Void Manufacturing

“Turning and turning in a cell, like a fly that doesn’t know where to die.”

Hillel Ticktin Vs Harry Cleaver

Posted by voidmanufacturing on December 7, 2008



Harry Cleaver debates Hillel Ticktin on capitalism’s present crisis … danger and opportunity

(part 1)

 It’s not often that you can bring together people from very different revolutionary traditions for a public debate that attracts one hundred and thirty five people who represent most strands of the revolutionary left as it exists in this country today. Harry Cleaver, a former editor of the journal Zerowork and author ofReading Capital Politically (Harvester/Humanities, 1979), was one participant in this debate. The other was Hillel Ticktin, editor of the journal Critique and author of a series of important articles on the political economy of the USSR. Cleaver is an American who has drawn on and developed the important work of Italian autonomists such as Toni Negri and Mario Tronti, helping to challenge various ‘orthodox’ versions of marxism and placing class struggle firmly at the centre of his analysis. Ticktin, of South African origin, is closer to the trotskyist tradition (although he carefully distances himself from the orthodox trotskyism of the Fourth International) but no less innovative than the autonomists in his approach which has helped stress the importance of the law of value.

The debate was organised by Radical Chains in conjunction with the autonomist magazine London Notes. The organisers believed that there is not enough interchange between the different fragments of the marxist tradition and when they heard that Cleaver would be visiting Britain in July they decided to ask him if he would debate with Ticktin. While there has always been a degree of criticism within autonomism or within trotskyism or within situationism, critical engagement between different traditions has been rare. It is this engagement of the adherents of one tradition with the ideas of another which is necessary if the fragmentation and dispersal of the revolutionary left is to be overcomeThe debate was transcribed by Mike Neary and David Gorman and edited by David Gorman. The most interesting contributions from the floor have been included, together with responses from the speakers. Because of the success of the event, Radical Chains intends to hold further debates on a range of topics in the future. 


HILLEL TICKTIN: When looking at the present capitalist crisis it appears to me that there are four aspects to it. Since it’s not possible for me to go into any detail in twenty minutes I am just going to have to assume that people have some understanding of certain of the concepts. So in the first instance it seems to me we are talking about the long wave and a long term downturn that began roughly in 1973. My view of the long wave is not the same as Ernest Mandel who most people would identify with it. I’d see it much rather in a kind of classical way which underlies what I am going to say and might differentiate me, I’m not at all certain, from the other speaker.

That is to say, if one looks at the movement of history in marxist terms, there are always two aspects to it: the movement in the categories themselves and the class struggle. And it seems to me the art or duty of the marxist is to be able to put the two together correctly to see how, in fact, the form of the class struggle is merging with movement of the categories. If one simply analyses the movement of the class struggle you will not understand the history. All you do is end up with an amount of empirical detail, which is useful but which will not really give you a proper understanding of the nature of the economic system or movement. So one has to understand the categories. In other words, in this instance, one has to understand what is happening to value, to accumulation. Now the difference I think that I have with Mandel here is that Mandel looks at it in a much more technical way and would place much more accent effectively on accumulation and technological change. I don’t. For me the long waves are much more to do with changes which are related to accumulation which in turn is related to the class struggle itself. Accumulation has proceeded to a certain point, the class struggle has become so intense, that the capitalist class sees the only solution in pulling the plug, if one can put it that way. And I think that is precisely what happened in 1973.

In 1973 they realised – I think it was completely conscious – that unless they went for a long term downturn and raised the level of unemployment, they would be faced with increasing demands for control over production. The result was the permanent mass unemployment that we have seen over the last twenty to thirty years. But what they also did, and that’s the second aspect of this crisis, was to go for finance capital. That is to say, they switched from the overall decision that had been made by the capitalist class of 1940, and made more permanent in 1945 when they decided to go for industrial capital.

If you look at it historically, when referring to the world capitalist economic structure, the various documents of the Comintern constantly refer to finance capital. If you look at Trotsky and Lenin, they refer to finance capital and never to anything else. Now quite clearly what happened after 1940-45 was again a deliberate decision by the capitalist class to go for growth, which had enormous effects. It changed the whole mode of accumulation, leading to the possibility of a welfare state which otherwise would not have been possible. But in 1973, by pulling that plug, everything was of course called into question. And then effectively they turned towards finance capital. In effect they took one step back and saw to it that they received their surplus value indirectly – through interest, rent, insurance companies, pension funds, and so on, rather than immediately through production. This appeared to be at some distance from the working class, and it appeared much easier for the capitalist class to actually extract its surplus value through this form.

Now what has happened is that this twenty year period has come to an end. It’s fairly obvious that one cannot go on extracting surplus value in this way without killing the host. The parasite finance capital can’t go on taking surplus value from industry without industry itself being harmed. Now it’s quite obvious in the case of Britain, but it is not only true of Britain of course. Inevitably there would have to be an end to this. There would have to be a downturn. At some point industry could not supply the surplus value and the attempt to make money out of money would come to an end, and of course it did come to an end in 1989. Which effectively means that the strategy to which they turned after 1973 has come to an end. That is to say finance capital has exhausted itself.

 But this crisis has now shown itself in another form which, in a certain sense they didn’t anticipate. And this raises two questions. One is the question of long term decline; the other is the question of stalinism. You will not find stalinism as a political-economic concept of Western capitalism in many marxist textbooks or marxist theories but it seems to me it’s absolutely fundamental in understanding modern capitalism. It is precisely the explosion or implosion or death of stalinism which is now creating a crisis of a kind that has not existed in capitalism for now sixty to seventy years. One has to understand what is lying behind it. It seems to me, to come to another point, that at least since 1917, or some other date in the early part of this century, we are talking about a decline in capitalism and if one is talking about a decline in capitalism, then there are not many solutions available to capitalism itself. In effect declining capitalism can only do one thing – it can delay. It can’t succeed in avoiding its own overthrow. But it can delay it. Some people might want to argue it can delay it 300 years, 500, a thousand years, I wouldn’t argue that. I don’t think it can delay it all that long. But it has had a whole series of forms of delay and I have actually mentioned one, that’s finance capital, and one can go into the other forms as well.

Now the obvious immediate forms which come to mind are social democracy and stalinism. I see them not just as subjective forms but as objective forms. If social democracy did not actually come to power, it did come to a position where it was governing at some sort of level, and we did have a welfare state and that again affected accumulation itself. Stalinism was embodied in Eastern Europe and China and so on. These were objective facts in history, they were objectified. And it appears to me that it was precisely these that acted as the subjective forms of delay, of maintaining capitalism, in other words. The problem is that both are dying or dead, and the capitalist class does not appear to have a means of replacing them.

What else is going to replace stalinism? I think it’s worth while saying a few more words about what stalinism actually has done and what the removal of stalinism now leads to. In the first place, it’s fairly obvious that because of stalinism we had the Cold War, and the Cold War provided again a means of accumulation. Now, I don’t mean the Cold War was just on the side of the US; it was just as much on the side of USSR. But the US knew perfectly well that the USSR was much weaker but preferred to maintain it, to make a whole period in which it could have a particular form of accumulation. Now that of course has come to an end. It is no longer possible to invest in the arms industry in the old way. The arms industry is very important because its prime function lies in the way it can discipline the working class. As long as you have an arms industry it is much easier to control the working class both inside and outside the arms industry. It is possible to argue that there is an enemy which has to be fought, people have to work harder, there are spies all over the place, and in the US of course anti-communism played a particular role.

As it happens I think the anti-communism in the US had a partial truth. That is to say, it is perfectly true that the USSR was a horrible society and nobody would want to live under it. But what it was serving as was a very important means of control. That’s gone. What is going to replace it? What is the disciplinary form of control that is going to replace the Cold War? I don’t think there is a form that they can actually use. Stalinism didn’t serve in the Cold War only in a particular economic way. It also served politically and was most important in the post-Cold War period in supporting social democracy. It is no accident that the two are dying together.

One can’t understand social democracy without understanding the tremendous importance of stalinism for it. I’m not saying that the social democrats before 1917, before there were stalinists, were supported by stalinists or that in the period before the Second World War stalinism was that important. I’m saying in the post war period stalinism was crucial in maintaining the welfare state and social democracy and the forms of concessions that were being introduced by the capitalist class. And in so far as you don’t have stalinism in the working class, you don’t have the same kind of mass support that could come into existence in order to support the ruling class in this country or in any other country. So one then has to ask exactly how are they going to deal with the situation. I don’t know.

If one looks at it politically again the elimination of the Communist Parties is a fantastic gain. It may not look like that in so far as bookshops like Collets are going under and one can’t buy marxist books any more, and there are fewer marxist firms that will take marxist publications. But in reality what it means that the kind of suppression of the left that existed for so many years is going or has gone. It’s no accident that in this country and in other countries the far left is beginning to show itself in a similar form, in a similar way or in similar places where the Communist Parties did before. What does this lead to? The point is that stalinism is no longer there as a means of control, therefore the ruling class no longer has the same form of delay that it did. Or, if you invert it, I don’t think there could have been any real change in the world until stalinism had been removed. I don’t think there could have been a victory in Spain, or later, by the far left, precisely because Stalin or stalinists did not want it and they had this enormous measure of control. But it’s gone. So the capitalist class is now faced with the fact that it’s in industrial decline, finance capital as a means of control and as a form of retreat is in trouble, the various forms of delay it had through stalinism are no longer there. What strategy can it actually use today? And that is its real crisis: that it has no strategy. It is a unique crisis, there hasn’t been a crisis like this since 1923.

One can put it another way. In terms of the long term downturn, or in terms of the long wave, what we are in is a position where the working class has to be defeated in order for accumulation to proceed. If one actually looks at Trotsky’s description of the long wave you can see that he is arguing that it is precisely through the defeat of the working class that the capitalist class has the possibility of extracting extra surplus value. Now to the degree that it does not have that it won’t accumulate. In a certain sense, this becomes a subjective phenomenon above the capitalist class: if the capitalist class does not think it will make sufficient profit, it will not invest, and that is where we are. It has to actually defeat the working class under conditions that are no longer as favourable as they were before. It may not appear like that, and most people I encounter seem to be pessimistic, but in my view it is just the opposite. We are in an extremely optimistic position. It may not be that there are enormous numbers; there aren’t. There may be very few but that is neither here or there. Let me remind you that the Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD, only had one per cent of the vote in 1878 but by 1890 it was already a major party. So, change can happen very quickly, and I think that is what we must expect.

So the crisis we are in is a unique crisis, it’s a crisis in every aspect of capitalist civilisation. It’s a crisis of ideology, it’s a crisis of politics, it’s a crisis of the ruling class, and we’ve witnessed the way the ruling class cannot hold itself together whether in Japan or this country. The ruling class is now divided; it no longer has a mans of keeping itself together. The former means that it used, the Cold War and stalinism, are not there. It hasn’t the collectivity it had before, precisely because of the collapse of stalinism. In a certain sense when stalinism came to an end the capitalist class managed to shoot themselves in the foot. I’m not saying that the position today is wonderful; it certainly could be better. But the position is far better objectively than it has been for sixty or seventy years. The crisis is enormous. It’s not a terminal crisis: tomorrow we won’t have a socialist society. But it is a crisis from which the capitalist class can not recover as it were. It has no solution.

back to topHARRY CLEAVER: Now you get a different view, at least partially. As there is a certain amount of overlap in the positions that we take, at the same time as there are radical differences, I will try to emphasise the latter more than the former so that we can in fact have something like a debate. I think that Hillel was intuitively correct when he said that there were some fundamental theoretical differences between us. In particular, I would say that his opening comments about there being a difference between the movement of the categories and the movement of the class struggle is a difference. Categories of what? Categories of capital that is, in some sense, different from the class struggle? Not from my point of view. The categories of marxist analysis are the categories of class relations; capital is a class relation – a class relation of struggle. All of the categories of marxist analysis in the three volumes of Capital and elsewhere are those of that social relation – which is the class struggle. The only movement of the categories is a movement that occurs as part of the class struggle. There is no other subject as far as I am concerned.

The crisis of capital is a crisis of the class relation. That means that it is a crisis from the point of view of both classes. With respect to capital, Hillel has said some relevant things. But, we also have to recognise that the crisis for capital is simultaneously, in certain ways, a crisis for the working class. The crisis of capital, the manifestations of which began to appear from the early seventies, can be traced to an international cycle of class struggle which ruptured an epoch, a particular organisation of capitalist organisation, of its command. It was epoch making in the sense that we are still in the same crisis. We’ve gone through business cycles, we’ve gone through a variety of kinds of changes, but fundamentally the problems that were created in that period of time, the late sixties and early seventies, have not been resolved – nor is there any evidence that they are likely to be resolved in the near future. So, the crisis of capitalism is, first and foremost, once we cut through the fetishism of its categories like money and finance, a failure of old methods of control.

The crisis is profound because it is a crisis of capital’s most fundamental mechanism of control: the endless imposition of work. At the heart of the crisis lies the rupture not only of the capitalist productivity deal (higher wages for more work), but also, more generally, the capitalist ability to continue to shape and to subordinate life to work – throughout what some of us call the social factory.

Now the crisis for the working class comes precisely when the old mechanisms of command are abandoned, because workers always struggle about, against and beyond problems that they face, the limitations that work sets on them. When capital counter-attacks, it shifts the ground of the class relationship, and that means a problem of adapting, of figuring out what the hell is going on, of dealing with the new strategies that are mobilised against them. This is what workers have been struggling with for the last twenty years. The counter-attacks have occurred at all levels. They began with the devaluation of the dollar in 1971 and continued through the food and energy crises, changes in the monetary system, increases in the price of oil, restructuring in industry and so on.

 In too many ways capital has had a considerable amount of success. Especially in beating down wages and reducing standards of living but also, to some degree, in imposing more work especially in the Third World, but in the First World as well. In the US, workers today are working a twelfth more on the average than they were twenty years ago – an extra month of work per year. That’s a substantial defeat any way you look at it. So, at the level of austerity there has been some success and we have had some defeat. Yet, at the level of the reorganisation of class relationships, which is what is necessary in order to found a new, long wave of accumulation, capital has made much less progress. Some reorganisation of industry and reorganisation of the relationship between the state and the market has been undertaken for some time, but it is not at all clear that it has been successful or that it has laid the foundations for future capitalist development.

The reorganisation of the relation between the state and the market has been a prominent feature of this attempt to create a new (decomposed) set of class relationships. Britain, like the US, has suffered through Thatcherism, Reaganism, the substitution of market mechanisms for certain kinds of government regulations. But this is merely a recomposition. Despite the ideology of vaunting the market against the state, what has been involved has been a recomposition of the relationship between them. Ultimately the market is merely a planning mechanism. It is used when it works (i.e., gives the desired results). It is abandoned when it doesn’t work. It is one planning mechanism among others. Market and plan cannot be juxtaposed in the way that they have traditionally been. Understanding the crisis involves seeing through such ideological constructs and reinterpreting them in class terms.

 Besides talking about the nature of the crisis, we were also asked to talk about the associated dangers and the opportunities. The dangers are self-evident in the successes that capital has had in making life worse for us, in making our situation more unlivable. The process of decomposition has been undertaken on a world scale, and one of the biggest dangers is not to recognise that it is global and not to deal with it at that level. It isn’t enough to talk about it in national terms. The major state institution today is the International Monetary Fund, which has overseen the imposition of the new organisation of capitalist rules at a global level; the deindustrialization of the North is closely connected to the reindustrialization of the South; jobs are not disappearing from industry, they are just being displaced – at least in many industries. In the US, the old industrial belt of the North has become a rust belt and the numbers of Ford auto workers is increasing by the tens of thousands across the border in Mexico. The electronics industry has also moved many of its operations south. Industry hasn’t disappeared, it has just been recomposed geographically at the same time as it has been recomposed technologically.

At the same time work is being imposed massively, partly in industry, partly outside of industry, throughout the world. The history of the debt crisis of the eighties was exactly the history of that imposition. The IMF assumed a central role as it has gone around the world telling governments and private capital how they have not been doing a proper job in imposing the rules of the game and that they must do so. The state has imposed such changes with austerity and with privatisation, which is to say countries have been opened up to foreign and multinational investment in order to achieve this process of capitalist recomposition (through the decomposition of working class power). This process has been going on at both the micro level and the macro level and we have to respond to both.

 In his talk Hillel noted the end of the cold war, the death of the Soviet bogey-man as a means to a permanent arms economy and the social control of the working class, and raised the question of what might replace the Cold War in capitalist strategy. Roughly speaking, I agree with this bit of his analysis. In class terms, the role of the Russian bomb was basically to help the Americans and the West Europeans to keep control and the American bomb helped the Russians do the same thing. Now those threats are no longer there – and in a certain sense they haven’t been since the movie, Dr. Strangelove, came out, which was after all subtitled, How to stop worrying and learn to love the bomb. In the end many realized that the bomb was not really a threat – at least not the generalised threat of annihilation that everybody had been convinced that it was. We had been lied to. We eventually realised that the Americans weren’t going to drop thermo-nuclear bombs on the Russians and the Russians weren’t going to drop them on us. Having understood this, we stopped worrying about it, and realized we could fight against racism, the war in Vietnam, and authoritarian schooling because they were not going to drop a nuke on the San Francisco Bay area – it just wasn’t going to happen. That whole strategy of fear collapsed as the New Left joined Southeast Asian peasants and took the offensive against capital in the sixties.

Of course, there was an attempt to bring the fear back in the mid-seventies with the discussion of limited nuclear war. Pentagon scenarios were leaked. Ex-NATO General Hackett wrote his novel of World War Three in which Birmingham (England) was nuked by the Soviets while the US took out Minsk. And then the Ukrainians overthrew the Politburo, dismembered the USSR and the war was over. But of course instead of provoking fear and trembling and reintroducing the bomb as an effective weapon of political control, these efforts to launch a second Cold War produced the biggest peace movement in history and deepened the ongoing problems of capitalism.

 Well, as Hillel suggests, we certainly should ask with what might such a mechanism be replaced? The theoretical answer is that it can only be replaced by the same kinds of mechanism: those that divide us in order to conquer us. Capital rules through divide and conquer. The replacement of one such mechanism by another happens historically and must be appropriate to the level of the crisis of command. One of the characteristics of the struggles that created the current crisis was that it was an international cycle of struggles. It wasn’t just the Americans over here and the French over there, and the Italians over there, and the Vietnamese over there, and Che Guevara down in South America. These things were all interlinked. There was an overcoming of international divisions at that period in time as struggles circulated internationally – even the struggles that overthrew the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had such an international character.

Therefore, not surprisingly, we find that one of the fundamental and more obvious aspects of capital’s attempt to regain control has been the reintroduction – with a vengeance – of nationalism and racism. The situation in Central Europe is just the most blatant and disturbing example. Nationalism and racism are being wielded to divide and conquer throughout Western Europe, North America and the South as well. Everywhere we find not only extremists preaching hate and carrying out acts of violence, but also moderate politicians adopting an only slightly more subtle form of racism to kindle fear of the enemy within (e.g., the immigrant, the Jew, the minority, the religious other), now that the enemy without (the global communist conspiracy) is gone.

 At the heart of the international cycle of struggles which ruptured the old capitalist (and, if you like the term, stalinist) mode of accumulation were those of women, people on the streets, people in their homes, people at school, i.e., those of unwaged workers whose battles circulated into the factories and back again. Fundamental to all of these were the struggles of women. Thus along with nationalism and racism, sexism and the attack on women has also been central to the new capitalist efforts to divide and conquer. The other side of the Reagan attack on the welfare and government regulation was the so-called social agenda. That agenda – most of which could not be implemented at the level of government and was pursued instead through private groups such as the religious Right – was aimed squarely at the womb. It was aimed squarely at making women barefoot and pregnant and pushing them back into the house. It is extremely basic to the situation in the States and I warrant elsewhere. If you go to Italy today you see the consequences for women’s struggle to gain divorce rights and then abortion rights: plummeting birth rates, reproducing in just a few years the whole earlier pattern of the post war period in Western Europe. The capitalist response has involved importing prostitutes from Africa and increased violence against women.

Such are part of the dangers we face due to new forms of divide and conquer. The opportunities which are present in the current crisis can only be perceived through understanding our own processes of political recomposition that caused the crisis. If we can understand how the mechanisms of accumulation were ruptured, what were the class forces that ruptured them and how they have been modified by the struggles over the last twenty years then we are in a position to talk about where we go from here. In other words, the only basis for the elaboration of effective working class politics against capital is a proper assessment of our own strengths. One of the problems in Hillel’s discussion of the crisis (one he shares with many other marxists) is a tendency to spend most of his time talking about capital as if it were something separate from our relationship to it. We need to talk about us, about how we (the working class both collectively and specifically) created this situation, the degree to which we have suffered setbacks, the degree to which we have avoided defeat and the strength we have to push forward our own demands. Hillel is quite right that this is an epoch-making period of crisis. It really does threaten the continuation of capital, even more so than the situation in the nineteen thirties, for example, which did force a fundamental reorganisation at all levels. But what constitutes the threat?

 The content of the struggle that has brought on and maintained this crisis goes to the very heart of the capitalist organisation of life around work, the subordination of society to work. The nature of the struggles that precipitated the crisis, once we understand them, give us an indication of what the alternatives to capital are; and their analysis means that we can abandon a lot of old illusions. On the basis of analysing the processes of self-valorisation that people are trying to develop, we can reject the old ideas of transition and the old conception of socialism as a homogeneous social project.

 The struggles that ruptured the system, did not simply break the mechanisms of domination, they also have had a positive content: they were proposing new ways of being and developing projects of new ways of being. I’m thinking here not merely of what workers in cities have done, but what women have done, what the environmentalist movement has done. We need to look at the positive content of these so-called new social movements, to see how they have been trying to create new social relations in the present (the future in the present as Marx said). Those new relations are not out there, and there is no transition to them. They are already being constructed and while the problem for capital is, and always has been, to recuperate, reintegrate and to instrumentalise them, our problem is not only to recognize the emergence of real substantive alternatives to the present order but to facilitate and foster their development. We not only need to be aware of projects like those of women to achieve androgyny, the recomposition of gender relations in society, but we need either to participate in them, or to elaborate other projects and work out the politics of the circulation of struggle across the diversity of such efforts. Now there you have a political project that damn few marxists have been involved in as far as I can see.

 The fact that capital counter attacks in new ways, means that we have new opportunities. I don’t like the language that Hillel uses about objective conditions, but the fact of the matter is that because European capital is moving toward EEC unity, it is both responding to and forcing a level of international working class collaboration of struggle that we have never seen before. Because the US is pushing the North American Free Trade Agreement to link Canada, the US and Mexico, we are seeing an internationalisation of struggle that has never existed. Today in the US there is a coalition of almost 300 groups fighting against NAFTA – labour groups, women’s groups, student groups, environmental groups, all kinds of groups. In Canada there is a similar coalition; in Mexico there is another series of coalitions, and those of all three countries are linked and working closely together. They are connected with computer networks; they are circulating information, at a rate which only capital has been able to do over the last forty years. Workers are by-passing the old institutions of control, creating a new international fabric of alliances and cooperation.

 As marxists we need to draw the implications for politics. What we are seeing is a reconstitution of politics, an abandonment of the old institutions (trade unions and political parties) with which we are so familiar and have often tried to work through, and the problem is to figure how to elaborate new kinds of politics within and among struggles which are diverse and will not be homogenised. The usefulness of the old ‘Unite and Fight’ slogan is finished. It’s useless. To talk about socialism as a homogeneous project is useless. The end of capital is not going to involve, as far as things look at this point, a replacement of one homogeneous system by another homogeneous system. It is going to be more like what Marx evoked in the Grundrisse: an explosion, or, as people like Deleuze and Guattari like to say, the emergence of various lines of flight of alternative kinds of social relations and experience. The problem then is that of creating a politics of difference minimising antagonism. It is not a problem which will be solved automatically. Politics, especially new politics, always has to be constructed.



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