Marx, production, distribution

Notes on a different part of the Marx Introduction.

Marx’s rendering of the relationship between production and distribution — which, unlike the exposition of the production-consumption relation, more obviously privileges production — has traditionally been subjected to several different readings. Two of these readings have been carried out more or less simultaneously and without contradiction by various socialisms, i.e., Leninism, social-democracy, etc.; these are what I’ll call the substitutional and social-arrangement readings. A third reading is performed by liberalism and could be called the identitarian reading. First some quotes:

As regards whole societies, distribution seems to precede production and to determine it in yet another respect, almost as if it were a pre-economic fact. A conquering people divides the land among the conquerors, thus imposes a certain distribution and form of property in land, and thus determines production. Or it enslaves the conquered and so makes slave labour the foundation of production. Or a people rises in revolution and smashes the great landed estates into small parcels, and hence, by this new distribution, gives production a new character. Or a system of laws assigns property in land to certain families in perpetuity, or distributes labour [as] a hereditary privilege and thus confines it within certain castes. In all these cases, and they are all historical, it seems that distribution is not structured and determined by production, but rather the opposite, production by distribution.

In the shallowest conception, distribution appears as the distribution of products, and hence as further removed from and quasi-independent of production. But before distribution can be the distribution of products, it is: (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2), which is a further specification of the same relation, the distribution of the members of the society among the different kinds of production. (Subsumption of the individuals under specific relations of production.)

In other words, distribution’s first act is not to distribute the product but to determine the positioning of bodies and machines within the production process. Seeing distribution solely as the distribution of product is, of course, a form of fetishism that sees production relations as natural but the distribution of the product as open to change and individual action. Marx goes on:

The distribution of products is evidently only a result of this distribution, which is comprised within the process of production itself and determines the structure of production. To examine production while disregarding this internal distribution within it is obviously an empty abstraction; while conversely, the distribution of products follows by itself from this distribution which forms an original moment of production.[…] The question of the relation between this production-determining distribution, and production, belongs evidently within production itself. If it is said that, since production must begin with a certain distribution of the instruments of production, it follows that distribution at least in this sense precedes and forms the presupposition of production, then the reply must be that production does indeed have its determinants and preconditions which form its moments. At the very beginning these may appear as spontaneous, natural. […] The questions raised above all reduce themselves in the last instance to the role played by general-historical relations in production, and their relation to the movement of history generally. The question evidently belongs within the treatment and investigation of production itself.

This is where the readings I alluded to above step in. In the first one, “economics” is substituted for “production” and “politics” is substituted for “distribution.” According to this reading — and there is certainly textual evidence for such a reading — Marx holds that the latter is always secondary to the former and that under capital’s reign economic relations ultimately create the modes of politics; indeed, here Marx could even be read as saying that this is the universal, ahistorical, condition. Marxism has often assumed this to be so, usually under the name of materialism. This reading thinks that the state and the politico-governmental are neutral, easily changed, repurposed, made beneficial, by the correct economic structure. In this way not only are the state/democracy/government easily rechannelled for socialist purposes, but are actually made impotent and empty, sites of moral battles rather than of political antagonism.

The second reading is more literal, in that it doesn’t substitute fields of analysis for moments of the circuit, but it also introduces a paradox into socialist thought by seeming to contradict the first reading. This paradox, however, is not a contradiction, because socialism is precisely the oscillation between the two. In the second reading, the area of contestation, and the site of liberation, has been reversed from the substitutional reading; that is, capitalist production relations can remain unchanged as long as distribution (social) relations are revolutionized and moved toward socialism. Mostly, of course, this means a more equitable sharing of the products. This was Lenin’s idea, one that would keep Taylorism in the factory but make the social sphere the scene of revolutionary transformation. In other words, in this reading distribution instead of production is considered superior, is ultimately determinative. It is also the idea, sans the Leninist hand-wringing, behind the highly corporatized social democracies, where capital’s stratifications are tamed by radical redistribution. Like political economy, these readings see production arrangements as, if not natural, at least something approaching ideal, so that antagonism is displaced into politics and out of the factory.

Liberalism reads the production-distribution-consumption relations in terms of identity: The individual in production is the worker, the individual’s relationship to distribution is as that of the citizen, and the individual in consumption is the consumer, or, more generally, the “private” individual. These individuals are atomized, of course, never existing simultaneously but as different moments present in each individual. Well, except for the subaltern, who exist primarily as workers and less if at all in the other figures.

Maybe next I’ll write about Marx’s circuit in the way I read it.


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