‘Opening up’ Marx. A comparison of Open Marxist and French Regulationist approaches to political economy

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4.1 Production and consumption

“ [] Fordism increased the rate of surplus-value by developing an overall set of social relations that closely combined the labour process with the social consumption norm…” (Aglietta 2000: 161).

“In sum, the emergence of labour in its most simple form as abstract labour… establishes the world market as the basis, premise and continuously reproduced result of the capitalist relations of production… Within this context, world trade is exclusively driven by the satisfaction of needs, that is, the ‘need of production’“ (Bonefeld 2000: 39).

When Aglietta (2000: 24) describes the “meaning of labour in its most fundamental aspect” he states that “production is always the production of social relation as well as of material objects”. For Regulationists, the analysis of relations of production is necessarily connected with the analysis of the whole complex of interaction between production and consumption. It does not make too much sense to look at capitalism as a production process – this has been stressed in this paper over and over. All social relations need to be reproduced over time somehow. Capitalism is, among everything else, a form of reproduction of relations of production. “[] capitalism consolidated its domination over society... in a very specific phase of history…in which it transformed not only the labour process but also the process of reproduction of labour-power,” says Aglietta. We should note precisely the use of capitalism rather than ‘capital’. This gives the whole statement not only a time and space dimension, but differentiates a system from one of its elements. Open Marxists practically never speak of capitalism.

So, what Aglietta, and other Regulationists, stress is that capitalism is a mode of consumption as well as that of production. This makes it necessary to analyse “ the social revolutions through which capitalism succeeded in producing the characteristic mode of consumption of the wage-earning class” (Aglietta 2000: 25). Open Marxists tend to somehow always reverse this direction of analysis, and keep asking how does capital harness labour through the production process. Open Marxists practically never mention consumption, save for moments when they explain how consumption is meant to keep labour busy at times after work.

This is perhaps due to their steadfastly adherence to Marx. It is true that Marx tended to focus on the production process. This had a very definite motive to it when analysing circulation of commodities and money function in it:

Although Marx in early writings emphasized the need for money in the consumer, who came to substitute exchange-value for use-value as the object of his desire, he later found it mainly in the producer, for whom the production of surplus value rather than use value became the dominant end (Elster 1985: 79).
However, Marx did emphasize that “needs in capitalism are all needs for consumption”:
…[] every person speculates on creating a new need in another, so as to drive him to fresh sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence and seduce him into a new mode of enjoyment and therefore economic ruin. Each tries to establish over the other an alien power, so as thereby to find satisfaction of his own selfish need. The increase in the quantity of objects is therefore accompanied by an extension of the realm of the alien powers to which man is subjected, and every new product represents a new potentiality of mutual swindling and mutual plundering. Man becomes poorer as man, his need for money becomes ever greater if he wants to master the hostile power…. (Marx, Economic Manuscripts 306, quoted from Elster 1985: 79).
This is an exposition of alienation and reification processes at work through capitalist consumption. The passage fittingly concludes with the need for money as the expression of the power to buy the imaginary ticket out of the exploitation and alienation process by the wage-earner. Marx here hints at a special social function of money that is overlooked in the traditional neoclassical breakdown of the functions of money.

Consumption in the capitalist economy then takes on the form of reified relation, “the desire for hoarding [that] is in its very nature insatiable” (Elster 1985: 80). Reification, however, also bears on capacities. In The German Ideology, Marx mentions how the idea of “occupation” represents a certain reification process – and it will, with other reified notions, disappear in communism:

…[] with a communist organization of society, there disappears the subordination of the artist to local and national narrowness, which arises entirely from the division of labour, and also the subordination of the individual to some definite art, making him exclusively a painter, a sculptor, etc.,; the very name aptly expresses the narrowness of his professional development and his dependence on the division of labour. In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities (The German Ideology, cited from Elster 1985: 81)21.
So, liberation from capitalist exploitation is already in Marx well-sketched out as a liberation from both the capitalist consumption and production.

It is also on the consumption side where the social relations are important “Without a set of social norms, which are always relative and remoulded by class struggles, the conditions of capitalist accumulation would have no regularity” (Aglietta 2000: 31).

And when the consumption norms are no more fitting for the mode of accumulation? This is where the notion of rupture becomes so important. Rupture in Regulationist epistemology is not simply a crisis of production (or exploitation), it is this and at the same time the opportunity to revolutionise the mode of consumption, without which capitalism cannot develop further. This is why Aglietta stresses the need to study the “social revolutions through which capitalism succeeded in producing the characteristic mode of consumption of the wage-earning class” (2000: 25)22.

The consumption process is related to the issue of valorisation and devalorisation of capital. Commodities that are consumed are annihilated as values. At the same time, it needs to be stressed again that consumption is a social act. When it is said that products of labour are through the process of exchange “recognised as commodities and bearing a fraction of society’s total labour” (Aglietta 2000: 40), we must bear in mind the issue of homogeneous space of value, where value is best expressed through a set of simultaneous equations. Labour theory of value does not presuppose that a commodity is through production invested with some immutable amount of congealed labour that henceforth expresses its value. The value is still dependent on how the commodity of that particular kind is being produced and consumed in the society. This is why the capitalist process as simultaneously dependent on revolutionising the conditions of production as well as consumption.

Open Marxists tend to imply that ‘capital’ is dependent on catastrophic resolutions of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall23. The Regulation Approach, on the other hand, stresses the link between consumption and production at the given level of technological and social development. Earlier, we pointed out that inflation problems are resolved in peaceful times, to counter the hazy formulations of Open Marxists who hint that ‘overaccumulation’ in the form of expansion of credit and/or money supply should could somehow be resolved through war. Now we should also draw attention to the fact that the destruction of assets through war only solves the problem of extraction of absolute surplus value. It is not a capitalist solution to a capitalist crisis. The fact that Open Marxists never seriously deal with modalities of surplus value naturally leads them to formulations of almost millenial content. This is at the expense of following the actual development of the capitalist system, including recomposition of labour processes – something which was important for Marx, as it defined to him how the man develops his capacities, as we have shown.

Consumption patterns, moreover, define culture, to put this in a slightly vulgar way. For Marx, the fight against capitalism was the fight for human beings to be able to realize their full creative potential. Open Marxists, probably being influenced by structuralist Marxism more than they would admit, only deal with production structures. Only that they leave out some specifications that would point at determinacy of development. The only way ‘labour’ realizes its potential is through ‘insubordination’. However, production is meant to be consumed. A flow of commodities is what keeps the fine fabric of society together. To change things through ‘insubordination’ smells of crude materialism.

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