The Unifying Element in All Struggles Against Capital Is the Right of Everyone to Full Human Development
An Interview with Michael A. Lebowitz
Let’s start with your ideas about rethinking Marx, capital’s logic, and the logic of the working class? And how we can relate these subjects with today’s social movements?
For some time, I have argued that Marx did not develop theoretically the side of the working class. In his major theoretical work, Capital, he looks at the nature of capital and capital’s logic. But he doesn’t really develop the other side of capitalism which is the logic of the working class and the drive of the working class and its orientation. So, I always say that people have misinterpreted Marx in the sense that they think he has given a picture of capitalism whereas he has only given the picture of capital. That analysis is important because that knowledge is a weapon for the working class. But it’s not the whole picture. In much of his other work, he does talk about the working class; he talks about working-class struggles and how workers who do not struggle in fact produce themselves as apathetic, more or less well-fed instruments of production. You won’t find an examination of struggle, though, from the side of workers in Marx’s Capital. In particular, there is no discussion of the wage struggle. He just assumes that wages are given and that there is a given standard of necessity. Removing that assumption was to occur in a later volume that he never got around to writing, the planned book on Wage-Labour.
So that led me to explore the question of that other side. And in doing that, I constantly came back to the Marxist concept of revolutionary practice, that simultaneous changing of circumstance and human activity or self-change—how people transform themselves through their struggles. But not only through struggles; they produce themselves through their daily activity. People are formed by what they do. So, for example, a person who is a wage laborer under capitalism is produced and produces himself in a certain way, as a person who is alienated, as a person who simply wants to consume because of the emptiness of capitalist production. We always have to ask the question, “what kinds of people are produced under particular relations of production?” What kinds of people are produced in an exchange relationship, which is “I will do this for you, if you do that for me” as opposed to functioning in a communal society in which people act in solidarity? You produce certain kinds of people under those conditions.
Much of what I have stressed is the way people transform themselves through their activity. That is where social movements are absolutely critical. Because in social movements people transform themselves and they make themselves into different people. That’s what Marx says in a number of places. What he says is, “well, of course, wage struggle is not going to change things. But if workers were to give up the wage struggle, they would demonstrate that they would not be capable of anything larger.” Because it is only in that struggle that they make themselves fit to create a new society. Well, that’s the wage struggle. But it is true of every struggle. In every struggle, you are transforming yourself and making yourself fit, not only individually but also collectively.
After the post-2008 historical crisis of capitalism at a global scale, in which direction and under which forms do you think of the social movements should form and develop?
I don’t know. One thing that we have to think about is that we traditionally have looked at the organized working class as this main vehicle for building socialism. Certainly that’s what Marx talked about. He said trade unions were the main center of organization for the working class. But in the creation of workers’ movements, it wasn’t only their position as wage laborers that created the workers’ movement. They also lived in the same neighborhoods. They related to the communities and this was always an element. I think that it’s a big mistake to identify the working class as simply those who are wage laborers in large-scale industry. Other people are separated from the means of production and separated from the historical results of social labor. If you take Venezuela (and Venezuela is not unique in this), half of the working class is in the informal sector. They are not outside capitalism, though. Many of the people selling goods on the street are selling capitalist-produced goods; they are simply part of the sphere of circulation of capital. They just have a such weak position that capital manages to get them to bear the risk of selling, rather than just simply being wage laborers in the sphere of circulation.
Chávez’s main base is the urban poor. What do we mean by the urban poor? These are people separated from the means of production—members of the proletariat. We have to talk not simply about the exploited; we have to talk about the exploited and those who would love to be exploited but who in fact are excluded. They are in a common position in the sense that they lack access to the means of production, to the social heritage of human beings. They are all excluded. So they are in a common position in that respect. I think that so much of the current struggles (and this is certainly what I’ve being emphasizing in my work) is that these are struggles for people’s right to full development. That transcends particular cases and is a unifying factor. The idea of everyone having the right to full development and to development of their potential means, of course, adequate health facilities, adequate education, adequate food, etc. That is an element which can unify the whole working class.
My book The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development talks theoretically about issues that I’ve learned in this process here. But the book also looks at concrete measures. One of the central measures that has to be part of a struggle for building a socialist alternative is the struggle to expand the commons. What does neoliberalism, what does capitalism, do? Its whole focus is to commodify everything. Health care—commodify it. Schools—commodify them. Commodify everything. So what is the alternative for human beings trying to develop their potential? Decommodify everything and bring things under control. Of course, when you talk about decommodifing and about expanding the commons, the immediate question that comes up is “well we all know about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ so if we have everything free and available to people then it just leads to absolute tragedy.” Well, there’s no truth to that. Communities have managed common resources all the time. But the key element is community. You have to have a local community that is effective, one that can monitor the commons. In short, I argue that social movements and all movements to remove the power of capital can unite on one common point—the right of everybody for full human development. That’s the goal in the Communist Manifesto—the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
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