Wednesday 23 May 2018

Jon Cruddas and 'Blue Marxism'

What does misinterpretation mean, particularly in hard-to-follow arguments about the complex and often counter-intuitive ways social dynamics work? Often, it can be an honest mistake, of not approaching a position with sufficient nuance or not having a complete picture about the theoretical project of which it is part. It can be a result of one's own assumptions, that because term x has a certain value attached to it in your thinking you interpret its deployment by an opponent in similar terms, thereby (unconsciously) distorting the position of the other. See humanist approaches to anti-humanism, for instance. Or you're trying to distort it wilfully to either avoid its ramifications, or to pigeon hole it as a stratagem for discrediting it. What kind of misinterpretation is on show in Jon Cruddas's recent attempts to rescue Marxism from new ideas and fresh thinking is something for the reader to decide, but shot through with error it most certainly is.

The target of his critique of what he calls the "postcapitalist left", both in his Fabian piece and his longer New Statesman essay is the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; fellas, as regulars know, who have a warm reception in this corner of the internet. And this critique has to carry a lot of polemical weight. Jon's Marxism (or "blue" Marxism thanks to his being one of the brains of the blue Labour "movement"), rhetorically emphasises class struggle at the point of production, talks about the need for a politics of consumption to deal with pesky things like "superstructural relations", and wants to "strike compromises" with the forces of capitalism that constrain our freedoms and aspirations. Leaving aside the peculiarities of a Marxism seeking compromises with capitalism rather than working towards superseding it, I am left wondering how much homework Jon's done on 20th century European Marxism. Leninism in its official communist and Trotskyist variants was never alone in emphasising the importance of workplace action. The Italian autonomism that deeply influenced and arguably made Negri is a different workerist tradition, for instance. Speaking of Antonios, I'm sure Jon has heard of the other one - Gramsci - though his remarks demanding a Marxist analysis and politics of culture suggests not. And if you reject the theoretical advances drawn from the experience of class struggles since the late 1960s, which is what Hardt and Negri (and their important poststructural precursors and forebears, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) do, the Marxism you have left has cut itself off from nourishment and innovation. Perhaps calling it 'blue Marxism' is more apposite for another reason, because in Jon's hands it is cold, inert, dead.

Needless to say, the pen portrait Jon (and Frederick Harry Pitts - remember him?) draw of Hardt and Negri is something I don't recognise. Rather than trade quotes, which is dull, it's necessary to break their polemic down into a number of claims they make about the new leftism. These are that the working class is obsolete and "a new urban, networked and educated youth" is the basis for leftist politics, that it is mired in technological determinism ("the implication remains that we must adapt our politics to match the march of the machines, rather than vice versa"), its theoretical underpinnings are derived from Marx's jottings that ended up published as The Grundrisse, and particularly, the fragment on machines, and that the new leftism is teleological: all history was bound to lead us to this point, and will serve up communism in the future. This points to their conclusion, that "orienting a programme for the left around errant theoretical derivations from disputed repackagings of Marx’s work and empirical speculations of a future that may or may not come to pass is unwise and potentially dangerous." Grab yourself a bunker, it all sounds quite terrifying.

There is plenty to say on technological determinism, The Grundrisse and teleology in the future, so for the remainder of this post I'll be concentrating on the claims made about class.

Of course, Hardt and Negri, nor Novara Media, nor anyone are saying the working class is obsolete. Instead, what is obvious is it has changed. There are many approaches to this, but the one underpinning the new leftism are the conclusions drawn by Italian autonomism from the battles of the late 60s and 70s, and popularised by the authors of the Empire trilogy. The direct involvement of the state in capitalist production meant it was then, as now, the primary vehicle for realising bourgeois interests in the class struggle. The golden age of the post-war period saw real prosperity, but also saw the state working hand in glove with employers to discipline, pacify and manage rising working class militancy. Additionally, the state provided essential support to meet capital's functional necessities in other areas. After the war and with the memory of depression in the air, the state started employing increasing numbers of workers directly concerned entirely with the maintenance of, well, capitalism. There were workers engaged in production for individual capitalists, and there were workers involved in reproduction for the collective capitalist. The latter just weren't the growing numbers of civil servants managing the expansion of state agencies, but those also involved in health care, in education, and in social services. Mainstream economics often talks about automatic stabilisers that kick in when the economy goes south. These institutions can be thought of as social stabilisers, as organisations that are part of the state who not only fix the bodies and souls broken by work, but play significant roles in constituting the social relationships and competencies capital, that businesses and so-called entrepreneurs, are dependent on.

According to mainstream economics, these roles aren't productive because they don't yield value and, therefore, profits. But taking a more expansive view reproductive work is productive, it's socially productive because it provides the social infrastructure for our society. Capital, after all, is much more than a sum invested: it is a social relationship. This reproductive labour then is immaterial labour. Whether caring for the elderly, teaching a class of kids, or reviewing planning permission documents, you are building social relationships, producing subjectivities and identities, generating knowledge, and managing abstract processes. No advanced society can operate without a large proportion of working age people doing this work. Think of your idealised 1950s nuclear family. Would the man be able to leave the house and work a full day with his clothes washed, meals cooked, children cared for, house cleaned, and sexual and emotional needs sorted if it wasn't for his wife? The unpaid, unglamorous, unrecognised labour done in the home by generations of women, the familial and social infrastructure they provide, is the microcosm of what reproductive labour, formal and informal, does for capital.

From the late 1970s on, particularly in Britain and the US and later followed elsewhere, immaterial labour was increasingly privatised. Sometimes it was a case of literal privatisation with public services put out to tender from providers who offered the taxpayer the best "value for money". But there was a shifting focus in capitalism itself. The confluence of consumerism and the invention of the teenager in the middle of the century, coincident with, feeding off, and spurring on rising individualism, and the cultural consequences of movements fighting for women's liberation, anti-racism and gay rights and sexual freedom forced capitalism to adapt. On the one hand, immaterial labour mushroomed in business to sell identities, to track fashions, to market mundane products. Along with them came an expansive range of service industries around the maintenance of the body, of providing lifestyle services, of flattering consumers and selling experiences. Meanwhile increasing social complexity and the need for businesses and government to engage in ever more elaborate planning found their solutions in fast developing information technology. The growth in computer usage, the coming of the internet and its unexpected, unanticipated spin offs (like social media) created new growth industries, and new avenues for more immaterial labour, this time around the production of information and data. While not immediately in the business of producing social relationships, this is work made possible by new forms of collaborative working and social cooperation thanks to networks. For millions of people, the work day begins with the inbox.

For Hardt and Negri, the archetypal worker of late 20th and early 21st century capitalism is the socialised worker. Immaterial labour not only transforms what we do, and how we do it, but it transforms us, too. Far from any section of the working class being obsolete, almost all of us engage in the immaterial labour of social production in our lives outside of work. Not just in terms of the time we put into family responsibilities and tending friendships, but connecting to and spending time with the network, or the social commons. Regardless of what we do, few are the number who do not have a supercomputer sitting in their handbags or pockets, and are active in some way on our digitally-mediated commons. This has a number of consequences, one of which is the nice irony that as our division of labour grows more complex, the basic characteristics of the socialised and networked worker grows more universal.

This is the working class of the new leftism, a becoming of a new unity through variegated multiplicity. It encompasses hip, young gunslingers podcasting from shipping containers somewhere in London. But it also takes in retail workers, couriers, engineers, traffic wardens, brickies, car workers, hospitality, and warehouse workers. Their work and the networks that bound their days might be intangible, but as a mass, the socialised workers of immaterial labour certainly are not. Please, tell me, what is "unwise and potentially dangerous" about orienting your political programme to the experiences and emerging interests of a large and growing majority of the population - unless your politics is uninterested in and afraid of organising them politically in the first place?


Jim Denham said...

"Of course, Hardt and Negri, nor Novara Media, nor anyone is saying the working class is obsolete"

Does "anyone" include Paul Mason?

Unknown said...

A “bourgeois “ critique of Marxist analysis, Parkin, pointed out that for all the importance that Marxists ascribed to THE WORKING CLASS, they could not agree on who belonged. Those who directly produce surplus value, (a very small working class), those who sell their labour power, (a very large working class) or, those not in the Professional And Managerial Class,(a Goldilocks position between the two others.)
What now? Everybody, because we are all involved with “immaterial” labour? Who would not be a member of the working class with this analysis?

Phil said...

Well, Paul Mason is, um, a special case. I want to write about that piece when I get time.

As for who is working class, it's better to talk about 'proletarians', and that is anyone who sells their labour power for a living. Does that mean we ignore gradations of status, people in contradictory locations, and the rest of it? No, of course not. Marx after all wrote about socialism being the movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority, and yet look at his political writings and you find discussions of different labouring strata and how they are divided up, pursue sectional politics, etc.

What immaterial labour *isn't* is a short circuit that excuses leftists from thinking about the material basis of their politics. Instead it is an *injunction* for understanding it.

Unknown said...

I’m still not on board here. If you think that everyone who sells their labour power belongs to one class, then why not label it a class? It does not imply an identical set of circumstances for this sale. In Marx’s day he could talk about the skilled, the unskilled and the lumpen proletariat, who were all members of the working clsss because they sold their labour power. Poulantzas made much of the idea that a minority of those who sold their labour lower did not directly produce labour power and so were not working class. Personally, I find most French intellectuals make a career about dancing on the head of pins and don’t get me started on the lack of evidence which might underpin their work. (Although curiously, like a musical genre where there is one artist or band is enjoyed, I like Metallica but not much else in HM.) The exception to this is Althusser for whom I have a soft spot.
Today, we recognise a precariat, for example Deliveroo, and maybe untenured university lecturers (who’d have thought it would come to that), skilled workers (BAE) carers who deploy social skill as they work, the IT guys (usually) who ask you if you’ve turned you’re computer on and off when it’s frozen and so on. What makes them proletarian rather than working class? The fact that they bring a different set of circumstances to this sale of labour power?
What is so important about this that it demands a different concept to understand their position?

Phil said...

Well, yes. Proletarians are a class. I thought this was obvious. The selling of one's labour power in return for a wage or a salary.

Preferring proletarians to refer to the mass of labourers is a matter of choice. I think terms like working class, middle class etc. are useful for understanding gradations within the labouring class, but less so when applied outside those strata. As you probably know, Hardt and Negri dispense with it altogether and prefer multitude, but the point is the same. I don't think there's much riding on this terminological dispute.

And, oh yes, we love a bit of Althusser around these parts too.