I’ve been reading Jean-Louis Cohen’s Building a New World: Amerikanizm in Soviet Architecture, and one of the striking features of the early chapters is the enthusiastic reception of Taylorism in Russia. That Taylorism was popular among reforming liberals in the pre-revolutionary period is not surprising, as Taylorism is a feature of advanced industrialism these reformers wanted to introduce to backwards Russia. The enthusiasm of many Bolsheviks is more puzzling, though: Taylorism seems like a specifically capitalist form of industrialization, a subordination of the worker to the factory or, as Lenin initially evaluated it, “sweating in strict accordance with all the precepts of science” (quoted in Cohen, 105). Lenin later revised his opinion, however, claiming to have identified a positive side to Taylorism in which “the Taylor system – without its initiators knowing or wishing it – is preparing the time when the proletariat will take over all social production and appoint its own workers’ committees for the purpose of properly distributing and rationalising all social labour” (105). Taylorism, that is, holds out the possibility of a rational organisation of labour, and while this is currently being employed in the service of capitalism, it would find its full realisation in the truly rational organisation of labour that would be the result of replacing the anarchy of capitalism with workers’ control.Read more↴
A recent (recent in actual time, if not in internet time) review of Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now has led to a steady stream of moderate leftists acting scandalized at Lewis’s suggestion that abolition of the family should be at the centre of left-wing politics. This response, when it isn’t just incredulous scoffing, generally emphasizes the family as an institution that embodies qualities of caring that should be maintained and extended in a socialist society. As the critical review of Full Surrogacy Now puts it,
While abolishing the family is obviously fraught with problems, providing it with the resources to reform its pathologies has much to recommend it…. Any viable progressive vision of a postcapitalist future cannot look like an experiment in social engineering, but as a project that recognizes the ties, both within the family and without, that often underlie the everyday struggles of working people.
This genre of “don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses” propaganda seeks to counter the view that socialism is impossibly radical by asserting that people are already socialist, they just don’t know it yet, finding instances of putative socialism in things people already agree with. I’ve come to think of this approach as an attempt to trick people into being socialist, because, in taking the (obviously reasonable) point of beginning agitation where the audience already is, it dissembles about the genuinely radical changes that socialism requires.Read more↴
Sometimes people take the distinction between use value and exchange value as a moral distinction: use value is natural and good, and then capitalism came along and ruined things by inventing exchange value. This is wrong – use value and exchange value are a dialectical pair, and they both only came into existence with the development of capitalism.
Obviously, people used things before capitalism, but the idea of use value, that is, of usefulness in general, rather than some specific usefulness, was, before capitalism, an entirely mental abstraction. It’s only when usefulness in general comes to underpin generalised exchangeability (i.e., exchange value) that it acquires a practical reality.Read more↴
In 1852, Marx wrote that Napoleon III had managed to become Emperor of France because he knew the power of “cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage.” Many attempts have been made to interpret the significance of these sausages (including Andrew Parker’s suggestion that they are a phallic symbol), but few have drawn attention to the fact that Marx specifies garlic sausage — that is, particularly tasty sausages that are especially well suited to whet the appetite. Marx’s interest in garlic sausage has not been taken up by the Marxist tradition, where categories of necessity or utility are more likely to be studied than categories of appetite. I think this is a mistake, and that paying attention to appetite — to the insatiability of our sensory desires — is an important materialist principle. Thinking about appetite can help us understand the social relations that are formed in the everyday practices through which we live and desire. Read more↴
After my post last week about radicalising capitalist mediocrity, I was thinking about how another feature of capitalism might be transformed in communism: capitalism’s alienated but compulsory sociality. Capitalist production requires “sociality” in as much as capitalism forces workers to cooperate in collective work; but, capital also attempts to limit that cooperation so that it only includes the cooperation necessary for production and no more. So the assembly line, at least as idealised in capitalist imagination, would involve no direct human-to-human cooperation, but would instead embody all cooperation in machines.
One common Marxist response to this alienated compulsory sociality is to focus on the alienation part: in communism, the argument goes, alienated cooperation would be replaced with genuine human cooperation. This sounds horrible. Read more↴
The store known as La Chaussee d’Antin had recently announced its new inventory of yard goods. Over two million meters of barege, over five million of grenadine and poplin, and over three million of other fabrics-altogether about eleven million meters of textiles. Le Tintamarre now remarked, after recommending La Chaussee d’Antin to its female readers as the ‘foremost house of fashion in the world; and also the ‘most dependable’: ‘The entire French railway system comprises barely ten thousand kilometers of tracks – that is, only ten million meters. This one store, therefore, with its stock of textiles, could virtually stretch a tent over all the railroad tracks of France, which, especially in the heat of summer, would be very pleasant.’ Three or four other establishments of this kind publish similar figures, so that, with all these materials combined, one could place not only Paris … but the whole departement of the Seine under a massive canopy, ‘which likewise would be welcome in rainy weather.’ But we cannot help asking: How are stores supposed to find room to stock this gigantic quantity of goods? The answer is very simple and, what is more, very logical: each firm is always larger than the others.
You hear it said: “La Ville de Paris, the largest store in the capital,” “Les Villes de France, the largest store in the Empire,” “La Chaussee d’Antin, the largest store in Europe,” “Le Coin de Rue, the largest store in the world” – “In the world”: that is to say, on the entire earth there is none larger; you’d think that would be the limit. But no: Les Magasins du Louvre have not been named, and they bear the title “The largest stores in the universe.” The universe! Including Sirius apparently, and maybe even the “disappearing twin stars” of which Alexander von Humboldt speaks in his Kosmos. (Ebende, Lebende Bilder aus dem modernen Paris, quoted in Benjamin, The Arcades Project)
One of accelerationism’s central claims is that, although contemporary capitalism continuously uses the language of innovation, what it actually produces is mediocrity or stagnation, endless small changes that don’t really change anything (new phones with marginally different specs, that kind of thing). The accelerationist response to this is to challenge capitalism by taking seriously its claims to innovation, and to show that only an anti-capitalist politics can produce in reality the innovation that capitalism proposes as ideology. This is a misunderstanding of the dialectic. Read more↴