Tag Archives: surplus

Wolff in Sheep’s Clothing

by Anne Archist, who apologises for the terrible pun in the title.

Lately I’ve been following Professor Richard D. Wolff’s “online classes” on Marxian economics (I’d recommend that people who follow The Great Unrest should skip over the “intensive introduction” course, because the applied course basically covers the same things anyway, and unless you’ve never encountered Marxist thought before, you’ll probably find he moves slowly a lot of the time even in the latter course).

He’s an interesting figure, and probably one of a handful of Marxists in history to have been educated at Harvard, Stanford and Yale (although he says his teachers, with the exception of one Marxist, never had any interest in or knowledge of Marx’s ideas, and that he essentially studied Marx in his own time). Wolff makes several points that set him apart from standard ‘Marxist’ academics – some of which are more significant or original than others – which I’ll summarise and address here; please do look into his work if you’re interested in hearing his own words or taking the ideas further. A side note: apparently his interpretation of Marx comes via Reading Capital – a book which is only partially available in English, though Wolff is fluent in French, so may have read the original – and many of the following ideas may therefore have come from Althusser or his students, for all I know.

Labour-Centric Analysis

The major point of departure that separates Wolff from a lot of other Marxist theorists or Marxian-influenced economists is that he conceives of class in terms of relations to surplus-labour rather than relations to the means of production. Rather than building up an analysis which includes concepts like the social relations to the means of production, or the labour theory of value, he uses an arguably simpler conceptualisation: “‘productive’ labour is required to live but it also produces a surplus; in our society many people carry out ‘productive’ labour but do not distribute the surplus themselves, allowing those who do distribute it to appropriate a portion of it for themselves without carrying out any labour”.

When I first heard this I thought it was just a strange and idiosyncratic way of explaining classical Marxist economic theory (particularly the critique of ‘bourgeois economics’ in Capital). After thinking about it some more and seeing how the analysis was applied, I realised that it actually has some major conceptual differences (even if they can be shown only to be differences of emphasis or explaining the same thing in different terms, which I’m not sure of). For instance, Marx’s theory of exploitation is generally taken to rest on the labour theory of value, whereas Wolff’s version of exploitation doesn’t even seem to require asking the question of what causes things to have the value they do; this question was a concern for bourgeois economics but shouldn’t necessarily be one for someone criticising capitalism (remember: Capital was Marx’s critique of already-existing economics, not a critique of capitalism).

Another example: the concept of economic democracy is quite widespread among socialists (to the point that Peter Tatchell, who nowadays tends to steer clear of socialistic language, issued a call for economic democracy), but the link between it and the labour-theory-of-value construction of Marxist theory has often been tenuous or indirect; the steps from demands about the distribution of property to demands about economic decision-making processes have rarely been well articulated. Wolff’s presentation of Marx’s argument makes this immediate and obvious – economic democracy is equivalent to the demand that the surplus should be distributed by those who produce it, an issue directly addressed by Wolff’s notion of class.

Exploitation and Surplus Production

According to Wolff, exploitation is merely what happens when one person labours so as to produce a surplus – that is, produces more than the labourer needs to sustain themselves – enough, in fact, to sustain other people too – and someone else appropriates and distributes that surplus rather than the worker distributing it themselves. Exploitation, then, is not about someone receiving more than they have contributed, as Roemer would have it (Roemer has offered different definitions of exploitation, but at least one of them amounts to “consuming more than you produce”). This is important because it heads off a serious problem with Roemer-style definitions, which is that they identify children, disabled people, pensioners and others who do not work as exploiters; on the contrary, Wolff identifies them neither as exploiters nor as exploited.

On Wolff’s view of things, these people are allocated (and consume) a portion of the surplus, but the important factor is not that they are consuming it but that someone else is allocating it. This seems to fit with a relatively superficial and intuitive exploration of human emotional and moral reaction – namely, we begrudge people who take things (that we have not offered) from us and give them to others, even if we believe that the others receiving them should have them. An example: If you were planning on buying someone a book as a present and someone else stole some of your money, bought the book with it, and then gave it to the person, you would be justifiably upset and morally offended by the thief’s behaviour, even though the endgame is the same.

Another advantage of this way of looking at things is that it illustrates an important continuity between capitalists and government officials which is often assumed by Marxists but rarely explained; both take part in the appropriation and distribution of surplus they have not themselves produced. Capitalists appropriate surplus in the form of profit (in fact, capitalists can appropriate surplus without making any profit, since  on Wolff’s view surplus must also be used to pay for ‘unproductive’ labour such as that performed by security guards), and the government (at all levels) makes decisions about taxation and spending which represent a further form of appropriated surplus. The state retains a unique position within the economy, however, in that it is capable of extracting surplus from more than just workers within capitalist relations – as well as ‘productive’ employed workers, it also claims taxes from capitalists, self-employed workers, ‘unproductive’ employed workers, etc.

The Feudal Home

Following on from the above points, Wolff also identifies husbands in the traditional family structure as exploiters within the home (whether or not they are exploited outside the home). Production takes place within the home as well as outside it (for instance, the wife transforms raw food into cooked food), and the wife produces a surplus for the husband (she cooks dinner for both of them, not just herself).  Specifically, he argues that the class structure within the traditional family household is essentially a feudal one, for two reasons.

Firstly,  the wife is not owned by the husband like a slave, does not contract her labour for pay like a capitalist worker, and does not distribute the surplus herself as in the communist and ancient modes. Wolff seems to function on the assumption that there are only five modes of production, so if you eliminate four then whatever you are analysing must be the fifth. Secondly, the marriage ceremony is apparently itself derived from a feudal ceremony in which the serf and the lord pledged to ‘love, honour and obey’ one another (I haven’t been able to verify this, and would be interested to see a source and read more).

Now, personally I’m not entirely convinced by this. That one ceremony grew out of another is an interesting and potentially informative historical fact, but it certainly doesn’t establish that both ceremonies establish the same ‘surplus relations’ (if you’re not convinced by that, consider the fact that Wolff has to refer specifically to “traditional” marriage because other modes of production exist within married households – therefore the exact same ceremony can be used to set up multiple different class structures). As for the other reason Wolff gives, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that there can only be the five modes of production that Marx discusses, and even if you do so, you could eliminate feudalism first on the basis that the woman is not ‘tied to the house’, or something similar, and therefore conclude by elimination that it was another mode of production.

The Revolution on the Home Front

I don’t have a concrete suggestion at the moment for what kind of class structure we should consider traditional families to have, but it seems to me that it may be more enlightening to identify it as a patriarchal mode distinct from the others, as some socialist-feminists such as Delphy have done. At any rate we can conclude that the family unit, though it operates in a society we consider to be ‘capitalist’, actually traditionally operates according to another economic model (and very rarely, if ever, operates according to the capitalist one – modern exceptions generally operate on the communist or ‘ancient’ modes). What is of great historical importance regarding this analysis, as far as Wolff is concerned, is not necessarily what the mode of production within the family should be called, but rather that it has changed and is continuing to change.

The ‘traditional’ marriage or family was much more common two centuries ago (though other forms existed even then), but the USA (and many countries) has seen a solid and consistent decline in the number of people living under this kind of arrangement for the last half-century. Some of this has been in the form of rising demands for sharing the burden of housework within marriages, but it has also taken the form of rising numbers of ‘single-person families’, groups of friends sharing houses (and the housework), etc.

In addition to this change, the labour force and the person-hours at the command of the market has swelled with increasing numbers of women who traditionally would not have worked, or would have worked less, or would have been self-employed, etc – this has taken place over a longer period, of course, and is perhaps more of a varied and complex picture, but it is a real change nonetheless. Wolff argues that these changes are important historical shifts – a class revolution, according to Marxian analysis – that have passed the left by, and that the political fallout of this is that the (religious) right have seized on them and used the negative aspects (like increasing levels of social alienation and isolation, or women’s low pay and harassment at work) to push their own agendas.

Immediate Alternatives

What should the left be doing? Wolff is less precise on this point, as are so many academics. His strong point is analysing what has happened and what is happening, not what should happen next. Nevertheless he has some comments on this topic, which tend to contradict or bypass much accepted Marxist doctrine; rather than dealing with demands on the state and suchlike, he harkens back to early socialist and classical Marxist ideas.

The first suggestion is that the left should aim to make explicit to people the class shift that has taken place within the home, and that Marxist theory can understand both what was going on before and what happened to get to where we are now (and perhaps why it happened); this, he argues, would put us in a much stronger position to argue to working women that they should oppose exploitation (in the Wolffian sense) on the job as well as in the home. This would raise class consciousness and have a kind of detoxifying effect concerning people’s fears around Marxist theory and concepts like class struggle or revolution.

Wolff’s other major suggestion is that the left should take a more sustained and pro-active interest in cooperatives (and presumably communes). Rather than seeing a society which has an essentially monolithic capitalist culture and structure, he sees a world in which many class relations co-exist, intertwine, intermingle and contradict either other (such as the working-class husband who is an exploiter at home despite being exploited on the job); therefore he places less of an emphasis on ‘overthrowing’ or ‘abolishing’ capitalism in the sense that is common in the Marxist left today. This also links back to some criticisms he makes of Marxist figureheads such as Lenin and Trotsky with regard to their Marxian economic analysis, which he considers to have been poor at best due to their failure to properly change relations to the surplus (he considers the USSR to have been a kind of state capitalism because the state extracted and distributed surplus in basically the same way as private capitalists do).

A specific consequence of this is that he considers it a high priority to relate to forms of producing (at home and at work, presumably) which avoid the extraction and distribution of the surplus by another party or a minority of producers. His proposals are vague at best, and shouldn’t be taken as a solid political programme, but he seems to suggest that socialists and the labour movement should get behind cooperative enterprises partially for obvious reasons that this would be free of exploitation and show that it is possible to produce without capitalist arrangements and so forth.

An interesting elaboration on his thoughts on cooperatives involves an argument that attributes at least a portion of capitalist hegemony to the extraction of the surplus; specifically, if private companies can extract a surplus from their labourers and accumulate vast amounts of wealth in this way, they gain more control over the media, political campaigns, lobbying, etc. If, on the other hand, workers enter into cooperative enterprises and deny capitalists this surplus, that surplus stays within the working class, both diminishing the wealth available to the capitalists to carry out a programme of class struggle against workers and increasing the wealth available to the workers to carry out a programme of class struggle against capitalists.

Conclusion

In short, Wolff has some original ideas, an interesting spin on old ideas and some interesting analysis gained by applying old methods to current and historical events. I’d recommend that people interested in Marxist class analysis, whether or not you are a Marxist yourself, take a look at him and his interpretation of Marx. It’s certainly made me re-think my understanding of Marxian economics and given me a useful new tool to my belt of Marxian interpretations, analyses and concepts.

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