Capital Against Capitalism: a conference of new Marxist research

Fire Brigade Employees Union, Sydney, 25 June 2011

In memory of a life-long sparring partner – Bob Gould

[This report does not summarise all the twenty-one papers. 
Instead, I reflect on three themes from the proceedings:

  1. radical pedagogy;

  2. Idealism versus Materialism; 

  3. the tertiary trained. 

Two other matters are vital but need a more thorough investigation than is possible here: the near absence of manual workers and the few women who came.]

Anarchists and Marxists agree on two things. First, that Marx’s Capital is an essential starting place for understanding capitalism. Bakunin had hoped to translate it. Secondly, that the state should wither away. Between analysis and synthesis falls the hard bit: how to get there from here? Again, we agree on the centrality of education – but of what kind?

Anarchists have promoted democratic circles among activists. The Materialist emphasis on learning by doing has been weakened by the vacuous dichotomy of either interpreting the world or changing it. The Manifesto calls for the reintegration of schooling with work in order to interpret the world though changing both it and ourselves as individuals, as a class and as a species. These precepts indicate why we need to organise conferences at which every session is a community of critical enquiry.

Instead, only about half the eighty attendees contributed although everyone had something to say between sessions. Limiting contributions from the floor to two minutes worked as well as the structure of expert panels followed by comments can manage. Everyone kept to the timetable, a rare expression of respect for other presenters and the audience.

The concluding plenary combined the worst pedagogy with nil connections for using Capital against capitalism. Nicole Pepperell read the opening section of her forthcoming book at a hundred to the dozen. Few could catch what she was saying let alone follow her exegesis.

The day had begun with a plenary at which Rick Kuhn delivered the core arguments from his jointly authored Labor’s conflict, big business, workers and the politics of class. After asking why were we were focused on parliamentary cretinism, I identified the Kuhn-Bramble method as Idealist. Their failure to periodise the expansion of capital renders them unable to explicate how the Labor Party has serviced capital’s shifting needs. Instead, their Platonic Ideal Form has the Party remaining a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ across its 120 years.

Materialists must recognise that the emergence of monopolising capitals, as sketched in Lenin’s Imperialism, installed ‘big business’, which the Labor parties were being established to prevent or nationalise, for instance, by using land taxes to break up the big estates. Lenin identified three stages in the transformation between 1870 and 1900. Once oligopolies had become foundational, lesser yet significant changes in the patterns of accumulation have to be noted, for instance, the shift from extracting monopoly profits under tariff protection to the freer-trade era since the 1970s under so-called globalisation. Far from contributing to proletarian science, the Kuhn-Bramble version glosses a squabble inside Political Science.

The conference went on to parallel workshops. One on ‘Marxism and Theology’ pointed out that Liberation Theology had not gone out of fashion – it had been murdered, literally in many cases. Its half-life includes the pedagogy of the oppressed which grew out of a literacy programme built on ‘read the word; read the world’, a Materialist epistemology grounded in work.

By contrast, a session on ‘Reading Capital in our own time’ spotlighted the limits on what academics can do to make Capital effective against capitalism. A presenter surveyed the literature around his doctoraral topic, as if wrong ideas were the problem, not the accumulation of capital.

Mike Beggs’s ‘Zombie Marx and modern economics’ asked whether Marxists can take in more from the marginalists than mathematical techniques and still be Marxist. In his riposte, Kuhn stressed that the divide is a political one between a critique of exploitation and its evasion. His making this irrefragable point was marred by the finger-waving by which adherents of his cult are humiliated should their thoughts stray beyond its dogmas.

A workshop on Social Change heard John Pardy offer an historically materialist explanation for the attacks on TAFE education, which is being twisted to match the short- to medium-term demands of employers. Moreover, Pardy raised the class content of all pedagogies by pointing out that the old TAFE methods overcame the division of mind from hand.

The three topics listed under ‘Marxism and the Law’ had nothing to say about current attacks on workers through un-Fair Work Australia, the ABCC and the ‘harmonisation’ of OH&S rules. The absence of those topics underlined the trouble that Marxologists face in being ‘against capitalism’.

Next door, three papers dealt with the here and now. Marcus Banks reported on his work in the Commonwealth bureaucracy to examine how both public servants and welfare recipients connect to the needs of capital. Investigations of this kind are needed from groups of activists in every sector of the labour market.

In reacting against the day’s scholasticism, I dropped most of what I had prepared about labour-time as a concept to discuss how a radical pedagogy might be revived. Learning is most effective when it becomes active with workers educating themselves and each other. I handed around a document produced by Victorian railway workers in 1972 as an example of what might be attempted in every sector. (It is on ) Marxist scholars can help militants to track the pathways by which the sale of their labour-power contributes to the accumulation of capital. We can also do their typing and not just turn up to flog grouplet publications.

The conference spotlighted the urgency of making such an investigation into tertiary education. For a start, what has happened so that an anti-capitalist conference calls for peer-reviewed papers? The research could begin with a survey of the explanations that have been proposed for the student revolt of the 1960s. We need to break through the Idealist accounts of cultural rebelliousness by linking those attitudes to the new needs of capital in production and realisation of the surplus through marketing. The Arena thesis regarded the technologically trained as potential challengers to workplace discipline.

From there, we need to specify the current relations between tertiary students and their employment. Until the mid-1970s, most part-time students came to campus after a day at their full-time permanent jobs. The Worker-Student Alliance of the 1970s saw fulltime students take up fulltime jobs in factories. Since then, more full-timers have been in the paid workforce during semester-time. The alliance of workers and students is now embodied in each one of them. Instead of holding full-time permanent or vacation jobs, students now cobble together casual part-time temporary positions. To meet the higher costs from capital’s induction of needs they have to earn enough to own i-Pads, a computer for on-line study and for socialising – not to mention rents –  much of it on credit.

A study of working conditions in tertiary institutions needs to identify the causes and effects of the retreat from participatory democracy in the classroom and throughout the administration. Can that loss be traced to the managerialism and credentialism galloping throughout the economy out of the Schools of Business?

The scramble for contracts compels applicants to publish at least one peer-reviewed article each year. Did that pressure lead to the embrace of the linguistic turn which authorised the critique of existing texts rather than the expenditure of time on empirical research?

The churn of post-graduates from their short-term contracts to stacking supermarket shelves is widespread. One in four science graduates cannot get a job in their speciality. In addition, we need to examine the role of NTEU in the conflict between tenured staff and those on contracts who hew wood for them.

Historical Materialism
A number of attendees went on to a pub to talk over the prospects of holding an international conference in July 2013 associated with the London-based quarterly Historical Materialism, which co-sponsored the day. To succeed, such a conference will need institutional support in academe beyond local adherents of the Socialist Workers Party.

A consideration of the place of Historical Materialism in how Capital might be used against capitalism is a chance to restate the three themes of this report: Materialism against Idealism; how each kind of work now serves capital; radical pedagogy.

First, how Materialist is Historical Materialism? The majority of its articles tell people how to write historical materialist accounts – if they could ever get around to doing so.

Secondly, to what extent does Historical Materialism exist to combat capitalism or is it rather a means for aspiring academics to gain peer-reviewed points? That question provokes consideration of how the needs of capital are being served and/or challenged by the regiments of surplus labourers in the tertiary  institutions.

Finally, if we must take up any of Marx’s scraps on Feuerbach, let’s emblazon our banners with a maxim of proletarian pedagogy: ‘The educator must be educated’.