Comments on Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism

Sarah Mason

This article is based upon oral remarks given in March following a presentation by Peter Hudis on his Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism at a meeting in Los Angeles. The video is HERE  — Editors

20131213bI am going to explore two points, drawing on Peter’s work. The first point: Why, in 2014, should we reengage the thinking of Karl Marx?  The second point is a broader question about the specific historical moment we find ourselves in—whether or not Marx’s concepts can guide us through the present moment?

The first point: Why, in 2014, should we reengage the thinking of Karl Marx?

I am going to read a quotation that Peter cites in the introduction to his book:

“We call their work creative because it changes the world as we see it, by deepening our understanding of it. The change is irrevocable. A problem that I have once solved can no longer puzzle me; I cannot guess what I already know. Having made a discovery, I shall never see the world again as before. My eyes have become different.  I have made myself into a person seeing and thinking differently. I have crossed the gap, the heuristic gap which lies between problem and discovery.” Michael Polanyi, 1962

In his own words, Peter writes, “Marx is not simply one of a number of important thinkers, but the founder of an approach to the understanding of capitalism that retains its historical relevance so long as capitalism remains in existence. Marx’s body of work is one of those rare historical achievements that represent the crossing of a conceptual threshold; it marks a new philosophical moment that radically transforms all subsequent approaches to the object of investigation.”

The implication here is simple: the magnitude of Marx’s philosophical contribution is so tremendous, that any attempt to understand and more importantly, to think beyond the capitalist mode of production cannot neglect it.

Progressives, socialists, communists, anarchists, and others often mistake the project of transcending capitalism with the project of “redistribution of wealth.”

Hudis’s book demonstrates that this was not at all the center of Marx’s conception of a post-capitalist society (obviously, no one would deny that certain forms of redistribution would be necessary if we are going to build the new inside the shell of the old), but this was not Marx’s understanding of a socialist future.

Marx was concerned with a feature of capitalist production that distinguished it from previous modes of production. And this distinguishing feature is the rise and domination of “value production.”

Whereas before, groups of producers would produce things based on their utility, now producers produce things because those things can be exchanged for money. Augmenting value, producing value, making money, becomes the organizing force underpinning the social organization of labor and society as a whole.

Human labor, which Marx argues is the commodity upon which the entire system relies—the linchpin of capitalist production—is generally monetized in terms of time. The hourly wage. Like every other commodity, human labor has a dual nature. It has an exchange value ($10 an hour), and a use value (what it can actually produce within that hour).

Flowing from his understanding of the dual nature of commodities, Marx argues that the amount of time actually required to reproduce (expand) daily life is different from the amount of abstract labor time needed to reproduce and expand value under capitalism. Marx’s understanding of this underlies the way in which he imagines post-capitalist society. Human beings producing as freely associated agents—according to their needs and desires.

The second point has to do with the present moment. As a materialist, Marx situates his analysis based on the workplace organization and relations he observes. He argues that human cooperation on a mass scale is required on the factory floor—that this environment fosters a sort of class solidarity that makes class action possible.

Over the past several decades there has been an undeniable transformation in the way in which capital is organized and subsequently, the way in which labor is organized. The proliferation of complex networks, technology, computing, and automation, it seems that capital is further eroding our ability to organize. Whereas in the 1990s workers might report to a physical call center, now workers are given a cell phone and laptop to take calls in the isolation of their micro-efficiency apartment. Even industry is organized on a smaller scale.

I am not pessimistic. But, I think a question we need to ask in addition to what a post-capitalist society look like would, is what sort of formation could bring about such a transformation. More importantly, can we contribute to building it?

For me, and I think for all of us, the point of these discussions is twofold. It is to both sift through the dynamics of capitalist production in order to transcend it, while simultaneously recentering the humanist values at the core of this project. I want to suggest that extracting and reasserting the core values at the center of Marx’s work is desperately needed—whether it is within workplace organizing, social movements, or in the incredibly daunting task of building the social movement and organization capable of transcending capitalism.


Sarah Mason is a former activist in Occupy Los Angeles.


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