Baltimore, Maryland: March for justice for Anthony Anderson Sr. following his funeral, September 29, 2012.
“People of Baltimore marched for justice for Anthony Anderson Sr. following his Saturday funeral. Anger fueled a mile and a half march through east Baltimore to the site of Anderson’s murder by police on September 21, 2012. Close to 200 people participated. Several cars filled with passengers who could not walk the distance followed slowly behind the march.
“This community is one of the poorest in the city; it typifies many other Baltimore neighborhoods that are so deeply oppressed, so poor, so neglected, that people suffer by the hour in silence.
“No one goes into these neighborhoods; they’ve been written off. The fact that people are standing up under the weight of all these things, the massive police brutality which is in many ways unspeakable—and have begun to speak openly without fear is remarkable.”
Photos and report by Sharon Black
It is important to realize that the recent turn toward economic understanding of our situation within counter-culture may be an important step, and it is perhaps inevitable that the analysis must once against traverse through Proudhonist and populist vulgarity before developing into a thorough analysis. My experience in prodding answers from those who advocate economic solutions such as time banks, local currencies, returning to the gold standard, or those who maintain that we should simply shift the value basis of currency to something new, has led me to the conclusion that these asinine ideas are at least a first step for those beginning to think about political economy. The type of meta-manipulation fix being advocated is certainly a step beyond the former leftist phraseology, which merely decried having an economy at all, or looked at it as wholly separate from political struggles, but it still has a distance to travel. I want to discuss some of the misconceptions that lead people into these well worn pot holes of bourgeoisie economics, historically locate them, and to try and steer the critique into a more positive direction.
The first instinct people seem to have when they start thinking seriously about economy is that what we have isn’t working, so the solution will be somehow implementing an alternative. Even at this beginning point we have the foundation of reformist mentality, which takes for granted that our society is democratic to such an extent that we will be able to just propose a solution, advocate for it, and make the switch to fix the problem. Otherwise it is suggested that we can simply move to an isolated commune, practice our idea, and cross our fingers that the rest of the world will do the same. All of the ideas I am going to be talking about to some degree rely on these assumptions. Even those who advocate revolution often assume that economy is something which is instituted, and thus can simply be altered after we rid ourselves of those who are actively imposing capitalist economic relations on us. We need to understand Capitalism historically, and dynamically, materially, and socially if we are going to seriously discuss overcoming it. To begin developing that kind of deep understanding, we must approach capitalism from an evolutionary perspective. Capitalism is a social dynamic; there is no hard science that can find the atoms of value which designate exchangibility. However, this isn’t equivalent to saying that value is merely something that occurs when people collectively conclude it exists. Some resources are more scarce than others of course, and some things are so abundant that one could not reasonably trade them. Money develops due to a need for a universal medium of exchange: a substance that I can trade you for, and be relatively sure I can trade again for what I want. Money also attempts to resolve the contradiction between use value (the demand for the item itself) and labor value (the labor-power congealed in the finished commodity). When making an exchange, we are claiming that the time it took for the buyer to earn the money, is equal to the labor time socially necessary in the production of the commodity we are buying. So money always has a dual function: as a measure of abstract labor value, and as the actual medium of exchange between two commodities (i.e. labor time as a commodity exchanged for a wage, and then this money/wage exchanged for another commodity). This is of course before we complicate it with other considerations such as credit, but I only bring this up to stress that the labor value behind money is not the same thing as what the currency itself is, nor is it equivalent to how it is “backed” (such as when we were on the gold standard). Understanding this is crucial to explaining how value circulates and why money developed.
I want to start off talking about Baltimore’s bnote (an alternate currency that can only be exchanged in Baltimore). The fact that something like the bnote can carry on at any capacity is because it doesn’t operate at the level where real value is generated, in the production of goods, or in the extraction of natural resources. To exclude production from your economic analysis is the same as to assume the underlying relation of production, and thus to reproduce the core of the capitalist relationship. Backing the bnote on real dollars is almost no different than if we were to start calling a dollar 100 cents; it is merely a nominal replacement of the same exchange value. It is important to remember that actual value is not generated by exchange in any way, because exchange only sifts the value already created between different buyers and sellers. The bnotes website claims that bnotes will “Strengthen the community” because they “provide built-in incentives for money to flow into the local economy and to continue circulating there, without being drawn out by national corporate chains.” Firstly, it should be obvious to anyone that locally owned businesses are only locally run. The coffee shops buy their beans internationally, and the electronics are assembled in sweatshops. This would be true even in a situation where all local exchange took place with bnotes (good luck growing coffee in Baltimore). Secondly, the circulation of money locally does not produce any local wealth, as the process of exchange takes place between equivalent values (when considered in the social total). You are not going to pay 20 bnotes for what is worth 15, the value simply changes hands, it doesn’t create itself anew. Thirdly, the reason why people increasingly decide to buy things online and from far away places is because its often cheaper and more convenient—- captivating consumers to local shops will be more expensive for them then at larger businesses, and the extra money spent will just siphon off to petite-bourgeois business owners. This does nothing to alter the way we think about social reproduction in general.
The idea that a “local economy” is somehow more “ethical” is a delusion that cropped up originally in right-wing populism, and crept its way into liberalism through the recent “buy local” craze which developed with the so called “green” or “responsible” capitalist mentality. The goal of this ideology, whether one realizes it or not, is to shift the blame off of the capitalist class and the anarchic state of global trade, and say that the problem lies with importing and exporting goods from other countries. This same line of thought assumes the problem with job loss in America is due to off-shoring, contributing to the populist xenophobia around immigration which blames Latino workers for taking our jobs, rather than the corporations that hire them. In reality, industrial production in the United States is still among the highest in the world; assembly and light production in industries like clothing are outsourced because they are not profitable enough enterprises for American capitalists, who can simply force a few workers harder and harder to produce things like military equipment, cars, and other heavy industry. The problem is not that trade is international… this is actually a positive thing in many respects.
The fetishization of small subsistence-based production models comes from a lack of historical understanding about why that type of production was no longer desirable after a certain point. My personal knowledge base on this subject revolves around Russia, so I will use that as my reference point, but I believe the implications are true of most places that struggled through a period of rural subsistence-based farming. It is important to understand that to a certain degree capitalism was a progressive development for the world, though progressive here is not a synonym for “good” or for “inevitable”. This isn’t to pose a master historical narrative, but just to talk about what actually happened. Small scale production at a subsistence level was extremely problematic, even outside of the feudal relationship that controlled it, and capitalism created solutions for this alongside its own problems. Crop failure was common due to resources which simply were not available to isolated farming communities, such as medicine, or appropriate scientific knowledge of agricultural production. Before (and after) the Russian Revolution, the peasant commune was the most detrimental factor to economic development, and forced proletarianization became a brutal truth for dealing with the chronic backwardness of the economy in a global market. Competing on this global scale as it emerged was a necessity for survival during this period of rabid imperialism and colonization. The peasants problem wasn’t simply that a rich landlord or industrial capitalist exploited them: they needed tractors, electricity, medicine, and education. The future Pol Pots of the primitivist camp have two main answers to this argument: more commonly they will maintain their rosy utopian vision of pre-agrarian society, claiming the problem stems from the advent of agriculture, or they will argue that such death is necessary for population control, adhering to the romantic era ideology that nature is a static and separate entity from “civilization” , and perhaps more dangerously that this “nature” itself is wholly self regulating (see the documentary “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” part 2 for a more in-depth critique of this type of thought).
But to get back to my main point, localism is nothing but an apology for capitalism with a nice liberal face. Economic crisis and job loss are not a result of people buying cheaper crap from overseas (an idea which I believe has racist, and certainly right-wing origins), but are due to ever increasing exploitation at the point of production, simultaneous with the concentration of wealth and power by the boss class. A socialist perspective is about understanding that our problem is international, and so our solution must be too. This means the expansion of global trade, but the destruction of the core of the problem; namely, that those working and creating global wealth don’t collectively control where and how wealth is allocated. When you take this power out of the hands of the small class of people who are only concerned about wealth insofar as they are able to generate more of it, we have something closer to a solution. If we are not thinking on this scale, we are not actually thinking about economy at all, and we are certainly not posing any threat to it.
Next I want to talk about the trend of time banking, which I thought had been proven absurd in the 19th century, but has recently been advocated in places like U.S. Social forum, and among proponents of alternative currencies. Time banking generally falls in to all of the flaws of localism that I have already talked about, but seems almost more dangerous in a sense because it does address the problem at a deeper level by evaluating labor. The vulgar-economist and anarchist Proudhon is the first source I am familiar with who advocated for an economy based off of labor chits, which were physical representations of an hour of actual labor. The obvious critique is that the unit being traded here is an hour of time, and not the labor involved. The bourgeoisie economists before Marx’s Capital adhered to a similar type of logic, claiming that labor itself was the foundation of all value. However, contrary to the popular conception that Marx makes this argument, Capital is a critique of the labor theory of value. Marx contends, rather, that the value of labor in a commodity is set by the socially necessary labor time required to produce the commodity; thus we need to consider the technology implemented, the state of class struggle in the culture where the commodity is produced, the resources involved in the labor process, and even things like the ideologies at play in society. What the capitalist buys is not the labor itself, but the workers labor-power (the capacity to do work rather than the actual work being done). As Marx explains it: “Labor itself, in its immediate being, in its living existence, cannot be directly conceived as a commodity, but only labour-power, of which labor itself is the temporary manifestation.” Making these distinctions not only avoided some of the problematic formulations of working with labor as a process in relation to value, but provided an essential window into the crux of capitalist production: the extraction of surplus-value. These distinctions may same like hair splitting, but the implications make them absolutely crucial. It is not a surprise that those who believed in the labor theory of value could also only suggest very simplistic solutions, such as suggesting that collapsing the unit of exchange and the value it represents to be sure people are adequately remunerated. Marx responds to this on page 136 of the Grundrisse saying: “The market value is always different, it is always above or below the average value of a commodity. Market value equates itself with real value by means of its constant oscillations[reflex value], never by means of an equation with real value as if the latter were a third party, but rather by means of constant non-equation of itself” and further on 139: “The time-chit, representing average labor time; i.e. the amount of labor time objectified in a commodity would never command a quantity of labor time equal to itself, and vice versa, but would command, rather, either more or less.” Thus calling the medium of exchange by the same name as its source of value (labor), doesn’t remove the real difference between price and value.
Let us look at a somewhat absurd, but I think relevant example. If a clerk needs to regularly purchase certain clothing that is nicer, and generally more expensive than that of someone who works construction, assuming all other needs as constant, the relationship between the value of their labor hour itself becomes asymmetrical. To keep it simple, lets say the time of production of the clothing for the clerk is 1 hour longer than what it takes to produce the uniform for the construction worker, this would mean that the clerk’s total work value at the end of the day is proportionally reduced relevant to that of the construction worker, even if they worked the same amount of time. The expenses of the clerk here are above the socially normalized standard of commodities necessary to reproduce the labor hour. The 1 to 1 correlation is immediately debauched by thousands of such considerations, the reason being that the actual worth of the labor is specific to the type of labor and its societal circumstance, and so in the process of exchange it must becomes abstract. The various independent values are run through the filter of social availability of specific types of labor, the degree of qualification required to do the job, and infinite other factors.
Now, more local-level time bank advocates probably understand that this isn’t a wide scale solution, but rather a nice small scale thing that can help people who want to do an hour of dishes in exchange for an hour of babysitting. I don’t really think there is a problem with trading chores with friends, or even centralizing and organizing these exchanges a bit, but when it is put forward as a economic idea or worse an economic solution, a problem quickly develops. The language and approach lead to a mystification and abstraction of concrete labor practices, which serve to veil the core relationship of the production of value in terms of labor under capital: the extraction of surplus value. There are of course other ways to obtain value, such as plunder of natural resources and the commons, or forced expropriation of sovereign resources; but the fundamental element, and the one that accounts for the majority of wealth generated since the advent of capital comes from buying labor-power from a worker for an increment of time, and balancing the wage paid for that time so that it is always less than the income generated by the sale of the commodity produced in aggregate. Essentially this means not paying the worker for a portion of the time they have worked. In most places, and for most of history, the wage given is equivalent to the minimum bundle of commodities that will keep the worker alive. Considering exchange for work in terms purely restricted to the time (usually one hour) is not possible on anything but the lowest scale, and can only account for artisanal type production. As soon as you introduce the type of work that really matters for people affected by class antagonism, this “answer” becomes unintelligible.
Another example to show the complexity of the problem: If a machine that produces needles has embodied however many hundreds of hours or labor for its own completion, plus the hours considered in the design of the machine, how do you compensate someone who operates the machine, producing a needle every so many seconds in relation to the hours in which they have worked? If a machine embodies already completed labor hours, then working on them will wildly effect the real value of the factory labor in relation to other areas such as artisanal labor, or domestic labor, as the labor time required for production is reduced by others labor. We must also factor in the dual function of labor which preserves congealed values while producing new ones. And I wont even start on the simpler facts such as that different workers produce at different speeds. Basically what I am trying to say is that keeping the direct correlation is impossible. To fix the rate between the hours being traded and their actual labor value would simply reconstruct the problem of regular money— there is no way to collapse the price and value in a unit of exchange.
The final thing I want to cover is more of a real world solution, but it stems from and feeds into the same type of delusional logic as the other quick-fix economic solutions I have covered; the reinstatement of the gold standard. One prevalent reason why people believe this is an answer is because they sincerely believe that money is not backed by any real value since there isn’t a tangible object like gold behind it. Money not backed by something as palpable gold is called fiat money, and its exchangeablity and production come from the government. This is why delusional libertarians are up in arms about returning to the gold standard, because their abstract individualist ideology plasters itself over every nuance, and must categorically reject any government intervention. The difference between the gold standard and fiat money is not as extreme as people like Ron Paul make it out to be, since the price of gold which formally backed the dollar was also subject to great fluctuation and government control. Historically the scarcity of gold has been extremely detrimental to the world economy, and perhaps being one of the biggest factors in the great depression. It is a fact that capitalism is based on the accumulation of surplus value, which means increasing stores of value are generated. If the total social aggregate of value is ever increasing, where is the gold going to come from to compensate for the increasing amount of value and currency in circulation? There are only two places in the world that can output gold at a level even close to the degree of value in circulation, and those places are Russia and South Africa. Whatever capitalist monopoly has the lock on the extraction of gold from those places would probably be thrilled at the power and wealth they would amass in trying to output enough to supply backing for the entire planets means of circulation.
Fiat money doesn’t mean the government can arbitrarily assign value to its units of exchange; if they could simply produce as much value as they liked out of thin air, then all of our problems would be solved. The value of money is checked against factors like the social circumstances of production, the limiting of currency in circulation, and the cost of the production of the units of exchange themselves (it is costly and labor intensive to produce even relatively counter-fit proof currency). Fiat money is a necessity of the anarchic conditions of production and circulation in late capitalism, and its flexibility is essential to economic circumstances prone to regular crisis. The need for it developed from a preexisting condition of grand indebtedness. Fiat money can allow for more manipulation around circumstances that are not under human control. Whereas fiat money evolved to accommodate for a situation of massive debt (such as after the Civil War, World War 1, and Black Friday), the original contradictions of capital accumulation continue.The problem with fiat money is not that it is arbitrary based or that it is state controlled, but rather that under capitalism, private interests can interfere with it, and manipulate it in the service of profit instead of long term stability. This isn’t to make the utopian assertion that we can once and for all come to total stabilization by public sector control, but rather that we create a society that at least has stabilization and general welfare as a goal, and work from there toward a society where the only economic imperative is “from each according to ability, to each according to need”.
So in conclusion, the economic solutions I have been hearing are positive in that they show people are at least concerning themselves with the way a society reproduces itself, and trying to think about the ways it could be done differently. The traces of bourgeoisie thought in general are apparent in these early considerations, be it the romantic belief in nature or the market’s self regulation. Approaching economy can be daunting: the language is jargonistic and the method practiced seems rigidly scientific, but this type of mystification perpetuated in economics departments across the world really begins to crumble when approached through the lens of dialectic materialism. Whether or not one buys Marx’s account, without trying to understand perhaps the most cohesive and rigorous critique of bourgeoisie economy to date, one is bound to repeat some of the corrected mistakes, (especially if one comes from a bourgeois background like most people who have time to try to start up a new monetary system). Understanding is an essential link to changing economy, and Marx gives us an excellent basis and method for approaching economy from a political and scientific angle. Until we understand economy in an evolutionary and historical way, our solutions are doomed to be mere fantasies.
. I am not even considering here that people are given 10% more bnotes than dollars in the exchange rate, which will obviously facilitate the currencies debauchery by not backing the 10% with a real value. Also, if you just dump another 10% on top of the exchange value between the two currencies, this simply means that the bnote is worth 10% less than a dollar, and the vendor looses out when it is exchanged. Perhaps the producers of the money do front that 10% through donations or something? It can’t be as absurd as it sounds…
. For instance, again from the bnote webpage: “Local currency is real money that fulfills the original purpose of currency: to facilitate commerce. It is not for accumulation, speculation, or any of the dynamics that can lead to increased inequality and societal instability.” The employment of these terms is utterly nonsensical. Commerce refers to the total social context in which exchange is facilitated, which means capitalism, which implies at the very least accumulation. Perhaps by “original purpose” they are referring to some pre-capitalist form of exchange that they want to pretend can exist now? In this statement they also make the claim that the currencies’ ability to be accumulated and used for speculation is what “leads to increased inequality and societal instability”, which is as clear cut an example of fetishization as I can imagine. From where does the currency obtain its mystical quality of being accumulable? The argument rests on pretending that currency in itself has these powers as qualities, which essentially ignores the political and social circumstances of capitalism. A business exists in a capitalist context: if it doesn’t make profit, it will cease to be a business. The whole purpose of creating the bnote is to force consumers to buy from local businesses, which means they are realizing the value, and accumulating without producing the value they accumulate.
[http://citypaper.com/news/no-excuse-1.1137778 - Here is a link to an article I read today in the city paper. Having spoken over the phone with Eddie before, I was furious at reading the ridiculous slander and decided to write a brief response which I also posted on the City Paper website. Anyone who has spoken with him I think can appreciate what a wonderful and bright person he is. I hope others will take time and write a more in depth response and send it to the City Paper, this is all I could do for now.]
Beginning the piece with the statement that Eddie was incarcerated for the murder is already a misnomer and a propagandic slant considering that a large part of the concern of his supporters is that he was innocent. This isn’t absurd, if we look at other cases like the MOVE 9 in Philadelphia, or the case of Mumia Abu Jamal we can see multiple instances where despite incredibly flimsy evidence people were convicted politically. All of this was a reaction to the growing popular support and success of the Black Radical movement.
The Black Panther Party for Self-defense is not an empty title, while the group focused on programs like community breakfasts, sickle-cell testing, community youth centers, free food and clothing distribution (to name a few) , self-defense became a necessary part of dealing with situations like when Frank Diggs was murdered by the Los Angeles police, the murder of Denzil Dowell and Anthony Coltrale by the police, the national guards murder of 3 black activists in California… this list a short version of the list. Sometimes the murders happened while raiding activists houses, sometimes simply while a member was selling newspapers on the street. Ericson’s article frames the case of the entire Panther movement as one that went out specifically to murder random police as a political act, failing completely to take into account the situation of Black Radicals in a time of immense racism and violence. The fact the Watts riots had taken place shortly before the trial also seems to have eluded Mr. Ericson, a fact that certainly qualifies why the police would have a vested interested in putting away some agitators.
Outside the general climate, the details of Eddie’s case are anything but conclusive. The primary witness was a police informant, who claims Eddie had confessed to him in the jail cell: though the transcript notes that Eddie resisted being celled with a person he knew to be a police informant. Outside of him we have the testimony of one of the officers who was shot at: a circumstantially unreliable source. Finally we have Jack Ivory Johnson’s testimony, which he repudiated claiming he was coerced. If we look at the reputation and standards of the cases against black radicals throughout the 60’s and 70’s, we are left with a picture of a coercive state bent on destroying the black radical movement at any cost, and certainly outside the realm of the law, something Eddie demonstrates in his first hand account of dealing with COINTELPRO.
Mr. Ericson relies on question-begging loaded sentences such as referring to the Panthers as “failed revolutionaries”, he paints a group dedicated to social justice, equality for people of colour, and a reasonable distribution of wealth as little more than whiney children. Likewise his description of the group as “a fusion of street criminals and student marxists” is a nearly laughable caricature of the groups makeup. The accusations of mere-criminality, a “thuggish mind-set” and “gang-land style” has a distinct odour of racism. Ericson briefly discusses the inter-party murders of the BPP, while dismissing the role the FBI played in sowing this discord. There is certainly something to be said for the framing and extra-legal procedures of COINTELPRO, this isn’t some conspiracy theory, their documents are available which outline the abusive tactics.
Later Ericson tries to distance the actions of the state from a comparison Eddie makes between it’s actions, and that of oppressive regimes in South America. Ericson is apparently completely unaware of the torture, abuse, rape, and murder carried out by government agents against black activists, which are very well documented: how someone could miss this fact in the decade of Brimingham, and segregation is either grossly negligent or monstrous. His generalizations about the nature of the horrors taking place in South America are also less than informed, completely leaving out the role capitalist and U.S. interest have played in organizing that situation.
Finally he falls upon a traditional tactic of those who wish to maintain a vague leftism while reproaching those who actually take action. He notes “when the revolution comes…shooting at police and robbing banks will not be crimes but solemn duties required of every citizen”, for Ericson revolution is always a distant bar, a spontaneous moment that we will all simply become conscious of at once; he never considers that revolution must be made. The solemn duties he proports are not just some categorical imperative for those living in abject poverty, those who’s attempts at self-organization are met with murder and incarceration; for those people such actions are not a choice. Living a privileged life style sets a difficult lens for understanding such situations, but Eddie’s appeal is probably wasted on such ignorance anyhow. Those who live those situations daily understand why Eddie is a political prisoner, how the state unjustly waged a war against BPP, and how gross mistreatment of human beings who are left with no recourse will organize and resist. Our hearts should go out to those brave enough to risk their lives trying to fight for a situation of economic equality and justice, and we should feel outraged at such gross politically driven simplifications as Ericson’s.-M
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