Our concrete/abstract alienation
In his Education After Auschwitz, Adorno wrote (p. 6) that
People who blindly slot themselves into the collective already make themselves into something like inert material, extinguish themselves as self-determined beings. With this comes the willingness to treat others as an amorphous mass. I called those who behave in this way “the manipulative character” in the Authoritarian Personality… He does not for one second think or wish that the world were any different than it is, he is obsessed by the desire of doing things, indifferent to the content of such action. He makes a cult of action, activity, of so-called efficiency as such which reappears in the advertising image of the active person… I would call it the type of reified consciousness. People of such a nature have, as it were, assimilated themselves to things. And then, when possible, they assimilate others to things.
Adorno goes on to state that in this process of reification, our humanity and our search for a dignified life are lost. This is made worse because we are unable to discuss the analytical characteristics of that life, and instead we leave ourselves with descriptions of how we might exist. So, for example, rather than discussing how we produce our society in the face of economic or environmental crises, we fetishise technology as a means of recuperating value production and overcoming the realities of climate change. Here the veil of technology determines the limits of our engagement with social reproduction as the use and exchange of immateriality, without our analysis of the ways in which that immateriality is founded inside the living death of capitalist work. For Adorno (p. 8) this means that we are unable to see:
where the threshold lies between a rational relationship to technology and the over-valuation that finally leads to the point where one who cleverly devises a train system that brings the victims to Auschwitz as quickly and smoothly as possible forgets about what happens to them there.
We are pedagogically and technologically unable to critique the societal order that produces and reproduces what Adorno calls (p. 9) “the condition for disaster”, because our roles inside capitalism are formed of mediated relationships, like teacher and student that appear to be our really existing lifeworld. The only way around this is for education to transform itself openly into sociology. “[I]t must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.” (Adorno, p. 10)
Postone, in his Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust”, pushes this argument about reification by way of demonstrating the interrelationships and interplay between the concrete and the abstract, as they are formed of and reproduce capitalist society. He argues that crises or catastrophes or atrocities are internalised and normalised (p. 100):
The goal was “normalcy” at all costs – one to be achieved without dealing with the past. The strong identification with that past was not overcome, but simply buried beneath a surfeit of Volkswagens… A kind of collective somnabulism resulted, with the majority of the population sleep-walking its way through the Cold War, the “economic miracle,” the reemergence of politics with the student revolt, repressing the past.
For Postone, it is critical that in dealing with and making sense of the collapse of the past into the present the future is not foreclosed. In making sense, the qualitative specificity of the particular crisis “requires a much more concretized mediation in order to even approach its understanding.” (p. 106)
Thus, Postone argues that in understanding the Holocaust and in refusing its reproduction, the interplay between the abstract world and its concrete realisation is fundamental. Here there is a flow between the concrete and the abstract so that each emerges from the other, and the intellectual problem is to reveal this emergence because “the abstract domination of capital… caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand” (p. 106). Thus:
What is required, then, is an approach which allows for a distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears, between its essence and appearance. The concept “modern” does not allow for such a distinction. These considerations lead us to Marx’s concept of the fetish, the strategic intent of which was to provide a social and historical theory of knowledge grounded in the difference between the essence of capitalist social relations and their manifest form. (p. 108)
Critical here is finding a means of decoding how relations of production and the commodities that are produced socially, are externalised and take the form of fetishes. Moreover, they are at once both abstract and concrete, with each informing the production and reproduction of the other. In Postone’s argument this appears on the surface of society to be a set of relationships that are mediated and abstracted by money (as a representation of value) and by the law. For many, this then feels less meaningful or truthful than the concrete form of labour or even of work. It thus becomes difficult to move beyond the alienation of both concrete and abstract labour because neither can be decoded, and the result is that our reality is subsumed.
One aspect of the fetish, then, is that capitalist social relations do not appear as such and, moreover, present themselves antinomically, as the opposition of the abstract and concrete. Because, additionally, both sides of the antinomy are objectified, each appears to be quasi-natural: the abstract dimension appears in the form of “objective,”” natural” laws; the concrete dimension appears as pure “thingly” nature. The structure of alienated social relations which characterize capitalism has the form of a quasi-natural antinomy in which the social and historical do not appear. (p. 109)
This is the dialectical relation between the abstract and the concrete, which is both historical and material. Without an analysis of the ways that both concrete and abstract labour are manifest in capitalist social relations and generative of value, there is no way that crises can be overcome. Thus, in the Grundrisse, Marx argues:
The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. … the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought… even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.
As Marx notes in Capital Volume 1 “concrete labour becomes, therefore, the medium for expressing abstract human labour.” This is critical for Postone in understanding how the production of relative surplus value, and the relationships between concrete and abstract in that capitalist production process, make environmental degradation inevitable.
Leaving aside considerations of possible limits or barriers to capital accumulation, one consequence implied by this particular dynamic — which yields increases in material wealth far greater than those in surplus value — is the accelerating destruction of the natural environment. According to Marx, as a result of the relationship among productivity, material wealth, and surplus value, the ongoing expansion of the latter increasingly has deleterious consequences for nature as well as for humans. (Postone, Time, Labour and Social Domination, p. 311)
The pattern I have outlined suggests that, in the society in which the commodity is totalized, there is an underlying tension between ecological considerations and the imperatives of value as the form of wealth and social mediation. It implies further that any attempt to respond fundamentally, within the framework of capitalist society, to growing environmental destruction by restraining this society’s mode of expansion would probably be ineffective on a long-term basis — not only because of the interests of the capitalists or state managers, but because failure to expand surplus value would indeed result in severe economic difficulties with great social costs. In Marx’s analysis, the necessary accumulation of capital and the creation of capitalist society’s wealth are intrinsically related. Moreover [...] because labor is determined as a necessary means of individual reproduction in capitalist society, wage laborers remain dependent on capital’s “growth,” even when the consequences of their labor, ecological and otherwise, are detrimental to themselves and to others. The tension between the exigencies of the commodity form and ecological requirements becomes more severe as productivity increases and, particularly during economic crises and periods of high unemployment, poses a severe dilemma. This dilemma and the tension in which it is rooted are immanent to capitalism: their ultimate resolution will be hindered so long as value remains the determining form of social wealth. (Postone, Time, Labour and Social Domination, p. 313)
However, the festishisation of the concrete, or of the use-value of commodities and the production process does not enable us to manage crises, either of barriers to capitalist accumulation or environmental degradation or societal/political atrocities. For Postone, “concrete labor itself incorporates and is materially formed by capitalist social relations” (p. 110, Anti-Semitism). In fact, in discussing the degradation of the natural world, the naturalisation of concrete labour underscores a kind of “biologized” fetishisation, based on the idea of artisanal or organic production that stands against “the manifest form of its abstract dimension: finance and interest capital” (p. 110, Anti-Semitism). This is in opposition to the deep interrelationships between the concrete and abstract dimensions, which are quickened though technology.
Interestingly, Postone makes a critical point about the relationship between the concrete, productive manifestation of capital, through its relationships to industry and technology, as a form of natural work or labour, and crisis. Thus, the idea
that the concrete is “natural,” and which increasingly presents the socially “natural” in such a way that it is perceived in biological terms. It is precisely the hypostatization of the concrete and the identification of capital with the manifest abstract which renders this ideology so functional for the development of industrial capitalism in crisis. National Socialist ideology was in the interests of capital not only for the very obvious reason that it was virulently anti-Marxist and that the Nazis destroyed the organizations of the German working class. It was also in the interests of capital in the transition from liberal to quasi-state capitalism. The identification of capital with the manifest abstract overlaps, in part, with its identification with the market. The attack on the liberal state, as abstract, can further the development of the interventionist state, as concrete. This form of “anti-capitalism,” then, only appears to be looking backwards with yearning. As an expression of the capital fetish its real thrust is forwards. It is an aid to capitalism in the transition to quasi-state capitalism in a situation of structural crisis (p. 111, Anti-Semitism).
This form of “anti-capitalism,” then, is based on a one-sided attack on the abstract. The abstract and concrete are not seen as constituting an antinomy where the real overcoming of the abstract – of the value dimension – involves the historical overcoming of the antinomy itself as well as each of its terms. Instead there is the one-sided attack on abstract Reason, abstract law or, on another level, money and finance capital. In this sense it is antionomically complementary to liberal thought, where the domination of the abstract remains unquestioned and the distinction between positive and critical reason is not made. The “anti-capitalist” attack, however, does not remain limited to the attack against abstraction. Even the abstract dimension also appears materially. On the level of the capital fetish, it is not only the concrete side of the antimony which is naturalized and biologized. (p. 112, Anti-Semitism)
In moments of crisis, Postone argues that not only is it a mistake to seek redress in technocratic domination or in terms of abstract reason, but it is also alienating to look for biologistic understandings of the social problem of ecology.
Any “anti-capitalism” which seeks the immediate negation of the abstract and glorifies the concrete – instead of practically and theoretically considering what the historical overcoming of both could mean – can, at best, be socially and politically impotent in the face of capital. At worst it can be dangerous, even if the needs it expresses could be interpreted as emancipatory. (p. 115, Anti-Semitism)
What might be required then is an overcoming of the alienation imposed by and emerging from capitalist work in its abstract and concrete forms, and through its fetishisation of technological solutions to crises, be they political, financial, societal or environmental in appearance. The attempt to overcome crises borne of competition by renewing personal or social or transnational values that are themselves fashioned inside that competitive dynamic is impossible. A social revolution of life cannot be delivered through a revolution of social (re-)production that is rooted in value production and labour, or through the recuperation of concrete labour or use-value as an alleged antidote to the abstract capitalist world. As the natural world is subsumed and reproduced inside it, the ecology of capitalism reveals both the concrete and the abstract as alienating.
On value: the noose tightens
The UK’s University and College Union has warned that The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership “poses a profound threat to public services in general, including education, leaving them wide open not only to greater privatisation but making it harder for any future government to regulate foreign private sector companies operating in our public services.” (p. 1) In part this is because it enables the regulation of the idea of the public and the functions of the State, like education and healthcare, through Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanisms. This is especially the case where actions that are for the public, like nationalisation, are perceived as threatening or affecting private profits.
From a reading of Jappe’s recent History of the Critique of Value, the TTIP and the Trans-Pacific Trade Treaty are symptomatic of the material (structural and systemic), historical inability of capital to overcome the limitations on stable, global forms of accumulation. He argues (p. 1):
After two centuries, the capitalist mode of production had reached its historical limits: the rationalisation of production, which involves the replacement of human labour by technology, undermines the basis of the production of value, and therefore of surplus-value, which is the sole objective of producing commodities. However, nothing but living labour, the labour required in the act of its execution, creates value and surplus-value.
In this view:
Capital is not the opposite of labour but its accumulated form. Living labour and dead labour are not two antagonistic entities but rather two different “states of aggregation” of the same substance of labour. The labourer as such is not at all outside of capitalist society but embodies one of its two poles. It is therefore possible to conclude from Marx’s analyses that a “workers’ revolution against capitalism” is a logical impossibility. There can only be a revolution against the subjection of society and individuals to the logic of valorisation and abstract labour. (p. 5)
It is not possible to abolish value without abolishing the labour that created it. This is why contesting capitalism in the name of labour makes no sense. It would make just as little sense to set good concrete labour against bad abstract labour. When all forms of labour cease to be reduced to what they have in common —the expenditure of energy—there will no longer be “concrete” labour (such a category is itself an abstraction). There will instead be a multiplicity of activities with specific goals in mind. (p. 6)
One of the critical issues is that globally “the absolute amount of value, and therefore of surplus-value, is declining precipitously” (p. 7), which places a society based on the production and accumulation of value in crisis, not least because it leads to labour-related counter-measures linked to unemployment, precarity, organisational restructuring, outsourcing and so on, alongside a series of financialised counter-measures, like quantitative easing, bank bailouts and wealth transfers from young people via debt to pay for an expected future standard of living. This decline in value is also witnessed in the growing amount of externalised national debt, which is based to a large extent on unrealisable assets like toxic mortgages and sub-prime educational loans. This also mediates the relationship between national debt and geopolitical manoeuvring, like the recent questions over whether Russia is Dumping U.S. Government Bonds, or the relationship between fossil fuel energy, geopolitics and the future of the petrodollar.
In this interplay between finance capital that is both abstracted from the circuit of production (in bond markets) and made concrete in the realities of everyday life (in student labour or fossil fuel use), and the reproduction of a society based on value production and accumulation:
A growing disparity arises between developments in the productive powers of labor (which are not necessarily bound to the direct labor of the workers), on the one hand, and the value frame within which such developments are expressed (which is bound to such labor), on the other. The disparity between the accumulation of historical time and the objectification of immediate labor time becomes more pronounced as scientific knowledge is increasingly materialized in production… a growing disparity separates the conditions for the production of material wealth from those for the generation of value. (Postone, Time, Labour and Social Domination, p. 297)
For Jappe, what this crisis of value formation means is not to reify labour in its concrete form, but to recognise that:
It is therefore not a matter of predicting some future collapse of capitalism, but to recognise that the crisis is already taking place and getting worse despite brief short-term recoveries. It is a crisis that is far from just economic. (p. 8)
On value and climate
In his Energy Speech in Cushing, Oklahoma, on March 22, 2012, President Obama argued that:
Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some. . . . In fact, the problem . . . is that we’re actually producing so much oil and gas . . . that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needs to go… as long as I’m President, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure and we’re going to do it in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people. We don’t have to choose between one or the other, we can do both.
Thus, in spite of the activist, academic position that states that in order to limit climate change to below two degrees we can produce and use no more than 565 Gigatonnes of fossil fuels from the 2,795 Gigatonnes that are available, the global economy’s production of value is underwritten by carbon. Quoted in the Guardian
John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.
And this highlights the inter-relationships between value, energy, (unrealisable) assets, and our climate crisis, brought vividly into relief by Carbon Tracker and Grantham Research Institute, and Kalkuhl and Edenhofer work on stocks of carbon in the ground and in the atmosphere.
So we have the US Chamber of Commerce arguing for the role of US technology in alleviating energy poverty through access to energy, and the Center for Global Development pointing out that the World Bank is arguing for coal in order to support development agendas with the implication that:
While it can be politically attractive to argue that both energy access and climate goals can be met without any trade-offs, tensions between the two goals are becoming increasingly apparent and future disputes seem likely to emerge. (p. 3)
These disputes are then made visible in the US Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, which states:
Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, including growing, urbanizing, more affluent populations, and substantial economic growth in India, China, Brazil, and other nations, will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence. (p. 8)
Furthermore, as President Obama noted at the recent United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony:
That spirit of cooperation needs to energize the global effort to combat climate change — a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters and conflicts over water and food, which is why next year I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet… America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism — it is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods.
This is the law of value, reinforced democratically and militarily as a disciplinary force, which is both concrete and abstract, and leads us towards the surface acceptance that our adaptive abilities will enable us to continue to grow everything and everywhere, except in our output of carbon. Yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s summary for policymakers on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability demonstrates that we are in the midst of a global pedagogical moment that furthers the crisis of accumulation.
Uncertainties about future vulnerability, exposure, and responses of interlinked human and natural systems are large (high confidence). This motivates exploration of a wide range of socioeconomic futures in assessments of risks. Understanding future vulnerability, exposure, and response capacity of interlinked human and natural systems is challenging due to the number of interacting social, economic, and cultural factors, which have been incompletely considered to date. These factors include wealth and its distribution across society, demographics, migration, access to technology and information, employment patterns, the quality of adaptive responses, societal values, governance structures, and institutions to resolve conflicts. International dimensions such as trade and relations among states are also important for understanding the risks of climate change at regional scales. (p. 10)
However, the IPCC is unable to imagine adaptation beyond capitalist counter-measures. It is unable to move beyond the abstraction of the law of value as it mediates our everyday reality, in order to describe or call for a different way of doing things.
Existing and emerging economic instruments can foster adaptation by providing incentives for anticipating and reducing impacts (medium confidence). Instruments include public-private finance partnerships, loans, payments for environmental services, improved resource pricing, charges and subsidies, norms and regulations, and risk sharing and transfer mechanisms. Risk financing mechanisms in the public and private sector, such as insurance and risk pools, can contribute to increasing resilience, but without attention to major design challenges, they can also provide disincentives, cause market failure, and decrease equity. Governments often play key roles as regulators, providers, or insurers of last resort. (p. 26)
On pedagogic moments
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that the need to create and enable capital flows, accumulation and spaces for further valorisation, results in “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products [which in turn] chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.” One result is that bourgeois, transnational and cosmopolitan consumption triumphs over local, national cultures, and industries that are defined by productivity and intensity dislodge indigenous cultures.
Thus, it is argued that the Bourgeoisie, though its new powers of production and its commodities and its restructuring of laws, inscribes new, global markets into the circuits of production, and creates a world in its own image. This echoes Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse that the hegemony of the bourgeois mode of production rests on the expansion of a global system of valorisation, which in turn demands that commodities are not simply used but exchanged. This process of exchange demands the spatial transformation of productive forces, including transport and modes of communication. Thus, Capital drives beyond its spatial barriers and we see the “annihilation of space by time”, as circulation time and labour time are revolutionised to give quicker access to new markets.
How do we transform our thinking around a society based on value, in the face of climate change and potentially unrealisable carbon-based assets? How do we mediate and understand the concrete/abstract realities of climate change as they affect everyday life, in order to reimagine that everyday life? For Jappe this is centred in the reality of everyday life, and in reclaiming critique of the very abstract and concrete categories that produce and reproduce it.
In general, all recourse to “politics” (especially the state) is impossible because the end of accumulation and therefore of “real” money deprives public authorities of any means of intervention. In order to find an alternative to capitalism, it is first necessary to question the nature of the commodity and money, of labour and value, categories that seem “theoretical” but whose consequences ultimately determine what we do everyday. (p. 13)
This has echoes of Marx’s idea of communism in The German Ideology, not as “a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself [but] the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Moreover, it also refocuses us on an idea of the public, in line with Cumbers’ focus on
those attempts, both outside and through the state, to create forms of collective ownership in opposition to, or perhaps more accurately to reclaim economic space from, capitalist social relations. If we understand capitalism as built upon the three pillars of the wage relationship, private property relations and the market, all forms of collective ownership that seek to disturb and intervene in these spheres should come into our analysis. (p. 7)
This is not simply a call to secure and re-form the Commons, which for Cumbers is
frequently evoked as a more democratic, participatory and horizontal model of ownership…which at the same time respects local difference and diversity of ownership forms against the prescriptive one-size-fits-all models of market-driven capitalism or statist socialism/social democracy. Following on from this, a further critical aspect of the contemporary commons literature is the rejection of the classical Marxist revolutionary call for a vanguard to smash capitalism. Instead the radical project today is to construct autonomous spaces outside capitalism in the here and now – i.e. prefigurative – rather than a once-and-for-all future revolutionary uprising to overthrow capitalism through an assault on the state (p.128).
Here the interrelationship between the Commons, the State and its institutions, and civil society is critical in trying to define a post-capitalism as a pedagogical, societal moment that is historically-rooted and material in nature. Here Cumbers’ argument that “there needs to be a more nuanced appreciation of the dynamic nature of spatial organization and governance under advanced capitalism…” (p. 156), aligns with the work of the FLOK Society in its Open Letter to the Commoners:
Imagine a society that is connected to open knowledge commons in every domain of human activity, based on free and open knowledge, code, and design that can be used by all citizens along with government and market players without the discrimination and disempowerment that follows from privatized knowledge.
It also aligns with the FLOK Society’s General Framework Document, which aims
to trigger and coordinate a global participatory process and immediate national application for the change of productive matrix towards a society of open and common knowledge in Ecuador, resulting in 10 base documents for legislation and state policies (synchronized with the organic social code for the knowledge economy) as well as useful for the production networks of knowledge that already exist in Ecuador. The conceptual, philosophical and economic process and the historical and socio-cognitive context framework, the organizational principles governing the process, collaborative and communicative digital tools and advance planning of the whole process.
The issue is whether it is possible to reclaim the public space, in the face of the crisis of value and the concomitant crisis of the climate. Is it possible to reconsider pedagogically the relation between the concrete and the abstract as they are reproduced inside capitalism? Is it possible to liberate democratic capability and to reorient social production away from value and towards the very possibility of governing and managing the production of everyday life in a participatory manner?
For the FLOK Society in researching the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living, this entails:
a new convergence or synthesis, a ‘open cooperativism’, that combines both commons-oriented open peer production models, with common ownership and governance models such as those of the cooperatives and the solidarity economic models.
It means a re-envisioning of Near Future Education and of Education as a Commons. It also means the negation of the reified nature of academic labour. So that values rather than value are at the core of how society is reproduced. So that the abstracted and festishised nature of academic practice and knowledge might be overcome. A pedagogical moment that enables the characteristics that flow into and out of academic labour, in terms of value, money and the commodity, to be defined in another image of society and social production. This is a pedagogical moment that recovers the ideas of open, participatory publics, from the ravages of private value accumulation. This is a pedagogical moment that forms part of the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.