II. The capital relation

May 17, 2017

From the May-June 2017 issue of News & Letters

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2017-2018:
Philosophy and revolt confront Trump’s drive to fascism

I.    Trumpism as an excrescence of world capitalism’s crises
The capital relation
U.S. forces of revolt as reason; philosophy as force of revolution
International crises
Lies, facts and ground
The Russian Revolution, 100 years ago and its meaning today

…Continued from Part I. Trumpism as an excrescence of world capitalism’s crises

II. The capital relation

What provides an enduring base for today’s alienations is the way current society is structured on the split between the human being and one’s own activity: alienated labor. The heart of capitalism is the domination of dead labor over living labor, that is, the living worker is dominated by dead labor or past labor materialized as capital taking forms such as machines, money, oil, commodities. The way a worker has to follow the dictates of a computer or a production machine; the way production keeps growing out of all proportion to the availability of jobs; the way the economy seems to have a mind of its own, constantly eliminating jobs yet producing more and more greenhouse gases on the march to climate chaos; the way the very design of social media and most of cyberspace is driven by the need to sell ever more to the user—these are manifestations of the domination of dead over living labor. This is at the heart of capitalism’s drawn-out crisis.


Karl Marx

Karl Marx

On the 150th anniversary of the 1867 publication of the first volume of Karl Marx’s Capital, this takes on new importance precisely because Trump embodies capital in a way that revels in its alienated being. He seeks to build a mass base by posing this alienation as the national essence and hallowed tradition that must be rescued from forces of revolt. It is no accident that his rhetoric merges the defense of “American families”—tacitly equated to patriarchy, men’s right to abuse women, and the marginalization or worse of LGBTQ people—with protection of “our borders” from immigrants and foreign economic competition and with getting rid of welfare. To fight Trumpism without trying to overturn the roots of the alienation he represents is like accepting a premise and objecting to the conclusion that follows from it.

The domination of dead labor over living labor is so utterly inhuman yet so much the foundation of daily life in this society that it appears natural and to question it appears irrational. The fetishism of commodities is what Marx called this normalization of the capital relation. (See “The cooperative form of labor vs. abstract labor and despotic plan,” p. 4.)

That the economy proceeds on the basis of slave labor of millions worldwide, the toil of millions more right here in the U.S. for less than a living wage, vast wealth in the hands of a few while two billion people lack safe drinking water, a constant churning that wipes out thousands of jobs monthly, periodic recessions like the one in 2008 that wipe out even more jobs and dispossess millions of their homes and pensions, daily life lived under the looming shadow of climate catastrophe, world war and genocide—all of this appears to be a normal part of life, and fighting it appears futile.

And yet living labor, the Subject, can never be totally absorbed by dead labor. The normalization is always contested. We fight it and must fight it.

Its absolute opposite is the philosophy of liberation that grasps the totality of this society, its contradictions as the basis of negating it and the inherent subjects of revolution as pointing in a totally different direction of human self-development. Alienation in capitalism is also exploitation, oppression, fetishism. It is crucial to overturn in thought and in social relations; otherwise, the capitalist premise will lead back to another form of deadly counter-revolution.

The continuous miner—the machine that decimated coal mining jobs when it was introduced in the coal fields in the late 1940s. It can mine as much as five tons of coal a minute.

Automation—replacing workers with computers, robots and other machines—is a palpable form of ever-growing domination of dead labor over living labor.

It is the biggest source of the destruction of jobs and the replacement of higher-paid with lower-paid jobs and of full-time jobs with part-time, temporary, “gig economy,” or other precarious jobs. That is the story of the 21st-century economy. Retail jobs are disappearing by the tens of thousands every month, and few of those people will find jobs driving the delivery trucks or stocking the warehouses for online shopping that is replacing stores. Meanwhile, capitalists are rushing to perfect driverless vehicles and get rid of truck drivers.


Yet ideologues like Trump try to distract us from automation’s toll by pointing instead to immigrants and international trade as the enemies of workers. Democrats like Obama and Clinton answer only by quoting economists who claim that automation brings new jobs in computer programming and the like, and by advocating a few more dollars for retraining workers, which has a poor track record in getting people jobs with decent pay. It is also true that the Democratic Party has tailended Trump by only noting the unemployment of white workers, while Black unemployment remains as always twice that of whites, and many Black neighborhoods have experienced generations of concentrated poverty, unemployment and segregation.

Automation today spells out unemployment, precarious employment, destabilization of the middle class, bleak prospects for many youth, deep economic crisis from which there is currently a respite that provides little help to many and may soon end. It unravels the social fabric, spreading isolation and substituting online ideological echo chambers for community.

It also spells out a powerful impetus to revolt. On the one hand, fascism’s revolt pretends to oppose “elites” but aims to bring new life to capitalism by duplicating more fully its despotism in the political as well as economic arena. On the other hand, the revolt of labor, especially the lower and deeper layers of workers, reaches to overturn the capital relation.

The absolute opposite to capitalist alienation is freely associated labor. At the same time, overturning this oppressive society and establishing new human relations involves the dialectic of revolution, of the self-developing subject as masses in motion, as manifested in all the forces of revolution as reason—and philosophy as force of revolution. What is needed is to develop the single dialectic in thought and in reality, as seen in the relationship between race, class, sex, philosophy and organization traced in American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard and Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future.

Continued in Part III. U.S. forces of revolt as reason; philosophy as force of revolution

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