Michael Lebowitz’s 1992 classic Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class established him as the most philosophically astute Marxist economist of his era. Lebowitz argues that there is a tension at the heart of Marx’s work between the humanist values that ground his emancipatory vision of socialism and the mechanical scientism of Capital. Lebowitz does not argue that the analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society in Capital should be rejected but rather that it must be read as one element within the totality of Marx’s work. What is absent from Capital, according to Lebowitz, is just what is central to Marx’s work as a whole: the understanding of working people as subjects, as active creators of their own history, as agents of their own emancipation. In Capital, by contrast, it is the “laws of motion” of the capitalist economy that are the subjects, while people are treated as “but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.”(Capital, Volume 1, p.60). Consequently, both the politics and economics of Capital are one-sided.
Let us start with the economic problems. In Marx’s presentation in Capital, the valorization process takes place as if workers were inert functions of the system of production. Wages and the rate of profit are determined as if working people and their struggles did not matter. Technically, the problem, according to Lebowitz, is that Marx assumed for the sake of his analysis that the amount of goods necessary to ensure the reproduction of labour-power was fixed. If it was fixed, then the money-value of labour could be assumed to be constant (the money-value of labour is determined by the amount of labour time it takes to earn the money equal to that bundle of necessities). “Marx’s discussion in Capital take the constancy of that set of necessary means of subsistence as given. It is on that basis that we proceed to explore the production of surplus value.”(p.16) This seemingly innocuous methodologcal assumption on Marx’s part has profound political implications.
Marx’s assumes for the sake of his understanding of the production of surplus value that the cost of labour is fixed. What this means is that the extent of workers’ basic needs is assumed to be fixed. But this means that what we are dealing with are not real people and real societies in comparison with each other, but with an abstract methodological construction of a static theory-construct. In real life, and in real economies, according to Lebowitz, that which is physically necessary is subsumed beneath what is socially necessary. In the twenty-first century it is socially necessary to have access to computers, in the nineteenth it was not. Since people are not inert functions of system-dynamics but socially self-conscious agents who see and feel what is happening to the world around them, they organize and fight for higher wages so that they can access that which socially necessary to life in the society in which they live. Consequently, an adequate economic model must understand dynamic wages rates, and in order to understand dynamic wage rates, working class struggle must be taken into account.
Marx does not take workers’ struggles for higher real wages into account in Capital. “In short, the existence of unfulfilled social needs underlies the worker’s need for more money, her need for a higher wage. But, that, of course, involves a struggle for higher wages …. There is, however, no discussion in Capital about the struggle for higher wages.”(p.30). Thus, what is missing from Capital is the political economy of the working class. The political economy of the working class would centre on the struggle over real wages as the social foundation of the quality of life that workers are actually able to live. Capital focuses exclusively on the political economy of capital: on the production of surplus value through the exploitation of labour. What it is missing is the economic impact of workers’ struggles against exploitation. Viewed from the side of workers as human beings, these struggles constitute a production process as well: not the production of money-capital, but the self-production of human beings as subjects: “what happens during free time is a process of production, a process in which the nature and the capability of the worker is altered. It is ‘time for the full production of the individual.’” (p.51). Marx does examine workers’ struggles for a shorter working day in Capital, but not the other side of that struggle: the struggle for higher real wages which is the essential condition, under capitalism, of people being able to realize themselves in the time they have outside of work. In sum, “there is a critical silence” in Capital Lebowitz argues, “which permits the appearance that, for the scientist, the only subject … is capital, growing, transcending all barriers, developing—until, finally, it runs out of steam and is replaced by scientists with a more efficient machine.”(p.11). The problems with the economic analysis produce serious political problems, unless the arguments of Capital are situated within the whole of Marx’s work.
Like Gramsci before him, Lebowitz worries that Capital taken on its own implies a mechanical and necessary transition to socialism as a consequence of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism. Gramsci saw the Russian Revolution as a revolution against the “naturalism and positivism” of Capital, as an assertion of the creative power of human collective action against abstract conceptions of the “iron laws” of capitalist society. Lebowitz similarly worries that by ignoring struggles within capitalism for more free time and higher real wages, orthodox Marxists ignore those zones where workers are organized and actually fight.
Although he does not make this point explicit, I think it also follows from Lebowitz’ argument (and if I am right I think it is the most enduring philosophical-political contribution that it makes) that we need to conceive of the struggle for socialism not as an all or nothing battle leading to a revolutionary cataclysm, but as an open-ended process arranged along a continuum of better or worse lives for workers. These struggles occur in multiple spheres and are led by many different organizations as workers struggle to satisfy their multidimensional needs. Workers are human beings and human beings have needs. These needs and people’s ability to satisfy them are modified by people’s concrete identity. Lebowitz thus arrives at an expansive conception of class struggle as the multi-dimensional struggle of alienated, exploited, and oppressed human beings against capital as the systematic impediment separating them from the resources and institutions that they need. A struggle for schools is just as much a class struggle as a strike; a struggle against racial profiling or police violence is just as much a class struggle as the demand for higher wages, because workers are not generic tokens of a type but students and black and women and gay.
Lebowitz thus rejects any antithesis between what were called at the time “new social movements” (broadly, the struggles of the oppressed organized by identity and not class) and socialism: “A strategy calling for ‘external alliances’ between workers and new social actors takes as its starting point the theoretical reduction of workers to one-dimensional products of capital. Rather than an inherent opposition between ‘new social movements’ and the struggle of workers as a class against capital, the former should be seen as expressing other needs of workers, and as the development of new organizing centres of of the working class, functioning ‘in the broad sense’ of its complete emancipation.’ (p.147). In other words, a properly organized left would coherently include the struggles of all oppressed people, not as optional add-ons, but as an internally unified expression of the complex ways in which capitalism impedes the satisfaction of the totality of human needs as they are actually experienced by real (i.e., differently identified) people.
If anyone needs proof of the failure of the North American left to reinvent itself in a practically effective way it is that the oppressed continue to organize (and effectively, for example, most recently, in the Black Lives Matter movement) outside of and apart from a still moribund labour movement and socialist left. Twenty five years on from Lebowitz, essentially the same arguments are being made on the left for internally unified struggles against multidimensional exploitation-alienation-oppression, still without effect. The problem, I believe, is not the theoretical incoherence of the proposal, but the legacy of defeat: the left simply has no credibility at this point to give people the confidence that they can put into practice that which they claim is theoretically possible.
Nevertheless, if we adopt Lebowitz’s (that is, Marx’s wholistic) conception of workers as human beings, and understand human beings (as I have argued elsewhere) as embodied, socially self-conscious agents, and embodied social self-conscious agents as requiring definite natural and social resources and relationships if they are to live and express themselves freely, and understand that people will always struggle in different ways to satisfy their needs, then short term failures of the left to produce a complete structural transformation of society are not fatal to the project.
Instead, the measuring stick of success should be the real conditions of workers lives: The question is not whether struggles are “revolutionary” in an insurrectionist sense, but whether they are demonstrably: a) democratizing the workplace, b) enabling workers to better satisfy their physical, socio-cultural, and temporal life-requirements, c) creating forms of non-alienated labour which enable the enjoyable expression of our talents and creativity, d) in forms which are sustainable over the open-ended future, and e) overcoming systemic structures of oppression and political violence, at the local, national, and international level? These are not all or nothing goals but can be more or less fully realized. Cumulatively, they are incompatible with the rule of capitalist market forces and money-value over human life. History suggests, however, that they cannot be realized at a single go. It also suggests (as Lebowitz discovered concretely while working with the Chavez government in Venezuela), that anything less than complete success leaves past gains vulnerable.
There is no solution to the precarity of gains: revolutionary leaders can be corrupted or undermined by events, reforms that leave the ruling class in power but improve lives can be rolled back. There is only vigilance and collective effort to keep the line moving in the right direction; no social or natural force guarantees total and permanent emancipation. Beneath stereotypes, class struggle is just the on-going efforts of working people in their concrete situations and identities fighting to reclaim as much time, space, and activity as possible from the forces of alienation and exploitation. Twenty five years on, Beyond Capital continues to make that essential point with great clarity and humanity.