Ironically the traditional forms of class struggle have so far been fuel for the fire of capitalist development. Revolutions have been largely relegated to areas still in the process of primitive accumulation, while in those areas where several generations have matured under capital’s aegis, revolution has not taken place. If anything, the capital-labor dynamic seems to have reproduced itself in ever-new constellations, displaying an amazing capacity to absorb pre-capitalist cultures and its own oppositions.
The elements of a renewed communist or critical theory already exist, but often in theorists who seem unlikely bedfellows. Moishe Postone's critique of labor and discussion of the dynamic of capital forms the center of this renewal because his work acts as a critique of the traditional Marxist fetishizing of labor. However, Postone does not adequately say how labor and capital as abstract forms are forms of domination, and as a result in dealing with class he reverts to traditional Marxism's sociological conception of class. Richard Gunn’s ideas on class and the class relation make it possible to develop notions of class and class struggle adequate to the critique of labor. Postone's work also does not develop the analysis of the labor process, but Hans-Dieter Bahr’s The Class Structure of Machinery fleshes out the transformations of the labor process through which this abstract form of domination takes place. Finally a critical appropriation of Jacques Ranciere’s notion of democracy and the political helps to shed light on the debasing of political life in contemporary society and maybe what emancipatory politics might entail.
Before dealing with the categories I want to clarify my use of the much bandied-about term 'mediation', and the connected concepts of 'relation', and 'form'. Following Richard Gunn, to mediate is to relate a term to itself or to one or more other terms through another term. The mediation is the relating term, which is itself the relation. There are several kinds of mediation but I am primarily concerned with the one in which two terms mediate each other, where each relates the other to itself reciprocally or we can say where each is the middle term for the other. This can also be referred to as an internal relation, which is what we are concerned with in dealing with social forms. An internal relation constitutes the terms it relates and as it is the relation itself, it is the mode of existence, form or appearance of the terms it relates. If the terms are contradictory then the mediation allows the terms to subsist in their contradiction. A properly Marxian notion of contradiction relies on this notion of mediation.
This prefatory note is critical because of Postone's critique of labor as mediation. Just as exchange-value is the form of value, so abstract-labor is the form of labor, and thus forms the substance of value. Abstract labor is labor not merely as general labor power, but that labor as measurable in linear, abstract time, the time of production. This abstract labor mediates the objectivity of commodities and the independence of money under the operation of equivalence. Labor as the form of the subjectivity of capital is the mode of domination today which is unadorned by the traditional topics of critique.
This is a foundation for critical theory because it rejects the moralistic, and ultimately apologetic, view held by Marxists across the spectrum, for which labor is the standpoint of critique and communism is the realization of labor against the bewitching power of capital. In the traditional and uncritical view concrete labor can be freed from abstract labor, use-value from exchange-value and the social from the individual. For a critical theory labor in capitalist society is not merely the metabolic relation between Man and Nature, but the means of acquiring wealth, not merely as objects of consumption and production, that is, as material wealth, but in its social forms as money, commodity and capital. In the production of commodities, concrete labor cannot be separated from abstract labor because “The concretum is merely the expression of the abstractum.”
Likewise, use-value is not the good side of the value form to be rescued from exchange-value. It is instructive to follow Marx's logic on this:
"A thing can be a use value, without having value... A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. (And not only for others... To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.)…
Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value."
This section begins with use-value in its transhistorical sense. Use-value produced for others and which can only be transferred by exchange becomes a commodity, but a commodity with no use-value is value-less and its labor does not count and therefore creates no value. However, what constitutes use-value? The use value of a commodity is social and cultural; therefore something that is useless or even harmful in a transhistorical sense can have a use value. For example, both a Precious Moment porcelain angel and a Mercedes hood emblem have use-value. Rather than being transhistorically useful, use-value in capitalist society is both the concrete form of exchange value as a social object and the crystallization of abstract labor.
Finally, presenting directly social labor as emancipatory ignores the fact this direct sociality existed before capitalist society as personal relations of domination. Capitalist society is marked by the non-necessity of personal relations of domination and the necessity of abstract domination. As Postone indicates the issue is not a capitalist class exploiting a proletariat, but a relation that reproduces a pseudo-objective form of domination. This is how the elimination of potential capitalist classes by the state could be a repeated gesture of modernization throughout the 20th century.
If domination is abstract, however, how do we understand power? Richard Gunn proposes that,
“… class relations just are the social relations (i.e. the totality of social relations) grasped as production relations: the stake in class struggle is the power – understanding “power”, here, in something like the sense given to it by Foucault (cf. Foucault 1979) – inscribed within the social production process, and every aspect of every individual’s social existence is of relevance to this struggle, is bound up within it and is affected by its outcome… It is not classes, as socially (or structurally) pre-given entities, which enter into struggle. Rather – holding fast to the conception of class relations as relations of struggle – we should think of class struggle as the fundamental premise of class. Better still: class struggle is class itself.”
For Gunn then, class relations are production relations as social relations of power. If abstract labor, value, money, and capital are forms, then they are forms of the social production process. Therefore they ought to be understood as forms of the class relation, as forms of class struggle. This means that the class relation does not first manifest itself in social classes, but in the categories we have discussed so far. Still we are at the level of asserting that the class relation is antagonistic or one of struggle, and that this allows us to understand how labor becomes the social means of acquisition.
Labor is only the social means of acquisition where human beings have been separated from other ways of acquiring material wealth, where people must sell their capacity to labor in order to acquire the means to buy things which satisfy their needs. Just as things only become commodities by being produced for exchange, so only labor which produces solely for exchange, and which is itself only produced for exchange, becomes the means of acquisition. Capital is the social production process based on the generalization of labor as social mediation.
Domination must therefore be traced to the labor process as it relates to the individual, and this begins with the fact that in order to live, the individual must sell her labor power, which will be used as variable capital in the valorization process, M-C-M’. While M-C-M' is the circuit of capital, C-M-C describes the circuit for the individual, where the first C is labor power, M is the money wage, and the second C is the means of her social existence. Marx describes the potential for domination in the labor process in the same paragraph as the architect and the bee,
At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.
The individual's bodily and mental powers – her will – is commanded by the work to the ends of valorization. The labor process as a valorization process becomes the activity of our own productive intellect and will arrayed against us as an alien productive intellect and will and the means by which the individual appropriates wealth is also the means by which wealth is expropriated from her.
Labor in capitalist society requires the constant separation of people from their powers, from the means of actualizing their powers, from each other. Separation is the premise of all accumulation, or paraphrasing Guy Debord, separation is the alpha and omega of capital. Separation is internalized within the experience of everyday life, where it becomes naturalized and consensual and does not appear as domination.
If class is a relation of power which is abstract and naturalized within the social production process, power is experienced as a diversity. The structuring of our life worlds by class struggle, or power, can be expressed as an open-ended set of binaries in which we experience the eternal return of the same as constant change: expropriation/appropriation (Marx), inclusion/exclusion (Foucault), identity/non-identity (Adorno), universality/particularity (Adorno), conservation/expenditure, homogeneity/heterogeneity, incorporation/refusal (Tronti) and so on (cf. Gunn, 1987). Race, gender, and sexuality, but also class, are typically understood through these binaries, which is also why we see politics reduced to addressing racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism. For example, the PC politics of tolerance for difference, for non-identity, is predicated on absolutizing the identity on which intolerance rests. The demand for inclusion on the basis of race depends on re-affirming race, which of necessity excludes. The binary of labor and capital resulted in the erasure of labor from the political even as the state recognizes laborers as citizen, with rights in tow. These binaries both serve as a focus for resistance, but they also tend to reproduce their own conditions of existence, achieving a wholly conservative effect through dynamic means.
Marx's idea of the proletariat is markedly resistant to this binary logic. While the proletariat has an objective ground in the class relation, it is not as a class, position, or identity. Proletariat is the name given to the concentrated resistance to and possible negation of the capital-labor relation as social form and domination.
Understanding why this resistance has not become negation but has instead fueled capitalist development requires a consideration of the dynamic of capital: the drive that replaces living labor with dead labor, providing capitalist society with a telos, a directional movement in time. This drive arises from the contradiction between labor as the substance of value and the way in which increases in productivity reduce the amount of labor necessary, generating what Postone calls a “treadmill effect”. This replacement of high-value, labor-intensive production with lower-value, machine-intensive production allows one capital to gain advantage over others for a period even as it results in the general lowering of the value of labor over time; it increases the mass of value produced through increased productivity per hour. As long as the mass of value continues to grow and be realized, reproduction is able to continue even in the face of a falling rate of profit, but if the mass of value does not make up for the lower rate of profit, reproduction breaks down. The result is a conflict between the needs of valorization and the expanded reproduction of capitals versus the tendency towards the de-valorization of the products of labor. The material form of wealth, which takes the form of increasing productive capacity with decreasing inputs of labor, contradicts the social form of wealth, value. Crisis is thus a crisis of valorization, though it may appear in many forms.
The process of rationalization is not about technological solutions to technological problems, but a re-organization of the class relation through the transformation of the labor process utilizing technological innovation. The replacement of living labor with dead labor is not just quantitative, replacing x quantity of human labor with y quantity of machinery, but rather a combination of displacing and deskilling labor. The wide-scale employment of a particular technology to achieve systematic rationalization is always also a question of the problem of reproducing labor as social mediation. The old machinery and methods are now reduced to mere technology subsumed to the new labor process. This progressive rationalization cannot be adequately grasped by the notion of a movement from formal to real subsumption. Capitalist 'progress' is exactly these successive transformations of the labor process in order to overcome problems of valorization. 'Technological solutions' mediate these broad ranging transformations that alter the organization of space, time, and rationality, which is also why these progressive rationalizations appear as technological revolutions and give rise to technological determinist theories. This process of rationalization is how capital's domination is reasserted through the transformational reproduction of the capital-labor relation.
These transformations radiate and generalize because capital is a dynamic totality that can accommodate an almost infinite variety of political and cultural forms and absorb forms of resistance. The totalizing nature of the dynamic is evident in the global scope and simultaneity of these transformations. This is evident from the simultaneous global shifts which have been given an abundance of names, whether Fordism, the Mass Worker or State Capitalism to refer to the period from 1917 to the early 1970’s where power and production seemed increasingly to collapse into each other, or globalization, neo-liberalism or Empire which refer to the changes which took place since the 1970's in which the separation of state and economy seemed to be the dominant trend. At the same time, these rationalizing transformations can manifest themselves in a seemingly infinite variety of concrete shapes, and the global shift is therefore only evident after the fact. Often, the fact that we can talk about a change indicates that it is already passing or passed.
We must now get a closer look at these successive and progressive rationalizations through which the capital-labor relation re-asserts itself, but which also intensifies the treadmill effect.
The transformation of machinery and the labor process alters the relation of labor and capital and the relations of workers to each other. Machinery and the labor process mediate the actual relation between workers because workers come into contact with each through the production process. They also mediate the relation between capital and labor because capital is experienced first and foremost as the machinery, raw materials, and the command of the production process while capital experiences labor as variable capital. They materialize the class relation and thus form the basis for its perpetuation and particularization. Social relations are thus embedded in the labor process and machinery and their formation shape sociality.
The introduction of a labor process based on machinery gives work an indirect relationship to nature, as work is performed on nature to either turn it into a raw material or to turn a raw material into a product, but in neither case is the whole labor oriented towards the whole process from beginning to end. This abandonment of handicraft production opens up the way for the pre-planning of coordination, transport and assembly and the rationalization of the work activity via practical analysis and deskilling. Planning in turn becomes the price-form in process, with the value already being calculated prior to being brought to the market. Out of this comes the divorce of operational and technical planning from realization via physical labor which introduces the difference between the worker and the planners, engineers, and overseers.
Following Hans-Dieter Bahr,
Machinery sets free an intellect formerly bound to the feudal-handicraft labour process, an intellect which carries the possibility of forming a political collective worker out of the divided partial workers. In contrast to the work ethic of the guild, the political cooperation of wage-workers comes into external opposition to production as such, since the social ends of production confront the proletariat as an external force, i.e. as the ruling class. The leveling down of the specialized workers by means of production technology creates the condition for turning the wage-struggle into the potential political socialization of a working class in the process of organizing itself. On the other hand, the contradiction between the specialized worker and the technological intellect responsible for the direction, construction and transmission of the isolated detail operations, prevents the working class from recognizing its own social character in this intellect, which in fact represents its own intellect, even if in the form of an unconsciously collective product alienated from the working class and acquiring independent shape in the form of planners, technicians and engineers. The proletariat therefore stands in outward opposition to its own intellect, which the capitalist process of production has created in formal independence. In part, it was this hostility which weakened and nullified the resistance of the working class to fascism. In addition, the absence of a practical-theoretical critique of the productive intellect blinkers the working class, binding it as a variable moment to the aggregate social capital; in this respect, the working class is merely an antagonistic, but nonetheless fixed component of bourgeois society. Its blindness towards its own, but alienated, intellect means that it contributes to the maintenance of the false totality of this society. And a ‘liberation’ which takes place behind the backs of the producers posits freedom as mere ideal.
The formal independence of the intellect has become its real independence. This shift means that the worker more thoroughly divorces himself from a labor process which is incomprehensible to him in the absence of highly specialized, scientific knowledge. This independent intellect fosters a culture of giving orders and obeying which is prevalent in today's permissive society. Both authority and obedience flourish where they are least expected.
With the internalization and objectification of the whole labor process into machinery, the circulation of commodity capital is itself industrialized, while "industrial and commercial capital fuse via the functional role played by financial capital." Despite this fusion, however, the limitations of the means of transportation and communication prior to WWII still necessitated relatively dense and connected facilities, with large concentrations of workers and the possibility of seeing the entire production process. This concentration invoked industrial union type organizations and labor-type political parties. Forms of mass communication, such as the newspaper, film, and radio, developed as a means of artificially resolving what Bahr refers to as the "'ideality' of the collective worker" into that of an individual consumer and citizen. The various strands came together in the form of organizations of the workers which take on an autonomous existence, thus developing bureaucratically and in the end becoming a break on the very revolutionary intellect from which they grew.
The critical transition immediately prior to the present period begins with the application of electricity on an industrial scale and the development of means of communication and transportation that allow a lateral development in space, an increased pace of circulation and the relative independence of production units from each other. The achievement of this development also involves the massive, more or less direct engagement of the state in the economy. The state's involvement in areas of production of necessity increases. In poorer countries only the state could gather and coordinate enough capital to engage in development. In wealthier countries the state regulated the commonly required systems of power, communication, transportation, education healthcare and sometimes housing, whether directly in the form of nationalizations or indirectly via regulatory bodies and investment in infrastructure which is then made up as a gift to private capital.
The development of the power plant as machinery of power for other machines, as a kind of supra-plant system, allows for the placement of factories and workplaces anywhere on a grid of power lines. Similarly the development of roadways, the automobile, and the truck allow for the movement of labor and capital not merely along a fixed line with points a la the railroad, but laterally in space. So too do the advances in radio communications, telephone systems, and eventually television and computers. The development of the means to communicate orders and to guide the functioning of machinery confronts "the proletariat with its own intellect of earlier collaborative labour in a totally estranged form, and hindering spontaneous and mass forms of communication." The development of the means of communication and transportation is a means of transporting capital and communicating its orders and instructions, while at the same time isolating and separating workers, disrupting the possibility of collective communication.
The critique of the unions and political parties lags behind these changes, even as the Fordist labor process and laborer are dissipated into smaller units (teams, work groups, gangs and so on), with the resultant formation of corporatist rather than class organizations. Habitual and routinized allegiance to increasingly inadequate mass organizations leads to the mere representation of the interests of the commodity labor-power and the simultaneous double provincialization of labor within and without production. This provincialization deepens through the dual movement of suburbanization and ghettoization, especially in the United States where cheap land, an abundance of cheap raw materials for housing, and massive money directed by state policy to encourage and back this dual movement come together already in the 1930’s, achieving a full scope for action after WWII.
The de-concentration of the production process in space relied on the intensification of the productivity of labor and the labor process through the development first of chemical and later micro-electronic or digital technologies. The production process here is not the objectification and mechanization of the activity and knowledge of the worker. No longer is the main activity the re-shaping or refinement of raw materials into a particular form, but the production of wholly new substances and changes in the inner form of the materials. Chemicalization already began to develop in significant areas of production in Europe and United States in the late 1800’s, but it would not attain centrality until the post-WWII period. The development of plastics, polymers, and other synthetic materials now permeates all of production. Pharmaceuticals and genetically modified organisms change medicine, farming, breeding, and all related industries. In the case of electrification, nuclear power, having found its first successes in the atom bomb and nuclear weapons of mass destruction, introduces an entirely new way of producing energy. In communications and data processing, the development of microelectronics, especially in the form of the computer and wireless communication media, has relied on advanced scientific processes, whether in the manufacturing of computer chips, especially microprocessors, or in the development of computer programming. These processes and industries rely on the direct appropriation of scientific knowledge. From developing parallel to production and technology, science becomes the predicate. The integration of the laboratory and the scientific research department into industry soon followed, as did the increasing unity between university science departments, the corporations and the state. At the level of microelectronics, this was nowhere more evident than in the Internet, originally known as ARPAnet, which was created to allow research universities, corporations and the Pentagon to share research and development during the Vietnam War and afterward.
In these cases, the technology accelerates the tendency to replace living labor as the substance of value with machinery. Especially in chemical, biological and microelectronic processes, the tools develop out of the need to isolate people from certain phases of the production process, which are often quite toxic, and which require many processes to be carried out automatically, with as little human intervention as possible. The means of production cease to be instruments of the workers' activity, but an "autonomous purposive basis for specific forms of labour". The production process reflects the imperatives of scientific knowledge instead of being the outcome of cooperative work relationships. The means of labor and the labor process no longer reflect the alienated intellect of the worker, the objectification of the worker's ability to perform and organize labor vis-à-vis the engineer, architect, etc., but the materialization of scientific knowledge. The scientific intellect is alien to, not alienated from, the laborer because it is the intellect of capital as an intellect of 'objective technical dictates', of efficiency, of natural objectivity, of a metaphysical materialism. Thus the scientific intellect is not reclaimable by the proletariat, and is indifferent to any kind of proletarian consciousness.
The control of production by the scientific intellect, or the productive intellect which has achieved its real independence from the worker, has some global consequences.
Firstly, the continuous, rapid change in the technical division of labor alongside the determination of the distribution of types of labor according to the dictates of the capital-labor relation appears takes the form of an irrational separation of the material and organizational aspect of production (technicians who do not control the organization of work, managers who do not understand the technical aspects of the work, captured in pop culture by the cartoon Dilbert) and the socially irrational separation of the training of the mind from the application of occupational skills, which are perpetually falling into obsolescence.
Secondly, this has concretized the prior critique of labor and our critical theory of class. Class structures are not particularly about domination by a bourgeois class and its agents, but technologically constituted forms of labor and an abstract, objectified logic of production.
Thirdly, the transformation of the machine from instrument of labor into autonomous agent, the separation of production from the laborer's objectified intellect, the dependence of productivity on scientific intellect and automation instead of on the intellect and activity of the laborer, we can also comprehend some of the general political features of the current period, such as the ongoing decline of trade union organization and mass working class parties, and the decreasing weight of class identity, or rather its transformation into a reactionary cultural artifact because of the inability of work to provide a coherent sense of class identity. The production of identity shifts from one within production to one defined by consumption, and thus the production of a blue collar identity built on NASCAR and shopping at Wal-Mart and driving a truck and listening to Country-Western music instead of on one's place in production. All of this lends itself to the attitude which rejects subjective or personal domination or the suggestion of such domination, but which bows to domination in the form of expertise and objective necessity, whether in the form of technological, terminological, or pseudo-scientific constraints or the abstract drive for productivity and growth, with their increasing claims to the whole of our time. Or in other terms "chiefly in the destruction of people's ability to communicate and address each other in libidinous and emotive ways" and "the thinly veiled hypocrisy of a society which by not respecting words abuses people, and by insulting the intelligence creates a state of political cretinisation in which the various forms of authoritarian control may dominate".
This can be developed more concretely. The problems of today are not simply the same old problems. It is completely inadequate to say that there has always been violence or inequality or different kinds of oppression. Particular features of the present include not only the collapse of the conditions of class identity but also a degree of disintegration of social cohesion and a crisis of the political sphere. These cannot be reduced to effects of the recent economic crisis but must be comprehended as elements of the current constellation.
One of these is the structuring of lives according to who is included in the circuit of capital and who is excluded, but under conditions in which Inclusion and exclusion are moments within the capitalist totality. Exclusion takes the form of a lack of legal access to money, while inclusion takes the form of the relative access to credit-equity .
On the side of exclusion we have the relative abolition of money. This is not to say that money ceases to exist or that its material form is replaced by its digital aspect; that is merely another degree of virtualization, which money always entailed anyway. Instead, people simply lack the means to obtain money through the normal circuit of capital because wherever one is has become a land of nowhere. The barbarism of this situation was always to some degree evident in the so-called socialist regimes where the partial doing away with money while the capital-labor relation nonetheless subsisted entailed the replacement of market and money relations, i.e. democratic relations, with those of bureaucratically organized control, and thus a great degree of arbitrariness and violence. This is evident in the United States in a number of areas, from the ghettoes in the cities to Indian reservations. The extent of this exclusion can be glimpsed in the employment statistics of Black men between 16 and 19, where official unemployment is 52% and unofficial unemployment including discouraged potential workers is estimated to be 86%. This and other studies indicate a clear correlation between access to employment in this age group and consistent employment later in life. According to the same study, these young men are less likely to get hired, regardless of immediate social class and lack of a criminal record, than a white, male ex-felon. Unsurprisingly this results in developing means of acquiring money outside of the legal circuit of capital. In these cases we see the development of a prolific and violent gangsterism, generally connected to the drug and sex trades. Power struggles over control over or access to these extra-legal markets and sources of money results in persistent, violent conflicts between factions, which can take the form of the constant stream of violence common to American cities or in cases where market control has not been established at all, in explosive gang wars.
Inclusion is marked by the obtaining of equity and access to credit, that is, not just to money, but to extended money. If the lawless side of the current constellation is marked by the (partial) abolition of money, the side of law and morality can be brought together under the subheading “credit worthy” or “equitable”. The desperation on one side is matched by fear of falling on the other, which leads to the search not for emancipation, but for a way to secure one’s position. The resentment of “good and honest people” who gained their “good and honest money” through their own “good and honest labor” sees the excluded as the real source of their insecurity. Inter-personal violence overshadows its structural roots, just as the structural absurdity of money relations and the concentration of wealth are overshadowed by anxiety over its unfair distribution to people who don't work. This is the touchstone of the politics of revanchism, with a deep, but only sometimes overt, racism. At the same time, those who are credit worthy but who do not share in this resentiment, or who are more secure financially at some level, or simply culturally not predisposed to this revanchism and its narrow, petty provincialism, are subject to scorn as “elitists”. Filled with visions of evil speculators, child molesters, and moral corruptors of family and persons, who do not share our (Christian) values, the drift is not only towards anti-Semitic fantasies of out of control finance capital which are somewhat restrained in the United States by the political alliance with Israel, but also finds for itself a wide range of targets in homosexuals, feminists, undocumented workers, racial minorities, and vaguely specified urban, coastal elites.
This milieu may be particularly rabid in the Unites States because its status of inclusion rarely appeared as coming from state intervention, but from individual or community effort. The massive (and highly racialized) subsidization of suburbanization and private home ownership was indirect and the state took exceptional pains to not appear to be intervening in supposedly socialistic plans, while it racialized public housing and public aid programs as a means of stigmatizing these programs. Unions organized collective, but also extremely corporatist, retirement plans and wage and benefit structures, which were also heavily structured so that the benefits of unionization reinforced racialization and gender inequality. The revanchist populism of a part of the population, whatever its variations nationally, therefore includes a large section of the so-called working class, often the one which has traditionally been buffered from the worst of capitalist society by having claims to belonging to the credit-worthy, hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, which of course overlaps rather heavily with the racially dominant, nativist, patriarchal, masculinist identities. The relative inclusion of labor after WWII, in the effective legal recognition of the unions and workers’ rights and an increase of wealth and consumption which was predominantly extended to unionized white male workers in the form of home ownership-based equity and high wages, was followed on by demands for inclusion by racially and sexually excluded segments of the population, including within and against the unions. Considering the ways in which suburbanization furthers atomization, separation, and de-politicization, it should not come as a surprise that the revanchist anti-politics of the far right finds a popular base among people who feel themselves to be simultaneously citizen-producers and the victim of politics.
There is no way to separate this connection to the state from the role which the dollar allows the United States to play in the global economy. The United States has been able to use both its position as creditor to the world after WWI and its subsequent decline to debtor to the world since the 1970’s to its benefit because of the position of the dollar. This also means that the material foundation of suburbanization after WWII and its subsequent restructuring as the “dual income eternal debtor” or DIED household after 1968 depends on this means of global blackmail. Should the role of the dollar falter to a sufficient degree, should it be challenged by a new world currency, the rentier benefits that have propped up suburbanization will dry up.
However it is critical to not simply imagine that such a situation or any kind of collapse automatically entails revolution. Capitalist society is not able to perpetuate itself merely because it does a good enough job of meeting people’s needs. A full belly and a 60” flat panel are no more adequate to explain the lack of revolution than a belly filled only with anger and misery is adequate to summon proletarian revolution. The problem is one of how dissatisfaction can become a drive for emancipation. The old class identity had this advantage: it gave a way to organize struggle with the idea of a better world, a more humane and decent world, a more dignified world. It was a politics, however inadequate in the past and however clownish today in their eternal return of 1917 or 1936, which put forth human emancipation as its goal. On this level one should not belittle the ethical difference between it and the “angry little man” politics of tax revolters, tea baggers, and mad bombers and the problem this presents for critical theory and communist thinkers.
The current constellation thus gives rise to a political crisis, but in the form of a crisis of the political as such. Jacques Ranciere expresses this crisis in an interesting way as an attack on democracy. He does not mean an attack on the state or its functions, but on politics as the bringing of conflicts and antagonisms into the public sphere and democracy as the sovereignty of anyone and everyone, or rather a sovereignty which cannot be legitimized a priori. This attack entails both the privatization of key aspects of life and the increasing scope of the police function, that of the specialist with particular competencies, in what remains. What is unique about the crisis of the political is that it takes a similar form to that of the labor process: politics is reduced to the scientific administration of affairs by the state within the limits set by the market. All conflict, that is, all public, collective challenges to domination, become excessive and ‘political struggle’ becomes an oxymoron. Liberalism tends towards the side of scientific reason, tolerance of difference, multiculturalism, and rational administration, wanting the state to make politics a matter of administration and civility, which secularly de-politicizes social contradiction and antagonism by making it the private province of the state and experts. Reactionary populism favors explicitly anti-political lines of power such as kinship, religion, and the market, using the state to make them a problem of personal responsibility, to individualize them. In both senses this marks a flight from the public domain, the domain of politics proper, to that of the private, whether as the private affairs of rational administrators and specialists or as the private affairs of individuals or of private institutions. In both cases this is also the extension of the police function, of the rule of merit, kinship, wealth, etc. What is sought is obedience to an authority which is objective and therefore beyond reproach or contestation, whether the technical dictates of science or the market or God. Democratic politics is just this contestation taking place openly and collectively, as public matters, in which anybody and everybody is legitimate because no one has any particular claim to legitimacy. Democratic struggle then becomes the struggle to widen the public sphere, to politicize what is private, and to do so without preconditions for participation.
Ranciere certainly hypostatizes the separation of public and private, democracy and oligarchy, turning these into eternal categories of the human conditions, more binaries which beg the question, but he goes right to the heart of the problem, only to turn away at the last moment. The savage condition of life at the moment, the condition which cannot stand the thought of politics and which thus suppresses it or strikes out madly at it, is one where the increasing contradiction between the immense capacity to produce material wealth to fulfill human needs and desires with a minimum of direct human labor and the social form of wealth as capital, as self-expanding value, is sustained by denying the possibility of the re-purposing of this capacity for common human ends. The struggle to politicize the current conditions, to fight for the problems of crime, violence, poverty, hunger and so on to be expressed as political problems and not as matters of personal responsibility or technical expertise, quickly runs up against the recognition that such a politiczing immediately calls into question the irrationality of capital. No doubt this is why any attempt to put a break on inequality or provide free public services is automatically attacked by the reactionary populists as socialism and communism, while massive expenditures on the military, police and repressive apparatus in general, and any associated restrictions on freedom of expression, communication, and assembly, for example, are viewed as protecting democracy.
Consider the recent fight over healthcare in the United States in light of our above analysis. The issue nowhere is a lack of ability to provide adequate care materially. Neither the liberal nor the reactionary side argues that we lack doctors, technology, the ability to train more people, or the ability to produce adequate medical supplies. The issue is solely the lack of money. One side argues that state regulation, if not nationalization, would regulate medical care more efficiently so as to reduce costs. The other side believes that any human control over market forces is tantamount to questioning the hand of God.
So where will an emancipatory politics come from? I am not sure that we can say with any confidence that we know. We are sailing in somewhat uncharted waters. We cannot preclude continued violent de-politicization, this barbarism, but such a politics on a grand scale would likely make capital utterly ungovernable and cause its own disruptions in accumulation. It might entail the resolution of the current crisis of valorization by World War III. It might also entail sufficient damage done to the ecosystem that we reach a point from which we cannot return. However I believe that capital does tend to produce a proletariat, which is to say that it does tend to produce its own negation in the form of people being forced to struggle to improve their existence under conditions in which solidarity and collective action represent the only means for making use of our immense material productivity to our own benefit. There is no question that the material preconditions of a transformed human life exist. Communism, human emancipation from pre-history, from the rule of relations of domination, is a realistic politics.
What would an emancipatory politics entail? Whether the issue is providing universal healthcare or housing or education or ending hunger, a post-capitalist world entails the taking over and re-purposing of that material productive capacity for human needs. This is to me an obvious condition for freeing human beings from material poverty and also from domination by the need to labor. I intentionally say “re-purposing” however because as is evident from the 20th century, it is not adequate to change control of the means of production without transforming the labor process, the means of laboring and the ends of laboring. If this is not done, then capitalist class or not we will certainly have the reproduction of that abstract form of domination that is capital. Also, I do not believe that the solution is a kind of primitivism that comes with localism. The globalization of production is not an unmitigated disaster, but a pre-condition for creating a society of abundance.
The greatest problem no doubt presents itself in conceptualizing the conscious organization and control of all of this. It is no use to say that one merely rejects the state or wants councils. Nor is it more helpful to formulate the matter as say a Moishe Postone does, as the extension of the political over society, as if this did not entail Ranciere’s hypostatization of democracy and the political. Nor is it any comfort to say that the extension of the political is the extension of democracy over all of society, as that actually reproduces in the political sphere what we critiqued earlier in the conceptualization of labor: the problem is the social constitution of power, not merely who owns it or who decides. As the state is not merely an instrument whose content is determined by who is at the helm, neither is democracy a universal solvent for sticky problems of organization. Rather, an adequate formulation of this question requires a critical appraisal of the usual responses. At the moment I can in good conscience go no further than to state that the negative, the critical, will have to do for a start.