In defense of Syndicalism

Why does Labour syndicalism not suffer from the same problems as normal Capitalism? It’s because socialism is inherent in its basic premises

Anarcho-Syndicalism (Libertarian-Socialism)
Image by anarchosyn via Flickr

The Barefoot Bum has written a criticism of Labour Syndicalism as a system and how it cannot suffice for a post-industrial communist society. The core argument seems to be this:

But these questions fade into triviality beside a more subtle flaw in the idea of labor syndicalism: the system of workers controlling the means of production as the sine qua non of socialism still embodies commodity relations, only the workers are now directly transforming money to commodities to more money instead of the owners of capital doing so. This is not to say that having workers having more control the means of production is a particularly bad idea; it at least eliminates the most egregious form of capitalist exploitation.

That is not exactly true. If we are talking about Communism, then money relationships or production for profit does not exist. As such, the workers are not producing commodities¬† in order to make more money but rather to fulfil needs of other workers. Furthermore, the concept of exploitation does not apply at all in this situation as exploitation is simply the surplus value of a worker’s labour going to the capitalist. As long as the workers retains his full surplus labour (as he would by owning the means of production) then exploitation is impossible.

The problem of Capitalism is not simply that everything is a commodity, including labour, but rather that everything is done in the name of accumulation. And what drives accumulation is profit. This is further exaggerated by the need for the capitalist to accumulate in order to survive the competition with other capitalists. But when worker syndicates own the means of production, such accumulation is impossible and the need for profit evaporates.

Why does this happen? Well the only reason accumulation is a guiding factor is because you can own items you do not use and then use them to extract the surplus value of other people’s labour. When you have a society that workers retain their own surplus value, even if you were to have a syndicate which produced a lot of value, it wouldn’t be able to use it to disrupt the balance of power. They would not be able to accumulate. The workers of any factory own the factory. They cannot buy another one and get the value of workers there.

As such labour syndicalism by it’s very existence as the dominant sociopolitical system, immediately disrupts the Capitalist mode of production and moves the society towards Communism.

TBB also brings the issue of what happens with workers who do not produce tangible commodities, such as infinite goods (Software for example). The argument here is that as long as someone does not produce a finite good, then he has no political power in a labour syndicalist society. But that is a wrong. It is not the production of finite goods with exchange value that gives political power to someone, it is their ability to labour.

You have two types of objective value. Commodities and Services. Both of these are the result of human labour and as a result they are capable of labour syndicalism. The mistake TBB makes here is that he consider computer software to be a type of commodity in the modern day (due to IP) and cannot conceive how this commodity can be valued and thus provide political power when it’s infinite. But the solution to this problem is that software itself is not a commodity. Rather, software production is a service and this is what gives the worker (programmers) political power through their possible syndicate. In the same way that sewer cleaners, musicians, etc retain political power as a result of their labour’s significant effect on society.

We can see then that Labour Syndicalism does not really suffer from the issues TBB enumerates.

It can reduce the labour required to produce the same amount of commodities or services as it’s in the best interest of the people composing the syndicate to work less hours. They are not challenged by the competitiveness of accumulation so there is no fear of going out of business.

It can achieve increased non-commodity production by treating those as services and improving their production times for the benefits of the workers.

And finally, fundamentally it can achieve the communist goal, “from each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs.” because the workers, unfettered by capitalist drive for profit can instead distribute their services and commodities to those who need them most.

This article of course is not to say that labour syndicalism is perfect in all regards, certainly it may be suffering from other issues such as how to implement distribution between separate syndics or how to arrange long-term planning. But at a fundamental level (anarcho-) syndicalism is not flawed in regards to progressing towards communism. Indeed, the ownership of the means of production by the owners will inherently push society towards it.

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Exploitation cannot be obscured in time

Hans-Hermann Hoppe tries to prove that Marxian exploitation is impossible because of the concept of time preference. This is a refutation.

In my recent travels in the Anarchist reddit, more and more I stumble on Anarcho-Capitalists who insist on pointing to articles in their classic haven, Apparently, the place to be is you’re a progressive capitalist. Due to the quantity of such links I obviously cannot read all of them (indeed I still have quite a lot of Marxist material to go through) but now and then I’m pointed to an article that just challenges.

So I have decided to start a little series which will contain all the refutations I write on articles. I hope to eventually have a nice collection of posts I can instantly post as counters to such links.

Today I was pointed to a rebutal from some guy called Hans-Hermann Hoppe on why the Marxian concept of exploitation is wrong and how the consequences of movements based on marxism are also wrong and disastrous. I will not attempt to refute the whole analysis but rather I will try to attack the central small core concept it is all based.

After a few paragraphs providing a short introduction of “the hard-core of the Marxist belief system”, and then a brief explanation of the Marxian exploitation theory, Hoppe finally goes to the offensive

Now what is wrong with this analysis? The answer becomes obvious once it is asked why the laborer would possibly agree to such a deal. He agrees because his wage-payment represents present goods, while his own labor services represent only future goods, and he values present goods more highly. After all, he could also decide not to sell his labor services to the capitalist and then reap the full value of his output himself. But this would of course imply that he would have to wait longer for any consumption goods to become available to him. In selling his labor services, he demonstrates that he prefers a smaller amount of consumption goods now, over a possibly larger one at some future date.

On the other hand, why would the capitalist want to strike a deal with the laborer? Why would he want to advance present goods — that is, present money — to the laborer in exchange for services that bear fruit only later? Obviously he would not want to pay out for instance $100 now, if he were to receive the same amount in one year’s time. In that case, why not simply hold on to it one year, and receive the extra benefit of having actual command over it during the entire time? Instead, he must expect to receive a larger sum than $100 in the future, in order to give up $100 now in the form of wages paid to the laborer. He must expect to be able to earn a profit — or more correctly, an interest return.

Now this immediately falls afoul of an assumption: That the worker does indeed value present goods more than future goods. This however is begging the question: “Why is the worker valuing present goods more?”. The answer is of course need. The only reason a person would prefer to have less money now rather than more later (and that “later” can be as short as 1 hour from now) is because they have an urgent need that they cannot ignore until later. That urgent need can only ever be food or shelter.

If the worker has the capability to feed and shelter himself until he could reap the future value of his product, he would certainly do so. Indeed, when people have enough money to survive, very often they invest their money as well or start their own business. The problem however is that not everyone has this luxury. The vast majority of humans can never leave the working class and move to the capitalist or petty-bourgeois because they start at the condition where their basic needs are not fulfilled and because they do not own any means of production.

This is not an voluntary choice. This is a choice based on passive coercion. It is beneficial for the Capitalist who can select a low wage for the starving worker, but it is not beneficial for the worker who might only get a present value enough to simply sustain himself until the next day.

But lets look at this another way. Hoppe claims that a worker benefits because he receives present goods which he values more, in return to losing future value goods. There is another function in society which does the same however: Credit.

With credit, I can receive current goods in return of losing goods in the future. The difference of goods I lose is not too large usually but is enough to put me back a bit, making me poorer in the long run. True, I only get credit when I have such a need where current goods are more valuable in utility.

Now consider a hypothetical human who enters adulthood without any wealth. The only way for him to survive to the next day is to take 10$ credit for the food he will eat and the place he will live. That does not give him any real value other than his continued existence to the next day, where he will be actively poorer by the 2$ interest he was charged. So once again he has to get 10$ credit for the next day and so on, yet becoming more indebted as his debt increases by about 2$ per day.

Notice that I said, that this is the only way he can survive as well. That means that he has no choice but to fall more and more in debt daily until eventually it’s time to pay the piper. This situation should immediately strike us as wrong. Is it fair that our sample human’s only choice is to put himself more and more into debt without a way out? Of course not.

Lets take this example and apply to a worker’s position. The worker comes out to the society and has no other way to survive but to get a job from a Capitalist. The capitalist will, as Hoppe claims, provide him with 10$ upfront in order to create for him a widget he sells for 12$. The worker uses his money to survive until the next day, where he again has to make another widget, enriching the capitalist by another 2$, and so on.

What is the difference between our hypothetical human and the worker? In both cases, they only get to survive from day to day, while the creditor or capitalists becomes richer, without doing anything, by 2$ per day. The only difference between them is that the workers settles his debt daily by producing a 12$ widget and giving it to the capitalist, while the hypothetical human accumulates debt. But the end result is the same. At the end of 10 days, the human will have to come up with 20$ (the creditor does not care how. Perhaps sell his organs) to pay back. The end result is a 20$ richer debtor/capitalist.

But like the situation we put our hypothetical human was unfair, so is the situation we are putting workers every day. The scenarios were simple but the basic premises remain no matter the wage. Time-shifted or not, Capitalism is exploiting the worker by putting them in the unfair situation where they have to take the “credit” or starve. This “mutually beneficial” relationship assures that the worker will always remain poor while the Capitalist will enrich himself without doing anything. Indeed, this continued exploitation, will only ensure the Capitalist will be able to put more future workers in the same exploitative situation by taking control of the means of production so that they have no choice but to work for him.

Hoppe also asks why would the Capitalist borrow his money to the worker if he’s not going to become richer in a year? Why indeed. By himself the capitalist would not become any wealthier than his original 100$ and¬† as time passed, if he did not labour himself, his 100$ would decrease as he fed and sheltered himself. But the capitalist is not content to work like everyone else, he wants to become richer and not work at all, a societal parasite. He will look towards the immoral way of exploitation.

The “clean capitalist” who is mentioned in the article, does not escape this moral stigma simply because he didn’t get to inherit his fortune like most capitalists. Once you have capital, you always have 3 options.

  • Do nothing. Use the money that you saved to retire or have a luxurious life
  • Become a capitalist and exploit workers.
  • Bring other workers to your business without exploitation. As long as they work with you, they own what they make and they get an equal share of the surplus value. This is the only mutually beneficial way.

Hoppe continues:

Now what is wrong with Marx’s theory of exploitation, then, is that he does not understand the phenomenon of time-preference as a universal category of human action. That the laborer does not receive his “full worth”, so to speak, has nothing to do with exploitation, but merely reflects the fact that it impossible for man to exchange future goods against present ones except at a discount.

And this is simply untrue. First of all, the capitalist does not give the worker present goods. How many times have you been paid on your first day of work for what you’re going to do in the coming month? Never of course. The wage always comes at the end of the working period where the surplus value has already been created, even many times over. But yet, you do not gain the full value of your work even though you gave the capitalist “present goods” each day in the previous month in exchange for “future goods” at the end of the month.

But this has nothing to do with present of future goods nonsense. It’s all about who controls the means of production and who is starving. The only reason the worker cannot make surplus value for himself is because the Capitalist controls the way to make it and will not let him use it unless he agrees to be exploited. And the more people that are exploited, the wealthier the Capitalist becomes and the more means of production he gets to control, turning yet more people to exploitation and concentrating the wealth to the few.

I will not bother to counter the rest of the speech as it basically rests on the assumption that it has demolished Marx’s theory of exploitation. I hope I have adequately shown you how it has simply tried to obscure exploitation behind concepts of time and avoid the hard moral questions that undermine capitalism.

I’m not an economist expert or even a Marxist scholar so it’s quite possible that I am missing some fine point or argument from either side. However if this is indeed the only argument they have to declare Marx’s theories obsolete, then it’s no surprise that their system sounds so hollow.

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