The State, Malatesta

“When F. Engels, perhaps to counter anarchist criticisms, said that once classes disappear the State as such has no raison d’être and transforms itself from a government of men into an administration of things, he was merely playing with words. Whoever has power over things has power over men; whoever governs production also governs the producers; who determines consumption is master over the consumer.

“This is the question; either things are administered on the basis of free agreement of the interested parties, and this is anarchy; or they are administered according to laws made by administrators and this is government, it is the State, and inevitably it turns out to be tyrannical.

“It is not a question of the good intentions or the good will of this or that man, but of the inevitability of the situation, and of the tendencies which man generally develops in given circumstances.”


A Companion to David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, Chapter 1


David Harvey is the dominant commentator on Capital1 in English. Many Capital reading groups use his video lectures or his book – A Companion to Marx’s Capital2 – as a guide. Capital can be a daunting book and David Harvey’s commentaries have encouraged many to pick it up and work through it. This, in principle, is a valuable project as much can be learned about the world we are forced to live in from that old book.

The authors of this text, too, have recently spent time reading Capital. During the course of our engagement with Capital we found problems with David Harvey’s Companion and with the account it gives of Capital. It is important to highlight these problems not because they misrepresent Marx – although this is often the case – but because David Harvey’s account in A Companion does not adequately explain the commodity, money and capital; in short capitalism. As a consequence, the solutions he suggests to the misery around us do not offer any way out but presuppose the social relations that produce this misery.

As an example for such an attempt at a solution, we look at David Harvey’s more recent suggestion for an alternative form of money: oxidisable money, which he argues would prevent the accumulation of social power. This view on money stands in direct opposition to what can be learned from Capital about what money and value are, as well as to Marx’s view on the matter of alternative monies.3 In this article we will show that this opposition stems from David Harvey’s misunderstanding of one of the most fundamental categories of political economy: abstract labour, the labour that produces value. We will hence look at and explain what Marx says about abstract labour in chapter 1 and contrast it with Harvey’s commentary on it. We then move on to Harvey’s recent proposal for a new money and show that it is based on an appreciation of commodity circulation and production, i.e. the conditions under which labour is expressed in value. Finally, we critique David Harvey’s account of the fetish-like character of the commodity.

There is more to critique about A Companion than what we deal with here: Harvey’s tendency to turn Capital into an enigma full of “cryptic assertions” and “a priori leaps”, his advise to look out for specific words without explaining why, his tendency to talk about entirely different points instead of what is in front of us4 and his tendency to discuss processes, movement and pattern of arguments instead of explaining the specific argument about the actual process of movement he is commenting on. While all these limit the usefulness of A Companion as a guide to reading Capital, our focus shall be on A Companion’s economic content and how it relates to the content of chapter 1 of Capital.

Chapter 1, section 1: use-value, exchange-value, value

In order to understand how A Companion fails to critique capitalism correctly, it is helpful to look at Harvey’s summary of the argument in Capital up to the point at which the first fundamental mistake occurs. For readers unfamiliar with Capital (or with Harvey’s commentary on it) hopefully this will make Marx’s argument in the first few pages of Capital sufficiently clear to enable a move on to where A Companion begins to depart from Marx.

Below is an extract from A Companion in which Harvey summarises Marx’s argument as he has thus far explained it. We’ve split up what Harvey says to allow us to add our own comments following each bit of Harvey.

“The story so far is roughly this: Marx declares that his aim is to uncover the rules of operation of a capitalist mode of production. He starts with the concept of the commodity and immediately establishes its dual character: use-value and exchange-value.”

– A Companion, p.25

As David Harvey mentions, a commodity is something which is both useful (i.e. can be used) and saleable. A commodity must have both of these qualities. Something that is not useful cannot be sold: a cheese which has gone off cannot be sold. The opposite is also true – a commodity that is not sold cannot be used: unsold food is thrown into locked skips.

“Since use-values have been around forever, they tell us little about the specificity of capitalism.”

– A Companion, p.25

People cultivated grapes and made wine, long before they made wine in order to sell it. In every society, people make use of things which they have produced. Consideration of their useful qualities in general can therefore not help us to understand the specificity of the commodity.

“So Marx puts them aside in order to study exchange-values. The exchange ratios between commodities at first appear accidental, but the very act of exchange presupposes that all commodities have something in common that makes them comparable and commensurable. This commonality, Marx cryptically asserts, is that they are all products of human labor.”

– A Companion, p.25

When we only consider one kind of commodity exchanging for another kind, then the rate at which it exchanges appears as accidental.5 So a bottle of a certain wine exchanges for three pieces of a particular type of smelly cheese. The exchange value of any one bottle of that wine is any three of those smelly cheeses. What does this tell us about the exchange value of the wine? It means the wine can be used as a resource to access a certain number of those cheeses. Marx comments that the ratio can in any event vary from place to place and over time – perhaps in another place I can get four cheeses for my wine or perhaps last year I got only two cheeses. If we just consider this relationship as between two particular commodities it can appear accidental. The variability of the proportion in which wine exchanges for cheese makes it seem as if the fact that this exchange is possible has nothing to do with some intrinsic property of the wine.

However, in principle every commodity can be exchanged for every other commodity. The wine can be used not just to get cheese – in other words, as a cheese access resource – but also, in sufficient quantity, as an access resource to anything else – pears, copies of Capital, iPhones. There is a social system in place that allows all commodities to be exchanged. Anything made by one producer can in principle be exchanged (used as a means of access) for anything made by another producer. The fact that bottles of wine have the quality that, in the appropriate number, they can be exchanged for any other commodity is clearly revealed not as a specific characteristic of the wine in relation to cheese but as a general characteristic of wine in relation to all other things produced. Wine has this characteristic of general exchangeability, of being an access resource to social wealth: it is value. The variability of the proportions in which it exchanges does not change this – exchangeability as such remains regardless of such fluctuations. Furthermore, what applies to wine also applies to cheese, pears, copies of Capital, iPhones and any other commodity: they, too, are access resources to social wealth, exchangeable, value.

From where does this general quality of exchangeability come from and why is it related to human labour as “Marx cryptically asserts”?

For useful things to have the quality that they can be used as an access resource to other commodities, there must be a division of labour: so that some people make some of the things needed and others make other things. That division of labour means people produce for each other and hence are dependent on each other for the satisfaction of their needs.

But for objects to be value more is necessary. Unlike the preceding requirement, this requires a particular form of social organisation: useful things have to be produced privately; what is produced is private property. That is, the producers exclude others from the things they own through the institution of private property.5 Hence, even though producers are dependent on each other they exclude each other from their products. The mutual dependence that arises due to the division of labour can thus be taken advantage of: owners of commodities can use other people’s need for what they have, as a means to force them to part with their property. Exchangeability or the fact that commodities are access resources to social wealth thus rests on the mutual and general exclusion from social wealth.6

But the ability – guaranteed by the law, i.e. the state – to exclude others from your products does not in itself compel them to part with their property in exchange. That piece of property which one lays claim to must take effort to produce it. The final necessity is that the production of useful things requires human effort.7 If it was possible to produce something without any effort then it could not be used as a means in this way (no one sells the air).8

The reason commodities are produced is to become access resource or power of access to social wealth, and being useful is only a necessary condition, rather than its purpose. The purpose of cheese-making is to produce commodities which can be exchanged. This implies a whole society organising its production for exchange rather than for needs. If you are a cheese-maker, other people’s hunger is just a means to being able to exchange your cheese, since your main concern is to validate your cheese as social wealth. For this you need to find people able to buy your cheese, and convince them that your cheese is worth exchanging for; only then will you be given access to the wealth produced in society.9

You coerce others through their needs to get what you need. It is a mutually antagonistic dependency. We are dependent on each other to produce the things we need – I need you to produce cheese to satisfy my hunger – yet our interests are in opposition to one another: I need you to need my wine, so that I can use it as a lever to access your cheese. It is production for each other organised as competition against each other.

Thus, in order for commodities to be bearers of exchange-value – to be value – a particular social system is required. In this system human labour is performed in order to produce private property – a bit of social wealth as such. This private property is used as a lever to exploit the needs of others in order to gain access to social wealth.

Abstract Labour

Now that we have gained a bit of context, let us find the passage where Marx first talks about abstract labour – the fundamental concept we claim David Harvey fails to understand – and contrast it with the commentary in A Companion.

“If we make abstraction from its use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value. It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn or any other useful thing. All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished. Nor is it any longer the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason or the spinner, or of any other particular kind of productive labour. With the disappearance of the useful character of the products of labour, the useful character of the kinds of labour embodied in them also disappears; this in turn entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labour. They can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract.”

– Capital, p.128

Both wine and cheese are exchangeable and this is founded on them both being products of labour, it takes effort to make them which allows them to be used as levers. Their exchangeability is not a quality of their specific physical bodies: one is liquid the other is solid. Put another way: when two commodities are equated in exchange, the point is that they are different.10 But in the act of exchange, all their differences are abstracted away, so that all that we have left is their value. The labour that produced them is thereby transformed: It is not cheese-making or wine-making, but simply human labour as such, abstracted from its specific form, that counts and that constitutes value. This is not merely an intellectual exercise, but rather an abstraction that is made in practice when commodities are exchanged. What constitutes wealth in this society is the purely negative characteristic of labour, pure toil, effort, “expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands etc.”11 – in short, abstract labour – and not that it produces all the useful things that we like and need to consume – that is only a condition.

Harvey offers the following commentary on this passage:

“But, he [Marx] then immediately asks, what kind of human labor is embodied in commodities? It can’t be the actual time taken – what he calls the concrete labor – because then the longer taken to produce the commodity, the more valuable it would be. Why would I pay a lot for an item because somebody took a long time making it when I can get it at half the price from somebody else who produced it in half the time? So, he concludes, all commodities are “reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract”.”

– A Companion, p.18

This commentary fails to engage with the quote it is commenting on. Let us explain.

1. Quality and Quantity

Firstly, notice how “kind of human labor” becomes “time taken”. A Companionimmediately jumps to the quantitative determination of labour, whereas Marx is discussing its quality. Harvey talks about “how much” – magnitude – without establishing how much “of what”. But the quality – “what is it?” – is what is being investigated here. It is as if David Harvey’s companion finds nothing noteworthy to explain about abstract labour, as if his only concern is how much of it there is.

2. Substance of Value: Congealed Abstract Labour

However, A Companion does not only neglect to discuss abstract labour, the example “why … pay a lot for an item … when I can get it at half the price” talks about a different point entirely. When you shop around for a chair you are not abstracting away its use-value: you need an object that you can sit on comfortably. You are also therefore looking for a skilled chair-maker who sells the chair cheaply. What Marx is talking about here is all the different types of products of labour and the labours which produce them being abstracted, equated and confronted by the act of exchange: cheese, wine and every other product is equated to chairs when the chair-maker sells her chair. They are certainly not the same thing and they are also the products of very different kinds of labour: cheese-making, wine-making and chair-making. Yet, insofar as value is concerned, they count as the same. But A Companion ignores that the products of cheese-making are equated with the products of wine-making.

In this society production is for each other, but the standard is not merely whether the other party needs a use-value but this use-value is to be used as a lever to gain access to social wealth. A lever whose force is as big as the amount of effort it generally takes to produce that use-value – I can demand social wealth in exchange for my product because it takes effort and others need it.12 You need my cheese but my cheese is my means to gain access to social wealth from which I am otherwise excluded. I can demand said access when my cheese counts as social wealth (i.e. finds effective demand). For this it does not matter if I make cheese or wine, but merely that it takes effort. Labour is not performed to merely produce use-values but to produce a bit of social wealth, to count as a part of social labour. Only under these social conditions does the fact that labour is effort assert itself as a quality of the products of labour: value.

3. Economic Laws and Common Sense

But because A Companion does not ask “what is abstract labour?”, it also fails to explain how the magnitude of value is established. That is, posing the question “why would I pay more?” as a way to begin explaining the magnitude of value will not allow one to explain it. Fair enough, David Harvey does not want to pay twice as much, but why is this standpoint valid? Why can he pay less? Why can the slower chair-maker not assert that she worked all day on her chair and demand enough money in return to reproduce herself? Why is her standpoint not valid but the buyer’s standpoint? Why is the buyer’s standpoint to demand a cheap price only valid when a second producer managed to produce faster? This is what Marx explains when he discusses the magnitude of value – socially necessary labour-time – but the reduction of this discussion to the common sense standpoint of the shopper in A Companion removes all explanatory content: it argues with economic rationality based on the economic laws of this society without explaining what these laws are.

Socially Necessary Labour-Time and Productivity of Labour

The observation “I can get it at half the price from somebody else who produced it in half the time” is the fact that needs to be explained as opposed to be used as an explanation itself.

Assume two chair-makers with different productivity levels. Chair-maker Alice makes twice as many chairs as chair-maker Bob in the same time. Alice may be prepared to accept a bit less in exchange for her chairs than Bob, underbidding him to ensure she exchanges all her chairs. As a result Bob might fail to exchange his chairs for sufficient stuff to allow him to reproduce himself, ruining him. As Alice’s level of productivity generalises, what she can get for her chairs drops to the newly established level of socially necessary labour-time: if one branch of industry lives it up earning much with little labour, other producers will switch into that branches of industry heating up competition there, driving down the exchange ratios of, say, chairs in their ruinous competition.

All this presupposes that Alice competes against Bob to attract effective demand, in David Harvey’s example his effective demand for a chair. This is a quite particular social relation. From the point of view of consumption, if 10kg of cheese have been produced, all that matters is whether it is smelly enough or not. If there is not enough cheese there is not enough cheese and more needs to be produced. However, in this society, if for some reason you were not able to produce as much cheese as usual or as others, you are also excluded from wine, iPhones etc. Furthermore, if the productivity of labour of chair-making doubles more chairs are produced in the same time. From the standpoint of consumption, two chairs sit more people than one, so wealth did increase. From the standpoint of commodity production the same amount of effort was expended so wealth did not increase. Finally, in this society, if my cheese does not count as social wealth – i.e. finds no purchaser – all my labour was in vain.13 I might have produced at the normal productivity level, it is just that too many producers produced cheese in their expectation to be able to exchange it. The standard of socially necessary labour-time is asserted against the immediate producers and any labour which does not pass the test is wasted. The society where abstract labour constitutes wealth is quite lavish with the expenditure of actual labour. All this is premised on chair-maker competing against chair-maker and all producers competing against all other producers.

A Companion treats this antagonism between different chair-makers as self-evident and as an a priori given just as it treats as an a priori given the antagonism between producers of different use-values. It casually takes the standpoint of someone engaging in this antagonistic relationship rather than trying to understand under which social relations this standpoint is valid.

Where Marx declares that “the twofold nature of the labour contained in commodities [concrete and abstract labour] … is crucial for an understanding of political economy”,14 A Companion does not pick up on the critical content and fails to explain or even mention the difference and opposition between concrete labour and abstract labour. As a result, as we shall see, Harvey posits money against exchange and value.

Value-Form Analysis: Commodities and Money

What Harvey objects to – and what he posits against value – is not that money represents value and circulates commodities, but that one can hold on to it:

“This means […] that the production and marketing of the money commodity as well as its accumulation (eventually as capital) lie in private hands even as it performs its universalizing social function.”

– A Companion, p.35, our emphasis

“Or on the monetary question – we need money to circulate commodities, no question about it. But the problem with money is that it can be appropriated by private persons. It becomes a form of personal power and then a fetish desire.”

– David Harvey in an interview for Red Pepper

“Now what is money and is there a contradiction in the monetary form? It turns out money is really a claim on social labor and there is therefore a contradiction in Marxist terms between money and value. […] As a medium of circulation money is fairly neutral. The big problem with money is its function as a store of value, because as a store of value it can store social power.”

– David Harvey, The Contradictions of Capital (17”24)

According to Harvey the situation is roughly like this: commodities are produced for exchange. This necessitates money to represent value, but somehow money also acquires the function as a store of value and this function is where the problem with the capitalist mode of production starts. This means that he has neither a problem with the subordination of production and consumption under commodity exchange; nor with the fact that socially necessary labour-time is asserted against the immediate producers as the standard they have to live up to; nor that the purely negative aspect of labour – effort – is what constitutes wealth in this society. In any case, according to Harvey there is no necessary connection between value and money as a store of value and hence there is an easy fix:

“Representation of value in the money form is a perversion of what value is about, it’s a contradiction. […] What this would suggest is that if you want to prevent class formation, if you want to prevent the individual appropriation of social value, then you would have to come up with a money form that is anti accumulation. Marx says that gold and silver are the money commodities because they are not oxidisable. […] They maintain their character. You can accumulate value, social power. And we see what happens in societies. But if you had a money form that dissolved, that is oxidisable, we would end up with a very different kind of society. You would have a money form that would aid circulation but that would not facilitate accumulation.”

– David Harvey on Platypus panel Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis (1’55″19), 14 November 201215

This mis-characterises value, the value-form analysis, money and accumulation.

1. Value

Harvey characterises money as a form of social power and a claim on social labour and contrasts this with value. But what is value if not social power and a claim on social labour? As we have seen, a chair is not produced to be consumed by the chair-maker but to be exchanged. For the chair-maker it represents her claim against society to social labour, i.e. all the things that are produced. Her chair is her means of access to these things and it counts in this regard merely as a bit of social wealth as such. This is what exchangeability means. A chair-maker does not have a warehouse full of chairs to sit on, but to sell them. These chairs are her claim to possess social wealth. Hence, Harvey’s characterisation of money as social power is correct, but to contrast that with value is wrong: anything and everything that is produced for the market claims to be social power. It is this point that David Harvey overlooks in A Companionwhen he reduces the dual character of the labour embodied in commodities to a mere “why would I pay more?”, taking everything that allows him to take this standpoint as not worth troubling with.

The big difference, however, between a chair and money is that a chair still has to prove that it is social power of access – it has to be sold – whereas money immediately is recognised as such. How is that?

2. Value-form analysis

While David Harvey accepts one of the results of Marx’ value-form analysis, i.e. that value must be expressed in money, he does not follow the argument. Commodities are produced for exchange. But before they can be exchanged they must express that they are immediately exchangeable and thereby are a bit of social wealth. A commodity is not only this particular commodity, say, wine, but also anything else that is available on the market. An analogy from the world of vanity would be us expressing how famous we are. We could say: “We are as famous as David Harvey.” If David Harvey is universally recognised as famous, then we would have successfully expressed our claim to how famous we are.

If other people use Owen Jones as a reference point for fame, we would lack a common reference point for expressing our fame. Some people might not recognise our claim to fame as they only recognise Owen Jones as immediately famous, not David Harvey. This is one of the critiques of the simple form of value given in Capital, it has nothing to do with barter as claimed in A Companion on page 30. The transition from the simple form of value to the expanded form of value is not because we are in “a complex field of exchanges like the marketplace”16 as opposed to simple barter, but because the simple form of value fails to express that our commodity is truly value, or to return to the analogy that we are truly famous.

However, in expressing our fame by pointing to David Harvey, we would also attribute to David Harvey the ultimate quality of being famous – a person all of us immediately recognise as famous. Now, in doing so we would also deny our own immediate fame. If we were truly and immediately famous we would not have to point to David Harvey to express it: “Look, believe us, we’re famous, just like David Harvey!”, people would immediately recognise our fame. By asserting our fame by pointing to David Harvey we are also expressing that we do not immediately have it. We hence would open ourselves up to the critique: “You claim to be as famous as David Harvey? Prove it!”

3. Money

To leave the somewhat silly analogy behind: when all commodities express that they are value in that one commodity, they also declare that this one commodity is the commodity which is value pure and simple. This commodity is money. After all, they always point to this one commodity to express that they are value just like it. All commodities have a price tag to express how much of social wealth they are. At the same time they deny that they are immediately value, the price tag indicates that they are not immediately money. Hence, they have to prove it. It is not enough to have a price, commodities must be sold. Only after a commodity has successfully exchanged with money is it successfully validated as a part of social wealth. In a society where people deny each other the means to satisfy their needs and where production for each other happens in competition against each other, proving that a commodity is indeed value and hence allows access to the wealth of society is the precarious step, the “salto mortale” of the commodity. A chair may or may not sell for money. Money, however, can – in sufficient quantity – always be exchanged for any other commodity.

Put differently, in a society based on commodity production and exchange, private producers produce hoping that their private labour is validated as social labour, that their product is validated as a bit of social wealth. Did they produce in vain or did they produce a chair which commands social wealth? Only money counts immediately as social wealth and allows access to all wealth of society. Hence, becoming money is the successful validation that a particular private labour is social labour. Money as social power of access pure and simple is the necessary direct form of appearance of social wealth in a society where production is independent and private, in competition against others, but for others.

4. Accumulation

Storing value is hence not the exclusive domain of money, it is merely better at it than stuff which is just commodity. However, David Harvey’s fix for “accumulation” with oxidisable money misses the point. The way money is accumulated is not by holding on to it. Harvey’s account of accumulation is in fact an account of hoarding. Hoarding works by denying money its capacity to satisfy your thirst for exquisite wine, you get richer by withdrawing from consumption. What the hoarder does is to hoard social power by not using it as power whilst she hoards it: her money does not exercise its access power to social wealth, it is withdrawn from circulation. It is merely latent power, as Marx points out in the critique of the hoarder.17 Indeed, capitalist accumulation is not mere hoarding. Companies do not simply sit on their money, a capitalist who does that is not good at being a capitalist. Companies instead invest in something that will make them expand: for example, industrial capitals hire workers for less than the value these workers produce.

That Harvey’s fix is no fix at all is aptly demonstrated by the fact that oxidisable money kind of exists: money in all successful capitalist states constantly looses its value – inflation. While this is certainly not the kind of oxidisable money Harvey has in mind, it underlines that hoarding your cash is not what makes capitalist firms successful.

In a society based on commodity exchange, private property owners use their commodities as leverage against others in order to access what they need and want. They equate every commodity on the market, thereby reducing the different kinds of labours that are needed to reproduce them to human labour in the abstract. Their products of labour count as a part of abstract social wealth which in money finds its appropriate expression. This abstraction of human labour is at the heart of Marx’s critique of the capitalist mode of production. No oxidisable money can affect this. It is this misunderstanding of Marx’s critique of value and of abstract human labour that is the premise that allows Harvey to propose a money system that would reproduce the social relations we presently have, and leave intact the generalised misery of our world. Challenging that would require challenging value itself and production for exchange which gives rise to it.


David Harvey does not trouble the readers of A Companion with an account of what abstract labour is, what value is and what it means for those subjected to it. For him, commodity production as such is not a mode of production that needs commenting on, explanation or critique. Consequently, he also struggles to explain the fetish-like character of commodities. Here is what Marx had to say:

“The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers themselves to the sum total of labour as a social relation which exists apart from and outside the producers.”

– Capital, p.164-165

“Objects of utility become commodities only because they are the products of the labour of private individuals who work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact until they exchange the products of their labour, the specific social characteristics of their private labours appear only within this exchange. In other words, the labour of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labour of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers. To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things.”

– Capital, p.165

As we have seen, production is carried out on the basis of private production units who produce for others and then place their products in the market based on a calculation that they can use them as a means of access to social wealth. Under these conditions the products of labour, commodities, become imbued with social properties. These social properties appear as properties of the commodities themselves which then react back on their producers.

On the market, commodities establish a relationship with other commodities. A certain amount of coffee exchanges for a certain amount of wine and this becomes reflected in a price. Through this process these commodities not only appear to have, but in fact indeed do have, relations with each other. It is through the relations between their commodities that the social relations of production between producers manifest themselves.

To these private producers the fact that their respective concrete labours are reduced to homogeneous abstract human labour appears in the form of the equality of the products of labour: “my commodity exchanges for theirs”. The socially necessary labour time to produce a given commodity appears as the relationship of the value of that commodity to other commodities: “my thing is worth twice as much as theirs”. The relationships between the different concrete labours of commodity producers appears as a social relation of products of labour: “my wine does not sell on the market any more, well, then I’ll have to produce cheese instead”. Marx describes this situation where the products of labour appear to and actually have power over their producers as the fetish-like character of the commodity.

Even if a commodity producer studies Capital, and comes to an understanding that the magnitude of value which their product commands in the market is an expression of the average production times taken by producers of such products (better work faster!); or whether overall for example more of these products were made than people were prepared to pay for; or that what a sum of value can purchase expresses a relationship of labour in this industry to labour in others – all these realisations change nothing about the fetish. Commodities still relate to one another and so people still do not control their own relationships with one another in production, but they are controlled through the result of the comparisons of their products on the market.

In David Harvey’s hands however, the fetish-like character of commodities becomes a problem, not of the lack of conscious control over human productive activity but simply a lack of knowledge about production relationships. A Companion takes a head of lettuce as example:

“You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price – the “how much” – is socially determined and the price is a monetary representation of value. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers – those who labored to produce the lettuce.”

– A Companion, p.39

So far so good. Unfortunately, the presentation then becomes a bit of a mixed leaf salad:

“Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange it is impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market […] You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them.”

– A Companion, p.40

Yet, the fetish-like character of commodities is not a description of the fact that we lack knowledge about the production chain. Any reasonably complex social division of labour presents the possibility that we will not know about how things we consume were made.18

Fair trade products, which display something about the conditions of the workers who produced them on their label, or even webcams next to the t-shirts on sale at any high street store showing the interior of the sweatshop where they are produced do not change the fact that the labour expended on producing those items is related to other human labour through the sum of money expressed in the price.

In the conclusion, the emphasis on the fetish-like character simply being down to a lack of knowledge rather than about the objective domination of people by the products of their labour, emerges again – apparently we are only “at risk of being ruled by fetishistic concepts that blind us to what is actually happening”.19Last time we checked we were not ruled by concepts but by a reality that is described by these concepts, i.e. we actually are dependent on money in order to have some wine and cheese, not only at risk. We understand why this is, yet, here we are.

What David Harvey in A Companion takes away from the fetish chapter of Capital is that value is “not a fact of nature, but a social construction arising out of a particular mode of production.”20 While this is correct, he does not actually explain, let alone properly critique, this particular mode of production. Like many commentators before him, he is content with putting down in writing that value is a product of history and a social relation without asking what it is that was produced and what stands in a social relation to what.

A Companion cites Marx’s charge against political economists, a charge that would seem to equally apply to Harvey:

“Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of value of the product. These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself.”

– Capital, p.174

The difference, however, between these political economists and David Harvey is that the latter – being a Marxist and all that – recognises that value is not natural. Though, what it actually is, what constitutes its substance and what that means for those subjected to it, he does not seem to find worth troubling the reader with.

Hence, those who read A Companion to guide them through Capital will be disappointed: it neither gives an adequate account of what Marx said nor of the capitalist mode of production.

When the Union is the Boss, Jacobin

In 2009, Monthly Review published an open letter from three labor activists saying that their union — UNITE HERE — had developed “a cynical and manipulative system of control” designed to create “a cult-like relationship of dependency between staff and their supervisors.” This system, known as pink sheeting, first came to public attention during a prolonged and ugly divorce between the union’s two halves, UNITE and HERE. While the Monthly Review authors called the UNITE leadership’s decision to publicize the existence of pink sheeting a “sensational” and “not sincere” attempt to discredit HERE, they also said the practice itself was seriously troubling.

Under the pink sheet regime, a lead UNITE HERE organizer would persuade workers and lower-level organizers to divulge personal information, often about past traumas. The lead organizer would frame this as a private disclosure, a gesture of trust and connection. But if the lower-level organizer ever second-guessed a command from on high, the lead organizer would use that personal information to pressure the subordinate into carrying out orders.

Hotel worker turned UNITE HERE organizer Julia Rivera told the New York Times that her supervisors had pushed her to reveal details of how she was sexually abused as a child. Then “her supervisors ordered her to recount her tale of abuse again and again to workers they were trying to unionize at Tampa International Airport, convinced that Ms. Rivera’s story would move them, making them more likely to join the union.”

The authors of the Monthly Review letter wrote: “This command and control-style union culture is endemic to much of the movement.” And indeed, while pink sheeting may have been limited to UNITE HERE, the mentality that spawned it is not. Take, for example, the actions of SEIU earlier that year against its own members: In a May 2009 Labor Notes essay, Union of Union Representatives (UUR) president Malcolm Harris announced that his organization had filed unfair labor practice charges against SEIU for trying to bust its own staff’s union.

The “reorganization” within SEIU that led to the termination of seventy-five UUR members, wrote Harris, “reveals SEIU’s cynical view of organizers and organizing. While it lays off experienced and dedicated International organizers, it is outsourcing our work to non-union contractors and hiring dozens of temporary staff for health care reform efforts.”

These are the stories that are known, the ones that have attracted broader attention. But in many other cases, labor unions have managed to keep shoddy treatment of their own workers quiet. Organizers and other employees, perhaps fearing that they will be blacklisted from the movement or inadvertently help to discredit it, only talk among themselves about the wrongful terminations, low pay, tyrannical bosses, and outright union-busting they face.

The stories I’ve heard are shocking: people being ordered to “organize” around ancillary political issues that have nothing to do with their real job descriptions, an acquaintance who found her position summarily liquidated and herself blacklisted due to an employer’s personal vendetta, countless examples of union-busting.

The problem here is not any particular malice on the part of union management. The problem is that they feel the same pressures as any large employer: the constant need to maximize efficiency and workforce flexibility while minimizing labor costs. Whereas a corporation feels that pressure most acutely from competitors and shareholders, unions experience it in the form of political reaction and corporate opposition to unionization. Despite these differences, the outcomes are remarkably similar: managers in both sectors constantly look for new ways to extract productivity from their labor forces in exchange for stagnant — or diminishing — pay.

But while labor leaders and corporate bosses face analogous pressures, their situations are not identical. Union bureaucracy is exceptional because the ideology that helps to sustain its sometimes exploitative labor practices is also exceptional. Pro-labor sentiment demands that union employees tolerate their own exploitation as a necessary condition of working to free others from exploitation.

Granted, some other employers use related modes of ideological conditioning to acclimate their workers to shoddy labor conditions. For example, Capitol Hill staffers accept remarkably low pay and long hours in exchange for the prestige of traversing the halls of power. A young creative professional — a designer, say — might tolerate low pay and no benefits because he loves the casual-cool ethos and high social capital of his workplace and industry.

We might be tempted to say these examples are basically identical to the case of the union staffer, but we can’t do that if we’re to take the ideology of unionism seriously. If promoting workplace democracy is a fundamentally noble goal, then those who make sacrifices in order to achieve that goal are not suckers. We should admire, not pity, the idealistic college graduate who gives up a shot at a high-paying private-sector career in order to become an organizer. We should also assume that she is not stupid, that she’s aware of the great personal and financial hardships organizers endure. In that case, the line between exploitation and laudable sacrifice becomes a lot fuzzier.

To look at it from the employer side: When a private employer insists that you must accept precarity as the price of a “fun” job and the ability to wear a hoodie to work, we can dismiss this as obviously ridiculous. Not only is the inverse relationship between the employer’s ability to provide security and the “fun-ness” of the work environment rather dubious, but meeting the basic subsistence needs of workers is a greater moral imperative than providing free pizza on Fridays. But labor unions don’t offer their staff an ideology of fun and free pizza; they claim, with some moral force, that their staff is involved in an emancipatory project of monumental importance. Furthermore, unlike most other employers, they can plausibly claim that any effort to give, say, regular hours to their employees would undermine their ability to satisfy their other moral imperative.

Nonetheless, we should be able to draw up some general principles that help to distinguish exploitation from necessary sacrifice. After all, employees in plenty of other professions, like nursing, find ways to balance worker solidarity with their profession’s unique ethical obligations. It is one thing to say that a worker has professional obligations; it’s quite another to say that he must abandon all of his concerns about workplace conditions and bow to the limitless authority of the boss.

So while some level of personal sacrifice on the part of union organizers is not only inevitable but reasonable, that can’t possibly justify rendering them powerless over their own workplace conditions. To argue otherwise would be to argue against unionism itself. Even the labor movement’s right-wing enemies acknowledge that it would be radical to call for the abolition of teachers unions on the sole basis that teachers serve a higher calling. Any attempt to distinguish union organizing from those professions that deserve collective decision-making is bound to be incoherent.

The only lucid arguments for tolerating union staff abuse can be extended to the workforce as a whole. The logic of organizer exploitation is the logic of worker exploitation in general, and therefore corrosive to the very idea of unionism.

Consider the “shit happens” defense, a less ideologically charged cousin of the appeal to shared sacrifice. This line of reasoning excuses abusive practices in a union on the grounds that all organizers and other staff have had similar experiences. In other words, the person making the complaint should not think she’s special. Low or no pay, long hours, sadistic bosses, and so forth just come with the territory, and everyone should learn to accept that.

It shouldn’t be too hard to guess how unions respond to that argument when it comes from bosses in workplaces they seek to organize. Yet I’ve heard senior union staff readily apply it to their own work environments, seemingly without any pangs of cognitive dissonance. In one case, when told that an intern at a labor organization had frequently received his weekly stipend several weeks late, one of his superiors just shrugged, said “shit happens,” and pointed out that plenty of interns work for no pay at all.

Of course, this particular intern had been promised a modest weekly stipend, and had taken the job expecting to receive it. Imagine how this same labor organization would likely react if it were organizing workers whose boss routinely violated prior agreements and justified these violations by pointing out how much worse labor conditions elsewhere happened to be. The special exception that this intern’s supervisor made for his own staff may not be malicious, but it is both damaging and incoherent.

A slightly more plausible argument could be made that granting union staff any collective representation would lead to unsustainable internal politics. After all, there would be nothing to prevent the new staff union from making unreasonable demands, raiding members’ dues to grant themselves lavish salaries, overriding strategic concerns out of pure self-interest, and so on. Union leadership might argue that giving the staff control over the bureaucratic wing of the union would result in corruption, stagnation, or self-destruction.

Such a claim is superficially reasonable, but again, does not apply only to organized labor. In recent years, the American right has marshalled similar arguments against teachers unions. In Wisconsin, for example, Governor Scott Walker and his allies insisted that they would not be able to balance future state budgets as long as the state’s public school teachers were able to collectively bargain for their wages and benefits. The subtext of the argument was that selfish, intransigent teachers would demand obscene pay at the expense of everyone else who lived in the state.

To unionists, that was unthinkable. For one thing, the fight to save collective bargaining rights took place amid a budget debate during which the teachers had already made significant concessions.

The Right’s depiction of teachers as psychotically rapacious was just sort of bizarre. Teachers are the people who we trust to safeguard our children’s physical safety and mental development; if, in reality, most teachers are interested merely in fattening their wallets at the expense of the school district, the taxpayer, and their own students, then the fact that they have the same workplace rights as everyone else is not the problem. No one who fits that psychological profile should be allowed anywhere near a school, and if we had any reason to believe that it was an accurate description of most public school teachers, then enrolling America’s children in school could be reasonably considered a reckless act of child endangerment.

Thankfully, we can dismiss that scenario as absurd. But if we feel comfortable trusting the majority of teachers with the wellbeing of our children for a large chunk of the day, then surely we can grant them the same discretion when they bargain for contracts. If anything, their ability to do harm is much more limited in contract negotiations than during the school day.

The same logic applies to organizers. It is difficult to imagine the person who becomes an organizer just for the money. Unions so often get away with mistreating organizers in large part because of the sincere passion and conviction that brought those organizers into the profession. Just as it is impossible to imagine an entire union of teachers dedicated to bleeding the taxpayers dry at all costs, it is equally hard to imagine an entire staff of organizers whose only aim is to extort money from their union. If they do not care deeply about furthering the cause of unionism, they’re unlikely to be organizers; and if they do care deeply, then they’re unlikely to make collective decisions that they know will financially ruin the union.

Of course, the idea that union staff would have any policy-setting abilities is enough to make some people uncomfortable. This leads us to the most persuasive argument against giving collective bargaining rights to organizers and other staff: the union is supposed to be an agent of the membership’s will, and no one else’s. True unionists tend to (rightfully) view staff-run unions as oligarchies, disconnected from the concerns of their members and little better than other hierarchical private entities.

In the event that union staff formed their own bargaining unit, they would be forming an institutional counterweight to the uninhibited control of their members — or at least to their members’ elected representatives. Therefore, any union with a staff union is at greater risk of becoming a staff-run union. Some of the risk could be contained by clearly defining the extent of the staff’s bargaining power — for example, by banning them from bargaining over anything but wages, hours, benefits and grievance procedures — but such regulations never entirely work. They often turn previously explicit demands into implicit demands. (This was the case in the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, which was nominally about wages and teacher evaluations but fundamentally had quite a lot to do with charter schools and resources for students.)

Of course, objections of a similar kind are often made to the existence of public-sector unions. Public sector employees, the argument goes, are meant to carry out the wishes of the democratic polis (or at least, again, of its elected representatives). They are not supposed to shape the policy of their own departments by going against the will or interests of the people. The key difference here is that public-sector employees, unlike union staff, are expected to have some political input anyway; they are both employees and citizens (and therefore, in a distant sense, employers), whereas union staff are not themselves members of the unions they serve.

Another important distinction lies not between civil servants and union organizers, but between ideal theory and gritty reality. Yes, in an ideal democracy, the people would be the absolute sovereign. And yes, in an ideal union, so would the members. But there is no such thing as a neutral institution, and the institutions created by both governments and unions to serve their own interests will inevitably have agendas of their own. No one truly believes that government departments are capable of perfectly divining majoritarian consensus and carrying it out without the slightest deviation. Few people would even desire that state of affairs, given that government employees often know more about what they’re doing than the average voter. We acknowledge that, in the real world, we need to grant government employees some level of discretion.

Similarly, though organizers should strive to represent their members as best as they can, we must acknowledge that union staff will sometimes pursue their own interests, or imperfectly carry out the wishes of the membership. We must also acknowledge that strategic researchers or labor attorneys may know more about their jobs than the unions that employ them. The only way to entirely eliminate the tension between staff and membership would be to have unions without staff, where all of the essential functions are carried out by volunteer members. Even then, however, different volunteer members would have different beliefs, levels of knowledge, and interests — much like citizens who are also public employees. Besides, modern unions need staff. Private employers have developed exceedingly sophisticated union-busting tactics over the past century, and beating them often requires a dedicated team of communicators, researchers, lawyers, organizers, and statisticians, among others.

We could no more do away with professional union staff than with modern government bureaucracy. As a result, some level of tension between contradictory interests is inevitable. But no serious unionist would suggest that this tension is reason enough to do away with public-sector unions. We can certainly conceive of a situation in which the collective will of a public-sector union goes against the collective will of the public at large, but employees of the public are still employees, and it is a fundamental tenet of unionism that a workplace is unjust when its workers have no recourse to democratic decision-making. A state-owned workplace is a workplace like any other.

If we accept that reasoning, then it is difficult to imagine the grounds on which we might argue that a union’s bureaucracy is not a workplace like any other. If the tension between workplace democracy and the will of the stakeholders is tolerable in a government, it should surely be tolerable in a union. In fact, a union is easier to consider in simple employer-employee terms than a state. Whereas public employees are also citizens who elect their own employers, the power relations between elected union leaders and union staff are far more easily conceptualized using the traditional boss-worker bifurcation.

It seems that labor leaders cannot escape from unionism’s categorical imperative: Any abuse, exploitation, or union-busting is a fundamental betrayal of the union ideal. A union president who tries to prevent his staff from organizing might acknowledge this truth but counter that it’s not his problem. In the real world, he might say, the leadership and senior staff are here to serve the interests of the members. Sometimes those interests will directly contradict the lofty principles of unionism.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t sound much like the attitude of someone who considers himself part of a movement. In a time when social unionism seems like the last best chance for organized labor, that kind of atomized thinking is retrograde at best, and suicidal at worst. If workplace democracy is to survive and grow over the next few decades, it requires the cooperation of a diverse coalition in its favor. Firm principles unify such coalitions. Unions abandon them at their peril.

Final Straw: “In It To Win It,” An Interview with Black Rose Federation

This week we spoke with Romina and César, who are two members of the Black Rose Anarchist Federation in LA. We talk about what it’s like organizing in an Especifist federation model of anarchism, about anarcho-communism, and tensions and points of unity between non-federation and federation organizing. We wanted to interview these folks in order to present another model of possible engagement, for folks who perhaps are looking for ways to plug in. This conversation is somewhat introductory, and we welcome any feedback you have.

What is Authority?

What is authority? Is it the inevitable power of the natural laws which manifest themselves in the necessary linking and succession of phenomena in the physical and social worlds? Indeed, against these laws revolt is not only forbidden – it is even impossible. We may misunderstand them or not know them at all, but we cannot disobey them; because they constitute the basis and the fundamental conditions of our existence; they envelop us, penetrate us, regulate all our movements. thoughts and acts; even when we believe that we disobey them, we only show their omnipotence.

Yes, we are absolutely the slaves of these laws. But in such slavery there is no humiliation, or, rather, it is not slavery at all. For slavery supposes an external master, a legislator outside of him whom he commands, while these laws are not outside of us; they are inherent in us; they constitute our being, our whole being, physically, intellectually, and morally; we live, we breathe, we act, we think, we wish only through these laws. Without them we are nothing, we are not. Whence, then, could we derive the power and the wish to rebel against them?

In his relation to natural laws but one liberty is possible to man – that of recognising and applying them on an ever-extending scale of conformity with the object of collective and individual emancipation of humanisation which he pursues. These laws, once recognised, exercise an authority which is never disputed by the mass of men. One must, for instance, be at bottom either a fool or a theologician or at least a metaphysician, jurist or bourgeois economist to rebel against the law by which twice two make four. One must have faith to imagine that fire will not burn nor water drown, except, indeed, recourse be had to some subterfuge founded in its turn on some other natural law. But these revolts, or rather, these attempts at or foolish fancies of an impossible revolt, are decidedly the exception: for, in general, it may be said that the mass of men, in their daily lives, acknowledge the government of common sense – that is, of the sum of the general laws generally recognised – in an almost absolute fashion.

The great misfortune is that a large number of natural laws, already established as such by science, remain unknown to the masses, thanks to the watchfulness of those tutelary governments that exist, as we know, only for the good of the people. There is another difficulty – namely, that the major portion of the natural laws connected with the development of human society, which are quite as necessary, invariable, fatal, as te laws that govern the physical world, have not been duly established and recognised by science itself.

Once they shall have been recognised by science, and then from science, by means of an extensive system of popular education and instruction, shall have passed into the consciousness of all, the question of liberty will be entirely solved. The most stubborn authorities must admit that then there will be no need either of political organisation or direction or legislation, three things which, whether they eminate from the will of the soverign or from the vote of a parliament elected by universal suffrage, and even should they conform to the system of natural laws – which has never been the case and never will be the case – are always equally fatal and hostile to the liberty of the masses from the very fact that they impose on them a system of external and therefore despotic laws.

The Liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys natural laws because he has himself recognised them as such, and not because they have been externally imposed upon him by any extrinsic will whatsoever, divine or human, collective or individual.

Suppose a learned academy, composed of the most illustrious representatives of science; suppose this academy charged with legislation for and the organisation of society, and that, inspired only by the purest love of truth, it frames none but the laws but the laws in absolute harmony with the latest discoveries of science. Well, I maintain, for my part, that such legislation and such organisation would be a monstrosity, and that, and that for two reasons: first, that human science is always and necessarily imperfect, and that, comparing what it has discovered with what remains to be discovered, we may say that it is still in its cradle. So that were we to try to force the practical life of men, collective as well as individual, into strict and exclusive conformity with the latest data of science, we should condemn society as well as individuals to suffer martyrdom on a bed of Procrustes, which would soon end by dislocating and stifling them, life ever remaining an infinitely greater thing than science.

The second reason is this: a society which should obey legislation emanating from a scientific academy, not because it understood itself the rational character of this legislation (in which case the existence of the academy would become useless), but because this legislation, emanating from the academy, was imposed in the name of a science which it venerated without comprehending – such a society would be a society, not of men, but of brutes. It would be a second edition of those missions in Paraguay which submitted so long to the government of the Jesuits. It would surely and rapidly descend to the lowest stage of idiocy.

But there is still a third reason which would render such a government impossible – namely that a scientific academy invested with a soverignty, so to speak, absolute, even if it were composed of the most illustrious men, would infallibly and soon end in its own moral and intellectual corruption. Even today, with the few privileges allowed them, such is the history of all academies. The greatest scientific genius, from the moment that he becomes an academian, an officially liscenced savant, inevitably lapses into sluggishness. He loses his spontenaity, his revolutionary hardihood, and that troublesome and savage energy characteristic of the grandest geniuses, ever called to destroy old tottering worlds and lay the foundations of new. He undoubtedly gains in politeness, in utilitarian and practical wisdom, what he loses in power of thought. In a word, he bocomes corrupted.

It is the characteristic of privilege and of every privileged position to kill the mind and heart of men. The privileged man, whether practically or economically, is a man depraved in mind and heart. That is a social law which admits of no exception, and is as applicable to entire nations as to classes, corporations and individuals. It is the law of equality, the supreme condition of liberty and humanity. The principle object of this treatise is precisely to demonstrate this truth in all the manifestations of social life.

A scientific body to which had been confided the government of society would soon end by devoting itself no longer to science at all, but to quite another affair; and that affair, as in the case of all established powers, would be its own eternal perpetuation by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently more in need of its government and direction.

But that which is true of scientific academies is also true of all constituent and legislative assemblies, even those chosen by universal suffrage. In the latter case they may renew their composition, it is true, but this does not prevent the formation in a few years’ time of a body of politicans, privileged in fact though not in law, who, devoting themselves exclusively to the direction of the public affairs of a country, finally form a sort of political aristocracy or oligarchy. Witness the United States of America and Switzerland.

Consequently, no external legislation and no authority – one, for that matter, being inseparable from the other, and both tending to the servitude of society and the degradation of the legislators themsleves.

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.

If I bow before the authority of the specialists and avow my readiness to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because their authority is imposed on me by no one, neither by men nor by God. ions and even their directions Otherwise I would repel them with horror, and bid the devil take their counsels, their directions, and their services, certain that they would make me pay, by the loss of my liberty and self-respect, for such scraps of truth, wrapped in a multitude of lies, as they might give me.

I bow before the authority of special men because it is imposed on me by my own reason. I am conscious of my own inability to grasp, in all its detail, and positive development, any very large portion of human knowledge. The greatest intelligence would not be equal to a comprehension of the whole. Thence results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labour. I receive and I give – such is human life. Each directs and is directed in his turn. Therefore there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subbordination.

This same reason forbids me, then, to recognise a fixed, constant and universal authority, because there is no universal man, no man capable of grasping in all that wealth of detail, without which the application of science to life is impossible, all the sciences, all the branches of social life. And if such universality could ever be realised in a single man, and if he wished to take advantage thereof to impose his authority upon us, it would be necessary to drive this man out of society, because his authority would inevitably reduce all the others to slavery and imbecility. I do not think that society ought to maltreat men of genius as it has done hitherto: but niether do I think it should indulge them too far, still less accord them any privileges or exclusive rights whatsoever; and that for three reasons: first, because it would often mistake a charlatan for a man of genius; second, because, through such a system of privileges, it might transform into a charlatan even a real man of genius, demoralise him, and degrade him; and, finally, because it would establish a master over itself.

[BAKUNIN, 1871]

The Rise & Fall of Jim Crow

The Democratic Party was formed in 1792, when supporters of Thomas Jefferson began using the name Republicans, or Jeffersonian Republicans, to emphasize its anti-aristocratic policies. It adopted its present name during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. In the 1840s and ’50s, the party was in conflict over extending slavery to the Western territories. Southern Democrats insisted on protecting slavery in all the territories while many Northern Democrats resisted. The party split over the slavery issue in 1860 at its Presidential convention in Charleston, South Carolina.
Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas as their candidate, and Southern Democrats adopted a pro-slavery platform and nominated John C. Breckinridge in an election campaign that would be won by Abraham Lincoln and the newly formed Republican Party. After the Civil War, most white Southerners opposed Radical Reconstruction and the Republican Party’s support of black civil and political rights.
The Democratic Party identified itself as the “white man’s party” and demonized the Republican Party as being “Negro dominated,” even though whites were in control. Determined to re-capture the South, Southern Democrats “redeemed” state after state — sometimes peacefully, other times by fraud and violence. By 1877, when Reconstruction was officially over, the Democratic Party controlled every Southern state.
The South remained a one-party region until the Civil Rights movement began in the 1960s. Northern Democrats, most of whom had prejudicial attitudes towards blacks, offered no challenge to the discriminatory policies of the Southern Democrats.

Then and Now: After the Civil War, the Democratic Party in the South was the party of white supremacy. Now, African Americans form the party’s most loyal base of support. One of the consequences of the Democratic victories in the South was that many Southern Congressmen and Senators were almost automatically re-elected every election. Due to the importance of seniority in the U.S. Congress, Southerners were able to control most of the committees in both houses of Congress and kill any civil rights legislation. Even though Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a Democrat, and a relatively liberal president during the 1930s and ’40s, he rarely challenged the powerfully entrenched Southern bloc. When the House passed a federal anti-lynching bill several times in the 1930s, Southern senators filibustered it to death.

— Richard Wormser

Assessing the Pink Tide-Jeffrey Webber

“When Ecuador gained independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, the country did not launch a social revolution that would overturn colonial society’s racism and inequality. Instead, the elite descendants of Spanish conquistadores now ruled on their own behalf rather than for the Spanish crown. For those beneath them, much remained as it had been.

Thus a popular slogan of the early republican period emerged in the graffiti lining the walls of Quito, the capital city: the last day of despotism, and the first day of the same; or, as Luis Macas, a leading indigenous activist remembered it in a 2010 interview with me, the last day of oppression, and the first day of the same.

This expression captures something essential about the first decade and a half of twenty-first-century Latin American politics. Indeed, some on the Left have celebrated the most recent period of the region’s history as Latin America’s Second Independence, referring to the region’s relative autonomy from the domination of the United States and the crudest dictates of orthodox neoliberalism.

But the nineteenth-century Ecuadorian slogan resonates in ways that suggest a more somber view. At the end of the latest left experiments in Latin America, the chasm between what this challenge to neoliberalism promised and what political-economic strategies left and center-left governments actually adopted is clearer than ever.

From the Streets to the State

Latin American social movements between 2000 and 2005 emphasized direct action, grassroots participatory democracy, and the de-professionalization of politics. The assembly form became a privileged site of deliberative decision-making. Popular organizations combined confronting the state with building new forms of self-governance that prefigured the post-neoliberal, and in some cases post-capitalist, societies they hoped to forge.

When progressive parties assumed the mantle of state leadership over the mid-2000s, however, the social movements were limited to “subaltern participation,” which Mabel Thwaites Rey and Hernán Ouviña define as the pacifying incorporation of popular sectors into the gears of the capitalist state, rather than “autonomous and antagonistic participation,” in which they maintain their capacity to disrupt and to lay the groundwork for emancipatory transformation. The necessary struggle against, within, and beyond the state transformed into a moderated struggle captured by the state.

Social movements lost sight of the connection between specific popular organization dynamics and the revolutionary horizon of transforming capitalist society in its totality. Modest reforms and increases in consumptive capacities became ends in themselves, rather than the basis for more audacious structural ruptures with the existing order. The new left governments channeled the momentum of social change from below rather than encouraging an ongoing rebalance of class forces that would favor the laboring classes.

Left governments cannot capture a capitalist state’s actually existing apparatuses and straightforwardly retool them for any purpose besides the reproduction of capitalist society. That, however, does not mean that we should think of the state as merely an instrument of the bourgeoisie. Within a specific national territory, and within the limits of capitalist reproduction, the state represents the balance of class forces. The positive aspects of state services — public education, health care, and so on — are the accumulated legacy of past popular struggle, always unevenly achieved and under threat of reversal. Ultimately, the state cannot be transformed from within given the fundamental role it plays in reproducing dominant class relations and the mode of capitalist exploitation.

There may be a revolutionary road to post-capitalism that begins with left forces assuming electoral office, but, as Panagiotis Sotiris has argued, such a process would quickly lead to an organic crisis of the state and fierce counterattack by bourgeois forces. What began with elections would then become something else altogether.

Anticapitalist revolution requires the purposeful creation of new forms of solidarity and self-management, the institutionalization of new social and political forms of struggle, and the extension of modalities of popular power from below, outside of, and against the bourgeois state, even if left parties and social movements do participate in the electoral terrain of competition.

With the exhaustion of the current progressive cycle in Latin America, the political moment will likely become much darker before it gets brighter. If, however, today’s popular movements — those fighting the parliamentary coup in Brazil, or taking on the Macri government in the streets of Argentina, or aligned against the authoritarian government in Honduras — presage struggles to come, the tide will turn again, creating conditions more favorable to the popular sectors’ self-activity.

But what form this next left assumes in the medium term, and whether it can transcend inherited habits and institutional patterns, will depend in part on its ability to ruthlessly assess the last fifteen years.

Passive Revolution

Gramsci describes passive revolution as a period marked by the unequal and dialectical combination of restorative and transformative tendencies. Transformative dynamics work to change social relations, but these changes are ultimately limited. The fundamental structure of social domination persists, even if its political expressions have been altered.

The last day of oppression, and the first day of the same.

The specific class content of passive revolutions varies within certain limits — that is, popular demands (the transformative tendency) are incorporated to different degrees within a structure that ultimately sustains the foundations of the status quo ante (the restorative tendency). Passive revolutions involve neither the total restoration of the old order nor radical revolution.

Instead, they generate a dialectic of revolution/restoration, transformation/preservation. Capacities for social mobilization from below are co-opted, contained, or selectively repressed, while the dominant classes’ political initiative is restored. Meanwhile, conservative reforms appear in the guise of impulses emerging from below, thereby achieving the dominated classes’ passive consensus.

Rather than an instantaneous restoration, the balance of forces changes at a molecular level until the capacities for popular self-organization and self-activity are completely drained through co-optation, bureaucratization, and so on. This process guarantees passivity to the new order and controls what mobilization occurs, if not encouraging complete demobilization.

At the end of Latin America’s most recent progressive cycle, we can discern the sharpest periods of transformation and of restoration over the last fifteen years of left resurgence as well as characterize the epoch since the late 1990s as a whole.

Explaining the End of the Cycle

Some have responded to the fading of center-left hegemony in Latin America with denial. Broadly speaking, two versions of this position dominate. First, from a social-democratic perspective, the Right’s resurgence — evident in Mauricio Macri’s 2015 election in Argentina, the conservative opposition’s congressional victoryin Venezuela that same year, Evo Morales’s failed attempt to run for a third consecutive term as Bolivian president, Rafael Correa’s decision not to seek reelection in Ecuador, and Brazil’s parliamentary coup a year ago — appears as a string of relatively superficial setbacks.

“For the past 15 years,” Mark Weisbrot writes in an emblematic intervention, “Washington has sought to get rid of Latin America’s left governments; but its efforts have really succeeded, so far, only in the poorest and weakest countries: Haiti (2004 and 2011), Honduras (2009), and Paraguay (2012).” The region has more independence than ever, and the poor are better off now than at any time in recent decades.

The Latin American left, Weisbrot argues, overturned economic and political relations with the behemoth to the north, constituting a “second independence” after it secured freedom from Spain and Portugal two centuries ago. Riding on this legacy, Weisbrot predicts that the region’s progressives are “likely to remain the dominant force in the region for a long time to come.”

Such a perspective sees the recent close-call results of the second round of Ecuador’s presidential contest as further evidence of Pink Tide continuity. Correa’s successor, Lenín Moreno, won 51.6 percent of the vote, defeating retrograde conservative Guillermo Lasso, who garnered 48.8 percent. Downplayed is the fact that Correa’s government shifted to the right in recent years, was in open conflict with the indigenous movement and public sector unions, and was suffering a decline in popularity as the economy sunk into serious recession with the end of the oil boom.

In the 2006 and 2013 general elections, Correa won in the first round with 57 percent of the popular vote. In 2017, Moreno, Correa’s vice president from 2007 to 2013 and clearly a continuity candidate, won only 39 percent in the first round — falling shy of the 40 percent needed to avoid a second round, despite a fractured right-wing opposition. While less calamitous than a Lasso victory would have been, it is very likely that Moreno will introduce new austerity measures, prioritize debt repayment, and maintain Correa’s development program of capitalist modernization in the extractive sectors of mining and oil.

Social democrats never believed that revolutionary change was possible or even desirable in twenty-first century Latin America. As a result, they have interpreted the shift to the center of the political spectrum by left and center-left governments over the last several years as an adaptation to reality, a prudent course of moderation. These governments and the social movements that support them must accept the inevitable and make a virtue of necessity, following Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s and Dilma Rousseff’s lead in Brazil. The only possible alternative to neoliberal capitalism is a regulated and humane capitalism — other desires are either nefarious or naïve.

A second denialist track claims a certain Marxist pedigree. It emphasizes the state’s centrality as an agent of social change and aligns itself closely with the Bolivian, Cuban, and Venezuelan governments, and sometimes to those in Uruguay, Nicaragua, and, until recently, Brazil and Argentina. The Left’s apparent setbacks appear, from this point of view, as symptoms of the natural ebbs and flows of the revolutionary process — part of the anticipated dynamics of advance and retreat, unsurprising unless one has innocently expected a linear revolutionary ascent.

This group interprets the growing tensions between left governments and social movements — as long as they stay in agreement with the government’s objectives — as creative and revolutionary impulses that ultimately help transformative processes mature. The state managers and loyalists in these administrations reduce independent opposition from the Left or from indigenous organizations to machinations of imperialist powers or the domestic right. Indeed, they see left-indigenous movements as little more than the willing allies or useful idiots of empire.

Despite periodic hiccups and policy reversals, left governments are understood to be building advanced, industrial capitalism in the region, thereby creating the conditions for a slow transition to socialism. Such change does not drop from the sky, nor is it achieved over night. The transitional phase will last decades, perhaps centuries.

Both of these narratives misunderstand the Latin American context. The global economic crisis made a delayed landing in the region, and the center-left’s hegemony is now in sustained and protracted retreat. New right-wing formations are appearing, but they cannot offer an alternative hegemonic project.

This is a novel period of political impasse, structured by deep continuities in underlying patterns of regional accumulation and Latin America’s still-subordinate position as primary commodity producer in the international division of labor. A balanced assessment of these progressive governments and the social movements that preceded them cannot restrict itself to unidimensional criticisms of American intervention and belligerent right-wing movements, even when these represent crucial components of the story.

Instead, we might start with the Latin American left’s trajectory since the early 1990s, paying particular attention to the shifting balance of forces between the popular classes, ruling classes, and imperial forces across the last twenty-five years. From a nadir in the early 1990s, an extra-parliamentary left gradually renewed itself during the economic crisis of 1998–2002, which eventually became a political crisis for right-wing governments throughout much of South America.

This movement left’s radicalism, particularly in Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador, was subsequently moderated in various ways as movement actors began participating in elections, center-left and left governments rose in the mid-2000s, and China’s dynamic accumulation drove a worldwide commodity boom. Progressive governments consolidated into what Eduardo Gudynas calls the “compensatory state,” in which wealth is redistributed but does not change society’s underlying class structure or seriously confront profitability and property regimes — a model that depends on strong commodity prices.

The global economic crisis initially had a relatively weak impact on the region, particularly in South America. But by 2012, the tide had shifted, and crisis rolled through the region. With a downturn in commodity prices, easy rent for redistribution disappeared, and center-left governments became austerity managers, alienating both the sections of capital that had reconciled themselves to progressive rule and the regimes’ traditional social bases.

This dual retraction of support provoked a decline in center-left hegemony and the uneven appearance of new right-wing social and political movements. Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela are prominent exemplars of this new reality.

Looking Back

These center-left governments achieved myriad social gains. Alternative regional integration projects began to develop in opposition to American dominance. The Argentine Supreme Court declared laws that granted immunity to leading figures of the dictatorship unconstitutional, and constituent assemblies in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador inserted some transformative elements into their countries’ new constitutions.

Politically, the contrast with the repressive governments in Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, Honduras, and Mexico is stark. Ideologically, anti-imperialist discourse was revived, and, in some places, strategic debates over socialism and paths of transition to post-capitalism proliferated.

Progressive governments used the bonanza of export rent to fund targeted social policies for the poorest social strata, to increase and sustain employment rates (albeit typically in insecure and low-paid jobs), and to boost domestic consumption. The popular classes’ living conditions measurably improved. Poverty went down, and income inequality fell slightly. (That said, this also happened in some countries in the region led by right-wing governments, as a cursory comparison of International Monetary Fund figures for Colombia and Brazil reveals, and the region remains the most unequal in the world.)

The pace of privatizations slowed and was even reversed in some economic sectors in a few countries. Spending on basic social services and infrastructure in poor urban neighborhoods and marginalized rural areas increased. These governments expanded access to basic free education and, in some cases, democratized access to universities.

In the words of Ecuadorian sociologist Pablo Ospina Peralta, Latin American progressivism offered “something,” however minimal, in the face of the “nothing” that dominated in the decades of neoliberalism that preceded it.

But, as the global economic crisis seriously began to pinch state revenues, even these slight gains were slowed or reversed. As sociologist Franck Gaudichaud observes:

[The] social, political, and economic cycle of medium duration seems to be slowly exhausting itself, although in multiform and nonlinear ways. With their real (but relative) advances, their difficulties and important limitations, the different experiences of very distinct progressive governments of the region . . . appear to be running up against significant endogenous problems, robust conservative powers (national as well as global), and lack of direction and unresolved strategic dilemmas.

Looking Ahead

A new period is opening up, likely to feature more intense forms of right-wing rule that, lacking societal consent, will rely on militarized and repressive domination. But the Right cannot solve the structural problems underlying the region’s economics. This new period will be marked by economic, social, and political instability, by renewed interventionism from the United States, and by deteriorating living conditions for the majority of Latin American populations.

Progressive governments are increasingly trapped between popular demands for the continuation of recent social gains and the intensifying discontent of foreign and domestic capitals that had learned to live with center-left hegemony when there seemed to be no other option.

In the present scenario, none of these governments have the ideological, organizational, or political capacity to take the kind of audacious steps against capital — like nationalizing banks, monopolizing trade, enacting agrarian reform and mass employment schemes, enforcing environmental regulations, boosting popular consumption, and controlling money laundering — that might realign them with their popular bases of support. These “governments fear popular mobilization of their own bases of support,” Guillermo Almeyra notes, “more than being toppled by the Right, which is on the offensive.”

The cycle of progressivism in Latin America has demonstrated that the mass mobilizations against neoliberalism in the early part of this century and the subsequent occupation of state apparatuses by progressive governments of different shades cannot structurally transform society, the state, and the economy on their own. Indeed, the occupation of the state often domesticated social movements and tamed their desires by partially incorporating their demands into an underlying framework of continuity.

This observation hardly vindicates the radical autonomist view of changing the world without taking power, of ignoring state power and buckling down in defensive islands while the Right governs the sea. The new situation demands a sober assessment of the period, an interrogation of established revolutionary truths, and ongoing, open-ended discussions of the strategic lessons to be drawn.

“When major historical processes come to an end, and in turn major political defeats transpire,” Raúl Zibechi explains, “confusion and despondency set in, desire intermingles with reality, and the most coherent analytical frameworks blur.”