Productive debt

When did Marxists get so pissy and bitter? On Facebook a few days ago, a famous Marxist, one who specializes in finance, wrote this:

One of the casualties of the decline of Marxism is that no one ever talks about the origins of private wealth in the exploitation of uncompensated labor. It’s all debt debt debt. 

This outburst requires a bit of unpacking. The “decline of Marxism,” on the one hand, means the increasing utilization of anarchist processes and movement, which seem to be the preferred forms of political protest and alter-world building over the last couple of decades. On the other hand, the phrase indexes Marxism’s fortunes to the decline of ruling socialist and social-democratic states and parties; this becomes clear with the emphasis on “private” wealth. And of course “debt debt debt” refers to actions like Debt Strike! and the Rolling Jubilee and to David Graeber’s book.

The rant also requires a bit of refutation. The idea that the decline of Marxism correlates with a decreased interest in exploitation at the “point of production” (the clarifying phrase that immediately entered the Facebook conversation) assumes that no one cares about workplace organizing and politics anymore, an odd claim to make in light of recent events in the U.S. and longtime trends in China and elsewhere; again, an insistence on institutionalized formations creeps in, one that equates the health of Big Labor with the concern of what happens at the point of production. It also doesn’t really work as an invective against anarchism, as it ignores formations like the IWW and the WSA, not to mention the anarchists working in the sinews of the mainstream labor movement. Finally, the correlation between Marxism and the site of exploitation nonsensically assumes that modern-day Marxists themselves prioritize workplace organizing and action and discuss exploitation at the point of production. Most Trotskyist organizations, for example, privilege anti-imperialist and antiwar organizing over workplace organizing (well, except when they want to take control of situations) and valorize insurgent states over the working masses.

Oddly, this formulation seems to exclude debt from having a role in accumulation. Marx himself thought differently:

The public debt becomes one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation. As with the stroke of an enchanter’s wand, it endows barren money with the power of breeding and thus turns it into capital, without the necessity of its exposing itself to the troubles and risks inseparable from its employment in industry or even in usury.

What’s most annoying about the above, though, is the way that surplus is assumed to be created only at the point of production. Of course in some ways this follows the Marx to the letter. But it follows only the finished, published Marx, and it doesn’t seem to get at the whole project as he envisioned it. As Jairus Banaji says:

Clearly, by the capitalist mode of production, Marx meant more than the domination or widespread use of wage-labour, he meant the laws of motion that are summed up in the accumulation and competition of capitals. Since most of Capital was left unfinished, we do not have a proper or complete description of the interaction of ‘many capitals’, the most dynamic part of the system, and we tend to reduce the model to his description of individual capital in Volume One, which is one of its most abstract moments! In other words, ‘relations of production’, in Marx’s sense at least, are just not reducible to the relations of exploitation depicted in Volume One.

Even though Banaji’s emphasis on competition here is too narrow, what he makes clear is that the “point of production” is, at most, simply the location at which lots of relations find their expression, the point at which the surplus perhaps becomes most visible but not the exclusive point at which it is produced. Workers’ exploitation is preceded and supported by a whole series of processes and institutions: the households that reproduce their labor-power; the nation-states that provide infrastructure; the financial markets that translate and allocate money, to recite some of just the most banal observations. 

And debt, today especially, provides a link to production, is itself a relation of production. In the United States, the labor force participation rate is at the lowest it’s been since women started entering the workforce 40 years ago, at 56%, well below the 65% of the late 90s, and the unemployment rate for people under 30 is approaching 25%. For an unprecedented number of people, there is no connection to the old, privileged points of production and the sites of uncompensated labor are everywhere, often bridged by debt.


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