimal for human flourishing. ... This energetic limit is all too real, but it is also contingent. When we fully shift to clean energy sources such as nuclear, wind, and solar, that climate-related limit on energy use will have been transcended. The only true, permanently insuperable limits that we face are the laws of physics and logic.

The limit on energy use "will have been transcended" by the "shift to clean energy sources" without any logic as to how that shift will occur or any scrutiny of the laws of physics involved in constructing and operating "nuclear, wind, and solar" production of energy. It is perhaps unfair to compare Huber and Phillips to Proudhon. M. Proudhon didn't have the luxury of being informed by Marx's critique of his Promethean myth and he didn't invoke a "classical Marxist critique" as the foundation for his ludicruous fable. Huber and Phillips don't have that alibi.

Until now I have been pretty harsh on Huber and Phillips, aside from acknowledging at the outset some worthwhile criticisms of Saito and degrowth. To conclude, I should mention another part of the article I applaud. In a post on X [nee "tweet"], Matt Huber says that his favorite contribution to the article was the line, "Degrowthers consistently misdiagnose the core problem of capitalism as ‘growth’ when in fact it is the lack of social control over production and investment decisions." I agree 100% and cite Marx's almost identical statement from his Inaugural Address to the International Working Men's Association: "social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class." The first part of that sentence is also noteworthy, so I'll quote the whole passage:

This struggle about the legal restriction of the hours of labour raged the more fiercely since, apart from frightened avarice, it told indeed upon the great contest between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class. Hence the Ten Hours’ Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.

Not only a practical success but the victory of a principle. Not to be overlooked is the context of that victory, the struggle over the restriction of the hours of labour.

Nearly two years later, in instructions to the delegates to the Internation, Marx wrote, paraphrasing English Factory Inspector, R. J. Saunders, "A preliminary condition, without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive, is the limitation of the working day."

If there seems to be a common theme emerging here, consider Marx's argument from volume 3 of Capital that humans must "wrestle with nature to satisfy his wants... in all social formations and under all possible modes of production." Beyond this realm of physical necessity, though, "begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite."The shortening of the working-day is a basic prerequisite for entering the true realm of freedom. The limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition for all further attempts at improvement and emancipation. The legal restriction of the hours of labour is the victory of the principle of social production controlled by social foresight. I wonder if there is somewhere that Marx explained the analysis behind these self-assured and consistent declarations? He did so in notebook VII of his 1857-58 manuscripts (Grundrisse, 1973, p. 708), which was a continuation and amplification of analysis he had begun in notebook IV (pp. 397-423):

The creation of a large quantity of disposable time... appears in the stage of capital, as of all earlier ones, as not-labour time, free time, for a few. What capital adds is that it increases the surplus labour time of the mass by all the means of art and science, because its wealth consists directly in the appropriation of surplus labour time; since value directly its purpose, not use value. It is thus, despite itself, instrumental in creating the means of social disposable time, in order to reduce labour time for the whole society to a diminishing minimum, and thus to free everyone’s time for their own development. But its tendency always, on the one side, to create disposable time, on the other, to convert it into surplus labour. If it succeeds too well at the first, then it suffers from surplus production, and then necessary labour is interrupted, because no surplus labour can be realized by capital. The more this contradiction develops, the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien surplus labour, but that the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour. Once they have done so - and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence - then, on one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time.

I have bolded the words that appeared in English in Marx's original manuscript. Undoubtedly, the English words allude to the source of Marx's fascination with disposable time and its relationship to surplus value, the 1821 English pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties.The above passage is the culmination of an analysis that begins in notebook IV with a quotation from The Source and Remedy and concludes in notebook VII with another quotation from The Source and Remedy.

On page 398 of the Grundrisse, Marx stated, "The whole development of wealth rests on the creation of disposable time." He then commenced a discussion of "the development of the productive forces." On page 708, he echoed that statement about the development of wealth with the proclamation, "The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time."

Marx's repeated statements about the limitation of working time being a necessary condition for the realm of human freedom were not humane gesture or concessions to contemporary trade union struggles. They were integral to his critique of political economy and his analysis of capital. Both Saito and Huber and Phillips cite or paraphrase passages where Marx insisted on the reduction of working time but elide specifically that demand.

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