The Ouroboros of Capital

In The Ouroboros of Dialectical Materialism, I discussed how the ouroboros, a serpent coiled into a circle and biting its tail, can be an effective symbol of the relationship between opposites. The biting head represents one extreme, the bitten tail is the opposite extreme, and every point along the length of the snake’s body symbolizes a different point on the circular continuum, somewhere between the extremes.

In that other post, I discussed how the ouroboros can represent the class struggle in history and at the present. I mentioned how there is a tendency to shift counter-clockwise from the tail of communism to the liberal centre at the bottom of the serpentine coil, then to the right-libertarian front half of the serpent’s body, and ultimately to the fascist snake’s head. Since that counter-clockwise movement is in the interests of the capitalist class, we’ll now be exploring why the bourgeoisie is compelled to move in that direction, as well as what causes the clockwise movements that the ruling class must counteract.

The most basic dialectical opposition in capitalism, as Marx noted in Capital, Volume One, is the commodity, which is a use-value and an exchange-value. Seen as only a use-value, a commodity will gradually depreciate in value as it is used repeatedly over time, thus causing a clockwise movement from the head of the serpent to its tail; once its worth is reduced to nothing, it has to be replaced with a new use-value commodity, a movement from the bitten tail to the biting head. If, however, a commodity is to become an exchange-value, efforts must be made to improve and preserve its quality, thus making it saleable.

Here’s where the capitalist steps in. He ensures that the commodity’s quality moves counter-clockwise on the serpent’s body, moving towards the biting head. He does this through the application of abstract labour, as opposed to the concrete labour that produces mere use-values. This counter-clockwise movement, achieved through socially necessary labour time and effort, creates value by combining use-and exchange-value, pushing up to the biting head and past it to do another revolution past the bitten tail and counter-clockwise along the serpent’s body; for new units of the said commodity, or other new commodities in general, start the counter-clockwise cycle all over again.

This is why the labour theory of value (LTV) is so crucial to Marxian economics. Granted, many economists reject the LTV, but since they aren’t Marxists, it’s safe to assume that many, if not most (or, possibly, even all!) of them are working, on some level at least, in the interests of the minority bourgeoisie; so if they want to accuse us Marxists of bias, we can respond by saying theirs is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

With successfully-achieved value, the capitalist has a business to run. His products are on the shelves of his store, and customers gaze on them with awe, then perhaps buy them. They see the finished product, as if its value were a magically produced presence, a spirit inhabiting an idol. This adoration of the finished commodity, ignoring the process of how it was made, is rather like contemplating Athena sprung fully-grown from the forehead of Zeus, complete with her armour, helmet, shield, and sword; and just as one may not have seen pregnant Metis swallowed whole by her Olympian lover, the consumer doesn’t see all the work put into the manufacturing of the commodity. The employees of the sated capitalist are hidden in his bloated belly, as it were.

Now we must examine the fortunes of the new businessman. There are several obstacles and dangers that he must overcome in his quest to make money, those forces that cause a clockwise movement from the biting head of success to the bitten tail of a bitter going-out-of-business. These include being outdone by the competition, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF), workers’ demands for better pay and enforcement of safety standards, shorter hours, etc., and other potential problems.

Now the capitalist must find ways to minimize costs. There’s little he can do about the cost of constant capital (the means of production), but there’s much he can do to lower the cost of variable capital (i.e., minimizing his workers’ wages), as well as demand maximum hours of work from his employees, to maximize production and profit, a counter-clockwise movement towards the serpent’s head. As for the workers’ struggle to move things clockwise, read my condensed history of that here.

When the capitalist’s business succeeds to the point of going past the serpent’s head and into a new revolution counter-clockwise towards the head again, we see the circulation, reproduction, and expansion of capital discussed in volume two of Marx’s Capital: in other words, we encounter the reinvestment of some of the accumulated capital into even more commodity production, or, in the best of circumstances, the opening of new stores of the business.

If the expansion doesn’t happen in this way, then perhaps an entrepreneur will see the potential of a business, buy it off the original owner(s), and grow it into a business empire, all in accordance with the entrepreneur’s ambitious vision. This is how one store selling coffee beans in Seattle in the early 1970s grew into a worldwide gourmet coffee empire. It’s also how one burger joint in San Bernardino, California in the 1940s grew into an international fast food empire. So many counter-clockwise revolutions along the body of the ouroboros (granted, I’m oversimplifying here, for the sake of brevity; the ups and downs of these businesses’ fortunes will be expressed in the back-and-forth movement along the length of the ouroboros, too–like the swaying of a pendulum; but the general trend towards successful business empires is still clearly visible over time, and, succeed or fail, this trend is the aspiration of capitalists, the very reason to get into business in the first place).

Next, we must examine the ouroboros of the economic cycle. When business is booming, as it was in the Roaring Twenties and (to an extent) in the early-to-mid 2000s, speculators get overconfident and act as though the good times will last forever. Deregulation will continue in order to maximize profit, as a countermeasure against the TRPF. This will result in such things as overproduction and the housing-bubble recklessness that is believed to have come from Bill Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall legislation, and all of this will lead to economic crises: the counter-clockwise movement of the snake’s head of prosperity ends up passing over to the bitten tail of recession.

The movement out of the hind part of the serpent (recession) back to the front half (economic health) will be faster or slower in accordance with the severity of the given crisis. Hence the interminable length of recovery from both the Great Depression and the 2008 financial crisis. Marx predicted, in volume three of Capital, that one day, the crisis will be too great to recover from, and we’ll either have, as Rosa Luxemburg called it, socialism, or barbarism; one has a gut feeling that day may be soon upon us.

In the meantime, the capitalist class finds new ways to stave off that apocalypse. The days of free competition, the laissez-faire of the nineteenth century, pushed things to the limit by the first decade or two of the twentieth century, a counter-clockwise move past the biting head of the ouroboros and the beginning of capitalist imperialism, as Lenin noted: hence the competition for control of the largest portions of the colonized world in World War I.

Markets were drying up in the local countries, and so capitalists had to seek out markets in other countries, including underdeveloped countries. The merging of banks with industrial cartels resulted in finance capitalism (to provide capital, via investment, in the underdeveloped countries), which in turn led to the division of the world among monopolist business companies and the great powers. An example of this, the scramble for Africa, had already been going on in the latter half of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth; hence, the counter-clockwise movement past the biting head (in the local success of capitalism) through another revolution from tail to head again (in the quest for profit abroad, through imperialism).

Today, this imperialism is in an exacerbated state, what with outsourcing, NAFTA, and sweatshops in the Third World. The proletariat in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia are suffering what the English working class had endured in the nineteenth century. Third World attempts at resistance against imperialism, as with Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communists, are more clockwise shifts towards the tail of the ouroboros.

The exploitation of the working class in the poorer countries is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Imperialist war is the far greater evil of our day, along with coup after coup, which the US has been guilty of ever since the end of World War II. There was the Iranian coup in 1953, in which the CIA helped MI6 overthrow the democratically-elected Mohammad Mosaddegh, who’d wanted to nationalize Iranian oil to provide for his people, thus limiting the profits of the AIOC and making a clockwise movement away from the serpent’s head. Other coups were those in Guatemala in 1954 (after Arbenz’s policies ran afoul of the United Fruit Company) and in Chile in 1973, when Allende had wanted to nationalize industry.

The sweetest words to touch the tongues of US imperialists are these: regime change. By the late 1990s, a variation on this idea appeared: “humanitarian war”…what an abuse of paradoxes! Once the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc had catastrophically fallen, the West, lying that NATO wouldn’t advance “one inch eastward”, in this regard set its sights on its first prey: Yugoslavia. Consider the destruction and suffering the NATO bombings caused the people in Serbia–not just those who died, but also those exposed to the carcinogenic depleted uranium from the NATO bombs–all to pin a bogus charge of genocide on Slobodan Milosevic. Now, a huge US military base sits in Kosovo, the NATO headquarters for KFOR’s Multinational Battle Group East (MNBG-E).

Combine this Balkanization atrocity with the ruining of Russia in the 1990s, and we see the movement that US/NATO imperialism made, counter-clockwise (as in counterrevolution) past the biting head to the bitten tail, and around again, in preparation for the next set of conquests, all in the name of neoconservatism and neoliberalism, and all for the sake of the multinational corporations.

Note how the counter-clockwise movement around the ouroboros is a like a spiral, an upward spiral from the point of view of the capitalist class; but for everyone else, regardless of whether the lower classes can see it or not, it’s a downward spiral.

The US had armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s to bleed the USSR dry, and in the process, armed men like Osama bin Laden. Then, just before the USSR collapsed (and, with the-then collaboration of the weakening USSR with US interests in the Persian Gulf War, anticipating US unipolarity?), George HW Bush declared a “new world order”, not the NWO of the conspiracy theorists, but a neoliberal one, for no formidable leftist resistance would again exist; US/NATO imperialism could do anything it wanted to!

Military bases in Saudi Arabia, as well as such things as the US support of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and the crushing economic sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq in the 1990s, meant that imperialism’s having armed bin Laden would bite the US in the ass one day–September 11th, 2001, to be exact. The biting head of imperial conquest would result in the bitten tail of American humiliation, the double emasculation of New York’s skyline.

At first, the US received some global sympathy, so there was some support of the US invasion of Afghanistan a month after the terrorist attacks; but it wouldn’t take long for the US to squander the sympathy she’d garnered. Dubya’s invasion of Iraq, done under protest of most of the international community (except for America’s obliging lapdog, the UK), pushed the movement past the biting head of victory (long-desired regime change) to the bitten tail of international opprobrium.

The years have gone by, though, and the world has grown desensitized to the expansion of Bush-style imperialism; it helped having a charming black Democrat to do it for eight years, of course. For this reason, the ouroboros has felt another counter-clockwise revolution…or two, or three…from its tail to its head, with little, if any, protest from bourgeois liberals. Because of how much Trump is justifiably despised, George W Bush has been unjustifiably forgiven.

Now, with Trump’s appointment of Pompeo and Bolton, we can only assume that more war-mongering is in the near future. The rise in strength of Russia and China (add to that their beneficial acts and investments [though, in China’s case, this investment can be a double-edged sword, admittedly], to contrast with the meanness of the US ruling class), as well as Iran’s getting in the way of the US’s wish to control the oil market, means the US is worried about more clockwise movements to limit her profits (as well as an end to her empire). The ruling class is hoping that more imperialist conquests will ensure more profits for Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin, et al, while they all turn a blind eye to the destruction and loss of innocent life they’re causing.

Bickering between the Dems and GOP continues to blind Americans, and western liberals in general, to the real problem: the juggernaut of capitalist accumulation, the cycles of the ouroboros of capital that never stop going round and round, a counter-clockwise reaction, making us all go backwards, as against real human progress.

So, how can we break these cycles? How can we end the alienation that causes this bickering? How can we get people to recognize the value of human labour, the process of making commodities that goes along the length of the ouroboros to create value, rather than contemplate only the value of the finished product (commodity fetishism)? How can we keep people mindful of the need to change from a profit-motive mindset to one geared towards production for the sake of providing for everyone?

Can we do this before the escalations of this current Cold War result in nuclear war? The counter-clockwise clock of the ouroboros of capital is ticking. The current time appears to be two minutes past midnight.

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