Monday, 21 August 2017

Class Struggle and the Common

For most people reading this, chances are you sell your labour power in return for a wage or a salary. Your work history has typically seen you relocate more or less daily to a place designed specifically for work. When you arrive you find the equipment, the organisation, the things you have to do are mostly arranged for you. As a typical worker you are a cog, a component fitting into a slot (or slots) within a wider division of labour. The employer, business, capital is central to making this happen. They have the authority and command to shape things, to boss you about.

In Marxism, this axis of command is central to capitalist exploitation. The selling of labour power for a certain period of time tacitly (and legally) confers capital the right to instruct the motions of these labouring bodies. This facilitates the creation of surplus labour as the first step to the realisation of surplus value and therefore profit. Labour as a collective of living, feeling human beings smarts, seethes, and resists under this state of affairs. Being compelled to do things under an authority whose recognition is purchased on pain of economic compulsion does not lead to the most cooperative of relationships, and the simmering tension and resentment bedeviling every workplace are the surface phenomena speaking of the antagonisms grinding beneath.

So much for "classical" exploitation. Does the shifting composition of capital from surplus value rooted in material commodity production to a growing dependence on immaterial labour change the terms of the class struggle? Traditionally, Marxists have understood this as the irreconcilable tension between the cooperative, social character of production (in a workplace) versus the private appropriation of the wealth generated. For Hardt and Negri, the switch to immaterial production changes the form surplus extraction assumes. Exploitation is less a mechanism hidden by the wage relation and more a visible process that looks like rent. How?

Immaterial labour produces social relations. The production of knowledge, information, services and subjectivities is a property common to all industrial societies, though it has only recently become a vector of major capital accumulation. Prior to that this social infrastructure, or the common, was indirectly and obliquely a source of value. Women's labour in the home, for instance, was/is immaterial in the sense it reproduced the household materially and socially for another round of exploitation and surplus extraction. She performed physical labour on domestic chores and mobilised affective/emotional labour to care and nurture her partner (Talcott Parsons famously likened the family to a warm bath for the bread-winning dad) and raise/socialise the next generation of workers. Capital isn't directly involved here, save in the supply of commodities that make modern domestic labour possible. In immaterial labour, the skills generations of women have performed in the home are increasingly prized at work: these are the capacities capital increasingly demands. To put it another way,  capital is a social relation bringing together living labour to work on fixed/constant capital (machines, tools) to make stuff to generate that all important surplus value. In immaterial labour, the properties formerly congealed in fixed capital has now sedimented into living, variable, cognitive labour. Or, beyond some basic orientation, business do not train programmers and IT specialists, nor instructors or professional service providers. These are employed because they are ready made, and what capital needs to exploit the networks thrown up by the common are people with that traditionally feminine attribute - social skills.

On the face of things this appears to benefit capital and weaken labour even further. It individuates workers as they're taken on on the basis of what unique skills, knowledge and, sometimes, subjectivity they bring to the table. In such a confrontation there is no contest, the individual worker cannot hope to stand against the weight of capital. Theoretically, capital can more or less impose its terms, and certainly does so when it comes to "unskilled" immaterial labour. However, it's not capital vs an individual. It's capital simultaneously taking on millions of individuals. The relation may be more individuated than the traditional wage relation, but capital is dependent on them to draw on knowledge, information and subject production competencies - what Hardt and Negri call biopolitical production - that is outside of capital. From being the organiser of production, the balance of power is objectively shifting. Capital is increasingly dependent on the organisation of (social) production by others. Or to present the issue in even starker terms, capital is proving itself surplus to the requirements of social production and is therefore assuming ever more parasitical, rentier forms.

Hardt and Negri describe this as 'one becoming two'. The antagonistic interdependence of capital and labour is fraying. The latter is growing autonomous and going off to do its own thing, which presents capital disciplinary and valorisation problems, especially if a sector is unattractive to work in. As labour is the core constituent of the common and the common talks to itself, is coalescing through networks and starting to represent a powerful, generalised intellect, how long can these parasitic relations last? When will Uber drivers call time on the very visible deductions made from their fares and replace the app with a cooperative effort? Is the time coming when Silicon Valley can no longer ponce off ad revenues generated from other people's content? And so on. This does not spell the end of capitalism, but it does represent a problem and a contradiction where a rupture in the system could tear the whole thing open.

Class struggle under these circumstances incorporates the configuration of class struggles past, and gives it a new twist. For Hardt and Negri, the basis of cognitive labour, the common, is "not only the earth we share but also the languages we create, the social practices we establish, the modes of sociality that define our relationships, and so forth. This form of the common does not lend itself to a logic of scarcity as does the first" (Commonwealth, 2009, p.139). The stuff of social production, the knowledges and relations are slippery because of their immaterial and reproducible character. They necessarily resist command because they cannot be contained. This failure of capture, the increasing autonomy of labour embedded in the common sees class struggle rewired as exodus, a refusal to be bound by the strictures of capitalist command. To emphasise and avoid false impressions, exodus does not mean retreat. Class war as practiced by socialised workers still takes the bosses on at the point of production. That guerrilla struggle is as live as it ever was. The skirmishes at the level of ideas, or class struggle in theory as Louis Althusser memorably defined philosophy, remains. The argy-bargy of struggle refracted through politics continues unabated. Exodus is the simultaneous attending to and strengthening of the common's incipient constitutive power. That is, if the common through social production is in the business of self-organising, communicating, creating its own subjectivities and making a world for itself, a core aspect of 21st century class struggle is to enhance this power. Revolutionary activity in the new millennium simultaneously creates new ways of life, proliferates networks, brings identity locations into common activity and develops institutions that spur the development of all.

Capital threatens the common in two ways. Just like the unsustainable relationship capitalism imperils the biosphere and the support systems that make human life and therefore it possible, there is an analogous relation to the common. For instance before this weekend's cowardly attack by Islamists, Barcelona had hit the news for its high profile "anti-tourist" protests. The city's landlords, thanks to the low cost and easy availability of Airbnb, were increasingly making their properties available to tourists. Higher profits for them, but the result is to price Barcelonians out of the residential rents market, forcing them from the city and thereby undermining the very culture that is such a huge tourist draw in the first place. We see something similar wherever gentrification occurs, or the profit takers try and muscle in on some hip fad coming from the streets - a process well described in Naomi Klein's No Logo. Social production begets more social production, but capital's attempts at capturing it runs the risk of turning it into dust.

Second, because economics has fused with biopolitical production, identity politics is less a distraction from "the class struggle" but more its contemporary form. The front line of the fight against capitalism is the production of the human soul. Capital is long-practiced in using gendered and racial hierarchies to undermine the collective power of workers, plus ├ža change, and it is always fighting to turn out human beings in its own image. However, these divisions don't exist solely because of capital's nefarious machinations - they are produced by the common too. Hardt and Negri argue that the family, the corporation, and the nation, all of which are located in whole or part in the common, distort and frustrate its potential. The interests of going beyond capital means a positive transcendence and abolition of identity locations (singularities) as carriers of inequality and symbolic violence, while the familial, chauvinist, status, and nationalist practices all work to fix identities in some way, limiting the potential of those caught up in them and frustrating the possibilities pregnant in the common to build a better society. Naturally, capital likewise seeks to articulate with these to preserve command even though accumulation is better served by the further development of the common.

Overcoming these issues raises the question of organisation and politics. What is to be done is an issue leftists return to time and again. What is clear for Hardt and Negri is the revolutionary party is out. As the properties of fixed capital are distributed among our growing legions of cognitive and socialised workers, the 'functions' of the revolutionary party are diffused among the politicising networks. Rather than the received conception of a vanguard of class conscious cadres providing leadership for the rest to follow, cadre building applies to the class as a whole. The power of the multitude lies in its being the living substance of the common, and increasingly their common lines of flight are putting them on a collision course with capital. Biopolitical production wrapped up in dense webs of communication brings people together, educates them, politicises them. For example, the incessant identity-related debates are no longer the concern of radical elites beavering away in academies but are now the property of millions of people, as the fall out from Charlottesville demonstrates. The aim then is to build up the capacity for self-organisation, forge new institutions that bring out the common interests of socialised workers without denying their difference. The image is of a self-activating, self-coordinating swarm that can simply overwhelm capital and the state in a process of creative destruction, of replacing one form of organising society with another.

The task for radicals and revolutionaries now is to grasp the general movement of things, to think and analyse, to grasp tendencies and directions of processes for ultimately that is where future political possibilities lie. And all the while this work has to be tied to building the capacities of the common, of making good its constituent, self-organising power. That's the object of the class struggle now, so the rupture with capitalism can be made good not in the far distant future but starting in the here and now.


Darrell said...

Perhaps an example of how some sections of capitalism are trying to mitigate the effects you describe and regain full control of the productive process is in the area of IT design and development, through the move towards outsourcing.

It's rationalised as a drive for cheaper labour, but it's much more than that: it aims to replace craft skills and creativity of existing employees with a completely process/metrics driven outsourced production line.

They think we can somehow write down what we do, this to be converted into manuals, scripts etc, which anyone can follow in order to provide equivalent services. They call it "Knowledge Transfer", and the mantra is "Process, not People". The creative knowledge worker is seen as a risk, because we can leave, retire or die.

Of course this is doomed to failure, objectively, because it's not knowledge that needs transferring, it's the creativity and intuition made possible by long experience and in depth understanding of the business and the people. And that can't be done.

So it is doomed to failure, and it does fail, but the Harvard Business School types on both sides of the outsourcing contract collude to ensure it looks like success to the board and shareholders, and so they collect their bonuses.

Blissex said...

«to use the old language capital is a social relation bringing together variable capital (living labour) to work on fixed/constant capital (machines, tools)»

Important terminology correction: in that "old language" "capital" in indeed a social relationship, and that you call "fixed capital" is "capital goods", and "variable capital" is "financial capital", and "living labour" is not at all capital. In that terminology "capital" is the relationship that arises from the combination of "labour" with the "capital goods" and "financial capital" provided by a "capitalist"; the "capitalist" role is to create that social relationship.

«the simmering tension and resentment bedeviling every workplace are the surface phenomena speaking of the antagonisms grinding beneath»

According to that "old language", the real flaw of "capitalism" is not so much the exploitation, even if that "dialectically" will bring about its end; it is "alienation", and it is that "alienation" that is mostly responsible for "tension and resentment", because it is not mere "theft", it is dehumanization.

Blissex said...

«For Hardt and Negri, the basis of cognitive labour, the common, is "not only the earth we share but also the languages we create, the social practices we establish, the modes of sociality that define our relationships, and so forth. This form of the common does not lend itself to a logic of scarcity as does the first"»

That is a very good observation amidst a fog of "postmodern talk". "intellectual property" is indeed, as neoclassical economists say, non-rival being costlessly reproducible, and this entirely upends the power base for "capitalism" in the "old language".
The problem is that the "common" existed in ancient times as "land", which spontaneously and therefore costlessly reproduced food and materials, yet that was privatized by feudalism, but the simple device of asserting control over not the "means of production", but the bodies of the labourers.

Put in modern terms, by the protection racket (which was the business model of the aristocracy).
Let's hope we get something better with the immaterial "land" of the modern "social common".

Anonymous said...

Firstly I disagree that social skills are a feminine quality. This is just stereotyping. Women talk about their feelings more than men, that's not the same as social skills. You actually need more social skills in a traditional male environment, where the lack of them could earn you a punch on the nose.

Secondly, you and other Marxists seem incapable of grasping that some people might actually enjoy their work, including the sorts of work that you might describe as menial or demeaning. I enjoyed the actual work involved in being a nursing assistant, for example- what was demeaning was the way I was treated by other workers slightly further up the pecking order.

Thirdly, you never mention the self-employed, other than to insinuate that we're the backbone of Fascism.

Fourthly, it's not entirely true that the "care industry" doesn't teach the necessary skills but assumes to take them ready-made. They do PURPORT to teach these skills, using online programmes that will teach you to respect equality and diversity in ten minutes by completing a multiple choice questionaire!

Phil said...

Cheers Darrell. I am thinking about writing something on the contradictions within capital and its relationship to the common. While the funky Silicon Valley types would like to see a bigger, wider common and, in order to cream off more rent, fancy policies like the basic income 'old' capital certainly does not want that thanks to their dependence on disciplined wage labour.

And cheers for the correction, Blissex. Late night blogging is something to be avoided.

Blissex said...

«social skills are a feminine quality. This is just stereotyping.»

Depends on which social skills, then it may not be stereotyping. There is an interesting claim that humanity have a special advantage in the animal kingdom, as endurance runners, which has meant that they would be "cursorial group hunters", that is hunt as teams against dangerous bigger animals working together to chase them. A bit like wolves and dogs. The claim is also that the "cursorial group hunter" mindset has embedded itself deeply into human culture, making humans quintessential team-playing, cooperating (within teams)/competing (among teams) social animals. Football as an allegory of human society.
I am quite sympathetic with that claim, with one major reservation: the claim applies only to men, not "humans", as women as far as we know have not been "cursorial group hunters" in any significant way, and have not "brought home the bacon" by anything like the type of teamwork involved in that activity. Their socialization, as far as it goes, has developed in completely different ways, and my impression is that men simply don't understand that, because of the sexist assumption that if men socialize through work ("hunt") teams, so obviously women do too. More speculation is unfortunately not that politically correct, so no more. :-)

Phil said...

Even in 1977 - before the Italian wave went bad and/or got suppressed - people were slagging Negri off as a millenialist dreamer who insulated himself from reality in a fog of blissed-out abstraction. It doesn't sound like he's changed that much, which is pretty impressive considering what he's been through since then. He is some kind of genius, and he does see things (which are there!) that other people don't; we all owe Michael Hardt a debt, come to that, myself more than most. But I still find their style - and the tendency to counterpose decayed or sclerotic organisational forms which actually exist to weird new multidirectional omnicompetent forms which don't - both rebarbative and irresponsible: infuriating, in short.

David Parry said...

#4 Your 'contribution' (for want of a better word) is neither use nor ornament.

Boffy said...

"From being the organiser of production, the balance of power is objectively shifting. Capital is increasingly dependent on the organisation of (social) production by others. Or to present the issue in even starker terms, capital is proving itself surplus to the requirements of social production and is therefore assuming ever more parasitical, rentier forms."

Where I disagree with this, is on the basis of what Marx himself, and his followers (including Engels) like Kautsky had to say. Marx makes the point echoed by these others, that the contradiction between capital and labour was actually being resolved. Rather than capital and labour being more separated, they were being united in the form of socialised capital. It resolved the contradiction between capital and labour, positively in the case of the worker-owned co-operative, negatively in the case of the joint stock company.

It makes the worker once more into their own collective capitalist, with the difference that in the former, the worker not only owns, through the co-operative the means of production, but exercises control over it, whereas in the latter, that control continued to be exercised by shareholders. But, this exercise of control in the latter case is control over property the shareholders do not own. The property - means of production, real capital - does not belong to them, but to the company, i.e. as Marx puts it, the associated producers - managers and workers.

The division, Marx and Engels, and Kautsky, along with Pannakoek and others, set out is not then between capital and labour, but between two forms of capital, or more correctly real capital and fictitious capital. Real capital is then predominantly socialised - although in reality millions of small capitals persist, for varying short periods of time, dependent upon this larger socialised capital. Apart from these small producers, the capitalists themselves increasingly hold their wealth not as real capital but as fictitious capital - shares, bonds, land/property - from which they drain rents and interest from real capital, i.e. they become rentiers. coupon clippers, and their social function disappears.

These capitalists then stand not in opposition to labour, but to real capital,and its representatives, the functioning capitalists, or professional managers, now drawn from the ranks of the working-class. The drive of the latter is to accumulate capital, the drive of the former is to maximise their revenues as dividends, and/or capital gains from share, bond and property prices.

But, ultimately, this latter drive is not only antithetical to the accumulation of real capital, it is dependent upon it. Rising rents and interest, and subsequently capital gains, depend upon rising profits, and ultimately rising profits depend upon the accumulation of real capital. The period before the reality bites can be extended, because first interest and rents rise, slowing real capital accumulation, then speculation allows a focus on capital gains rather than yields, but then this ultimately leads to those bubbles bursting, a financial crisis, like 2008 and the bigger one that is imminent, and a destruction of fictitious capital, bringing appearance and reality back into alignment.

Anders said...

Phil - you say " growing autonomous and going off to do its own thing". This presumably means a greater share of economic production is being done by individuals which are self-employed or working as part of a cooperative.

The boom in self-employment is well-covered by Rick at and it seems quite a concerning development. I'd like to think you're right on cooperatives, but what evidence is there on a boom there?

I wouldn't hold my breath on Uber drivers overcoming the fundamental coordination problem required to fight Uber itself. In any event, London cabbies coordinated years ago to set up Radio Taxis or some such electronic booking system; they're just trying to capture consumer surplus just as Uber are. Your instinct seems to be to welcome drivers forming their own cartel as sticking it to remote shareholders, but taxi cooperatives will still try and screw consumers by setting pricing as high as they can - I don't see this as a desperately benign development.


Phil said...

Anonymous appears entirely ignorant of how the socialisation of human beings is a gendered process that inculcates infants into an arbitrary set of practices and dispositions based on an ascribed biological sex. The point is the skills associated with the domestic labour of raising children - crucially the production of human beings with the competencies to get on in the world - is now something capital depends on and makes money out of directly.

The second point that class struggle doesn't exist because some people like their work is facetious. Everyone who enjoys working and does so for an employer will at some point be frustrated and angry with their work because a) they do not control it, and b) their labour is directed by another. Or, to put it another way, plenty of women enjoy being and are glad to be women, but that doesn't mean they are not on the receiving end of structural oppression.

On the self-employed I have talked about them a great deal and how *bogus* self-employment is the backbone of precarious, immaterial labour. The difference is that this strata of the self-employed, because of their networked character, are tending toward Corbynism as an expression of their interests. The traditional small business people, as most people know, tend to provide the shock troops for populist far right and fascist movements. If you don't like it, tough. Do something about it. But this has been well known since the 1920s.

And your last point kinda proves the immaterial labour argument vis a vis care.

Phil said...

As you won't be surprised to learn, Phil, I view Hardt and Negri somewhat differently. Negri is a difficult fella to read but is no more challenging than your average continental philosophy type. And he does write with, for want of a better phrase, a Marxist style of exposition. They key to understanding them is grasping tendencies. Empire and the common, and before it the social factory are all tendencies bubbling beneath the surface but are increasingly directing the social flow. I find this compelling because their arguments provide a sound basis for understanding the crisis of capital, the decline of the established labour movement and the seeming appearance from nowhere of Corbynism (as well as similar processes elsewhere). Certainly more so than more "orthodox" Marxist accounts I've read.

Phil said...

Hi Anders,

Hardt and Negri don't view the coming of immaterial labour as a benign development, but is is one pregnant with new potentialities for social transformation.

Regards labour doing its own thing, this could be read in two senses. The first is in an explosion of self-employment, which doesn't seem to be satisfactory as far as I'm concerned. Self-employment went up in the early part of the decade and is now coming down, but that had more to do with people trying to create their own opportunities under conditions of a stagnant economy and mass lay offs from the public sector. The second expression of doing its own thing is in social production outside of economics. Us sad people who blog and comment on blogs are atypical, but this is social production. We're producing knowledge, forming networks, inculcating subjectivities, and contributing to the making and remaking of human beings. This is the case for anyone who regularly reads/consumes and contributes content. Almost all leisure activities and domestic responsibilities do the same. Our participation here and the knowledges and competencies we pick up are what makes us attractive to capital, and what we often mobilise when we head to interviews. The thing is people would much rather be engaged in social production and doing their thing than being at the beck and call of an employer - it's a reconfirmation of alienation.

Padmadipa Paul Simmons said...

Thanks for posting Phil - I found this an invigorating discussion, and it is just so good to put this sort of post up that applies this level of analysis to the nitty-gritty of day to day politics. You may already be aware, but there is a very good critique of the work of Hardt and Negri that was written in 2009 and it is here:

I think Harvey really put's his finger right on it when he says

"Hardt and Negri dismiss Slavoj Zizek's contention that there is something far more foundational about class than there is about all the other forms of identity in relation to the perpetuation of capitalism, and in this I think Zizek is right . No matter how important race, gender, and sexual identity may have been in the history of capitalist development, and no matter how important the struggles waged in their name, it is possible to envisage the perpetuation of capitalism without them - something that is impossible in the case of class".

Also just a point here Hardt and Negri's reliance on Spinoza, that Harvey does not make: Spinoza was a big influence on my own development - but that was more in his role as a philosopher of nature and ethics. Living as he did in the 17 C he was commenting in his political writings on an very infant mercantile capitalism - large scale factory capitalism was still to come into being. And as such his political analysis is ambiguous, and can be read several different ways, only one way of which is the revolutionary progressive reading. So for example Henry Kissinger was a self confessed Spinozist. I have yet to meet someone who is self-conscious of the positive influence that Marx had on their thought, who hasn't by that very token become a Marxist - but by my example of Kissinger it is quite possible for someone to be a self-confessed Spinozist, and also at the same time draw reactionary conclusions! Warren Montag in his work Bodies, Masses, Power, who in other respects is very appreciative of the contribution that Spinoza made, but never-the-less brings to light the clear unresolvable political contradictions in Spinoza. Well worth a read if you want to go into it deeper.

For all that Harvey is not at all completely negative and complements Hardt and Negri for bringing to light contemporary problems and issues inherent in late capitalism. Perhaps it is best to do a selective and critical reading of their work!

Phil said...

Thanks, Paul. I'm still getting to grips and thinking through all this stuff, hence the spate of posts on this topic over the last couple of months! I'll certainly look at what Harvey has to say with interest, but going from your write up it seems a) he emphasises the "separate" character of class too much, which was something Richard Seymour picked up in his discussion of racism and capitalism exploitation and b) under appreciates class in Hardt and Negri. But will no doubt write more in the future!