All of a sudden

Hindsight is 20/20. Actually not. In fact, the vast majority still require corrective lenses even to see what happened four, eight, twenty or even forty years ago. This is because most of us still believe, or hope, that capitalism and democracy reinforce one another. They do not. Moreover, this is not the opinion of militant Marxist-Leninists. Until very recently it was the received wisdom among even the most conservative of economists. Opinion actually did not begin to shift until the 1930s when Friedrich von Hayek arrived at LSE and began to impose a metaphysical compass on what until then had been a science governed by rigorous mathematical modeling. When von Hayek arrived at the University of Chicago, he could not even buy his way into the Department of Economics, which, ironically, sported two communists (Oskar Lange and Don Patinkin) among its faculty. And when in the early 1960s Gary Becker authored two articles proving that democracy and markets were incompatible, only Becker’s colleague (and recent von Hayek convert) demurred. Capitalism and democracy are not compatible.

So why did so many democrats come to believe that they were? The answer lies in the $4.7T the US spent to defeat Germany and Japan. This money ended up fueling the largest and longest industrial expansion in history, all at public, tax-payer expense. Nevertheless, even though it was Congress itself that approved this unprecedented public appropriations package, it was convenient in the immediate cold-war aftermath of WWII to claim that the post-war boom was built on private enterprise and American know-how and can-do. Of course, it was all a huge lie. Which means that when the $4.7T began to run out (the multiplier had run its course), rather than put another $4.7M of public moneys into the pot, democrats found it more convenient to defend the lie at the expense of working families; to be sure, with republicans applauding the democrats’ conversion to “liberal democracy.” This death bed conversion came no later than 1976, which is to say forty-five years ago.

Hindsight is 20/20? I don’t think so. Canvass any economics department not in Atlanta or Iowa and you will hear this same story. It is not a left-wing fantasy. It is sound mainstream economic history. This is what happened. And here is why.

Economic expansion rests on ensuring that a quantity is increasing at a greater pace than the change in value of either the capital or labor driving that increase. And, as any economist — left, right, or center — will tell you, unless an allocation of public money aims specifically at increasing efficiency, it will increase the denominator, the cost, of generating efficiency. There is nothing devious or underhanded in this. It is simply economic reality under capitalism. So, unless a public investment aims explicitly at increasing marginal efficiency — say, by improving human capital beyond the margin, or improving health beyond the margin — it wall draw down the efficiencies capital earns when invested in other asset classes. Regulation can change this. Regulation does change this. Tax oil. Subsidize wind and solar. Investments shift. But — and this is the critical point — none of this is democratic; not one way or the other.

That is because democracy asks an entirely different set of questions. It locates value not in the marginal product, but in the common weal. This, actually, is what the neoliberal Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker pointed out, again and again in the 1960s, when he showed why markets were far preferable to democracy (therein undermining his colleague Milton Friedman’s argument that the two were the same).

All of a sudden? No. Fascism has been a long time coming to Amerika. The moment it committed itself to capitalism over democracy, it committed itself to the marginal product over the public weal. Win or lose next Tuesday, this will still hold true.

State Theory and the Commodity Form

Marxist Legal Theory: The State

This is part of a series of key concepts in Marxist legal theory organized in collaboration with our friends at Legal Form: A Forum for Marxist Analysis of Law . All articles in this series, including the present one, will appear concurrently on Legal Form and Critical Legal Thinking.

Rafael Khachaturian offers a valuable review of some of the positions Marxists have staked out over the years on how to understand the state. He identifies three obstacles Marxian social theorists face developing a coherent critical theory of the state:

the incomplete character of Marx’s theorization of the state; the question of whether the state is adequately represented by the metaphor of the productive “base” and the juridical and political “superstructure”; and how, and how much, it can justifiably be said that law and the state maintain “relative autonomy” from the forces and relations of production.

Marxist Legal Theory

Fair enough. But perhaps in the interests of space or clarity, Khachaturian neglected an essential dimension of Marx’s analytical framework, a dimension that may add clarity to the entire discussion. Khachaturian correctly identifies an early “Hegelian” and a later (what should we call it) empirical or historical engagement, but he neglects to show how the later Marx redeploys Hegel’s categories in his later works. Attention to the specific changes in Marx’s analytical frame shed valuable light on the obstacles Khachaturian identified in his introduction.

Let me propose that one of the leading differentia distinguishing the early from the late Marx is that the late Marx shifted his vantage point of critique from the worker to the commodity form more generally, of which the worker, to be sure, is a singular example. In his early writings, Marx infers an integrated social subject, “species being,” whose actions are objectified through labor and whose products it then reappropriates. When objectified labor is alienated and appropriated by another, species being loses its integrity. Revolutionary activity aims to restore the integrity of species being by rationally, deliberately, and legally reclaiming alienated labor for those whose product it is. Khachaturian contrasts this Marx — the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts — to a later Marx, the Marx of German Ideology (1846) and the Communist Manifesto (1848). Let me simply note that the differences of perspective in these three works are far less significant than the differences between them and Marx’s Capital (1867).

In Capital, Marx shifted the vantage point of his critique from species being and the objectification of its labor to the commodity form and its two-fold composition. The base-superstructure interpretive framework noted by Khachaturian is an incomplete and one-sided version of Marx’s more nuanced take on the commodity form. In Marx’s version, in Capital, the so-called “economic” base is itself doubled. Abstract value, the abstract social substance from which all commodities derive their values, is paired with highly differentiated surface forms of appearance. This analytical frame Marx then applied to all commodities: labor, money, capital, land, and so on. From this vantage point, restoring the integrity of the alienated social form would entail no more than restoring unity to the two-fold commodity. In that case the value of every commodity would correspond precisely to the value of its surface form of appearance. (This in fact is the lesson Oskar Lange, architect of Comintern economics, took back to Poland after WWII.) But Marx took his argument in a very different direction. Rather than a restored integrity to a “whole” alienated under capitalism, Marx instead counted the two-fold form itself — both its surface and its underlying value — as mutually constitutive of capitalist social being.

This critique of capital is implicit in Marx’s earlier criticisms of Hegel, where Marx accused Hegel of ontologizing and universalizing social forms whose validity derived solely from capitalism. In his later writings, 1858 and later, Marx was more inclined to count capital itself as the ontologizing and universalizing social form and the Hegelian analytical frame as one of this social form’s expressions. In other words, both surface (superstructure) and underlying immaterial value (base) mutually compose a social totality whose supersession requires an entirely different kind of valuation; valuation no longer grounded in labor. To be clear, the mature Marx did not argue for the “return of labor to itself,” which had been his argument regarding species being. Had that been Marx’s argument, then a society mediated by labor, such as the Soviet Union or Communist China, would make perfect sense. But Marx was instead arguing that the form of domination unique to capitalism consisted in the limitations of social being in any society where labor constitutes value, irrespective of how that value is distributed, irrespective of who owns that value.

From this vantage point state forms within capitalism — including those versions of capitalism adopted by mid-twentieth century communist nations — can be understood as expressions of the two-fold form of the commodity. However wildly their surface forms of appearance, including their institutional and legal forms, differ from one another, we can understand them as expressions of a specific kind of underlying value. Here, the complete disfunctionality of the Soviet state form invites us to explore how abstract value constituted by labor in the Soviet state was appropriated by the party and distributed in ways that were less than efficient, to say the least. We can test this hypothesis by imagining how well the Soviet economy should have performed were it in fact based on substantive value democratically mediated, as Oskar Lange had suggested. In that case, there could be no value relation among commodities and between commodities and the labor commodity. Communities would produce what they needed to consume and produce what they wanted to consume, all the while reducing the labor time necessary to produce goods. Instead, never was there an opportunity to “step aside and install machines” in the place of workers. Rather, the party compelled workers to work even harder to cover the inefficiencies of the political apparatus. In this sense, the surface forms of appearance of the Soviet state mediated abstract value, but mediated it poorly.

Where volume 3, chapter 48, of Capital might have fit in Marx’s grand scheme of things is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless from it we can draw several fairly clear inferences about what a Marxian theory of the state might look like. Chapter 48 is where Engels chose to place Marx’s discussion of freedom: “freedom begins where labor determined by necessity ends.” From which it is self-evident that a labor-based, labor-mediated, society — no matter how the social product is distributed, no matter by whom it is owned — is still a society plagued by the two-fold form of the commodity. Bourgeois economists will point out that any other value criteria — health, ppm carbon, leisure time, food and wine, friends, entertainment — will either need to be reduced to abstract value, or it will generate distortions, create moral hazards, and, ultimately, give rise to dead weight loss. They are not lying. All of these consequences were on daily display in the former Soviet Union. And, yet, we know from our observations of other social formations that abstract time, labor, and value need not mediate social relations. ΔQL (change in quantity divided by change in labor, or capital) is not universal. Aiming for its increase, more with less — through technological innovation, or cheaper energy, or lower labor costs, for example — is uniquely capitalist. By contrast, if we follow Marx’s discussion in chapter 48, communities might rationally and humanely aim instead not at a constantly increasing marginal product, but at good health, decreasing carbon footprint, superior knowledge, great wines, good cooking, and more than simply “quality time” with friends and family. We could reduce these once again to their marginal product. But why?

From this perspective we can easily imagine a proliferation of value spheres whose relationships to one another are no longer gauged by their marginal products, but, as they were for 2.4M years in all communities, carefully, thoughtfully, and rationally deliberated over. Such deliberations might take place in and through institutions that look very different from those that prevail under capitalism. But they might also look very similar. The critical question concerns the values informing the deliberations. If these are reduced to the marginal product, then nothing has really changed. If, by contrast, they are as rich and diverse and complex as human beings are in fact then the specific institutional expressions are likely to reflect this richness, diversity, and complexity.

Why there is no Islamic Carnival

France urges end to boycott of French goods as Macron defends Muhammad cartoons

France has appealed for foreign governments to stamp out calls by what it calls a “radical minority” for a boycott of French products after Emmanuel Macron’s public backing of the Muhammad caricatures. The appeal came as anger escalated across the Islamic world over the president’s remarks at a national tribute to the murdered high-school teacher Samuel Paty last week.

For good reason the response of many Muslims to President Macron’s defense of secular values has me thinking about Carnival; not the modern New Orleans style Carnival, but medieval Carnival as described in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais.

Carnival falls just prior to the Christian season of Lent, a penitential season of fasting that leads inexorably to Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, and Easter, when He was raised. Some Muslims have sought to draw a parallel between Carnival and Eid, in some cases even renaming Eid the “Eid Carnival” ( Eid al-Fitr is a celebration on which Muslims break the fast of Ramadan. But it is not Carnival.

In Carnival, Christians openly poke fun at Jesus, at priests, and at the whole Church hierarchy, emphasizing what is unpresentable and degrading those things that the rest of the year are honored. The biblical and theological basis for Carnival is everywhere present in sacred text, where those with wealth and honor are brought low and where the poor and lowly are raised up. So, for example, asses are outfitted in clerical wear while the local priest dons the mask of an ass. Statues of Jesus and Joseph appear in women’s clothes while Mary is adorned with a man’s tunic. All in good fun.

Of course the brutal murder of a history teacher is no laughing matter. Still it is worth wondering why there is no Islamic Carnival, no festival where overturning, undermining, and exaggerating provide comic relief; where bawdy jokes and pratfalls take center stage.

Let me propose that there is a parallel here between Islam and Protestantism (or even Calvinism). Outside of my own Anglican branch, there is no Carnival in Protestant Christianity either, one must presume because “its not funny!”

I know too little about Islam to know whether Muslims or the Holy Prophet or the Qur’an display belly-aching laughter over their faith. And if they no longer do, my suspicion is that they once did but that they do so no longer. This kind of Bakhtinian laughter seems to me a more appropriate response to lampooning than either the anger expressed by some Muslims or Macron’s appeal to secularism. Lighten up. Laugh. Because the alternative may come to nothing short of murder, which I am guessing the Holy Prophet does not endorse.


This week friends sent me a link to an article on freedom published in the Jacobin Magazine written by the Marxist scholar David Harvey. Harvey, correctly in my view, calls readers to “reclaim the idea of freedom for socialism.” Again correctly, Harvey also finds fault with the idea of freedom peddled among both Republican and Democratic policymakers, an idea he characterizes as “liberal utopian.” Unfortunately, Harvey proposes as a response to liberal utopian freedom a socialist notion of freedom that is just as one-sided and just as utopian as the idea he is eager that we supplant.

At the center of Harvey’s analysis is a discussion from volume three of Marx’s Capital where Marx seeks simultaneously to locate freedom socially and to distinguish it from the form of domination that prevails under capitalism:

The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production. This realm of natural necessity expands with his development, because his needs do too; but the productive forces to satisfy these expand at the same time. Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.

Capital, volume 3, chapter 48, §3

Harvey reads Marx’s analysis as a call to eliminate the realm of necessity. Yet, however much we might like to eliminate necessity (a feat that, even if possible, would be disastrous), this reading of Marx’s discussion is one-sided and incomplete. Even were we to elect to rationally and deliberately coordinate our productive relationships with one another, this would itself “always remain a realm of necessity.” Even though we reduce the working day and develop “human powers as an end in itself, . . . it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis.”

Some readers may feel that Marx’s analysis is itself one-sided. Insofar as Marx failed to differentiate labor in its broadest sense and labor for the production of commodities, he also failed to contemplate the circumstance where capitalism persists but the marginal product is distributed more rationally, socially, and equally. This redistribution of the marginal product caught on everywhere, even in fascist economies, following the 1929 stock market crash. Well before the close of World War II, redistribution of the marginal product was counted as sound Keynesian economic policy. Primed with the $18T in total global spending on World War II, the world’s leading economies were set adrift on a sea of capital for the next three decades, a sea of capital that some mistook for freedom. This, clearly, was the case for the generation of 1968 to which Harvey calls our attention. With industrial productivity at an all-time high, wages and benefits climbing, and four-year university tuitions and cost of living at all time lows, professors, workers, women, students, and minorities counted their wealth, education, and leisure only a first installment on a long overdue debt. But, then, in a story that Harvey himself knows better than anyone, the war-time dividend began to run dry. When it did, however, those on the left drew inferences that bore no relationship to economic reality. They had concluded, mistakenly, that the $18T that funded the post-war expansion of the social franchise everywhere in the world was a product of their hard work and tough negotiating. When this money ran out, they concluded that someone was stealing their marginal product.

Workers concluded that the stolen marginal product was theirs. Investors concluded that the stolen marginal product was theirs. Both were mistaken. When the US Congress voted its $4.2T share of the global war debt, this not only brought a quick end to the Great Depression, it also funded the next forty years of industrial growth. Which means that in 1938, when the bonds were approved, the lion’s share of that debt fell to future tax payers. These overwhelmingly were workers. But, considering the much higher corporate and individual tax rates between 1945 and 1970, corporations kicked in an amount that was not negligible.

All of which is to say that 1968 may not be the best point of departure for a discussion of freedom, least of all a Marxian notion of freedom. For as quickly as the marginal product found its way into the pockets of working families, just as quickly was it once again seized. This also places in perspective Karl Polanyi’s analysis, upon which Harvey also relies. The “double-movement” that invites public intervention is the same double-movement that demands the restoration of “freedom” to capital. Both movements are equally immanent to the capitalist social formation. Neither entails the freedom from necessity Marx described in volume 3, chapter 48.

In the discussion Harvey cites to, reproduced above, Marx was clearly contemplating a freedom that, unlike the freedom of 1968, is not grounded in labor, and therefore contributes nothing to the marginal product. When economists object that Marx’s expansion of the realm of freedom eats into the marginal product, they are telling the truth. This Marx readily acknowledged. Which is why simply increasing wages and benefits, which also shifts the marginal product, cannot, on its own, give rise to freedom. Freedom of the sort that Marx was imagining requires that the work day be shortened, for example from eight to six to four hours. With each shift, workers are no longer contributing two or four or more hours to the marginal product. That product is transferred as time to workers’ accounts. To this extent it escapes from Polanyi’s double-movement.

This is not to trash good, progressive, socialist policies that transfer a greater portion of the marginal product to working families; the social product they themselves have produced. But this is not the realm of freedom about which Marx wrote. We do not reclaim the realm of freedom by shifting the marginal product.

This is also, in part, the problem with liberal utopianism. It holds that by distributing the marginal product up the income hierarchy we buy freedom, for some. But, the larger problem with liberal utopianism is that, like socialist utopianism, it promises what it cannot deliver. In particular, shifting the problem up the income hierarchy does, in theory, grant more leisure time to those who enjoy a higher marginal product. But insofar as the marginal product is everywhere equal to a ratio — ΔQ/ΔL, the change in quantity divided by the change in labor or capital — even this marginal product is only as good as the current quantity and volume of labor, which is upwardly slanting. Any investor who stands still loses. Capital must continuously be reinvested. In this sense, too, therefore, investors remain bound to the realm of necessity.

But this means that redistributing the marginal product in this direction or that — housing or health or retirement subsidies — however beneficial or damaging, does not touch the kind of necessity unique to the capitalist social formation. A closer read of Marx could dramatically strengthen Harvey’s argument. It is therefore unfortunate that he relies so much on Polanyi.

Professor Lough’s 2020 Endorsements

The American Labor Movement Needs Its Own Political Party

As the United States tumbles towards white Christian nationalism — what our parents and grandparents called fascism — each election takes on ever greater importance. Here are my endorsements for 2020, with a north Berkeley emphasis, meaning I do not cover other assembly districts. Sorry. In the order they appear on my ballot, here are my endorsements:

PRESIDENT AND VICE PRESIDENT: Joseph R Biden and Kamala D Harris





CITY OF BERKELEY RENT STABILIZATION BOARD: Mari Mendonca, Dominique Walker, Leah Simon-Weisberg, Xavier Johnson, Andy Kelley

SCHOOL DIRECTORS: Laura Babitt, Ana Vasudeo




PROPOSITION 14: YES (Opponents say “We can’t afford to waste billions.” But this plays directly into the hands of anti-science, so-called “pro-life” opponents of stem cell research. If there are administrative flaws, these need to be addressed administratively, not fiscally.)





PROPOSITION 19: YES (Sorry Fred and Maureen. I just have a hard time opposing any proposition whose opponents include the “Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association,” the same group that brought us the horrid Proposition 13. Yes, it is not a perfect proposition. It allows homeowners to maintain low tax rates even when they move elsewhere in the state, even when they purchase properties more expensive than the properties they sold. This places a burden on state and local revenues. At the same time, it limits the properties to which this rule applies to properties, including farmlands, under $1M. Not a perfect Proposition. But Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association? No. Vote Yes.)



PROPOSITION 22: NO (Because of the dirty advertisements its proponents have been fielding, I call this the “sharecropper” proposition. The advertisements feature women of color begging voters to allow them the freedom to enjoy low wages, no job security, no benefits, and no bargaining rights.)














BERKELEY MAYOR: Jesse Arreguin



Methodology: I canvassed five lists: the Alameda Labor Council, the Berkeley Democratic Club, Fred and Maureen’s list, the Democratic Socialists of America list, and the Green Party CA, Alameda County list. Where three of these five lined up, which often they did, the choice was clear. Where they did not line up, I consulted the Official Voter Information Guide for California, read the Proposition, read the arguments pro and con, took note of who endorsed and who opposed the proposition, and made my mind up on that basis.

If you like, feel free to contact me at

Unusual Times

On a calmer note, human beings have been around some 2.4M years. It was only some 15-20,000 years ago that some families proved powerful enough to requisition the arms and uteruses of other families. Globally, only in the common era did settled communities begin to overtake wandering communities as the “preferred” pattern of social and economic reproduction. And only in the twentieth century that urban populations overtook rural.

This means that for 99 per cent of their history, human beings have preferred small, <150 member wandering communities whose members worked <5 hours per day in exchange for all the food and drink they could want, plus an endless supply of songs, dances, painting, laughing and wonder. For less than 1 per cent of their history, human beings have found it desirable to purchase the lives of others for their own personal, private, marginal benefit, at the expense of the vast majority.

All of this is small comfort to that sliver or speck (or whatever the suitable metaphor is) of humanity that is witnessing before its very eyes the death throws of a very, very, young empire. We — or at least those of us hyper-educated in that useless domain called “history” — more or less grasp, as a trained oncologist more or less grasps cancer, what we are watching, the metastasis of a malignancy whose only cure would be a nation of citizens as healthy, wealthy, and wise as ourselves. (At least that was Aristotle’s judgment in 334 BC.) Which means that, even should Joe Biden win, which is likely, and white Christian nationalist America gives him permission to assume office, which is less likely, this will not make up for the two hundred and fifty years of denial during which we told ourselves (and none more convincingly than Democrats) that Republican values and Democratic process could survive even when citizens are sick, poor, and ill-informed.

Should humanity survive their self-inflicted cataclysm, the United States, at best, will stand as morality tale #3, right after Rome and Greece, for what can go wrong.

Chris Wallace can go wrong. “Oops. My mistake.” The entire Republican leadership can go wrong. “We don’t really endorse white Christian nationalism.” And the entire Democratic Party can go wrong. “Fully funded public education through graduate school? Fully funded health care? Student loan forgiveness? Take military grade weapons away from police departments? How horrid!”

These are unusual times. But the saddest part of it all for me is that the Republican rank and file are so completely ill- and mis-informed about the history of their own nation, to say nothing of the very meaning of republicanism, that they are absolutely convinced they are defending America. Absolutely convinced. Thank you Rupert Murdock. Thank you Roger Ailes. Join Hitler and Stalin in the depths of hell. The rank and file, of course, have not the slightest inkling that they’ve been completely swindled down to their last dollar. But rather than actually take the time to read the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention — its, still, all right there at — they would rather trust that their leaders aren’t misleading them. After all, their pastor told them that Trump was sent by God to make sure that women will remain subject to their husbands.

So, no. Pro-Trump Republicans are not neutral. Just as most of Hitler’s and most of Stalin’s sycophants were followers by default, so most of Trump’s followers have no choice. But this does not make their choices any more defensible. And that is one of the clearest indications that we are living in unusual times: that the leading political party in the US, the party that won the last Presidential election, by whatever means, is now publicly on record defending positions and policies in opposition to which the US fought a bloody world war.

Unusual times.