2000s >> 2003 >> no-1192-december-2003

Book Reviews

Beyond Capital. By Michael Lebowitz, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Karl Marx originally planned to write six books under the project title “Economics”, but only the first book Capital was ever written. The other books in the planned series were: Landed Property, Wage Labour, State, International Trade, World Market. Because Marx never got beyond the first, claims Lebowitz, the theory is somewhat one-sided. Capital analyses in particular the laws of motion of capital and a detailed consideration of the other side of the social relationship, wage-labour, was to be left to the third book in the series. The resulting description of capitalism in Capital can be interpreted in a mechanical and determinist way, with capital having a “logic” of its own from which the class struggle of the workers is absent. Would anyone be so foolish as to read Capital that way? Well, yes, it’s surprisingly common. For instance, G.A. Cohen has built an academic career largely out of popularising a functionalist account of Marx’s theory in which, among other things, we learn that “high technology was not only necessary but also sufficient for socialism” (Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, 1978, p.206). For Lebowitz, on the other hand, the subject of Capital is capital and it explores that relation from the perspective of capital. However, an adequate understanding of capitalism as a whole requires us to recognise it as a totality, as a class struggle between capital and wage-labour.

From the point of view of capital, the value of labour-power (the worker’s ability to work which is sold for a wage or salary) is determined by the necessaries of life. This can imply that the process of establishing wage levels and the value of labour-power is more or less automatic, with the direction of causation going from the necessaries of life to the value of labour-power to wage levels. On the other hand, although Marx never wrote the planned book on wage-labour, he did a lecture that is written up as the pamphlet Value, Price and Profit. Here Marx explains that wage levels will vary with “the respective power of the combatants” and in the long run this will determine the value of labour-power and the necessaries of life. From the point of view of wage-labour then, wage levels and the value of labour-power depends on the balance of class forces, on what workers can actually get from their employers.

Of course socialists take the side of workers in the class struggle. However, the problem of a possible one-sided interpretation in Capital was first recognised by Maximilien Rubel, and he concluded that because of the “fragmentary state” of Marx’s “Economics” project, in particular the intended book on wage labour which remained unwritten, we do not have a rounded analysis of capitalism (Rubel on Marx: Five Essays, 1981). Lebowitz suggests that it is possible to get that rounded analysis scattered throughout Marx’s work and by including the class struggle in the analysis. So, for example, a rise in tax borne by workers should not be assumed to be automatically passed on to employers in the form of higher money wages. From the (one-sided) viewpoint of capital, workers are variable capital and, from this perspective, it may be thought that, because of the “law” of motion of capital, wages will rise in due course. But once the class struggle—pressure from the capitalist as well as the workers’ side—is factored in, this issue can only be answered empirically, depending on “the respective power of the combatants.”

Revisiting Universalism. By Alison Assiter. Palgrave Macmillan. 2003.

This is a book that re-asserts that there are universal values applicable to all human beings. It is directed against the “post-modernists”, “multi-culturalists” and some feminists, who assert that, on the contrary, there are no universally shared values by which to judge conduct, that any group’s view is as good as any other’s and ought to be respected as such (i.e. not criticised), or, as one wit has put it, “cannibalism is a matter of taste”.

Assiter starts from a materialist position. What all humans share in common, she says, is the basic need for a minimum level of food, clothes and shelter as essential to their physical health:

“(i) All human beings have needs which must be satisfied, if they are to act in any way at all;
(ii) These needs therefore ought to be satisfied, and this is a universally valid ‘ought’”.

Therefore “each one of us has an equal right to have our basic needs satisfied”. At the abstract level at which the argument is being conducted, Socialists can go along with this. But then Assiter extends this by adding that it means that every human being therefore has a “moral obligation” to do what they can to ensure that every other human being has their basic needs met.

This would make the case for socialism (as one among possible actions to try to ensure that every human has their needs met, the only effective one in fact) a moral case whereas we have always argued that socialism is based on interest, class interest to be more precise. It is in the material interest of the working class to have their needs met; these cannot be properly met under capitalism; therefore it is in the interest of the workers to abolish capitalism. So, when we approach our fellow workers, we don’t say “You should be a socialist because you have a moral duty to ensure that the basic needs of all your fellow humans are met”. What we say is: “You should be a socialist because only socialism can assure that your basic needs are met”.

In any event, to say that every human has this moral duty towards all other humans is pointless since ineffective. It would mean that the capitalist class has some moral obligation towards the working class. Tell them that and they’ll laugh in your face. And why should we assume any moral duty to the capitalist class, who exploit us? Not that workers are likely to respond to appeals to a supposed “moral duty”; they will establish socialism out of material self-interest, individual and collective. Socialism is a class issue not a moral issue.

To tell the truth, this book will have little relevance outside the academic world, indeed outside university philosophy departments. Academics are wage-slaves like the rest of us and one of their conditions of employment is “publish or perish”. As a result publishers’ lists are clogged up with books written just for this purpose. Something marginally different about this book is that we get a mention (even if our address is wrongly given).

Assiter, a leading feminist intellectual who was once a Socialist Party member, quotes Slavoj Zizek as writing that

“when the ‘left’ makes its demands ‘for full employment’ ‘retain the welfare state’ ‘full rights for immigrants’ . . . it is bombarding the capitalist state with demands it cannot fulfil. The left, he writes, is ‘playing a game of hysterical provocation, of addressing the Master with a demand it will be impossible for him to meet’”.

And contrasts this with the approach of

“the British SPGB, a political party that has operated in the UK, and elsewhere, since 1904. Members of the SPGB reject Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky as ‘impure’ versions of Marx, and believe that they must argue the socialist case in as many venues as possible, in order to convince a majority of the working class of the veracity of their case. They adopt the strategy of believing that rationality will prevail and that once people see and understand the logic of their case, just like the believer in decision procedure, then those people will convert to their cause and there will be no more capitalism, no more wars and no more wage slavery”.

A bit over-simplified in that we are not trying to “convert” people to our “case” as such, but to convince our fellow workers that it is in their material interest to establish socialism. But perhaps we shouldn’t look a gift-horse in the mouth.


Marxism and Media Studies. By Mike Wayne. Pluto Press.

The big media are owned by big companies, so naturally enough they present a pro-capitalist view of the world. You might think there wasn’t much more to say about the media, but in this book Mike Wayne says quite a bit more. Be warned, though, that it is intended as a university textbook, and this is presumably what makes it so full of jargon (reification, ideologeme, for instance). The second half, in particular, is strong on jargon but remarkably weak on insight.

Wayne begins by wrestling with the question of whether “cultural workers” (writers, actors, etc.) are working class or not. He accepts that they produce commodities that realise surplus value, and notes that scriptwriters on Coronation Street had to increase their productivity when the soap changed to three episodes a week (as the actors had to as well). He has a point that actors and musicians who are established faces/voices cannot be simply replaced with other wage workers, but draws from this the odd conclusion that “intellectuals” are somehow located between capital and labour. The fact is that, leaving aside a small number of very highly-paid performers, those who work in the media are dependent on selling their ability to work and so count as wage workers. Even film directors can get sacked if they step out of line.

So-called public service broadcasting (the BBC, for instance) is often seen as motivated by considerations other than profit. But Wayne remarks on the political context in which such organisations were set up: the 1920s and 30s were a time of increased state intervention in the economy, and “public” broadcasting arose in line with such developments, designed to serve the overall interests of the capitalist class. The overtly commercial media, of course, are run on straightforward capitalist lines. The amount of advertising on TV has increased, to a permitted average of eight minutes per hour (next time you watch ER, check how much advertising the show’s 60 minutes contains).

Media conglomerates such as Disney are almost a law unto themselves, and their companies repeatedly plug films made by other Disney subsidiaries. Disney’s boss Michael Eisner and the ubiquitous Rupert Murdoch lobbied for China to be allowed into the World Trade Organisation, as both have their eyes on the potentially enormous Chinese market. But many governments regard their country’s media as a special case, not to be open to overseas takeovers and so needing “protection”. US capitalists, in particular, have been pressing for the WTO to enforce “liberalisation” of European media, so that they can be sold to the highest bidder. For instance, when the Kirch media group in Germany collapsed in 2002, Murdoch was prevented from acquiring a controlling interest.

Wayne presents an analysis of Big Brother in terms of the base-superstructure model. But we’ll refrain from quoting any of the more pretentious formulations in this, on the grounds that it would be too easy a target.

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