Skip to main content

Productive Forces Normativity

A solution to the problem of capitalism that lies in a "productive forces" approach remains quite normative.  What I mean, here, is the theory that capitalism will be transcended due to its inability to account for the development of its economy, specifically its "forces of production" (i.e. machines, technologies, etc.) and especially those productive forces that, by themselves, appear to be antithetical to capitalist logic.  This kind of economic/technological determination has been part of anti-capitalist ideology for a very long time; it has even manifested, quite famously, in numerous marxist tendencies.  And even within the dominant marxist tendencies that were primarily concerned with revolutionary agency (i.e. variants of Marxism-Leninism), a productive forces way of seeing reality still reared its determinist head––as should be obvious from the countless speeches of great revolutionaries who, though most probably aiming for polemical force rather than theoretical depth, peppered their analyses with platitudes about the inevitability of communism.

Hence, there was a reason why China's Cultural Revolution targeted the theory of productive forces as an ideological problem within certain interpretations of revolutionary science that needed to be relegated to the proverbial historical dustbin.  Unfortunately, the theory of productive forces never did end up in history's dust heap (just as the GPCR never did complete its aims) because it continues to be rearticulated, most often by those who lack historical memory, and sometimes as if it is a foregone conclusion.  Naive and eclectic anti-capitalists, especially those who are enamoured by new technologies, tend to be guilty of this productive forces analysis of society and revolutionary agency.

Take, for example, strange groups and movements such as The Venus Project and Zeitgeist who imagine, with their neo-Fabianism, that some sort of enlightened bourgeois development of new technologies will ruin capitalism.  (And sometimes their supporters pop up randomly on this site to deliver "revelatory" comments about their backwards ideology.)  Like a bizarre inversion of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged capitalist utopia, the Venus Project and Zeitgeist advocates appear to think that the solution to capitalism is simply to get together a bunch of brilliant individuals, held back by the evil state, to rationally make a new post-capitalist utopia.  Utopian Socialism all over again… and the reason I compared this "solution" to capitalism with a Randian inverse is because it relies on the same (but sublimated) capitalist logic: the solution to the problem is brilliant invention of new technologies and ideas that are being held back by the state; the masses who make history, and make the production of these technologies possible in the first place, are at best empty of agency… at worst they are non-existent.

Then there are those random internet leftists who utter bizarre proclamations about the revolutionary force of particular forces of production, such as those who suddenly come to the [not very] exciting "epiphany" that three-dimensional printers will spell the end of capitalism.  "This machine can produce a bunch of stuff that capitalism needs factories produce," these leftists proclaim, "And it will spell the end of the commodity market!"  So never mind the fact that these machines themselves need to be produced, that they don't pop into existence spontaneously, need to be maintained, need to be contained within an entire process of production that has to do with real people.  Or that there is property, an entire structure wherein human needs are sublimated in "callous cash payment"…  owning a three-dimensional printer, itself a commodity with material that is commodified, does not allow someone to print private property.  Besides, capitalist commodity production has already been called into question by the socialization of labour and new machines; the problem is that capitalist relations of production are holding these forces of production back.

Next, there are those who trumpet the internet and social networking as some godlike force of social change.  Or those who think that the very existence of the internet will produce a revolution led by hackers belonging to Anonymous-esque groups, possibly aided by the power of wikileaks.  Best-selling techno-thriller novelist, Daniel "I-learned-everything-I-needed-to-know-about-society-and-history-from-Jared-Diamond" Saurez has championed the most productive internet forces analysis of reality with his book Daemon wherein an inhuman complex logic-tree released upon the worldwide web transforms society.  According to this view of reality, it is as if internet technology is not dependent upon human labour, and the world economy is reducible to some abstract online phenomenon, and again the masses as a whole vanish––except when they are plugged into online forces.

Well none of this is really new, even if the articulations are modern.  The forces of production that have generally accrued under capitalism already, long before the advent of three-dimensional printers and the internet, proved capitalism's obsolescence.  Automation, the socialization of workers in a factory setting, alternative energy technologies, etc. are all evidence of a possible technological order where capitalism is unnecessary.  This really was the point of the revolutionary science initiated by Marx and Engels: the forces of production that have now developed under capitalism prove that capitalism is unnecessary and that the bourgeois order is moribund––bourgeois social relations are holding back progress, keeping the forces of production in check.

Thus, there is a temptation to assume that technological progress, because it objectively demonstrates capitalism's moribund nature, will be the primary determinate of capitalism's disintegration.  "All we have to do," the modern productive forces champion trumpets, "Is participate in the dissemination of three-dimension printers [or whatever x technology] and capitalism will fall!"  But just as the objective circumstances that determine the necessity of revolution mean nothing without the subjective circumstances of actually making revolution (the former being [usually/generally] crisis, the latter being a revolutionary mass party), the objective fact that capitalism has produced forces of production that challenge the very mode of production is also a fact that is mediated by the relations of production: there is a class that is refusing to step off the historical stage, this class is in command, and entire state apparatuses, institutions, ideologies, and militaries are keeping this class in command.  (And it is important to note, here, that the relationship between forces and relations of production is a reflection of the relationship between objective and subjective circumstances––and the latter is simultaneously, and equally, a reflection of the former.)

Therefore, while the necessity of the bourgeois class's existence is challenged by those forces of production it is keeping in check (for now we have long since reached a point in history where we can honestly say that, while the capitalists need workers in order to be capitalists, the workers don't need capitalists and can do quite well without these parasites), it is also in command of these forces of production as a whole.  In this context, as those of us who are communists have argued since 1848, the only thing that can permit these forces of production to develop beyond the limited purview of bourgeois reality is located in the relations of production––an organized and thorough class revolution where those who actually control the means/forces of production (because they are the ones who build them in the first place) wrest the command of these forces of production from the ownership of the bourgeoisie.

None of this is new territory for those of us who are already communists, or even quasi-marxist.  Although we cannot downplay the problem of economic determinism that often appears in the history of marxism, it is also a fact that the entire historical debate between forces and relations of production amongst communists––that reached a manic level during the Chinese Revolution––was mainly about how to make sense of what all sides recognized: the forces and relations of production are interlinked aspects of the economic base, how do we make sense of this relationship, and do we give one of these aspects more deterministic power than another.  Those who ended up being guilty of a "productive forces" position, were simply those who were too focused on what they took to be the objective fact of the economic base that would determine the subjective instance: in practice they were guilty of economic determinism because their theory was such that class revolution, the relations of production, was simply a determined adjunct to technological progress.  On the other hand, those who focused exclusively on the relations of production, and refused to accept that there were objective facts necessitated by the existence of productive forces, even though they didn't deny that these forces were in some ways important, were guilty of voluntarism––who cares if technology exists at a pre-capitalist level, we can make communism simply by having a revolution and things will just fall into place!

Here, we need to recognize the importance of the forces of production as part of an objective fact of making a revolution.  After all, how could socialism survive––how could a society where production is centralized under a dictatorship of a proletariat even function––without certain productive forces that initially developed under, but were held back by, capitalism?  If this wasn't important, if it did not place constraints on making revolution, then Maoists wouldn't have come up with the theory of new democratic revolution and Trotskyists with the theory of permanent revolution, two different attempts to deal with the same problem.  It is because of this problem, of having a level of technological development necessary for the emergence of socialism, that the Soviet Union was focused on industrialization, that there was the theory of New Democracy and the Great Leap Forward in China, that contemporary people's wars in semi-feudal/semi-colonial contexts have to deal with bridging the gap between the city and the countryside, and that Trotskyists complain that everyone else got it wrong and is still getting it wrong because no one in these revolutionary contexts possesses the kind of proletariat that is produced by the "mature" forces of production at the centres of capitalism.  These are not just theoretical conceits, even if some of the supposed "solutions" are useless, that have nothing to do with reality; they are expressions of something that is objectively real.

And because the importance of productive forces is objectively real, a way of seeing the end of capitalism that is premised only on technological progress is also objectively compelling.  Therefore, rather than recognize that capitalist relations of production are impeding the development of forces of production to such an extent that, unless those relations are smashed with a class revolution, we might be catapulted into an epoch of environmental and social regression, it is tempting to believe that these anti-human relations will disintegrate under the onslaught of technological progress that will, by itself, spontaneous engender new relations of production.

Such a wild optimism, the apparent characteristic of economic/technological determination, conceals an unconscious pessimism––a rejection, because of the widespread impression of powerlessness, to organize around or participate in a project of class revolution.  It is easier to wait on technology to solve our problems for us; we often don't know where to begin when confronted with these problems.  And if we rely on such a one-sided view of reality, because we cannot help but recognize the fact that this productive forces revolution isn't happening already, we might come up with conspiracy theory explanations to deal with this lacuna.  Information technologies and three-dimensional printers haven't ended capitalism because the Illuminati, or the Masons, some racialized group x… "the elites", a tiny "1%" cabal of conspirators, are holding things back.  These explanations are clearly mystified variants of a proper understanding of the relations of production, for we cannot help but recognize the truth even in a severely distorted sense, but because they are mystified they produce an unscientific solution to the problem of capitalism: cabals of equally conspiratorial "good people" (generous millionaires, hackers, genius engineers), the inverse of the parasites recruited by Rand's John Galt, will clear these elites out of the way and allow the forces of production to work themselves pure.  For those of us who have been weighed down by bourgeois ideology and, despite understanding that capitalism is wrong, are invested in the cult of the individual where the genius maverick is always the solution, this scenario makes sense.  And due to the widespread feeling of disempowerment, and the fact that we are often locked within the logic produced by bourgeois reality, it often seems like this is the only scenario that makes sense.

This kind of productive forces way of seeing the world, where technological progress is the solution but the business of either good or bad "elites", while normative is not a serious problem if we figure out how to overcome it.  Any organizational ventures that are worthwhile need to find a way to reempower those who feel disempowered by those forces of production that appear to be developing beyond their purview.  You encounter certain people in meetings in working class neighbourhoods, where they show up because they know that something is clearly wrong with society but feel that the answers can only be found in the working out of a technological problem, and in many ways they are much better than those who refuse to accept that anything is wrong.  You are thus forced to sift through these ideas, realize that they can teach you something about the way the world is sometimes understood by those who have been made powerless, and do your damnedest to bring in an understanding of class and class revolution.  And these are not the internet "leftists" who endorse a similar productive forces understanding but potentially see themselves as part of a counter-elite, or at the very least feel that they have come to a revelatory understanding of reality by informing everyone online that three-dimensional printing will end capitalism; these are those whose entire life experience is disempowerment and whose only answer to this disempowerment is to locate it in forces they feel are beyond their control.  You can work with this; it is an organizational opportunity.

At the same time, however, there is a way in which the logic of productive-forces-normativity finds fertile soil in those marxists who, at least in theory, do not rely on simplistic forces of production analysis.  As I noted earlier, the relationship between objective and subjective circumstances is a reflection of the relationship between forces and relations of production (and vice versa).  In my previous post I discussed the tendency, prevalent amongst large swathes of the left, of disciplining the potentially militant masses to not be militant due to the a priori assumption that the time is not (and will never be) ready for beginning to make revolution.  This is precisely a prioritization of the supposed objective dimension at the expense of the subjective dimension.

Now, while it may be true that, inversely, it would be erroneous to privilege the subjective aspect of making revolution and declare that the time is always right to launch a revolution, even if your organization is only ten people (that is, focoism which is adventurism), it is equally a problem to argue that, based on the assumption of objective circumstances that are assumed to exist completely beyond our control, we should just wait for this "objective" reality to work itself out.  This is precisely a reflection of the productive forces error that, if endorsed completely, assumes that the economically and technologically object facts will just work themselves out beyond our control and will become akin to a natural force––just like Adam Smith's invisible hand (note again the eerie parallel to libertarian nonsense).  For these objective circumstances are not outside the realm of social relations, to argue otherwise is idealist nonsense––a moment of reification where a social relation is transformed into a force of nature.

While it is true that, on the one hand, the subjective instance is always over-conditioned by the limits imposed by the objective instance; on the other hand, the objective instance is reducible to the material fact of humans interacting socially and historically.  On the one hand things are beyond our control because we cannot understand how they were caused and we are caught within the confines of a mode of production with a specific logic; on the other hand, things are within our control because we, in a larger sense, are that element of causation.  The time might not be "always right" to make revolution, but we have also made this time, and every time, as we have done since we emerged as a species with the material function of producing/reproducing ourselves as social and historical beings.  What does this tell us?  That the subjective and objective instances are a unity of opposites, a dialectical totality.  And if this dialectical relationship is the case, then we cannot focus on one aspect at the expense of the other just as we cannot focus on the forces of production at the expense of relations of production or vice versa.

Here we have a moment of economic determinism that is reflected by a moment of political determinism: these are the objective limits of technologies working themselves out, these are the objective circumstances of a given mode of production wherein the potential of revolution can take place.  At the same time we have the possibility of voluntarism and adventurism: the objective limits and circumstances should be ignored, revolution is always immanent.  The trick, first operationalized theoretically and practically by Mao in On Contradiction, On Practice, and On New Democracy is to unify the apparent contradictions in these two sets of moments and, in doing so, refuse to abide by an explanation of reality that is reducible to the theory of productive forces and objective circumstances or a theory of relational forces and subjective circumstances.