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Capitalism’s Failure Of The Flesh: The Rise Of The Robots


by Phil Rockstroh

Roxy the sex robot

Humankind, being an inherently tool-making species, has always been in a relationship with technology. Our tools, weapons, machines, and appliances are crucial to forging the cultural criteria of human life. At present, amid the technology-created phantomscape of mass media’s lurid — yet somehow sterile — imagery, one can feel as if one’s mind is in danger of being churned to spittle.

On a personal note, an informal consensus has formed among my friends who share a passion for reading: We read far fewer books since the time we became enmeshed with the internet. Worse, we find the feelings of isolation that we have attempted to mitigate by an immersion in online activity, at best, provides only a palliative effect. Yet, in the manner of addiction — or a hopeless love affair —  we are prone to trudge deeper into the psychical morass by further immersion into the very source that is exacerbating our feelings of unease and ennui.

Yet we insist on remaining mentally epoxied to electronic appliances, as the oceans of our technology-besieged planet die, as the atmosphere is choked with heat-holding greenhouse gas emissions, and, as a result, exquisite, living things disappear forever.

Therefore, it is crucial to explore why we are so isolated from each other but so connected to our devices, and are married to the belief system that misinforms us that  technology can and will lift us from our increasingly perilous predicament. When reality dictates, if the past remains prologue, a fetishising of technology will further enslave us in a de facto techno-dystopia. A reassessment, for numerous reasons, of the relationship between humankind and technology must come to pass.

Moreover, the reevaluation must include machines, at present and in the future, we have created in our own image: for example, those such as IA technologies, that on an increasing basis, will cause a significant number of the workforce to be rendered idle.       Of course, it is a given, bottomline obsessives that they are, capitalists crave to replace workers with an automated labor force. The parasitic breed has always viewed workers as flesh machines, of whom they were inconvenienced by having to pay wages. Capitalism is, by its very nature, dehumanising. From the advent of the industrial/capitalist epoch, the system has inflicted mass alienation, societal atomisation, and anomie. Moreover, the vast wealth inequity inherent to the system allows the capitalist elite to own the political class — a mindless clutch of flunkies who might as well be robots programmed by the capitalist order to serve their agendas.

The question is, what effect will the nature of being rendered superfluous to the prevailing order have on the powerless masses — who have, up until now, been kept in line by economic coercion, by meretricious, debt-incurring consumer bribes, and by mass media indoctrination and pop culture anaesthesia? Will consumers continue to insist that their mental chains are the very wings of freedom?

Yet the Age Of Mass Mechanisation carries the potential to bestow an era of liberty, artistic exploration, scientific inquiry, intellectual fervour, the pursuit of soul-making, and inspired leisure. Or the polar shift in cultural raison d’etre might inflict a crisis of identity so harrowing that demagogues rise and despots promise to seed a new order but harvest the corpses of dissidents and outsiders.

A couple of weeks back, during a visit to a neighbourhood playground with my four year old, I had a conversation with an executive on voluntary leave from her management position at BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke). She was grousing about an infestation of seaweed choking the beaches of the Florida Keys she had encountered on a recent excursion to the US. When I averred the phenomenon of the warming oceans of the planet, the progenitor of the exponential growth of the sea flora she had been troubled by, was caused, in large measure, by the very socio-economic-cultural dynamic that financed her trip to Florida in the first place…well, it put a crimp in the conversation.

It can be unsettling to be confronted with one’s complicity in the ills of a system that, by its very nature, provides camouflage to its perpetrators — the big bosses, down to its functionaries, and foot soldiers. Soon, she, by a series of subtle moves, extricated herself from the conversation — and I cannot say I blame her. I myself experienced discomfort by the thought of the discomfort I inflicted on her. Therefore, as a general rule, under the tyranny of amiability, which is the rule of the day of the present order, one is tempted to avoid trespassing into the comfort zones that aid in enabling the status quo.

Yet we are faced with the following imperative: The system and its machines must begin to serve humanity, as opposed to what has been the case since the advent of the industrial/technological age, the mass of humanity serving the machine. Therefore, there must arrive a paradigmatic shift in metaphors and the ethos of the era e.g., a renunciation of the soul-decimating concept of human beings as flesh machines — who must, for the sake of monomaniacal profiteering, divorce themselves from human feeling, as well as, must forgo exploration, enthusiasm, and craft in the pursuit of expediency.

We do have a choice in the matter, all indications to the contrary. Yet, in the prevailing confusion regarding what ethos should guide our relationship to technology, we are confronted with a phenomenon such as the situation chronicled in a recent article in The Guardian. Headlined: “The Sex Robots Are Coming: seedy, sordid – but mainly just sad”  https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/nov/25/sex-robots-are-coming-seedy-sordid-sad?CMP=fb_gu

Regarding the supercilious nature of the headline, wouldn’t it be more propitious for all concerned to ask and explore why, under the present order, men are so alienated, socially awkward and lonely, as opposed to lapsing into all the predictable moral panic, wit-deficient snark, and supercilious value judgements these sorts of stories evoke?

Isn’t being attracted to consumer goods what it is all about, identity-wise, under the present order? Don’t customers demand that the de facto slaves of the service industry evince the demeanour of compliant androids? Isn’t it a given that the underclass workforce, holders of service industry jobs, will soon be replaced by robots? Do we not worship and are we not ruled by the cult of efficiency?

Withal, for the present order to be maintained, it is crucial for the general public to remain both alienated — thus using consumerism as a palliative, and that includes the production and retailing of sexualised, simulacrum appliances that mimic sex partners — and to have the psychical release valve of finger-wagging, easy virtue and shallow vitriol aimed at the poor sods who seek comfort from them.

Addendum: I’m much more mortified by robotics designed for surveillance and war than for one’s designed for simulacrumatic sex. I’m simply beastly that way.

Robots can be programmed to simulate copulation but it is doubtful that machines can be tuned and tweaked to experience the manifold, complex states of being that define human consciousness and its innate ability for self expression, for example, the ability to express themselves by means of spontaneous generated metaphors. While it is true, AI technologies can mimic forms of poetic and artistic expression, in any honest account of the processes they utilise, machines engage in the activity without a depth of feeling, without the facility to evince empathy and the ability to access imagination i.e., the phenomenon we human beings term soulfulness. Sans the ineffable quality of soul, AI entities, as is the case with our present information technology, will contribute the palliative, yet inherently alienating, effects inherent to our hyper-commodified era.

In contrast, writers/artists/activists must proceed to dangerous places. It is imperative that they descend into the danger zone known as the soul. The soul is not a realm inhabited by weightless beings radiating beatific light. Rather, it is a landscape of broken, wounded wanderers; inchoate longing; searing lamentation; the confabulations of imperfect memory; of rutting and rage; transgression; depression; fragmented language; and devouring darkness.

The reductionist metaphors inherent to the age of mechanisation — which limn human beings in mechanised, commodified terms — as opposed to the organic, unfolding pantheon composed of needs, longings and desires we are — inflicts not only alienation from our fellow human beings but from our essential natures. In our misery and confusion, we have bloated our bodies, maimed and poisoned the earth, and scoured the hours of our lives of meaning by the compulsive commodification of all things. Therefore it should not come as a surprise when alienated, lonely men become enamoured of glambots.

We have delivered insult after insult to the soul of the world, and yet it loves us with an abiding and bitter grace. The question remains, do we love it in turn, and deeply enough, to mount a resistance to the present order thus turn the tide against the love-bereft forces responsible for the wholesale destruction of both landscape and soulscape.

Phil Rockstroh is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in Munich, Germany. He may be contacted at philrockstroh.scribe@gmail.com and at FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/phil.rockstroh

37 Comments

  1. George says

    I can relate to the article’s point about the negative effect the internet has on reading. I was always a reader but over the past few years I have found it increasingly more difficult to concentrate on any one book. I become more easily dissatisfied and impatient and find myself with ten or more books all with bookmarks in them and I am attempting to juggle them all.

    I recall a story about someone who was new to the net and who was receiving informal instruction from a friend. Whenever the learner wanted to stop and read something, the friend said, “Oh you don’t read anything. You just go for the next link”. Well precisely. The net encourages everyone to compulsively jump from one place to the next without settling.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “In contrast, writers/artists/activists must proceed to dangerous places. It is imperative that they descend into the danger zone known as the soul.”

    And that is (for me anyway) one of the core issues. Art and creativity are being decimated, purposely. One needs only to visit an exhibition of the officially sanctioned art world of today to understand that. Around the world, it would most likely be state funded, corporate sponsored and, in essence, nothing more than advertisement for a multi billion money laundering scheme, which portrays criminal state and corporate power as hip “open” and charitable.

    Sadly, well beyond that, it would probably also be a good opportunity to promote manifestations that seem to be created precisely to kill our links with our “essential natures”, with intelligence, with our notions of beauty, of transcendence, of historic continuity, of truth and value.

    Instead of a Guernica we could get a collection of body fluids arrayed next to a non-sensical, obscurantist text. Instead of the overwhelming anxiety of an expressionist painting, a glass of water on a table or a cardboard box and a broom hanged to the wall, or “artist” feces, or your corner shop presented as a work of “art”, all of them with a value of thousands, if not millions of dollars . That´s some descend into the soul…

    …And don´t get me started with the music or movie industries, which are more less the same, but for less pretentious people. With the advancements in technology that allows them to produce in mass, they become even more superficial and, why not saying it, outright stupid every day.

    Just like any other authoritarian regime, the capitalist elites perfectly understood that controlling the world of art and ideas was imperative to avoid any spark of challenge or resistance, and they seem to have started preparing well before we had the chance to even think about it. As we and our work is increasingly redundant, as our links with nature become increasingly distant and nocuous, our communities stratified and impoverished, our sense of soulfulness and belonging is swallowed by machines, the mainstream art and cultural industries of today have taken the place of what should be the creative endeavours that give humanity if not a glimpse of hope, at least a truthful and strong testimony of the horrors.

    P.S Fearing being misunderstood I will tell that I am a composer, married to an artist. I am not in any way aesthetically reactionary (quite the opposite) and I am of course aware that there are millions of great (ignored, struggling) artists out there doing precisely that. Cheers to all of you out there!

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    • Big B says

      M: fascinating comment …for for your self-portrait in bodily fluids – you could could probably win a Turner Prize? [Though Marc Quinn kinda cornered that market already – my, how I laughed till I cried when his self-portrait bust ended up in a literal bloody mess in Saatchi’s kitchen!!!] But more than anything: the event that epitomised to me the subversion and cultural misappropriation of the art world – was when two ‘West’ Banksy’s were stolen from the apartheid Palestine-Israel wall and ended up in the Keszler Gallery …in the fucking Hamptons!!! Like the Mexican Muralists before: that art was of the place, of the people, an (anarchy lite) political statement in a place of relevance …even the gallery owner and cultural looter (Steven Keszler) had qualms about delegitimising their meaning – only not enough to stop him selling them for $500k each!!!

      Anyway, art is state of mind, a state of being – not limited to or by the ability to make a living from it. Good luck with the music!

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  3. Fair dinkum says

    The soul is neither a ‘realm’ or a ‘landscape’ Phil.
    It’s the equivalent of Love.
    Indefinable, indescribable and undeniable.
    Test it.
    In your experience.

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  4. michael\\ says

    wow, thank-you Phil, hamlet is reincarnated from an only slightly less substantial existence and calls us not to dither but to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them! I am compelled by the beauty and force of language to hear. michael\

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  5. Big B says

    The implications of the possible coming of an AI transhuman sentient net are truly Frankenstinian and horrifying. It goes beyond the fear porn of the AI revolution stealing our jobs and income (there are positive outcomes that could be tailored to that eventuality – like more time to address the things that really matter …like life, love, and happiness…) It goes far beyond the subjectification and citizenship of Sophia …and the normalisation and fetishisation of silicon “digisexuals” …Augmented ‘brain net’ reality is almost upon us (see vid below) …long before we have reached the development required to master the (redundant) consciousness we already have. Call me a cyber-Luddite: but I hope to be dead long before we move on …If indeed, we ever move on …

    Death is the definer of life: that may sound crazy – but what are we if not mortal??? If we are to evolve beyond the current cannibalistic ‘Wetiko’ psychoses that afflicts us – we have to engender our mortality into our lived experience …not upload and immortalise the very worst of our consciousness …in defiance of death. Imagine if those who have the very least respect for life – could live forever??? It just doesn’t bear thinking about …

    It is in itself a form of extreme psychoses; and confessional and defining of those who seek to develop it. It is based on a profound misapprehension of the human condition. The Self is insubstantial and void in nature (sunyata) …any attempt to concretise or immortalise the Self is a form of death …a life of (self) imprisonment, if you will. That is the very antithesis of the lived experience: and no amount of augmentation can ever compensate for that…

    As I write: the winter sun glows orange, and the gently swaying trees are in bold silhouette, I can feel the temperature drop as the last warmth of this winter day ebbs into the descending indigo of dusk …time to light the fire …but first, I can’t help but reflect that there is more to live for in this too brief a moment than in an eternity of transhumanism!!! I’m sticking with my inferior and redundant mortality …me, I’m simple like that!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Moriartys Left Sock says

      The ambitions of these loons is indeed creepy, but – thank God – their reach is still way exceeding their grasp. Those rat experiments, nasty as they are, are a long way from achieving their stated goals, and as for the idea of “uploading consciousness” – that is simply deluded hubris.

      We haven’t even figured out what consciousness is yet, let alone figured out how to contain it and move it around. We don’t even know if consciousness is embedded in the brain itself, or exists somehow independently of it. As for creating cyber-consciousness. Well, that will have to wait until we understand all of the former.

      These goons operate in an elderly 19th C view of the nervous system as a sort of machine, and consciousness as merely the product of that machine. This view has never had much data in support of it, and is being outmoded now with new paradigms. In fact our understanding of the brain is still virtually nil, partly because we have insisted on seeing it as a mechanism with working parts. We can poke about with it and implant things in it, but it stubbornly refuses to yield up its greater secrets. Lots of theories, lots of partial verifications, but also lots of data that militates against the theories and leaves everything uncertain. In fact we still have no idea how a brain actually works to produce any but the most basic motor functions. One of this kind of horror-science’s main aims is to convince us it is much more powerful than it is. I’m not urging complacency, just realism.

      And isn’t it richly indicative of this kind of science’s outdated mechanistic thinking that it tries to “link” brains by putting nano-circuitry in them, but ignores the mass of well-researched scientific data that indicates brains (or minds) are already linked in a way far more subtle and powerful and poorly understood than they could even dream of.

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      • Big B says

        MLS: couldn’t agree more. Didn’t Niels Bohr say something to the effect that we would need to rewrite the laws of physics and chemistry to accommodate the understanding of consciousness? What I find disconcerting is not the possibility – or more probably the impossibility – of augmented reality …it is the mindset and seeming pathological normalisation of the macabre of these people. I mean, just who do they think they are: immortals! …Gods!!! That is their delusion!

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  6. Frank says

    As it exists and has existed, nature has been the matrix for human development. But we have declared war on nature using it as a disposable and irreplaceable input. I’ve got news for these despoilers of the natural order – nature is going to win this war and will easily constitute itself in a few millennia and will carry on as if homo-sapiens had never existed.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. The development of the dissociative subjective mind is a tool and its progeny is the intent and attempt to resolve its birthing conflict via external means. Mind control is not relational communication.
    The expression or embodiment of this ‘mind’ is our human ‘world’ – which is the filter of definitions and believed or invested meanings through which we interact in code as the ‘alienated’ attempt to mask over, or substitute for a hollow sense of disconnect into which every wish gives way to disappointment, disillusion and nightmare.

    The simplest way to notice this tool is that it is thinking and in this sense I use it, thoughts that run as habitual, automatic conditioning of the reaction to whatever is triggering it. To look AT the thoughts rather than ‘living’ inside the bubble of a kind of narrative led identity is to stir as the presence you are.

    Presence is not merely a fleeting present in terms of a past made in lack, fear and anger – but a tangible connectedness that in modern terms could be called the field or wave that the particle of the particular is an embodiment of – instantly, always. That this is so is simply obvious to the fact you do not create your awareness of being – but only modify your experience of being – by taking thought for yourself.

    The true nature of thought is from self to all, and the measure of your giving is your receiving.

    In the past of conflict as attack, believed and justified, is the split mind of the victim and the victimiser both. The fragmentation cascading from the split set the archetypal personae that run beneath the persistence of attack as communication and salvation from a hated and feared original nature.

    Self hatred can show itself directly , but is hard to bear, and is thus mind-repackaged and redistributed as every kind of homophobia and anti-biota to culminate with the ‘transhumanism’ of technocracy; the targeting of humans as unworthy of life, their subjugation and degradation under rules and systems of deceit – to their control and replacement with systems and rules that embody the wish that spawned hatred – because the wish that things be different, given commitment over the presencing responsibility, is the basis of a negatively polarised self-identification that seeks to manipulate and coerce effects without owning the cause – and so runs as if its cause is the denial or deprivation of its ‘founding wish’.

    This patterning goes back before time was counted and has unfolded the development of Human consciousness within a sense of separation and power struggle, that is – in general terms – our ‘reality’ or experience of physically defined existence.

    It is not we cannot will different – for that is freedom of being, but that given power, wish substitutes mind of control – or the intent and attempt of control of its dissonant experience – for a living will in action – and does not know it has been hacked or phished, assigning the dissonance to an external violation and attacking or denying in like kind. The rest is history – that would be a perpetual motion machine (within consciousness) but for the depletions of the capacity to bear pain or sustain life.
    The adaptation to this along the line of its own miscreation is to medicate or suppress and outsource pain to substitutes and scapegoats, which is to limit and degrade consciousness while protecting and ever smaller fragment of ‘control gratifiction’ that loses even the capacity to enjoy the fantasy of its addiction – and so intensifies its hate in the attempt to appease the god of its power and protection as a torture that know not that it knows not anything but its own scream that can no longer voice or communicate because it has abandoned a true embodiment for a virtual nightmare.

    No matter what thought we accept, its basis will be the ‘god’ or source nature from which all else follows. Source nature is not separate from the thoughts that deny it. That is how free you are. But to know our freedom we have to live from it and in that sense give it. The recognition of the ‘machine’ in others – as if you are the living judge and determiner, is a personified reflection.

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  8. rtj1211 says

    The interesting thing is that multimillionaires who hate imperfect humans and love robots get very self-righteous, defensive and uppity when you point out to them quite how many things they are totally useless at.

    Just imagine the consequences of telling them quite how useless their daughter is in bed….!!

    Normally in such circumstances you find a better performing lover, as humans have not yet ben rewired to be aroused by the touch of plastic and metal.

    Thick blokes you see get aroused by the touch of human flesh, not the words of a sex robot……

    Has any told neoliberal investors that yet? Assuming they have not already realised that about themselves…….

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  9. writerroddis says

    I enjoyed this as an insightful and, the odd lapse into purple aside, nicely written piece. I have to say it would benefit from engagement with Marx’s writing in Capital. Two obvious reasons for saying so …

    … one, it is not reductionist to link our alienation as a species – perhaps most thoroughly explored by the Frankfurt School – to the very specific alienaton arising from the fact that capitalism, unlike any previous form of class exploitation, has made human labour-power itself a commodity. Marx’s writing on ‘commodity fetishism’, at its most focused early in Capital 1, should be essential reading here.

    … two, it’s true that individual capitalists do, as Phil says, crave workerless factories. But therein lies one of capitalism’s several essential paradoxes. A workerless capitalism is an oxymoron since the extraction of surplus value – not by individual capitalists from individual workers but by the capitalist class as a whole from the labour selling class as a whole – is the ONLY source of profit. Why? Because, uniquely, the commodity labour power has the capacity to create value greater than its own.

    Engagement with these truths would not only enhance Phil’s valuable insights. By giving them focus it would bring light, if only a chink of the stuff, on the darkness he eloquently depicts.

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    • Big B says

      “[…] is the ONLY source of profit. Why? Because, uniquely, the commodity labour power has the capacity to create value greater than its own.”

      Hi Phil: is this as true today as it was in the 19th century capitalism Marx was critiquing? To my mind, the labour commodity power is being reduced toward zero; and the extraction and production (in the form of environmental degradation and pollution) are ‘externalities’ (with no cost implications). The real value, particularly of modern luxury goods, is being ‘stolen’ and replaced by rent extraction – in the form of intellectual property rights. These in turn are reinforced by State intervention and protectionism – in the form of legally enforceable patent laws. Is the labour value not being marginalised and squeezed out of the market???

      The example I use is the most conspicuous of consumer goods: the iPhone X. As Apple recently discovered, the price they set is demand restricted – they simply cannot charge a truly reflective price for it (a £1,000 for a phone – ouch!) In order to maintain their profits – they have to price gouge their intellectual property rights at the cost of their labour, material, and distribution costs. The paradox is that their input is mainly (patented) information and software: that if it were not artificially (state) protected would be almost infinitely reproducible – and so tend toward zero value. Not only does this turn Marx on its head: it violates capitalism’s most basic tenet – that the ‘free’ market determines the commodity price that is the most beneficial to us all. Invisible Hand: meet my Invisible Middle Finger!!

      [A further complication is the the Apple brand accrues ‘value’ year on year: just by being the Apple brand. In the case of Amazon and Netflix: this occurs whether they make a profit or not. This sheer insanity, as Mad Max (Keiser) likes to point out, is largely due to central bank intervention …but it is another example of (false) value that cannot be attributed to labour.]

      A second usurpation of Marx that I can see: is that now there are two economies …The M-C-M1 ‘productive’ economy – with a circulation of commodities and capital …supporting an M-M1 unproductive economy – with no commodities (buying and selling stocks, shares, bonds, derivatives, etc) …where capital begets capital begets more capital: with no commodity labour power in sight!!! Merely holding assets increases ones net worth nowadays? [And that includes crypto.]

      It is increasingly (without the recourse to cheap consumer credit) only the petite-bourgeoisie (the “conspicuous consumers” who work in the rent seeking ‘service’ economy) that can afford the luxury high end ‘iPhones’ with their ‘unproductive’ labour: thus recycling little or nothing back into the productive economy [and ‘productive’ in no way implies life affirming or real value giving – making military hardware is considered ‘productive’ even if it is destructive and alienating] …so as an ONLY source of profit: haven’t we left commodity labour power behind? It seems to me that cancer stage capitalism has found (unsustainable) ways of creating its profits out of profits: not surplus value? Haven’t we already been (largely) cut out of the equation: by capitalists …if not yet by AI???

      Liked by 2 people

      • writerroddis says

        Hi BigB. Though your question, and my assertion, take us away from the thrust of Phil Rockstroh’s post I’m glad to discuss them here. I see them as just as important as Phil’s theme of psycho-spiritual alienation under capitalism.

        WARNING – VERY LONG COMMENT …

        You ask: is it still true that labour-power’s unique quality of creating a value over and above its own is the sole source of profit? Yes, absolutely. Imperialism has vastly altered capitalism’s forms and configuration of the social relations of production (human relations concealed as relations between things). It has not, however, changed the inner dynamic revealed in Marx’s analysis of the commodity in Capital 1. Nor the process of valorisation – converting value to price, and surplus value to profits which are then shared between state, the various capitals, and non-value producing labour (nurses, teachers, coppers, advertising creatives, psychiatrists, prison warders etc) – in Capital 2.

        I mean to pen a longer post on this vital matter. For now here’s an outline. Besides the efforts of bourgeois economics, which we can take as no more reliable than bourgeois media, I see two things as obscuring the continuing relevance of Marx’s discoveries. One is that the law of value is misunderstood even by marxists due to a proliferation of vulgar ‘explanations’. Take the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. In his eagerness, understandable but wrongheaded, to explain the law of value Tressell reduces it to a fraud by one capitalist on his workforce. Even in 1900 this was a gross oversimplification, and is far more so today. That’s why I speak of labour sellers expropriated in their entirety by a capitalist class in its entirety. It’s why profits tend to equalise whatever the ratio of labour to other essentials of production deployed in given sectors. And it’s why – forgive me if you know all this: others may not – a factory operated wholly by machines can still generate fat profits: provided somebody somewhere (likely as not in the global south) is creating value (as opposed to merely passing it on, as is the case of plant, raw materials, energy etc) and surplus value at the point of wealth production under conditions of wage labour.

        A second obscuring factor is the fact of financial imperialism, unknown to Marx and barely dawning when Lenin wrote Imperialism: Highest Stage of Capitalism (more propaganda piece, as the world descended into the hell of WW1, than theoretical work on a phenomenon no one, not even a Lenin, could fully grasp at so early a stage). Since then efforts to understand imperialism in terms of the law of value have been infrequent, incomplete and too often misconceived. We might single out the exchanges between dependency theorists like Raul Prebisch, and a branch of marxism typified by Eileen Wood and David Harvey, the latter advancing the arguments you – I think – make. For now I’ll say just that light has been shed in recent times by bigger data (albeit flawed by among other things IMF miscategorisation) and the means to crunch it, and by a shift since those Wood-Harvey versus dependency theory debates of the 60s and 70s. That shift has been from direct control over wage labour in the global south by by TNCs in the north, to arms-length outsourcing. One product of the shift has been the rise within bourgeois economics of ‘value-chain’ theory. This would have us believe an iPhone, the product you cite, made in China for $80 retails in the west for $800 because shipping, packaging, advertising, selling etc add $720 of ‘value’. See John Smith’s vital Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century – my review of it featured in OffGuardian a few weeks ago – for his heroic empirical as well as theoretical work here.

        An explanation more robust and more plausible of the $720 is that the global south generates huge surplus value in its sweatshops. Some is extracted at source by local capitalists (who in many cases are slum landlords and politicians too) but most flows north as returns on rentier capital from which (a) taxes, (b) dividends, pensions etc and (c) a burgeoning army in the West of non value creating wage labour (a term neutral in respect of usefulness to society) are paid.

        The popular notion of a ‘post industrial’ world is erroneous. What’s happened is an outsourcing of industrial production to where the value producing component, human labour-power, is cheap. Hence my saying that capitalism’s configurations of the social relations of production have shifted dramatically. That has misled some, including Wood and Harvey who seek a revised understanding of capitalism they still choose to call marxist – a bit like christianity without the crucifixion and resurrection – into believing its inner dynamic has been transformed. It has not. I don’t say there’ll never be a an exploitative society – perhaps even more monstrous – that is not dependent on surplus value extraction from human beings. I do say that such a society will not – cannot – be capitalist.

        Liked by 3 people

        • “An explanation more robust and more plausible of the $720 is that the global south generates huge surplus value in its sweatshops.”

          Just to clarify things for ordinary blokes like me, to bring the substance of the theme of surplus value extraction in any shop, let alone the sweatshops of the Third World, down to a more concrete or pedestrian level of understanding, which is the level at which understanding should in the end settle:

          Under a system of wage labor, “profit” is only possible by a separation between, on the one hand, the market(s), where commodity exchange happens and, on the other, the sphere(s) of production.

          For-profit production, at the level of competing enterprises or corporations, can be viable under only the following condition: there must already be market exchange at “current prices,” that is to say, a given amount of purchasing power must already be in circulation and somewhat stable. Otherwise, for-profit enterprise cannot calculate, or roughly predict, or anticipate, a “margin of profit.” If the rate of extraction is not amenable to a calculation or a reasonably certain estimate, nothing will be done by way of capital investment to produce the commodity “competitively.”

          For-profit enterprise can only know it can make a profit when a) it knows what the “established” and “current” and “traditional” unit price of a commodity is for a given market and b) that it can produce and distribute the commodity in the given market more cheaply than the existing and “known” marginal costs to all its competitors.

          The capitalist game is, in other words, to find an answer to the following question: “given” that a commodity predictably sells for on average, say, ‘x’ number of dollars, what can be done to produce it at a profit at that already “given” and “established” or “customary” price?

          There are essentially three ways in which this can happen, none of which are mutually exclusive, all of which can be used singly or in combination: a) force one’s private labor force to ‘accept’ a reduction in wages, thereby reducing the cost of producing the commodity using the customary and established material means of (instrumental-organizational) production at hand; b) improve upon the customary and established material means of (instrumental-organizational) production at hand in such a way as to greatly reduce the amount of time or labor that would otherwise be necessary to produce the commodity, i.e., “increase productivity;” or c) offshore the production of the commodity to a locality where either labor or resource costs, or both, are significantly lower than in the current localities where the commodity is being produced.

          And after any or all of that is achieved in whatever combination, introduce the now more cheaply produced commodity into the pre-existing home market where the commodity will predictably fetch its customary and already established market price. It is in this way that capitalist enterprise creates a profit margin for itself: its profit being the difference between the customary and pre-established market price of the commodity and the now decreased cost of bringing that commodity to the market.

          Unfortunately for the capitalists who “innovate” in this way, other capitalists looking to their own advantage and viability, are quick to adopt the newly developed strategies for “creating” profit opportunities. The moment that these strategies become generalized throughout the economy, profit margins once again deteriorate precipitously, and the crisis of shrinking margins asserts itself again with the implacability of a catastrophe.

          All of this explains why under the capitalist mode of production, the means of production are constantly being revamped to ever higher degrees of efficiency; why private businesses are constantly trying to reduce the wages of their employees; and why in the system as whole, under the aegis of national governments overseeing highly developed capitalist markets, there is a constant propensity and drive to subjugate and integrate by military or other means peripheral regions where resources and peoples have yet to be incorporated into the system and thus represent means and opportunities as yet unexploited to further the pursuit of profit.

          is this as true today as it was in the 19th century capitalism Marx was critiquing?

          Yes.

          Liked by 2 people

          • BTW: the phenomenon of “perpetually falling profit margins” inherent to capitalism basically derives from two interrelated causes: a) competition between rival firms that undercut one another in the commodity market(s) by means of rationalizing their operations; and b) a perpetually shrinking pool of purchasing power (i.e., the aggregate wage paid to people who work for a living) deriving from the rationalization of operations proper, that is to say, the introduction of labor saving technologies and techniques that cannot but result in an accompanying system wide trend of incrementally increasing unemployment.

            (Machines that cost money but do not earn wages, cannot buy products; only people who are paid wages can. Reduce the pool of wages, and you ipso facto reduce the profit margins of some business somewhere in the system to the point of eventually collapsing some sector(s) of the economy. “The popular notion of a ‘post industrial’ world is [indeed] erroneous.”)

            Liked by 1 person

            • Big B says

              Capitalism had a fix for “a perpetually shrinking pool of purchasing power” – cheap consumer credit …in lieu of forty years of wage erosion. Only, they don’t know what they can do for the next forty – now the credit lines are maxed out?

              On the existential side: I think we can all agree capitalism is universally alienating and dehumanising? And that includes the so called 1% – who are being alienated and dehumanised themselves. Hence AI???

              Liked by 1 person

          • writerroddis says

            True. All true. And to add to your final paragraph, “all of which explains why” (mainly western) consumers are urged to buy more, to junk the old and embrace the new in a futile search for joy and existential meaning that hollows out our souls in the manner described by Phil Rockstroh.

            Liked by 1 person

        • Big B says

          Hi Phil: thanks for your detailed and fascinating response; and thanks for taking the time to compile it. Taken from your last paragraph:

          “I don’t say there’ll never be a an exploitative society – perhaps even more monstrous – that is not dependent on surplus value extraction from human beings. I do say that such a society will not – cannot – be capitalist.”

          I think this gets to the heart of the matter. We are, in fact, critiquing two different systems: industrial capitalism and the modern financialised system – which by your definition is NOT capitalist …but the parasitism of it. Both systems are entirely consistent with Marx: as this in depth presentation by Michael Hudson describes – detailing the processes I was trying to highlight that are eroding the productive (M-C-M’) economy …and undermining the ‘Labour Theory’. In other words, dispossessing us (Harvey’s “accumulation by dispossession.”) A fact we can readily verify from a socio-economic POV from the the impoverishment of communities on every continent globally?

          The terminology I was lacking was “usury capital” and “fictitious capital”: the latter describing the M-M’ economy – that creates money out of money; with no commodity creation and no reinvestment into the mode of production (industrial capital) …

          “[…] instead of explaining the self-expansion of capital out of labor-power, the matter is reversed and the productivity of labor-power itself is this mystic thing, interest-bearing capital.” Capital Vol 3: p548”

          … which Marx called “insane” and “fictitious” – which, indeed it is. What Marx got wrong, if we can call it that, is that he was optimistic that the banksters would have a social conscience! He assumed that their lending and government regulation would subordinate financial capital to the (productive) needs of industrial capital. Instead, the exact opposite happened (as further explained in Hudson’s “Killing the Host”). This is the “free lunch” rentier economy Hudson describes.

          Thank you again for helping me grapple with this. Also, a very good spot that I am influenced as much by Harvey as Marx (particularly on the “spatial fix” of outsourcing the workforce where they can be more readily exploited.) I might have got my head around it sooner …had I read volumes 2 and 3!!! 😉

          Liked by 2 people

          • writerroddis says

            Thanks BigB. You write:

            “We are, in fact, critiquing two different systems: industrial capitalism and the modern financialised system – which by your definition is NOT capitalist …but the parasitism of it.”

            Here’s where you and I, who agree on much, may agree to differ. Viewing finance capital as parasitic seems to me both useful and misleading. It’s useful in understanding tensions between two wings of the ruling class. Historically, anglo-saxon capitalism has tended to back its finance wing. Hence Britain’s favouring of laissez-faire trade, and Mrs Thatcher’s demolition of domestic industry by ‘pure’ market forces while re-establishing London as the world’s premier stock exchange. Hence the greater support for industrial capital by the state in France and Germany..

            Where ‘parasitic’ MAY be misleading (the term does not of itself necessitate misconception) is the way some see two qualitatively and radically different economic systems in play. They aren’t. Just as natural parasites need the host organism, so does finance capital need the extraction of surplus value at the point of creating goods and services. (To switch analogies, various forms of energy – coal, gas, oil, nuclear, wind etc – are clearly very different but are all ultimately forms of solar power.) Non marxist observers seldom dig deeper. Most are happy with the status quo, while liberal bourgeois economists see finance capitalism (modern imperialism) as aberration from ‘good’ capitalism. That’s superficial and untrue. Imperialism is but an extension of, a later stage in, laws of motion uncovered by Marx. But where such comment ignores the law of value, a few marxists have seen in imperialist/finance capital a break with it. It isn’t. Net returns on capital, even in Marx’s day, were shared by its different wings and the state. Today the redistributions take place at dizzying speed, as does the law of supply and demand (though monopoly conditions always threaten its subversion in what it pleases bourgeois economics to call ‘trade entry barriers’) to determine price as distinct from value. What appears on the surface as a new form of expropriation – rent, hedge funds, casino capitalism – is a redistribution, proportionate to sums invested and subject to capital’s iron law of chasing the highest return, of profits premised on that extraction of surplus value which has come – in ways marxist revisers as recent as Harvey could not anticipate – from outsourced production in Dhaka and Delhi, Singapor and Shanghai. That these forces are chaotic is neither new (1929->Glass Steagall->dismantling of Glass-Steagall->2008) nor anything but a manifestation of another of capitalism’s many inherent contradictions.

            (I’m less able to comment on Hudson. Though I often read, and quote from, his excellent columns in such as CounterPunch I’ve seen him as an especially well informed political economy observer – radical but not marxist – rather than theorist. I’d be glad if you could point me to his most succinct reasoning as to why he thinks the law of value is no longer at the heart of all forms of capitalism.)

            (By rights I should refer to industrial capitalism, to distinguish it not from finance capitalism, which I say does not represent a qualitatively different economic system, but from mercantile capitalism, which in its day did.)

            A bigger challenge, and one that has always been difficult for the law of value, comes from the recreation of labour-power in the family. Here we come closest to the coexistence of fundamentally different economic forms. Is wage labour itself premised on forms of slavery, historically inflicted on women, that reproduce labour power in the sense of supplying the next generation of labour sellers, and in the sense of providing the means by which (historically male) workers go to work every day, fed clothed and fit for the shift? Feminist/marxist attempts in the eighties to reconcile the law of value not just with with women’s oppression but women’s exploitation went down a blind alley we now call postmodernism. It’s deeply unsatisfactory and I think that here – but nowhere else (other than in the margins where modern slavery thrives) – we may have to concede that an economic system driven by the extraction of surplus value from wage-labour is dependent on another that lies outside its scope.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Actually Phil: I think we can agree to agree. The distinction into “two systems” is purely analytical. The contradistinction between the two is therefore also theoretical and analytic. In reality, they are facets of the one system – of which commodity labour value is the basis (sorry Norm!)

              [Not to digress, but on another forum we could explore that it is in fact energy that is the fundament of economics?]

              Where it becomes useful to draw the qualitative distinctions is to draw the conclusion that one is functional and the other dysfunctional. The M-M’ self-multiplying money sequence is the parasite that is killing the host. Perhaps this analogy is more useful to liberals who seek to reform capitalism, rather than those who want to replace it – as you say? When it is the system as a whole that is alienating and dehumanizing …not to mention ecocidal?

              As to Hudson: the best reference would be the link I gave you. It’s a distillation of “Killing the Host” – which is hardly succinct – and the presentation is more overt in Marxist terminology. I did not intend myself, or seek to imply that Hudson thought that labour value was not at the core of capitalism: it is. I intended to show that it is being eroded as a primary source: which it is …though if we once again look at the system holistically – not analytically – I can concede that the “parasitism” is an extremely malignant form of wealth redistribution …not a separate form of capitalism. It is not a new system – but a dominant sub-system …there is no “good” capitalism to be saved!!!

              Liked by 1 person

          • ” We are, in fact, critiquing two different systems: industrial capitalism and the modern financialised system”

            I’m not sure that I can agree.

            Financialization is an attempt by the capitalist class to remedy the insoluble problem of the “falling rate of profit” for ventures in for-profit production.

            Indeed, from the standpoint of the capitalist worldview, M-C-M’ was always and only M-M’, a point that Marx makes, and thus the illusion of extracting “profit” from printing money and merely allocating it among the capitalist class as real claims on real-world assets and commodities is merely a refinement in practice of the original illusion of turning more capital, in its abstract expression, i.e., “money,” into more capital.

            The real capitalist economy very much continues to exist, and the really existing working class that is enslaved to a condition of expropriation and destitution in the means of production, to a condition of wage slavery, must continue do depend on capitalist relations of production to subsist.

            But as Phil suggests below, we can perhaps take this discussion to his website. I’ve a lot more to say, of course, but saying it here is detracts from Phil Rockstroh’s most excellent piece. I’ll try to catch up over at the other Phil’s blog, but it may have to wait a couple of days.

            Aye!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Norm: before you go – apologies. In analytic mode …I appear to have invented a new form of not-capitalism parasitism!!! Phil put me right – and I conceded the point above.

              Liked by 2 people

        • Big B says

          Hi Norm: thank you as well for your detailed response and time. See my comment to Phil (you could hardly miss it!) and the link to Hudson.

          When you take my original question (“is this as true today as it was in the 19th century capitalism Marx was critiquing?”) – and answer “yes” ….The original question was asking specifically about the “commodity labour power” being the ONLY (Phil’s emphasis) source of profit? For reasons I give to Phil; and are most authoritatively detailed by Professor Hudson – with all due respect, shouldn’t the answer be “no” …it is not the only source of profit???

          There is a metastasised parasitic ‘economy’ feeding off the productive economy – that is creating its profits by capitalising and leveraging debt (the “usurious” and “fictitious” capital of the M-M’ money sequence). Although he described it in the abstract: this Marx (optimistically) did not see coming – how could he? No one did: pre-1971? The event that precipitated the parasitism was the coming off the gold standard. This “decoupled private money-sequences self-multiplying out of control with no productive function” as Professor McMurty puts it in “The Cancer Stage of Capitalism”. This is what I am driving at. Money makes money in a “self-multiplying sequence” that is parasitic to the underlying “commodity labour value” sequence (M-C-M’) – giving nothing back (industrial capital, production capital) …just bleeding it dry.

          So “”commodity labour value” is a source of “surplus value” (profit) – but it is not the ONLY source of profit. Another economy or market has emerged that is derivative and uses exotic financial instruments, interest bearing debt, rent extraction etc, …in ways Marx described as “usury” and “fictitious” to describe – in contradistinction to the productive economy industrial capitalism?

          [As an aside: high end luxury goods create their own market – and are not directly comparable to mass produced utility goods. That is, people will specifically buy an iPhone for instance – even if the comparable Samsung phone is better or cheaper. But the dynamic of brand loyalty is a topic for another day!]

          Thanks for your time and valuable input!

          Liked by 1 person

          • writerroddis says

            Ah! Maybe we’re closer than I thought, BigB. You say to Norman:

            “Money makes money in a “self-multiplying sequence” that is parasitic to the underlying ‘commodity labour value’ sequence (M-C-M’) – giving nothing back (industrial capital, production capital) …just bleeding it dry.”

            I’m a tad puzzled by “the underlying ‘commodity labour value’ sequence” but maybe that’s our different ways of expressing the M-C-M+ cycle, where the ‘mystery’ that converts M to M+ is the peculiar property of labour-power to create surplus value. (The redistribution of M+ via dividends etc – and indeed via the forms of shady practice that lead every now and then to cosmetic crackdowns on ‘rogue capitalism’ – lie outside that cycle and come after the fact.) The more substantive difference is that I do not believe finance capital ‘bleeding productive capital’ marks a new source of profit, independent of surplus value appropriated at the point of the wage labour contract. That it takes place after the M-C-M+ cycle in no way negates its dependence on that cycle. Nor do its frequent disruptions of the cycle. Finance capital’s chaotic impact on wealth creation is well known, longstanding and but one of several paradoxes within capitalism’s internal logic – but I’m beginning to repeat myself! How about we continue this debate elsewhere? You have my contact details …

            Liked by 1 person

            • writerroddis says

              Thanks BigB and Norman for a fascinating exchange. Even if it was off-topic from the start – my bad – it’s a vital one. Thanks too for the comradely spirit in which we’ve conducted ourselves. That too is vital for reasons as much practical as ethical.

              I’m working at a post on the law of value. I’ll offer it to OffGuardian as usual but it will in any case appear on my site. Perhaps that’ll offer a platform for continuing as we’ve started.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Looking forward to reading the piece and discussing the issue further. It is a crucially important topic for an understanding of Marx, one that many readers of Marx, in my opinion, all too often completely and unfortunately misunderstand.

                As I see it, the misunderstanding derives from a tendency to reify the ‘law of value’ and thereby to unwittingly remain ensconced within the ideological horizons of capital.

                The most common expression of this moment of reification is instantiated by the idea that the essential insult of capital is the ‘theft’ of ‘value’ that rightfully belongs to the producer(s) of ‘value,’ that ‘value’ is expropriated from those who should rightfully appropriate ‘it’ because, after all, they produce ‘it.’ In other words, because they hypostatize ‘the law of value,’ many interpreters of Marx end up seeing the ‘problem of capital’ as being little more than a problem of ‘wealth distribution.’

                For Marx, however, nothing could be further from his mind. The point, rather, is to abolish ‘the law of value,’ to stop conceptualizing ‘labour’ abstractly, that is to say, as a commodity, so that we might break out of the paradigm of capitalist exploitation, which is in essence the management and barter of ‘labour-time,’ and into an era where production is no longer a process of capital expansion, no longer an era in which “values” are produced, but in which only articles for use are the aim of any process of production, in which mankind collaborates simply to extract from nature only what it needs.

                At any rate, an important issue that absolutely requires clarification if an understanding of what Marx’s critique of capital truly entails.

                Until your piece is posted, then . . .

                Like

                • writerroddis says

                  “misunderstanding derives from a tendency to reify the ‘law of value’ and thereby to unwittingly remain ensconced within the ideological horizons of capital.”

                  Indeed. In fact Castro took on the USSR leadership, with some success, over its operating the same value based trade terms as the imperialists.

                  Like

  10. This is a good piece. It is difficult being ‘aware’ and conscientious amongst people who do everything they can to remain ‘positive’ and unaware. There is huge social pressure to conform and join the other sheep in practising wilful ignorance but for some of us that is not an option.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Fair dinkum says

    Don’t let the world (what man has made) get you down Phil.
    It all comes to nought in the end.
    The Earth (what Life or ‘God’ created) will prevail.
    It’s not ‘real’ anyway:
    http://www.headless.org/

    Like

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