David Harvey, Jame O'Connor and Engels' "Conditions of the Working Class in England"
I am always looking for an excuse to draw my two favorite Marxist thinkers--David Harvey and James O'Connor--into any discussion. In the case of Engels' "Conditions of the Working Class in England", it is not an excuse, it is an imperative. Engels' early work is pregnant with the sort of themes that have been explored at great length in their work and their work is a tribute to non-dogmatic Marxist thinking at its best, which in itself is a testimony to the continuing power of Marxism as a methodology.
David Harvey, best known as the author of "The Condition of Postmodernity", is in the Urban Studies Department at Johns Hopkins University. His interest in urban studies is very closely related to the rather neglected aspect of Marxism that examines such topics as neighborhoods, public spaces, etc. from a class perspective.
Around two years ago I heard Harvey at the Brecht Forum in NYC speaking about the current situation facing the black community in Baltimore. He described the transformation of working-class life, the decay of neighborhoods that were based on a once-thriving industrial substructure. I have vivid recollections of remarks he made on the temporary work agencies that sent men out to do heavy, unskilled labor at minimum wage. Many of these men had once been employed as steel-workers or longshoremen. Harvey, just as Engels, excels at placing working-people in their total environment.
The theoretical background to Harvey's "environmental" (not in the ecological sense) approach to the working-class can be found in his "The Limits to Capital". This book is a more or less orthodox reading of Karl Marx's Capital with two concluding chapters that indicate where he veers from the well-trodden path. Their titles should indicate his area of concern. Chapter 12 is titled "The Production of Spatial Configurations: The Geographical Mobilities of Capital and Labor" and chapter 13 is titled "Crisis in the Space Economy of Capitalism: the Dialectics of Imperialism." Within Chapter 12 is a section called "The Territoriality of Social Infrastructures". Within Chapter 13 is a section called "Crisis Formation within Regions". I intend to show how these sorts of questions dealt with in these sections link up with Engels' investigation of the Great Towns of England in the 1840s.
This is what David Harvey has to say about the "uneven geographical development of social structures" in Chapter 12:
"This brings us more directly to the geographical aspects of the problem. The uneven geographical development of social infrastructures is, in the final analysis, reproduced through the circulation of capital. Capital produces and reproduces, albeit through all manner of subtle mediations and transformations, its social as well as its physical environment. Even the pre-capitalist elements that persist must be reproduced, in the end, out of surplus value production. The social geography which evolves is not, however, a mere mirror reflection of capital's needs, but the locus of powerful and potentially disruptive contradictions. The social geography shaped to capital's needs at one moment in history *is not necessarily consistent* with later requirements."
It is clear that this applies to the Great Towns of England in the 1840s. What Engels saw was a "social geography" that reflected capital's needs at that particular time when capital accumulation took priority over every other need. The textile bourgeoisie needed to get workers into those mills at any cost. The fact that cities like Manchester turned into sprawling slums and that hundreds of thousands of people worked like slaves was immaterial. What happened of course is that the Great Towns of England became transformed as capital's needs evolved. It was the combination of the satisfaction of capital accumulation and the growing power of trade unions that transformed both the geography and working-conditions of places like Manchester.
Bourgeois critics of Marxism who argue that Marx was wrong because modern-day Manchester looks a lot different than the Manchester of 1840 have it all wrong. What has changed is the conditions of capital creation, not its elimination. The welfare state for a whole period of time served to meliorate class tensions as well as provide for a better- educated and more mobile working class. The working-class of 1940 had to be much more transportable as capital itself became less static. Put in its essence, this meant that to create the new cities of the Southwest United States, it took a working-class with a high-school education and relatively good health to pick up and move from Alabama to California. The conditions of exploitation have changed but not disappeared.
Geographical displacement doesn't just take place on a national level as workers follow capital's trajectory from South to North, and subsequently from Northeast to Southwest. It also takes place on a global scale. In the concluding chapter of Harvey's book, he describes the conditions under which capital migrates:
"To simplify, we initially assume that all production and realization of interdependent capitals occurs within a closed region. Accumulation proceeds within that region at rates dependent upon the local expansion of the proletariat, the state of the class struggle, the pace of innovation, the growth in aggregate effective demand, etc. But since capitalists will be capitalists, overaccumulation is bound to arise. The threat of massive devaluation looms large and civil society appears destined to experience the social distress, disruption and unrest that accompany the forcible restoration of conditions favorable to accumulation.
This is, of course, exactly the kind of 'inner dialectic' that forces society to seek relief through some sort of 'spatial fix'. The frontiers of the region can be rolled back or relief gained by exports of money capital, commodities or productive capacities or imports of fresh labor powers from other regions. The tendency toward overaccumulation within the region remains unchecked, but devaluation is avoided by successive and ever grander 'outer transformations'. This process can presumably continue until all external possibilities are exhausted or because other regions resist being treated as mere convenient appendages."
What Harvey is describing here, of course, is the tendency for national capital to expand internationally in order to resolve a crisis within its borders. 'Outer transformations' is simply another word for imperialism.
Engels and Marx did not live long enough to observe imperialism's full ability to use 'outer transformations' to resolve crisis. It took WWI and Lenin's analysis of the causes of this war to round out Marxism's understanding of this dialectic.
Engels could not have possibly understood that the hell being created in Manchester in the 1840s was only temporary. The full motion of capital is beyond the comprehension of any individual, no matter how smart that they appear (including some of the sharpies on the Spoons Lists).
Had Engels lived long enough to study the problem, he might have developed a theory of imperialism not unlike Lenin's. Who can resist taking one more look at the observation made by Cecil Rhodes, as cited in Lenin's "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism".
"I was in the East End of London [a working-class quarter] and listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for 'bread! Bread!' and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the need of imperialism....My cherished ideas is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to proved new markets for the good produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists."
In this scheme of things, the wage-slavery of the Great Towns of England that so horrified Engels was never abolished, it was simply exported overseas.
One of the big problems of Marxism is the tendency to understand the socialist objective within a national framework. This can lead to some really grotesque exhibits. I recall back in the early 1970s when Trotskyism was growing everywhere, there used to be regular reports coming into the United States about the national conventions of various new Trotskyist groups. Every single one of them followed the same scenario. Very little was spoken about the rest of the world. The big question was how to take power in one's "own" country. I can recall reports from Switzerland, for example, that dealt believe it or not with the "growing contradictions" of Swiss capitalism and the beginnings of a new working-class radicalization. I can't remember what these projections were based on, but it must have been related to tensions between the chocolate and wrist-watch bourgeoisies.
The other aspect of Engels' "Conditions of the Working Class in England" that seems terribly contemporary has to do with the question of infrastructure and environment (this time *in* the ecological sense). Engels is acutely aware of the violence done to nature as well as society in the course of primitive capital accumulation. These contradictions are as important to him as the contradiction between factory-owner and worker over hours and wages.
James O'Connor has developed a theory of the "second contradiction" of capitalism that addresses these sorts of concerns.
In an essay "Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible" that appears in a collection "Is Capitalism Sustainable" edited by Martin O'Connor (no relation), he defines both the first and second contradictions of capitalism.
The first contradiction is generated by the tendency for capitalism to expand. The system can not exist in stasis such as precapitalist modes of productions such as feudalism. A capitalist system that is based on what Marx calls "simple reproduction" and what many greens call "maintenance" is an impossibility. Unless there is a steady and increasing flow of profits into the system, it will die. Profit is the source of new investment which in turn fuels technological innovation and, consequently, ever-increasing replacement of living labor by machinery. Profit is also generated through layoffs, speedup and other more draconian measures.
However, according to O'Connor, as capital's power over labor increases, there will be contradictory tendency for profit in the capitalist system as a whole to decrease. This first contradiction of capital then can be defined as what obtains "when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by increasing labor productivity, speeding up work, cutting wages, and using other time-honored ways of getting more production from fewer workers." The unintended result is that the worker's loss in wages reduces the final demand for consumer commodities.
This first contradiction of capital is widespread throughout the United States and the other capitalist countries today. No amount of capitalist maneuvering can mitigate the effects of this downward spiral. Attempts at global management of the problem are doomed to fail since the nation-state remains the instrument of capitalist rule today, no matter how many articles appear in postmodernist venues about "globalization".
The second contradiction of capital arises out of the problems the system confronts in trying to maintain what Marx called the "conditions of production". The "conditions of production" require three elements: *human labor power* which Marx called the "personal conditions of production", *environment* which he termed "natural or external conditions of productions" and *urban infrastructure*, the "general, communal conditions of production".
All three of these "conditions of productions" are being undermined by the capitalist system itself. The form this takes is conceived in an amorphous and fragmented manner as the environmental crisis, the urban crisis, the education crisis, etc. When these problems become generalized, they threaten the viability of capitalism since they continue to raise the cost of clean air and water, raw materials, infrastructure, etc.
During the early and middle stages of capitalism, the satisfaction of the "conditions of production" were hardly an issue since there was apparently an inexhaustible source of natural resources and the necessary space to build factories, etc. As capitalism reaches its latter phase in the twentieth century, the problems deepen until they reach crisis proportions. At this point, capitalist politicians and ideologues start raising a public debate about the urban and environmental crisis (which are actually interconnected).
What they don't realize is that these problems are rooted in the capitalist system itself and are constituted as what O'Connor calls the "second contradiction". He says, "Put simply, the second contradiction states that when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by cutting or externalizing costs, the unintended effect is to reduce the 'productivity' of the conditions of production and hence to raise average costs."
O'Connor cites the following examples: Pesticides in agriculture at first lower, then ultimately increase costs as pests become more chemical-resistant and as the chemicals poison the soil. In Sweden permanent-yield monoforests were expected to keep costs down, but the loss of biodiversity has reduced the productivity of forest ecosystems and the size of the trees themselves. A final example is nuclear power which was supposed to reduce energy costs but had the opposite effect.
If capitalism was a rational system, it would restructure the conditions of production in such a way as to increase their productivity. The means of doing this is the state itself. The state would, for example, ban cars in urban areas, develop non-toxic pest controls and launch public health programs based on preventative medicine.
Efforts such as these would have to be heavily capitalized. However, competition between rival capitalisms, engendered through the pressures of the "first contradiction" (in other words, the need to expand profits while the buying power of a weakened working-class declines), destroy the possibility for such public investment. As such possibilities decline, the public infrastructure and the natural environment continue to degrade. Each successive stage of degradation in turn raises the cost of production.
What Engels observed in the Great Towns of England was an acute crisis based on the Second Contradiction of capitalism. Places like Manchester were becoming uninhabitable due to the necessity of capital to maximize profits without being ready to make the commitment to defend the conditions of the reproduction of capital itself: clean water, fresh air, public health, education, etc.
England, Germany, the United States and Japan of course made great headway in the twentieth century in resolving these types of contradictions at the expense of the colonized world. While the air and water of Manchester may have became *relatively cleaner*, the air and water of Calcutta worsened as the satanic mills of England migrated overseas.
The big question before working-people today of course is the emergence of the "second contradiction" on a global scale. Now that capitalism has become a genuinely global system, what new areas are capable of being despoiled. Scientists have discovered that vast portions of the central African rain-forest have disappeared, and that the environment has consequently undergone radical transformations. These transformations, according to journalist Laurie Garrett in her "The Coming Plague" are responsible for the outbreak of AIDS, Ebola and similar viruses.
Socialists have to begin thinking much more in global terms to confront these problems. We have to stop behaving as if it were the 1840s. The world is a pretty interconnected place today and it is about time that we related to this rather than schemas from a hundred years ago based on a form of the class-struggle that no longer exists.