Capitalism as a system is based on the continuous accumulation of wealth through the appropriation of surplus labour. One consequence of this is the steady growth in the stock of capital driving enormous changes in productivity. British steel, currently in the news, demonstrates this clearly. Output may have fallen by just over half in the last 40 years from 29m tonnes to 12.5m tonnes, but over the same period the number of people employed dropped by 90%, implying a dramatic increase in productivity over the same period.
This steady accumulation of the outputs of past labour, when held in private ownership, stands opposed to the living. It becomes something which both ensures the continuation of the owner-owned relationship and conditions what work means so that it becomes possible to talk about a half-mile long rolling mill controlled by a shift of 12 workers. In other words it has both a quantitative and a qualitative aspect.
The domination of the past over the present is a theme in Marx discussed in Fredric Jameson’s “Representing Capital”, a book which I reviewed a short while ago. As Jameson writes, it is not the structural relationship between the worker and their tools which is significant, but the sheer volume of capital set in motion. The human becomes an adjunct to the tools with the rhythm of work dictated by the needs of machinery.
“The quantities of the past have been rendered invisible by the production process outlined above, and yet they now surround the worker in a proportion hitherto unthinkable.”
(“Representing Capital”, Jameson, Verso London 2014, p. 102)
The past is therefore ever-present and “towers above” the worker dwarfing “even his collective presence” (ibid). When the means of (re)production are so massive their private ownership is an almost insurmountable barrier to change.
It is however this vast accumulation, and the productivity potential which it brings, that forms one of the key planks underpinning the strand of “post-capitalism” thinking on the left – exemplified in books by Paul Mason and Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams. Modern productive capacity has the potential to truly change the way society is organised, but the structure of existing social relations left unchanged seem likely to lead instead to rising inequality and unemployment as automation becomes more prevalent.
As Srnicek & Williams write:
“Today we see the occluded potential of this approach everywhere, in the fact that the technologies for achieving classic leftist goals (reduced work, increased abundance, greater democratic control) are more available than ever before. The problem is that they remain encased within social relations that obscure these potentials and render them impotent.”
(“Inventing the Future”, Srnicek & Williams, Verso London 2015, p. 150)
The challenge for the left then is how to build a movement which might break these social relations and create something else to take advantage of this potential. Both Srnicek & Williams and Mason have suggestions for how this might be achieved but it is still not clear how a movement which is both intellectually coherent and yet also an ‘organic’ mass movement of the people can be realised – something with Srnicek & Williams rightly identify as a key failing of “Occupy” and other modern protest movements.