From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: The economy and dialectics of liberation

From the May-June 2019 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: We are experiencing a time when economists warn about a decade-long stagnation and a slowdown in the global economy, despite lush corporate profits in some sectors and a giddy stock market. It is a time when common people see the conditions in their own lives not living up to selectively publicized official statistics. It is a time when capitalism’s boosters sing praises of its never-ending improvement of people’s lives, just when so many look into the near future and see looming disaster.

In such a time it is not enough to catalogue and analyze the economic ills. As Raya Dunayevskaya put it in this piece, “What we need to do now is to take a further look into the economy, to measure the depth of the recession, not for statistical purposes, but for the relationship of dialectics of liberation to economic ills.”

The trend of the decline in the rate of profit remains one of the current economy’s basic elements, rooted as it is in capitalism’s dialectical inversion of subject and object: dead labor dominating living labor. And, just as when this piece was written, the world is still reeling from what, in each period, was the deepest global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Many of the economic facts are different today. For instance, the official inflation and unemployment rates are low, although many working-class families feel themselves in a precarious position as if unemployment were as high now as in 1976.

Nevertheless, the point remains the methodology of comprehending the economic contradictions and all the social movements in relationship to dialectics of liberation. So Absolute Method, “i.e., dialectics of liberation…is unavoidable as it is life;…it is an Absolute Universal, but absolutely concrete and everywhere.” Yet, still today, post-Marx Marxists keep religiously away from it, often substituting “materialism” as if that is the whole of Marx’s Marxism.

Therefore we present this extract from Perspectives 1976-1977: Philosophy and Revolution in Today’s Global Freedom Struggles, delivered as a speech by Dunayevskaya on Sept. 4, 1976 (Raya Dunayevskaya Collection #5696, rayadunayevskaya.org/raya/ArchivePDFs/5696.pdf).

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by Raya Dunayevskaya

What we need to do now is to take a further look into the economy, to measure the depth of the recession, not for statistical purposes, but for the relationship of dialectics of liberation to economic ills. Let’s begin with their—capitalists’, and, therefore, the government’s—bright spot. The one thing that truly gladdens their hearts and souls—and narrows their vision—are profits, super-profits; or, as Business Week (8/16/1976) puts it, “stunning increases in profits,” in any case, for the first quarter of 1976.

Where inflation has hardly gotten out of the double-digit variety (though you couldn’t prove it in the daily breadbasket of the common people), there has been nothing short of triple-digit increases in profits in the biggest corporations! Based on a survey of the nation’s largest corporations in 40 key industries, Investorsi Management Sciences Inc. reports the glad tidings and proves it by showing that even the airlines are into the black for the first time in many quarters, with Eastern zooming up nearly 500%. And the average—average—profit among auto companies—this at a time when GM has the gall ask for a cutback in workers’ benefits—is 200%.

Fully automated retail stores like this prototype in Seattle, 2016, could wipe out thousands of jobs. Photo: Bruce Engelhardt.

What these statistics don’t tell you is the way this has been achieved, as there has been a spectacular rise in labor productivity, not reflected in workers’ wages. Unemployment has remained high, and this helps bring down the standard of living of all workers. Indeed, to make ends meet at all, there had to also be a spectacular rise in members of a family working. In a word, it takes two working—husband and wife—to be able to support a family.

We are so constantly fed the shibboleth of this being the richest country, and “therefore” the best of all possible worlds, that we get brainwashed to think it also applies to the workers. I have news for you. Not only is there no gold in the streets of America, the U.S. has become a cheap labor economy when compared to West Europe. While U.S. workers still head the list when we talk of straight wages, what West European workers get in fringe benefits actually makes those total labor costs higher. Also, the workers get four-week paid vacations.

Moreover, this is not in “democratic socialist countries” like Sweden, but Belgium and Italy and France. The latest Bureau of Labor statistics show that while fringe benefits in the U.S. add only 30% to basic wages, in Italy they amount to 88%, in Belgium 69%, in France 64%. West Germany and Canada are just behind the U.S. Add to that the fact that European workers get more paid holidays. And do you think that any can possibly not know it is an exploitative society who enter that hellhole called the factory? Then there is unemployment. Along with this being a most exploitative system, its mode of production is so contradictory that it can never escape crises: that is the very nature of its being.

As Karl Marx said over 100 years ago, “The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself.” That is to say, since all it lives for is profits (unpaid hours of labor) and it can only get those from living labor, yet mass production means more and more dead labor, i.e., machines, there just is no way to escape the “general law of capitalist accumulation”—on the one hand, an unemployed army; on the other hand, an ever greater number of machines. Thus, there is a discrepancy—a large one—between the capitalists’ total invested capital and the total return of unpaid working hours from an ever, relatively smaller army of employed living labor.

Now, whether you call it, as Marxists do, a decline in the rate of profit, no matter how lush the mass; or use the expression bourgeois economists do—the “law of diminishing returns”—it is a fact that neither (least of all the capitalist himself) can escape. The way the capitalists try to escape is to see that real wages do not rise as much as labor productivity rises with the introduction of machinery, automation especially. The capitalists also devise ways of getting profits back indirectly, through inflation. They get worried only when the inflation also hits them. Thirdly, and most importantly, is the creation of an unemployed army to force down the standard of living. Thus, two need to work to make ends meet in a family.

The new in this recession, especially at its height, or rather depth, in 1975—and that is what makes it no ordinary recession, but a real turning point—is that, as against Richard Nixon’s planned recession when for the first time we had inflation and unemployment, wage controls and Arthur Burns’ tight fiscal control aiming at a slowdown of economic growth, now the crisis itself had created conditions for profitable production. That is to say, with the standard of living forced sufficiently down, and productivity way up, the capitalists decided to raise investments, and now they wish to make sure the strikes will not upset their new unconscionable profits.

And just as radical economists have finally learned that “planning” isn’t socialism, so professional bourgeois economists keep repeating that, after all, even Marx never said there would be an automatic economic collapse. The general contradiction of the capitalist mode of production has its counteracting tendencies. Thus, they whistle in the bright sunshine of this quarter’s profits, conveniently forgetting the second part of that sentence about no automatic collapse of capitalism, which reads: since capitalism also produces its gravediggers—the proletariat—they will be sure to bring it down. Not only will workers not stand for this lowering of their living standards and permanent unemployment, but since the government’s political crises are as sharp as the economic ones are, the masses will take to the streets rather than only to the ballot box.

That the workers will not forever tolerate their conditions of labor is clear from the massive strikes, official and unofficial, that are constantly besetting industries. Nor will the mass discontent go away with the end of the elections. On the contrary. The crises will first then heighten as it becomes clear that no fundamental change will be undertaken by the new administration. The recently concluded general wildcat strike among miners against both management and labor leadership was directed also at the government. It is a portent of things to come before and after Nov. 2….

It is time to draw all threads together, especially since here there will be no “peaceful coexistence” of ideas, or, to use Hegel’s expression, ideas that “come before consciousness without being in contact.” Serious revolutionaries know that not only cannot Ideas of freedom coexist with actual exploitation, racism and sexism. “Coming in contact” becomes a life-and-death struggle to release totally new dimensions, whether that be of class struggle, Black dimension, national liberation, Women’s Liberation, and the Youth who will uproot a world they did not make, and create new human relations.

The self-determination of ideas, as of struggles, knows that separation between “immediates” and “ultimates,” put off for the “day after,” dooms the revolutions the day before….

Absolute Method: not for purposes of Hegelian scholasticism (though our Old Politicos could certainly benefit from some knowledge of the dialectic, Absolute Method), but within the historic context of Marx’s theory of proletarian revolution, and Lenin’s development of national self-determination as well as world revolution, whether that begins in Moscow, Berlin—or Beijing, Turkey, Afghanistan—or today in Portugal.

Thus, methodology, i.e., dialectics of liberation, whether “at home” or “abroad,” is unavoidable as it is life; it is everywhere; it is an Absolute Universal, but absolutely concrete and everywhere. And yet so far distant from its actuality have Marxists—Marxists, not Marx—gone, that they keep religiously, i.e., mystically, vulgar materialistically away from it.

Who could’ve appeared to be more internationalist than Trotsky with his theory of permanent revolution and his actual leadership of the Russian Revolution as the start of the world revolution? In fact, however, the concept of the world revolution and out of the Russian Revolution when it was institutionalized as nationalized property—that fixed particular—were sitting alongside of each other, rather than being jammed up against each other. How could it be otherwise when it left out the self-developing subject—as against Lenin who developed it as, first, the National Question, and then a new departure for world revolution starting “If not through Berlin, then perhaps Beijing.” That is true revolutionary philosophic mediation. Without a subject, no concept can become real: a subject that is uninhibited by any elitist view of “the backwardness of the peasantry” while clinging to Party structure as the be-it-all.

Even during the darkest period of counterrevolution, 1908, Lenin always insisted that the positive, the highest achievement of the revolution before its defeat, must be held onto as the ground for the next revolution. By 1914, when confronted with the betrayal of the Second International, nothing of the Hegelian dialectic so moved him as Hegel’s principle “to hold fast the positive in the negative.” And with the dialectic of second negation—the negation of the State and the creation of the non-state: “the population to a man, woman, child”—Lenin was ready for October 1917. And even on his deathbed, he never stopped repeating that when a revolutionary fails “to grasp the dialectic,” as he feared Bukharin failed, the whole revolution is endangered.

Which was exactly what was involved in actuality and in Hegel’s celebrated last three syllogisms of the Philosophy of Mind, which becomes the center point of chapter 1 of Philosophy and Revolution. There is no other way of escaping the theoretic void since Lenin’s death sucking you into the abyss of incomplete, aborted revolutions.

It is for this reason that the Committees’ Perspectives, in centering on the creation of a philosophic nucleus, have held it inseparable from politicalization as the concretization of philosophy….

A single dialectic process upsurges from actuality and from thought, which is why philosophic mediation is simultaneously the subjective-objective method, the process which makes of knowledge itself a way to produce liberty. It is high time it was here as reality. Let’s get down to trying to make it so.

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