Sunday, March 21, 2004

Roger Kerr and contemporary Marxist theory

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing abounding in metaphysical subtleties (Marx Capital Vol. 1).

Marxist theory has faced many difficult challenges throughout its history, not the least of which has been the disastrous example of the Soviet system with its terrible authoritarianism and repression. In this new century, we in the west seem to be well away from the world of Marx's Capital, with its emphasis on production, workers and things. For a contemporary Marxist theory to survive it needs to be capable of explaining the new economy of international financial markets, globalisation and post industrialism.

I think that Marxism still has a great deal to say about contemporary society, simply because I think that we have been led to believe that the contemporary world is qualitatively different; that the new economy is somehow beyond the explanatory ability of traditional Marxist categories. But to what extent is this really true?

To answer this question we need to peer into what Marx felt that capitalism was all about: the production of commodities. And we need to be able to understand the new economy as simply producing new kinds of commodities in addition to boots and hammers. If we can do that, then we can show that Marx's analysis of capitalist production might still be relevant today.

Fortunately, Marxists aren't the only people who see the "new" economy as a continuation of the old. Roger Kerr, the head of New Zealand's influential Business Roundtable sees things in pretty much the same terms. Speaking on the nature of the knowledge economy the arch neo-liberal Kerr underlined the essential continuities of the new economy:

An enormous amount of nonsense was talked by politicians and pundits about knowledge-intensive industries, the new economy, the information revolution and so forth. Painful lessons have been learnt as the high-tech bubble burst and investors discovered that the so-called new economy was subject to the same economic laws as the old? But there is nothing fundamentally new going on here. Knowledge is what hunters and gatherers needed to survive

If it is true that the new economy is still producing commodities, what is the nature of the contemporary commodity? What does it mean to think of knowledge as a commodity in the context of a global information society? According to Marx, to see a commodity as just a thing obscures the social relations of production:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men?s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves but between the products of their labour (Marx, Capital Vol. 1).

What's new is that global digital technologies have brought together finance, production, consumption, and mass communication in a nearly seamless web.
In old-fashioned Marxist theory, relations of production in capitalist society enabled capitalists to appropriate surplus value as profit from workers. These workers received a wage that appeared to them as a fair exchange for the sale of their labour, but, according to Marx, it was the contribution of labour power to the process of production that was responsible for the production of surplus-value.

How relevant is this model for today? To what extent is the new informantion commodity the result of a classical labour process? A commodity is the result of a productive combination between a worker, an owner of capital and what are called the means of production. In classical Marxist theory, the commodity is exchanged for money, allowing the capitalist to accumulate profit and generate more capital. What is relevant for us now is that the commodity is a social product arising out of the relations of production. The social, or shared nature of the commodity is appropriated by the owners of the means of production. And most importantly, the production and consumption of a commodity reproduces class relationships.

The new capitalism is characterised by the dominance of capital flows over trade flows, of a global economy based on information rather than on trade and production of basic commodities. The extent to which Marx's analysis of the commodity can inform a critique of the new economy depends on the extent to which knowledge and information can be thought of as commodities. A useful starting point for such an analysis begins with an examination of the information economy. Can the qualities that determine this economy be usefully understood as the result of the saturation of commodities with information, of knowledge with commodities?

Following Kerr, it's important to see that the new economy is in many ways continuous with the old. For all the talk of the information revolution, we must remember that there has been no revolution. In the developed world, computerisation and digital technology has led to a transformation of the capitalist economy, replacing and augmenting machine-based manufacture as the engine of capital production. What's new is that global digital technologies have brought together finance, production, consumption, and mass communication in a nearly seamless web.

Although the new economy appears to create money without producing real goods, global financial flows rely on speculation in money markets and on access to privileged networks of communication. A worldwide surplus of commodities and attendant low rates of profit have pushed capital toward the expansion of money markets and trade in services in an effort to secure greater returns on investment. Digital technologies bring together inherently social products such as money, information and economic activity, at the same time as technology creates the conditions for the private ownership of the new vectors of capital.

If we are to think of a commodity as reproducing the class relations out of which it is formed, in this case by reproducing capital, it is important to see that the new vectors of digital and communication technology are not independent of the social and political demands of capital accumulation. Although the virtual world of the new global economy may appear infinite, i.e., as capable of transcending modern capitalism, in reality the new, virtual economy is bounded by political and social relationships. Critic Fredric Jameson points to problems associated with understanding the new world of virtuality, knowledge and networks as anything other than a manifestation of capitalist relations:

We must avoid the implication that technology is the ultimately determining instance either of our present-day social life or of our cultural production. I want to suggest that our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely, the whole world system of a present-day multinational capitalism (Jameson 1991, p. 37).

Thus knowledge and information become commodities in as much as being social products, they are produced, appropriated and exchanged by capital as factors in its own reproduction and extension. As these products circulate along the new vectors of the global economy they reproduce not only capital, but also the social relations of capitalist production, constantly re-creating the conditions of capital accumulation for owners of the (new) means of production and distribution.

Thanks, Roger. You really helped me sort this out.