Has Capital autonomized itself from humanity? (1999)

REVIEW: Jacques Camatte, This World We Must Leave and Other Essays, (New York: Autonomedia 1995); Loren Goldner, Communism is the Material Human Community – Amadeo Bordiga Today, (Baltmore: Collective Action Notes 1991)

The Legacy of Amadeo Bordiga

Surprisingly, the collected translations of Jacques Camatte’s writings (1969-1980) have been finding a readership amongst anarcho-greens such as Green Anarchist, Wildcat and the Primitivist Network.1 Surprisingly, because Camatte developed his ideas within the “left communism” of Amadeo Bordiga, founding leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) from 1921-23. An executive member of the Communist International, Bordiga was criticized by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder for his opposition to the Comintern tactic of building united fronts with reformist socialists, trade unionists and “non-proletarian” forces such as anti-colonial movements based in the peasantry. By the end of the 1920s, Bordiga had completely fallen out with the Comintern, having gained the honorable distinction of being the last of the Comintern leaders to call Stalin a traitor to his face and live to tell the tale.

Antonio Gramsci, who succeeded Bordiga as PCI leader in 1924, argued in The Modern Prince that Bordiga’s “intransigence” was rooted in “economism,” i.e. “the iron conviction that there exist objective laws of historical development similar in kind to laws of nature, together with a belief in a predetermined teleology like that of a religion.” For Bordiga, in a “rather mysterious way… favourable conditions [were] inevitably going to appear,” and “bring about palingenic events.” Bordiga’s “fear of compromise,” Gramsci observed, transformed itself in practice into “fear of dangers.”2

In Camatte’s view however, it was precisely Bordiga’s “prophetic” and optimistic certainty about world revolution which made him so “entrancing” as a revolutionary theorist. In words reminiscent of Saint Augustine’s on “the torrential stream of history,” Camatte enthuses over Bordiga’s comparison of “all human history to a huge river bounded by dykes, on the right that of social conservatism… on the left that of reformism… But the immense flood of human history… floods over the dykes, drowning the miserable bands in the impulsive and irresistible inundation of the revolution which overthrows the old forms.”3

Loren Goldner explains that in the late 1940s, when the Trotskyists were still expecting post-war slump and revolutionary upheaval, Bordiga predicted that the development of productive forces and the capitalization of agriculture would take until the 1970s to bring about a real capitalist crisis. And so it did! Bordiga, born in 1889, died in 1970, just a few years before the onset of the global structural crisis that has held capital in its grip even since.

In the case of Russia, Bordiga dismissed the Trotskyist designation of the USSR as a “degenerated workers state” (or as “bureaucratic collectivism” or “state-capitalism”). He insisted it was simply capitalism run as a “racket” by party bureaucrats, who did not deserve the honor of being called a “ruling class.” Trotsky claimed, even at the height of the Terror in 1936, that despite the dictatorship of the “Stalinist bureaucracy” and the “degeneration” of the “workers state,” socialism had “demonstrated its right to victory, not in the pages of Das Kapital… but in the languages of steel, concrete and electricity.” Bordiga’s analysis, as Goldner puts it, “turned the tables” on the Stalinists by taking an entirely different approach to that of Trotsky. Bordiga argued that the development of the productive forces of capital, underwritten by the forced collectivization of the peasantry, was precisely what demonstrated the bourgeois nature of the “Soviet” regime. And could it be any accident that in the West, Stalinist parties only had influence in those relatively “underdeveloped” parts of Europe where capital was still in the business of turning peasants into workers? “In sum,” Goldner writes of Bordiga’s position, “capitalism means first of all the agrarian revolution.” 4
After Bordigism failed to make any impact in the 1968 near-revolution in France (or on Bordiga’s home ground in the Italian “Hot Autumn” of 1969), Camatte, having broke from with the Bordigist party in 1966, wrote a devastating critique of vanguardism (the essay ‘On Organisation’). Whilst realizing that all efforts to go “beyond Marx” were pointless until capital and its presuppositions could themselves be superseded, Camatte nevertheless decided that to grasp the nature of late-20th Century capitalism it was necessary to out-Marx Marx.

Anthropomorphic Capital

Camatte’s starting point is the young Marx’s analysis, in Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1843) of “anthropomorphized landed property” in the feudal ancestral estate. Here the different generations of humans exist as representations of the property-form, which “predicates” the human being. According to Camatte, the anthropomorphosis is repeated when the human community (or “common essence” – gemeinwesen), which Marx opposed to capitalist alienation in his early works, is transformed into the “community of capital.” In Capital, Marx says that living labor, by adding new value to dead labor, “at the same time maintains and eternizes it.” Camatte argues that this should be rephrased, “to say that in the capitalist mode of production as we know it, all human activity ‘eternizes’ capital.”

Camatte places great importance on Marx’s 1863 text, Results of the Immediate Process of Production, also known as the Unpublished Chapter Six of Capital Vol.I. In this Marx explains how the phase of “formal domination of capital” (and formal subordination of labor) passes into that of “real domination” (and real subordination of labor). In the formal phase, the worker is already subjugated to the means of production in a relationship which enhances the personification of objects and the reification of people:

“The capitalist functions only as personified capital… just as the worker is no more than labor personified. Hence the rule of the capitalist over the worker is the rule of things over man, or dead labor over the living… What we are confronted by here is the alienation of man from his own labor. To that extent the worker stands on a higher plane than the capitalist from the outset, since the latter has his roots in the process of alienation and finds absolute satisfaction in it whereas right from the start the worker is a victim who confronts it as a rebel and experiences it as a process of enslavement.”5

In the phase of real subordination, the worker is faced with the “collective unity” of the social forms of labor under social capital and its new forms of domination. From the standpoint of the present, we can seen these forms of domination in the expansion of the means for exploiting natural resources, the enormous growth of financial institutions, the bureaucratization of the state, the growth of new service industries, the ideological manufacturing of “consent,” and the capital-serving technologies and forms of control in the workplace which fragment and divide the working class. All forms of social capital are opposed to the individual worker as an “alien” force which sucks out value through the harnessing of his or her labor-power. This phase of domination is taken up further in Capital Volume III, when money-dealing capital appears “as a concentrated, organized mass, placed under the control of the bankers representing social capital in a quite different manner to real production.” 6

Camatte sees the domination of social capital in its “autonomized” forms – such as fictitious capital – emerging through the “phenomenon of anthropomorphosis.” In this way he argues, the being of human community is negated and absorbed through the “autonomization of capital” in the “material capital community,” which he sees as its own “essential being.” In doing so he over-hastily unifies the self-moving forms of capital with what he sees as its essence. That is, Camatte’s jamming together of essence with „form,“ or rather forms by which he thinks capital can autonomise itself from the law of value, thus ignores the higher level of dialectical progression from “essence” to “notion” in Marx’s Capital. In Capital Vol. III Marx describes the transformation of surplus value into profit as “only a further extension of that inversion of subject and object which alreadt occurs in the course of the production process.” The appearance of the laborer as “objectified labor-power” necessarily produces “a correspondingly inverted conception of the situation, a transposed consciousness, which is further developed by the transformations and modifications of the production process proper.” 7

Raya Dunayevskaya, in relating Marx’s Capital to the three sections of Hegel’s Science of Logic (being-essence-notion) interprets Marx’s unraveling of this process in Capital Vol.III as “not merely returning to essence, but proceeding from essence to notion.” The unity between essence (value) and the fetishistic forms it assumes in its domination of humanity “can be transcended only in transcending the value-form and establishing its complete opposite: the co-operative form.” 8 In this view the Notion of Capital as a social totality is an absolute, riven by contradiction, whose absolute and closure invokes the “notion” of freely associated labor in “conscious and planned control” of the process of material production. In Capital Volume III Marx refers to “three cardinal facts about capitalist production”: 1) concentration of means of production into fewer hands as social production; 2) the social organization of labor in unity with science; and 3) the creation of the world-market. The increase of capital-values contradicts the conditions of valorization, i.e. its basis in relation to the expansion of wealth “on behalf of which this tremendous productive power operates… Hence the crises.” 9

Marxism and Productivism

Camatte, in attempting to root the “productivist” negation of revolutionary subjectivity by “Marxism” (which Greens rightly find so objectionable), refers to The Critique of the Gotha Program (1874), in which Marx counterposes the permanent revolutionary uprooting of capitalist relations to the reformist program of Lassallean proto-social democracy. Camatte however, accuses Marx of failing to describe “a real discontinuity between capitalism and communism” in his vision of post-revolutionary society; pointing out that in it “productive forces continue to grow.” What Marx actually says is:

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs“10

Camatte seems to unaware of the different meaning Marx puts on the growth of productive forces in a post-value-producing society, in which the “antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished.” For the classicists Smith and Ricardo, being “productive” meant engaging in production of surplus value; “unproductive” meant frivolously living off the revenue rather than using it “productively.” Marx, contrastingly in the Unpublished Chapter Six employs the “power of abstraction” to show that, from the classicists’ point of view, Milton, for example, must have been unproductive because he spent years writing Paradise Lost only to sell the manuscript for five pounds; whereas a hack who turns out political economy manuals at the direction of his publisher is productive. The hack’s product “is from the outset subsumed under capital, and comes into being only for the purpose of increasing that capital.” The “unproductiveness” of Milton on the other hand, clearly better represents for Marx “the absolute unfolding of man’s creative abilities,” because “Milton produced his Paradise Lost for the same reason that a silk-worm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature.”11

Political economy tried to explain how society worked as expression of “human nature,” but couldn’t explain why social relations were determined by relations between commodities. For Marx, value is a “purely social” reality and capital is “value in process” (“valorisation”). But value is not wealth. Against the Lassalleans, Marx insists in the Critique of the Gotha Program that “labor is not the source of all wealth”; because nature also is a source of wealth – though under the rule of capital wealth takes the form of capital. The possibility of creating a society based on real wealth rather than the value-form is certainly presupposed by the development of the productive forces and the self-development of the people engaged in production, but technological progress and “productiveness” in themselves do not produce real wealth; for under “human control” wealth would express “the absolute unfolding of man’s creative abilities” as “an end-in-itself.”

Camatte insists that “What is invariant, is the desire to rediscover the lost community” – by which he means “primitive communities [in which] human beings rule technology” (as in the gemeinwesen of primitive communism); and he connects this to Marx’s projection in 1844 of the “naturalization” of humanity and the “humanization of nature” as meaning a “new mode of being.” In Camatte’s view, capitalism exists in order to overcome barriers to itself and eventually finds its limit because, since its “other” is the human being; and since it is anthropomorphized, then “there is no longer any ‘other’. Hence the potential death of capital.” But the totalizing capitalism he describes “domesticates humanity” just as pre-capitalism once domesticated animals. The “despotism of capital” produces a “collection of slaves of capital,” rather than contending classes. Camatte thus sees an all-embracing totality which without a countervailing force of subjectivity to oppose it can only bring about the end of humanity.

In the most recent essay, ‘Echoes of the Past’ (1980), Camatte looks at the potential of new movements as “opponents to capital” and evaluates environmentalism and feminism, cultural “microcommunities” and struggles by indigenous peoples in the Third World. Groups founded on “identity,” he finds, tend to become “slaves of the community of capital” inasmuch as they “define themselves in their separateness from one or other microcommunities, which is something that can only aggravate the difficulties that humans have in communicating.” Those who embrace Eastern mysticism often do so as the “complement to Western hyper-rationalism” and end up ideologically as a “horrible melange of individualism and communitarian despotism.” But still hoping that some of these forces may prefigure some new type of movement, Camatte calls for a “huge renunciation” of capital whilst insisting that this should not be done “in the name” of any class.

Camatte retains a Bordigist disregard for the Hegelian dialectic, whose “absolute” appears in Marx’s Capital as the “disaggregation” in the totalization of capital. This “absolute” of capital, unlike Hegel’s, splits rather than unifies; revealing at one pole accumulation and centralisation and the other the revolt of workers – including those reduced to the ranks of surplus labor.12 Capital, as dead labor, whether in its materialised form as machines, or its “virtual,” illusory, fictitious form, only grows by expropriation of surplus value from living laborers, who must be considered as potential revolutionary subjects along with other “new passions, new forces” (to use Marx’s terms) – such as women’s movements, gay politics, Black liberation and a host of other revolutionary subjects – who share “the quest for universality” in the face of capital’s ceaseless invasion of every area of human existence.

David Black

(First published in The Hobgoblin #1 1999)

1 See ‘Civilization and its Latest Discontents’ (editorial), Aufheben #05, Autumn 1996.

2 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971) 167-8.

3 Jacques Camatte, Community and Communism in Russia, Invariance Series II, n. 4, translation by David Brown, London1978 [http://www.marxists.org/archive/camatte/commrus1.htm] This text is not included in Camatte’s This World We Must Leave and Other Essays.

4 Loren Goldner’s Communism is the Material Human Community – Amadeo Bordiga Today is now available online [http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/bordiga.html]
5 Karl Marx, Capital Volume I (London: Penguin 1976), 990.

6 Karl Marx, Capital Volume III (London: Penguin 1981), 491.

7 Ibid 136.

8 The Despotic Plan of Capital vs. Freely Associated Labor, 1950, republished in News and Letters Nov. 1998.

9 Marx, Capital Volume III, 375.

10 Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, Part I Section 3

11 Marx, Capital Volume I, 1044.

12 Raya Dunayevskaya, The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism, (Chicago: News and Letters Publications, 1989.

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Comment from Jacques Camatte

Letter – Hobgobgoblin Issue 2 2000

I was interested in the article, ‚Has Capital Autonised itself‘ – I‘m very thankful. I must say that I am not in agreement, particularly with paragraph 5, first column, page 48:

„Camatte’s jamming together of essence with „form,“ or rather forms by which he thinks capital can autonomise itself from the law of value, thus ignores the higher level of dialectical progression from „essence“ to „notion“ in Marx’s ‚Capital‘.“

For me dialectic is an interpretation of what takes place and trying to find another meaning that the one within the last one [le dernier].

I was equally interested in the articles about Chartism.

I hope you are doing well.

Jacques Camatte, Belaye, France.

[Ed note 2000: Special thanks to Michel Prigent for the translation of this letter]

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