The following remarks by Will Barnes constitute a more or less coherent reflection the larger part of which has been developed by the author over three years [when written in 2009]. Some aspects of what follows are eminently warranted, and easily justified; others would be far more difficult to convincingly defend. None of it is unassailable.1
- 1. I have drawn heavily on two discussion I have recently penned, “Imperialism, Recreation of the Conditions for and the Drift toward World War” as it appears in Nature, Capital, Communism and “Could Antarctica Melt? Revolution Imagined. Three Scenarios.” [at these texts available at: http://intcssc.wordpress.com/]
The declining rate of unionization of the industrial working class in America in the last three decades has gone hand in hand with the growing reduction in the numerical weight of industrial workers relative to the total number of waged and salaried personnel as large industrial capitals shifted their operations abroad. In fact, this reduction in the numerical weight of the proletariat in the U.S. economy is the other side of the emergence of vigorous centers of industrially-based, capital accumulation in the world system, in part a product of the flight of U.S. capital “offshore,” in the end though a product of the very dynamics of capitalist development.
This decline is not a temporary phenomenon: It is a product of the movement of capital, of the new technical inputs mediated, truly astounding productivity of abstract labor. For capital, such productivity, of course poses the threat of a crisis of overproduction.
This decline is one feature, among others – all interrelated, that characterize objective tendencies of a development distinguishing the American working classes in the contemporary period. These include formation of vast, new proletariat made up of "contingent" or casualized laborers, much of its cast off in the disintegration of the central core of mass production industries and the permanent shrinking of the municipal proletariat; it includes further the emergence of a low wage manufacturing proletariat; inseparable from low waged manufacturing and casualized labor, the growth of a massive layer of super-exploited Latino labor paid at rates far below prevailing wage scales; and, more and more, as casualized labor becomes the predominant figure within the proletariat today, a blurring of historically distinctive features of different strata within and forming the waged relation. It is the emergence of this figure, that of casualized labor, that I think is most significant for what is really crucial, namely, the possibilities for consciousness among workers. I shall return to this.
The collapse of the big factory and Fordist industries and with them a disappearing traditional unionized industrial workforce, the period renewal on assaults on the living standards – the wage, miniscule benefit structure and working conditions, and today the virtual collapse of those living standards – of the contemporary layers of the U.S. proletariat have not produced so much of what sociologists call "downward mobility," for the changes in question are not merely a matter of the rearrangement of social groups in a preformed, yet relatively unchanged class structure.
Side by side with the development of these distinct strata of the U.S. working class as a whole, new formerly proletarian strata have emerged. For example, since the time of Reagan a "homeless" population has erupted, and has in the last several months (winter 2008-2009) exploded all over again in the most distressed regions, areas where the crisis has been the deepest, for example, in the new Hoovervilles, homeless encampments, outside Sacramento. (Circa March-April 2009, there were roughly 350 other cities with similar encampments across the United States.) The homeless, migrant and undocumented, casualized and unemployed workers do not form a new and distinct layer of a "lumpenproletariat," a counterpart as it were to those who were once identified as the "structurally unemployable" slum or ghetto dwellers of America's largest, decayed cities. Among the largest groups making up the waged relation, strata and layers have lost their distinctiveness. Instead we have witnessed the creation of a socially amorphous, whole new social stratum (which is further enlarged by subjectively middle class, Anglo proletarians disguised as “independent contractors” often living on the edge). Accordingly, there is an ongoing, massive expansion of the proletarian and so-called "dangerous classes" in the United States, beginning with the abandonment by large employers of mass production forms of labor organization in the face of stiff international competition, as the neo-Right groups in the State continue to allocate the largest amounts of federal transfers to “Sunbelt” states, and as the upper layers of the middle stratum consciously pursued strategies for increased wealth and consumption through tax code-based federal transfers and, until recently, through “tapping into” fictitious wealth “stored” in personal property (homes, residences). The combined result is a blurring of class distinctions between the bulk of the working and "dangerous classes” as they mutually penetrate one another.
This much said, and though the class structure at the bottom is extremely fluid, we must carefully distinguish the phenomenon of lumpen proletarianization from that of casualization, and distinguish from one another, of course, the individuals who are subject to each process.
Begin by simply noting that like the unemployed and unlike the lumpenproletariat, the casualized are part of the working class.
Lumpen proletarianization as a social process is mediately a product of capitalist development: Even in its moments of greatest cyclical expansion, capital has never been able to productively “employ” the entirety of its underlying population. But within this societal phenomenon there has also always been a subordinate, subjective moment: Gambling may be a personal compulsion, but the pursuit of gambling as means of social, self-reproduction contains an element of choice. Similarly with drug trafficking: Where work is available, it is generally not well “compensated” work and the petty entrepreneur engaged in the sale of drugs “labors” little in an activity that is extremely lucrative…
In what still remains the most insightful, concise analysis of the social layers composing and defining the lumpenproletariat, Marx (The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Napoleon) examined the social basis of that grand rouge, the entourage of the French “emperor” which he, Marx, so fittingly dubbed the la société du 10 décembre: “Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origins, alongside ruined and adventures offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebands, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohéme… [that constituted the] this scum, offal, refuse of all classes” …those who means of socially mediated, individual reproduction, parasitic in the manner of the business classes, also entails, beyond this, venality, illicit pursuits (in the bourgeois sense) or criminality as a way of life. Today’s historical analogs are pimps, while their organized form (starting from the great drug cartels, and intimately related, “youth” street gangs) is the drug trade, which, it goes without saying, far exceeds any illicit capitalist activities of Marx’s day.
Casualization is, on the other hand, a strictly objective process. No one chooses to be casualized, and the proof lies in the fact that the casualized exhibit a willingness to work, and do work often very, very hard (i.e., long hours with little in the way of “compensation”) in often unpleasant, licit activities that are necessary to the reproduction of capital in its current historical form.
Who are the casualized, or what is casualization? This phenomenon is best understood in terms of historical contrast.
In the era following the end of the last imperialist world war, American firms developed a system of hiring and promotion from within the firm that emphasized the internal development of the workforce. Characterized by promotion ladders and relatively clear rules and procedures governing workplace behavior and management expectations, the result was a relatively stable, "full-time" workforce, including wage earners, which could more or less take for granted job security and had guaranteed access to the firm's benefits programs, who in this context achieved a norm of a 8-hour day, 40-hour workweek (often among highly unionized industrial workers honored only in the breach).
Casualized labor, on the other hand, presupposing the end of the post-war boom and the unfolding decline of U.S. capitalism, is characterized by the absence of full-time, benefited and stable work. Casualized labor is neither stable nor benefited. It is not organized (unionized). It is paid low wages, and is part-time, seasonal or temporary. (Already by 1995, a new workforce structure had developed and characterized the contemporary firm, made up of a shrinking core of full-time workers and a periphery of contingent employees.) Casualized workers regularly labor at two and sometimes three jobs.
Now casualization has become a generalized, nay a ubiquitous, societal phenomenon. Immediately below, I’ll describe the casualized U.S. proletariat’s most recently formed layers. But here, reflect for a moment on whom first constituted the casualized: This was youth, particularly since the eighties when within the capitalist State a sub-minimum wage was first legislated, legalizing the payment of a wage below reproductive costs to young workers in the new mass entertainment “industries” (restaurants, hotels, amusement parks, game houses and similar venues of consumption, etc.). Most notable among these, the earliest of the casualized were black youth in fast food kitchens and white women employed as waitresses in restaurants. In the case of activities of the former type, however, wherever casualization has penetrated and new layers have been formed, black youth, especially males, were the first to be found. This is not fortuitous, but rooted in the racism that is a central, endemic feature of American capitalism through its history, and a premise of that very history. This history of racism, a history of oppression, both objective (structural deprivation, inaccessibility of work, homes, forms of consumption) and subjective (daily diet of humiliation, abuse and personal offenses), has found among this black layer of the casualized an entirely distinct feature, a form of awareness characterizing large numbers of casualized black youth (especially those who have not subjectively gone over fully to lumpen activities), an awareness that oscillates between a defeatist individualism and personalism assiduously cultivated by capital’s spectacle and angry revolt that can, in the right conditions, be immediately linked to open struggle against and confrontation with capital. Unlike all other casualized layers, black youth is not inherently conservative.
De-industrialization has transmogrified whole layers of the American working class and the changes in class composition have been startling, since this proletariat has undergone radical changes in makeup with a view to gender, class and local geography. Among the casualized (whom may form in excess of seventy million workers in the United States), the vast majority of the class has been recently proletarianized i.e., these workers have become proletarian within their own lifetimes (and, this assessment is, mutatis mutandis, valid for the balance of what once was the core of the class).
In other words, the majority, perhaps the vast bulk, of today’s working class is not hereditarily proletarian, and among these layers the vast overwhelming majority are, as I indicated, casualized. These layers are composed largely of the following: Formerly middle stratum youth forced to work in contingent laboring capacities (the cook, janitor, the adult paper “boy”); divorced women, most often mothers who, prior to proletarianization raised families of modest means and have sometime in the past been forced to work to support themselves (and their children); small town men and women (and here I include sons of disappearing rural farming families that have sold off to their land to make way for far, far out suburban growth) who have been attracted to the big cities (Atlanta, Nashville, Minneapolis, Denver, etc.) that, set down in large tracts of the contemporary capitalist countryside, are gigantic magnets whose higher wages, relatively speaking, and standards of living attract the rural petty bourgeoisie, the proletariat of the small towns, and rural tenant labor; and, low level managers, supervisors and foremen who have been thrown out of work by the various cyclical downturns (1981-1982, 1991-1992, 2001, and the present crisis in global capitalism beginning in 2007) since the peak of the post world war expansion. These groups have never breathed the free air of the city. They are profoundly conservative: It is here that we find a generation whose icon is Ronald Reagan, whose inclinations are individualistic and anti-union, and who identify themselves, not as workers but as Christians, Republicans, and part of the struggling “middle class.”
Significant numbers making up these new, largely “white” proletarian layers (e.g., re-situated small town casualized labor, divorced working women) have returned to the working class after a long absence (one that transcends their lifetimes): In the middle stratum expansion predicated on the boom following the last imperialist world war, their grandparents or parents, as the case may have been, “climbed out’” of the working class. While in the middle stratum contraction that has occurred in America following capital’s response, the global shift of industry to the capitalist periphery, to the last worldwide proletarian upsurge (circa 1963-1978), they have “fallen” back into a working class (i.e., their existence is again determined by the wage relation) that has at once been vastly expanded and seriously fragmented.
In the absence of a clear alternative to actually existing capitalism, mutual penetration of various proletarian layers has been accompanied by the peculation upward of the forms of awareness characterizing the most backward layers of unorganized labor. This is most clearly visible in mass culture, in the diffusion of the spectacularized interests of backward, unorganized labor (in, e.g., NASCAR, country music, the “manly” romance with the pick-up truck, etc.) throughout the American proletariat. This upward peculation affects the very speech of those various layers in their forms of address (e.g., the use of term “buddy” as a verbal expression of male bonding, the ubiquitous use of its diminutive “bud” with reference to very young males by working mothers); or, again, it is expressed in the choice for provision of spectacular “information” (e.g., the immense popularity of right-wing, radio talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh among workers. Walk the streets, and listen to whom the UPS or Fed Ex driver has tuned his or her vehicle’s radio into while making deliveries.)
This upward seepage, a movement in working class awareness, is basically rooted in shared, societal assumptions of different layers of the proletariat, none of which constitute elements of a fundamentally proletarian culture, and the most important of which are the absolute unassailability of the structure of work and the refusal to mount challenges to any of capital’s prerogatives. This upward seepage is further rooted in self-defensive anti-intellectualism; in the affinity for the violent spectacle (i.e., the psychologically shared structure of repressive desublimation); and, in a psychological-emotional makeup that is authoritarian-submissive. In a “positive” sense, awareness centers on monetary conditions, on the daily struggle to make a living; and, always co-present “in” consciousness, on family concerns, and the immediate network of friendly (and hostile), often workplace-based acquaintances. It is awareness appallingly ignorant and cognitively incapable of grasping any (especially, productive or political) event, structure or locale (in its relation to the social totality) that transcends this immediacy. Simply stated, the very concept of society or totality has disappeared. Tacitly racist, largely xenophobic, often religiously fundamentalist, and openly jingoist, the conceptual mediations that permit transcendence of immediacy are spectacularly generated, provided by the likes of Fox News or based upon contemporary adaptations of biblically bastardized fantasies.
More prosaically, much of the contents and structure of awareness are consequences of having been beaten to the ground by, economically, the depression conditions in which wage earners, especially the casualized, live.
These assumptions and these psychological dispositions lead, especially under these conditions to diversions of every sort, to resentment of the wealth, consumption and perceived “relaxed” “lifestyles” of well-to-do middling groups invariably identified as “liberals”; to resentment over objections to enthusiastic commitments to the violent spectacular in every conceivable form (filmic entertainment, so-called sporting activities, jingoistic support for U.S. wars abroad, etc.), perceived as guilt tripping; similarly, to living for, as it were, spectacular enjoyments outside work and the corresponding refusal to give consideration to anything beyond entertainment as “heavy,” “depressing,” “politics” and a distraction; and, to resentment of intellectuals and cultural vanguards expressing a societally induced low self-esteem (and, more likely than not, not just societally, but also familially, induced). They lead to open support for homophobic solutions for the gay “problem,” and, to a faux humility that is inconsolably aggrieved and constantly expressed in victim’s fantasies – all of which make this personality type and its variants prime material for recruitment into the vortex of social movements of the neo-Right.
What is absent in all this?
Institutions (as mundane as taverns) in which workers at one time reproduced themselves as members of a class no longer exist; instead, as passive participants in the mass culture of the spectacle, they reproduce themselves as isolated individuals… Most fundamentally, the historical proletarian core in America no longer produces its own class-based, oppositional culture.
In the not too far distant past, it was legitimate to speak of a proletarian counterculture. Most visible here in the United States in the activities of the Wobblies, this proletarian oppositional culture stretched back to the late 1870s. It rose from the objective matrix of production, and within this context, from the lived and experienced antagonism toward capital (its newly forming police agencies, its courts, its legislatures, and its army) in which it took shape… under conditions of formal domination and the extraction of absolute surplus value… in the lived unity of exploitation and oppression. This culture was constituted in the activities of daily life, subjectively on the basis of the visceral hatred of the bosses in work, but also in the neighborhoods and, seamlessly characterized… especially among the unskilled layers “within” a proletariat vertically split along the lines of tiny skilled, native stratum and mass, unskilled and largely immigrant strata. … the proletarian community as one existing apart.
It was on the basis of an oppositional proletarian culture that the various challenges to capital formed in the era of trustification, the twilight era of formal domination. I only need recite some of those challenges… the first national strike along the Baltimore & Ohio in 1877, the social revolutionary development of the mid eighties in Chicago ending in Haymarket, the great strike of the American Railway Workers in 1892, the intense struggles of hardrock miners in Colorado, Montana and elsewhere (Coeur d’Alene, Cripple Creek) from the mid-eighties until after the turn of the century, and all the various struggles of the Wobblies, Wheatland, Bisbee, Butte, Patterson, etc.; and finally, the huge proletarian upsurge in steel in 1919, one of the three, maybe four, greatest class confrontations in U.S. history… to recognize how profoundly casualizing recomposition of the U.S. working class has transformed its awareness and outlook.
In all these events, a uniquely proletarian-oppositional culture of daily life underlay formation of strike committees that functioned as a center of de facto dual power organizing food and fuel supplies, public order in the community, and armed self-defense. On the employers' side, capitalist terror (mass firings, blacklists, pass systems, and the use of thieves, thugs, and murderers as well as private police) reigned, followed by, and once established, simultaneously with, massive state and federal intervention, i.e., State repression and terror (blanket court injunctions, troops, suspension of habeas corpus, round-ups, and imprisonment). All this was in addition to lockouts and the employment of scabs, which are normal, non-terrorist capitalist practices in any struggle against workers.
In these class confrontations, the class antagonism could be no more apparent.
This culture was so pervasive it characterized even organizations if not entirely reformist, then with thoroughly reformist (not to mention arcane) leaderships: In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor included labor assemblies, workers’ club rooms, cooperative factories and stores, workers’ newspapers, social clubs and singing societies, narrowly political organizations, and workers militias and labor courts. The courts settled worker disputes ranging from workplace to family problems, e.g., from scabbing to wife beating, without recourse to the existing, bourgeois judicial system. Spectacularly homogenized, capitalist societal organization no longer admits of this, a distinctive and alternative, proletarian culture of daily life, a class based community that tendentially aimed at societal hegemony.
The problem that began with de-industrialization must be restated in order to grasp that it is not temporary, transitory or short-termed. The collapse of Fordist industry, this very movement of capital, must also be understood in terms of the relation of classes and not as some dumb objective phenomenon, not just as a product of the movement of capital. It is, first, itself an expression of the failure of U.S. workers to successfully mount a real challenge to these changes, thus marking the end to the last international cycle of struggle (manifested most forcefully in the U.S. in the stalemated outcome of the 1978 coal miners strike), and, second, it is a product of the string of defeats (PATCO, Greyhound, Dodge-Phelps, Hormel and Eastern Airlines, and closing with Caterpillar strike in 1992) that followed upon neo-Right ascendancy and consolidation of power in the Executive (Reagan).
So what has been the fate of hereditary U.S. proletarians?
Many have taken early retirement. Many more have been forced into the low waged manufacturing, or into work as casualized labor. A goodly number escaped immediate determination by the wage relation altogether by setting themselves up as small owners. Still others retired, and struggle to get by on a reduced pension, Social Security and Medicare. Finally, a few remain in a vastly reduced industrial sector.
Hereditary proletarians who have, so to speak, a union heritage, fathers and in some cases mothers who were union members, form a very small, mute yet subjectively militant layer of the unionized proletariat as it exists in the United States today. Where, rarely, there are broader political perspectives, they, the perspectives and the unionists who hold them, though perhaps anti-corporate but never anti-capitalist, are tied to the Democratic party: Militancy is strictly confined to their own unions, better yet, to their own workplaces and bargaining units, and it is debilitatingly handicapped by commitment to contact legality; while the unions themselves, seeking the best deal for labor on the terrain of capital, having long ago become one more groups of specialists within the fragmented division of labor, are at best experts in contract negotiation.
While most other layers of the working class have no cohesiveness as specifically proletarian groups (having objectively and historically depended on the activity of various different cores in the different phases of capitalist development to cohere them), today’s core, having lost its coherency, has no specific proletarian identity: Captivated by the spectacle, this residue proletarian core aspires to little more than a “lifestyle,” to profligate “middle class” consumption… It’s not that the working class in the United States is largely absent a culture of daily life. It is not. It is just that this culture is capital’s…
Based upon transformations in the work-processes and division of labor within the global system of social relations, the changes in the consciousness and composition of the traditional American proletariat are not transitory; rather, these changes are congruent with transformation of the “economy” (i.e., the collectively constituted institutional abstractions such as workplaces embodying productive materials, instruments and machinery, business firms, industries, regulatory agencies, etc., that, taken together, with this movement and its moments, constitute it, the economy, as such). I shall return to this.
By the early 1990s, Spanish speaking labor was at once a phenomenon of the borderlands economy, the dominant proletarian element in migratory labor in the fields of corporate agriculture, and a component in the retail service sector in the great cities of America.
Today, in productive terms Spanish speaking labor has penetrated every major sector of the U.S. economy; demographically, it has become the largest minority in American society (between fifteen and twenty percent of the entire population); and, geographically, no longer confined to the Southwest, the San Joaquin Valley of central California or the large metropolises, it can be found in large numbers in every corner of the continent.
Geographically and demographically, Spanish speakers are now the largest social group, in Arizona, New Mexico, in the southern cities of Texas, in Southern California and close to the largest social group in the entire state as well as in Nevada. By 2006, Spanish speaking labor had become the largest growing minority in South Dakota (having outpaced the growth of the rest of the population of the state by 20:1) and in South Carolina (where a growth ratio of 10:1 existed over the previous six years).
Productively, Spanish speaking workers are overwhelming (better than ninety percent) proletarian. They make up seventy-five percent of all wildfire fighters in the Pacific Northwest; almost exclusively, they do the factory labor of butchering hogs in southwestern Minnesota, and in slaughtering chickens in central Iowa. Spanish speaking workers form the largest, most militant component of the trucking industry in Southern California. They dominate in the less skilled trades in the mass production of resident housing and commercial office construction, not merely in the major cities but in cities with a population of 100,000 or more across the country; and they continue to work in textile and apparel in the South, in the high tech sweat shops of Silicon Valley, and in the service sector as cooks in restaurants and hotels, as janitors everywhere and as domestics in the homes of the well-to-do throughout the country and in the large urban areas of southern Canada.
Spanish speaking labor is still engaged in low paying, but better paid, unorganized but better organized work. The fractured traditions of community constituted in its homelands (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, etc.), its linguistic commonality in the midst of difference (Spanish as opposed to English), its Indian as well as specific “foreign” “national” heritages, and its lowly proletarian status all render this proletariat oppressed and exploited with slim chances for integration into the fictitious community of capital as it exists in America today, and, in self-making under these “conditions,” vastly more capable of self-organization for self-defense and qualitatively more militant than their white and Anglo counterparts.
The various working class strata that constitute the black proletariat in America, like Spanish speaking labor, experience, more consistently and more intensely, the same objective or institutional exclusion from full integration into capital's spectacularly constructed, fictitious community. These strata consist in the growing largely black, southern manufacturing proletariat, and the ethnically Caribbean proletariat of the East Coast as well as black layers of large urban municipal proletariats (where they don't overlap with the two strata immediately above, and who often provide leadership that similarly situated white workers follow). In fact, the institutional character of white racism weighs so heavily in North America, with individual exceptions, working class and plebian black Americans as groups will never experience full integration, not merely into capital’s fictitious community but into those economic, political, social, and cultural institutions through which access to fictitious community is achieved, and which define fullness of life in American society. Because, for example, among proletarian and plebian black populations waged work is and will not be compensated at a level comparable with white and Anglo counterparts; voting rights are denied or cannot be exercised without harassment; access to housing, housing loans, and livable neighborhoods is refused, restricted, or difficult to negotiate; a variety of facilities, clubs, etc., are simply off limits; and, daily life overflows with petty humiliations, denigration, and bigoted behavior, these proletarian groups are compelled to generate simultaneously a racial and class awareness of systemic institutional inequality and discriminatory practices that render notions of social justice central to their claims on American society.
Unlike almost other layers of the U.S. proletariat especially its massive casualized element, among both of the latter two groups concepts of the state (as distinguished from the "government," from the regime that currently holds power), of that of a ruling class, of capital, tacitly operate “in” awareness. This is important…. It is among most militant layers of these two class strata that the "leading” elements upon which any challenge to societies of capital on the North American continent will be based.
Call the largest part of this description of the proletarian pole of the wage relation “empirical-psychological,” one formulated abstractly, that is, without reference to the tendencies that are operative in the system of social relations that we call capitalism at the level of the world and as these tendencies are contemporarily unfolding.
It remains to consider world capitalism in its current historical incarnation, its tendential development and, then, attempt to concretize this description of the proletariat with a view to its development, i.e., the possibilities for consciousness.
Above I noted the growing reduction in the numerical weight of industrial workers relative to the total number of waged workers in the U.S. economy. But far more significantly, the hollowing out of industry in the old capitalist metropolises (North America, Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, Japan) papers over the reality of a worldwide absolute decline in the size and economic power of Fordist industry, of the old autos-steel-glass-rubber complex and those other mass production industries modeled on it, and an absolute decline in the weight and political significance of industrial labor within the Gesamtarbeiter (collective worker).
The tendential direction of capitalist development is today determined, first, by the enormous and increasing productivity of abstract labor within the capitalist system of social relations at the level of the world, and, then, by the growing expulsion of waged labor from production, hence, it is determined by the central contradiction of capitalism as it exists today, by the unhinging of the creation of real wealth from the production of value. The problem, capital’s problem then, is this truly astounding productivity of abstract labor and the productive technological apparatus that it sets in motion measured in terms of value. In these terms, the Chinese proletariat alone is productive enough to satisfy the use value requirements of the entire world. In these terms, the devalorization of the U.S. industrial base as a whole, its effective disappearance, would not resolve the problem.
It is in this context that world capitalism today tendentially exists at two poles.
At one pole, there are the old metropolitan centers of the system now downsized and hollowed by the past three decades of restructurings and outsourcings, centers that have tendentially become rentier economies, centers wherein the consumption, often profligate, of middling and socially very narrow layers among the proletarian populations form by and away the largest markets in the world for a system of social relations whose legitimacy increasingly, and contradictorily, rests on its extraordinary capacity for commodity production. This consumption in turn rests on a hidden technological dynamic to which I shall shortly return.
At the other pole, there is the productively engaged, recently emergent industrial complex of East and South Asia.
If we consider this new industrial center of gravity we can note a roughly semi-circular arc that stretches along the Asian continental coastline from the Korean Peninsula in the north and east to the Indian subcontinent in the south and west. That arc, call it the Asian industrial arc, more or less begins at Seoul at one end and more or less ends at Bangalore at the other end. In between, we find the major industrial centers, cities and regions that include Ulsan (Korea), Shanghai, the Pearl River between Guangzhou (Canton) and Shenzhen (i.e., Guangdong province), Saigon, Bangkok, and Dhaka and so on. This arc has a dual productive center, namely, those sites at which non-hegemonic, subordinate imperialist foci of world accumulation that rival the dispersed U.S. centers have emerged. They consist in, first, a line that runs from Hong Kong-Taipei in the south to Osaka-Tokyo in the north, and, second a competing center of accumulation just the other side of the East China Sea along a line that runs from Shenzhen in the south to Shanghai in the north.
…Behind these centers (and forward of them as the arc in the south begins its bend westward), a vast rural hinterland is populated by peasants and tenants, petty capitalist farmers, even numerous groups of isolated and scattered peoples without developed agriculture existing largely outside the state systems of the region. Now not all peasants are rural (petty) bourgeois. Some peasant forms of life and activity are communal; in fact, with the exception of capitalist farmers, among these social groups (hardly all, and probably not even a majority), there are communal traditions that are hostile, not so much to capitalist development as such, but to capital’s real domination. Where this hostility is most pronounced, it rests on convictions that are lived and felt as the foundations of social life. These include a conviction that all the land, the land as such, belongs to the social group; that it belongs to the community and not to individuals; and, the community, no matter how "primitive" its technique and low its "standard of living,” is self-sufficient, not just productively but perhaps even administratively (which would render it hostile to the State as such). In the not so distant past, these convictions had their material foundations, as it were, in a customary, regular practice of land division that effectively stymied the penetration of capital. It is a memory of this community that sustains hostility to a capital which we have see recently, for example, in the wave of strikes (June-October 2006) that hit the Bangladeshi garment complex centered in Dhaka, a revolt… astonishing in its extent, duration, riotous character and its elemental violence… of these new proletariats who have not been habituated to capitalist production, some of whom carry this memory, and most of whom possessed of, as it were, an emotionally and psychologically constituted need structure make it difficult for them, viscerally, to tolerate capital’s real domination (machine production domination of the rhythms and tempo of work, arbitrary authority of bosses, etc.)…
Within this pole of capitalist development, the region’s industrial dynamism has created demand for raw materials and industrial inputs that, until recently (and now renewed, temporarily, by the Chinese Stalinist domestic infrastructural “stimulus” package), dramatically accelerated a secondary re-industrial capitalist development in different parts of the world (Australia, Brazil, Chile, Canada). The two poles of capitalist development are tightly coupled, inextricably bound together, centrally by the Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese coastal export industries whose raison is the manufacture of consumer goods for the old capitalist metropolitan centers in the West (United States and Europe) and Japan.
As these news sites of capital accumulation have formed, the entire historical process of the disintegration of old metropolitan-centered mass production industries has become irreversible:
Leading this development, the U.S. economy, for example, has undergone transformation from the world’s industrial dynamo to a formation based, most importantly, on financial services, insurance, real estate, and entertainment for which financialization of activities, taken together with middle strata consumption, appears to be decisive, but masks, as I said, a hidden technological dynamic.
In contrast to Fordist industry based upon relative surplus value extraction (as it exists especially along the East Asian industrial arc), today productive dynamism also takes another form that is perfectly compatible with, nay demanded by, wholesale casualization of proletarian populations and rentierization of individual “national” economies taken separately, abstractly. (Rentierization, again I stress tendential, is also perfectly compatible with pockets of regional re-industrialization, as in the American Old South where the auto industry is undergoing a renaissance of sorts by way of investment largely by Japanese capital.) This form constitutes development of a novel productive-societal elaboration, technologies of capital based on informational (at the core of which is software development), materials (incorporating engineering as well “applied” physics) and biogenetic (including medical laboratory) technologies… There is no primary technology at the heart of this development. Each deeply penetrates the others and none is possible without the others… Largely militarily driven, this novel technological complex is the foundation of U.S. hegemony, a hegemony threatened by growing competition as the great U.S. based capitals no longer have the resources to engage in long term research and development and as the U.S. state itself is more and more compelled to limit the same in its efforts to militarily maintain that hegemony and to finance its own failing social system (decaying infrastructure, massively subsidization of entire sectors such as agriculture, wholesale banking bailouts, climate change induced destruction of urban landscapes)…
The structurally significant components of the system of social relations on a world-scale exist, as it were, at different moments (eras) in the history of capitalism. The old metropolitan centers are subject to what I call the absolute domination of capital over society (what others altogether inadequately characterize as a second phase of the real subsumption of labor by capital), while the dynamic center of world capitalism in East and South Asia as a whole can simultaneously be situated in the twilight of formal domination (in agriculture) and the advent of real domination of labor by capital (in industry).
In our summary, unnuanced presentation, this schema is obviously of a limited value (e.g., the high tech industrial platform in Germany makes it a leading exporter in the world today), so allow me a further elaboration.
I have loosely referred to the categories of formal and real forms of the domination of capital over labor, both in the productive based sense (for which formal domination conceptualizes the merchant and landlord activity, uninvolved directly in production, of extracting surplus value absolutely by lengthening the working day, and for which real domination conceptualizes the industrialist directly intervening in the labor processes, which includes not just machine inputs but the reorganization of the work processes, and extracting surplus value relatively), and in the sense of epochs in the history of capitalism that, though originating sequentially, can be found to simultaneously spatially or geographically coexist.
Unlike the skilled worker of the twilight era of formal domination and the mass worker of the era of real domination, the casualized worker outwardly appears a dominant figure of this, our era. Casualization forms the contemporary heart of waged labor in the same sense that formal democracy constitutes a free society: As “free” societies, contemporary rentier economies of the old capitalist metropolises appear lifeless, absent vitality in the capitalist sense. Casualized labor epitomizes this situation, but in so doing it is an outward form that masks (while in part revealing) the real totalitarian dynamism of these economies, one that must be located in the total societal situation, starting from the qualitatively deeper penetration of science and technology, not as “inputs” that shape and reorganize production but as techno-scientific production that is seamlessly a piece with a culture of daily life underlying which are the individuals whose souls and bodies are ceaselessly being techno-scientifically remade, and, on this basis, proceeding to that mass of the proletarianized population which is collectively mobilized for exploitation, at the heart of which is scientized work and all those auxiliary activities mediately connected with and necessary to it (and, of course, here masses of the casualized are included). The specific figure of the casualized worker, then, outwardly symbolizes and personifies this capitalist culture of daily life, but it, that culture, is underpinned by relentless exploitation of societally assembled, productively coordinated concrete living and breathing, sentient and waged human beings in their entirety, a never ending effort to reduce us to an utterly insubstantial social figure, a reassembled mechanical abstraction, socially combined labor-power (of which casualized labor is a mere component) as it is counterposed to capital.
Historically and objectively, capital’s response to generalized opposition, especially workers’ opposition, arising in the last cycle of international class struggle (1963-1978) has been to develop far more fully a tendency already present under conditions of real domination, to remake society as a whole altogether beyond production. The movement of capital has exhibited radical development, i.e., it has taken aim, so to speak, at the root of bourgeois society which the entire history of its development has produced, namely, the individual… not the abstract citizen, producer or member of the family, but the individual in its essential sociality, as an ensemble of social relations, and accordingly its exploitation aims at the essential sociality of the individual, its being as part of the collective worker (Gesamtarbeiter) as its has come into being under conditions of techno-scientific production.
Capital no longer merely hegemonizes production and, accordingly, our era can no longer be defined merely in terms of production, as the real subsumption of labor under capital (real domination). The historical tendency of capitalist development to reduce social relations to productive ones notwithstanding, production is not society: Today capital holds society as a whole in its grasp beginning with domination of classes down to their individual moments, persons in their affective and need based foundations; hence, our characterization of the era in terms of the absolute domination of capital over society (or, expressed differently, societies of capital).
Absolute domination is based on capital’s stranglehold on human needs by way of and by means of the continuous rapacious plunder and destruction of the humanly formed natural world: The domination of this abstract, alienated (fictitious) community, society, has developed through capital's invasion of the bodily substructure of a historical humanity (egoistic individuality) specific to capitalist societies, in particular, on capital's insinuation of itself into the culturally and historically constituted need structure of men and women, beginning with the formation and structurization of human need in children; that is, intertwined with and as substitutes for the depth-psychological absences (love, belonging) that are relational products of the bourgeois, nuclear family, an absolutely insatiable need to consume commodities is implanted (constituting a character-formative, repressive desublimation of those absences)… Its “introjection” requires obscenely massive production of humanly worthless commodities that is inseparable from, and impossible without the plunder of nature, its reduction to infinitely plastic raw material in the matrix of production, and without the sciences of nature which constitute the theoretical framework in which this reduction is carried out…This voracious need itself is for novelty, to have and possess whatever newly appears on the market, but with the proviso that in a really crude, phenomenal sense, a ubiquitous market is constitutive of society itself in its specific historical form…
This insatiable demand, lived as need, is the basis for remaking the whole “inner life of ‘man’,” a remaking that calls forth capital to provide all social individuals so-formed (not just alienated and waged labor) with their (incomplete) fulfillment, an incompletion that is only experienced as ineffable longing and dissatisfaction which, in turn, is yoked to the consumption of commodities and, on that basis, to labor and production as provision of the monetary means of fulfillment… Need of this kind is, as we say, insatiable. It is the means of incorporating us into capital’s orbit. It is also compulsive: Imagined for us in advertising, in mass media venues of all sorts, projected as fantasy made real, its satisfaction is achieved in an aggressive, thingly cathected, reflex sublimation of abuse, wounds, humiliations, offenses, and resentments that are the regular diet, the sole steady and reliable features of life lived in all the central activity contexts of societies of capital (family, school, work, and various social venues of consumption). This sublimation is compulsive and it is repressive (i.e., it is affectively yoked to the reproduction of capital and its reactionary social order), because it is a reflex (i.e., the anger these features of daily life invokes is split off and repressed, has never been worked through and is at best partially, symbolically and unintelligibly recalled)… Most fully realized in the middling groups (but well developed in all those waged strata who aspire to profligate consumption, “lifestyles” modeled on the well-to-do middling layers), the aim of capital in remaking inner life is to render resistance to capital individual; more specifically, what capital aims at is development of a depth-psychologically heteronymous, personally sensitive and self-indulging subjectivity that realizes itself through the consumption of commodities, which, because it have been formed as an existentially dependent personality, can only function in the context of paternalistically authoritarian social relations.
In the historical sense, the foundations of the absolute domination of capital over society are based in production itself, that is, in the astounding productive capacity of abstract labor, that has developed in the last one hundred and twenty years, and in particular since the end of the last imperialist world war. These foundations presuppose the injection of an extreme concentration of capitalist unity and resources, namely, the state, into the circuit of capital itself, at once to insure outlets for this amazing productive capacity and to secure the loyalty of the popular masses in society. Thus, the integration of individual need structure into the order of capital also signifies, as it were, capital's response to the potent threat of overproduction. Here, production, aided by science wholly subservient to capital, is oriented toward the creation of commodities the consumption of which remake the whole inner of life of individuals and reshape the reality of class, a dialectic in which and through the individuals assimilate and internalize the logic of capital and capital appears humanized… Absolute domination largely has its historical premise in real subsumption of labor under capital, in the mass worker, capital's "new man," but only as “he” exists the other side of the end of the upsurge of workers in the last international cycle of class struggles, and on this basis beyond the era of the big factory, stable work and high wages and, with these, on the basis of the disintegration of social life we see unfolding all around us…
At the level of the world, the absolute domination of capital over society is not universal. At this level, the system of social relations we call capitalism exists at two poles which are exemplified by the rentier economies of the old capitalist metropolises (with their hidden dynamic) existing largely, but not exclusively in the West, and the vigorous industrial economies of East Asia. It is in those rentier economies, first and foremost that of the United States, where absolute domination holds sway. (Of course, all these developments are tendential: The United States industrial economy at the date this specific discussion was originally penned, late spring 2008, remained the largest in the world.)
While formal, real and absolute domination are broadly sequential eras in the history of capitalism, and while at any specific moment in that history and in any particular society, these eras can co-exist, it is an open question whether on a world-scale (real or) absolute domination decidedly shapes capitalism today.
There is, however, in this regard one point I should be clear on. The growing reduction in the numerical weight of industrial workers relative to the total number of waged workers in the rentier economies in the old capitalist metropolises (in fact, the massive hemorrhaging of industrial jobs in the United States) is not merely the other side of the growth of such work in dynamic centers of industrially generated, capital accumulation in the world system that has emerged in East Asia as large industrial capitals continue to shift their operations from one region to another. On a world-scale industrial workers are, I repeat, in absolute numerical decline as new technical inputs generate exponentially increased productivity.
The structure and organization of work under terms of the real subsumption of labor under capital no longer obtains under terms of absolute domination: Massed workers in highly socialized workplaces wherein each worker visibly and tangibly is dependent upon (all) others has given way to smaller workplaces in which sensuous-material structures (ad hoc walls, cubicles, small scale laboratories and worksites) isolate workers and restrict immediate recognition of the social character of work allowing it to appear personalized and merely interpersonal. This alone has an immeasurably deleterious effect on the possibilities for consciousness.
Capitalist practices of surveillance in the worksites of casualized workers and attempts to reconstruct workers’ personalities through modification of workers’ “soft skills” (e.g., intonations, inflections, affective expressivity and “attitude” in call centers) are, though, seamlessly a piece with formation of workers as “consumers” in societies of capital through the mass culture of the spectacle. Similarly, that culture, biotechnology and the sciences of life as infinitely malleable genetic material underpinning it, and paternalistically authoritarian practices at all levels of the state (starting at its lower levels with municipalities) are perfectly congruent with and are decisive moments of the absolute domination of capital over society…
Does, then, the casualized worker appear as the dominant proletarian figure in the world today? (Is simultaneously hidden and disclosed by this appearance, totalizing, totalitarian exploitation of the collective worker a novel basis for the generation of surplus value?) I think so.
Casualized labor is not merely a decisive characteristic of work in the old capitalist metropolises. As unbenefited and low paid, unskilled and unorganized, part-time (seasonal or temporary) work, casualized labor also characterizes the capitalist periphery in its entirety. It is ubiquitous, and can also be found in those dynamic industrial economies of East Asia. For example, by the end of 2007 a full 60% or more of the Korean working class had undergone casualization.
But let’s return to rentier economies of the old capitalist metropolises, specifically to the United States where casualization has perhaps seen its most extensive development. Bureau of Labor statistics released prior to the current collapse in employment reveal that as much as half of the combined waged and salaried workforce in the United States is employed as waged labor in services, perhaps as many as 71 million people. By contrast, the manufacturing proletariat, the vast overwhelming majority of which is low waged and the bulk of that unorganized (operating in small shop export production), constitutes 6-7% of the waged population, not more than 9.6 million workers. In the United States (and tendentially in the old capitalist metropolises across the world), it has effectively disappeared, shrunk (in numerical size as an outcome of its own productivity as abstract labor) and transplanted as it were elsewhere.
The mass of “service sector” wage earners are not employed in those quintessential rentier activities, banking, insurance and real estate, but are concentrated in the retail sector (for example, in retail apparel distribution), food service, “hospitality” and entertainment, health care, in office adjuncts to all these activities, and in call centers (where as many as six million are employed).
But casualization also strikes into those specific domains of the collective worker where it is most visible, in the engineering and materials research departments of the greatest capitals, the scientific research laboratories of the state (especially those that center on medicine), the universities and institutes that house its, capital’s, organic intelligentsia… all of which are decisively instrumental in providing the otherwise rentier economies of the old metropolises with the crucial surplus value, generated on the basis of technological inputs through the exploitation of mechanically assembled social labor, that permits them to remain competitive, and in the case of the United States hegemonic, in the imperialist struggle for control and disposition of the internationally circulating mass of surplus value, of production, markets and resources in the world arena…
There are two common, mistaken tendencies in regard to grasping the meaning and significance of this Gesamtarbeiter (collective worker).
The first is an ecumenical determination. Any social relation, no matter how remotely connected to the production of surplus value is, it is argued, a part of the “collective worker.” While it is the case that both “productive” and “unproductive” labor feature in the class relation that defines the Gesamtarbeiter, and the casualized and the employed do emphatically, the self-employed, middling adjuncts to capitalist firms and the salariat as a whole do not. Contrary to what some journalists and academicians believe, the wage labor relation is decisive in this regard.
Derived from a very narrow reading of Marx taken together with some very productivist proclivities, the second tendency finds in the concept of the Gesamtarbeiter what in fact capital ceaselessly attempts to make workers, socially combined labor-power (ein sozial kombiniertes Arbeitsvermögen) engaged in the production of the total social product (capital). Here, one speaks of the collective worker in terms of the capacity to labor (Gesamtarbeitsvermögens). To this mechanically assembled abstraction, I oppose the sense of a world class of productively connected, waged concrete human beings.
With a view to this second tendency there is a difference, and even if at first it appears subtle it is not: In the former sense one starts from labor-power as it exists for capital, not concrete, living and purposive human activity (a distinction Marx himself effectively proposed), one starts from “concrete labor” rendered abstract, i.e., generalized (unspecific) and temporally quantified, for in materializing and objectifying itself under conditions of capitalist production it is abstract labor that is so immensely productive… precisely in the capitalist sense. While it is the historically contingent development of abstract labor that has made a generalized human emancipation possible, it is not abstract labor that either we wish or Marx wished to liberate, but the concrete worker struggling against abstraction, the practical, vital, breathing and suffering human being possessed of affects and needs, not the enormous productivity of assembled abstract labor. I distinguish and oppose this concept of the Gesamtarbeiter to this productivist sense for which commitment to a vision of a “free society” is commitment to a highly rationalized capitalism based on unlimited progress and development of productive forces.
The recomposition of the working class across the world… not just in the United States… has vastly fragmented the various forms of class struggle: In the often personalized rows against supervisors, foremen and managers of the masses of the casualized ranging from the janitor, the fast food cook and the medical attendant in the metropolises to labor in “informal economies” of the cities of slums of the periphery; in the industrial battles of the workers in the Fordist industries, from those in the capital intensive centers of Japanese autos and the high tech export industries of Germany to the new consumer goods manufacturing complex of Guangdong province and the textile concentrations around Cairo and Dhaka; in the fights of state and public sector workers everywhere against rationalized work norms that exceed those operative in capitalist firms; and, in the quarrels over personal dignity and control of work among the scientific proletarians in university laboratories, capitals’ R&D centers; and, across the face of the earth from the oilfields of Arabia to the industrial agriculture of the Californian Central Valley, in the conflicts of migrant laborers asserting their barest humanity against the immediate representatives of great capitals, etc.; it is in and through these multifarious confrontations that a Gesamtarbeiter is counterposed to capital at the level of the world. A revolutionary struggle against capital is a question of whether these otherwise fragmentary skirmishes can… in the course of the long drawn out crisis of capital, I stress long… cohere into a global opposition to exploitation, oppression and brutalization, that the resistance of the collective worker to capital can transform itself into an explicit confrontation, can, in other words, be raised to consciousness. And it is only on this global terrain that the self-activity that can produce the awareness to illuminate these struggles becomes visible.
The Contemporary Impasse
Intertwining of Capital, Ecological Catastrophe and Climate Change Denouncement
The Contemporary Impasse
Intertwining of Capital, Ecological Catastrophe and Climate Change Denouncement
Our general perspective remains: At this moment no matter how seemingly remote, without a proletarian-based revolutionary transformation that would overthrow the order of capital a future the contours of which I shall sketch here is inexorable, fated.
This simply astounding productivity of abstract labor reduces turnover times and the period of a developmental cycle, so that within each cycle resources are voraciously consumed at a pace that is rapidly outstripping the rate of technical innovation within capitalism required to shift the earthly resource base away from hydrocarbon fossil fuels and create a new order of raw materials on which the entirety of capitalist development can rest. What is described by the term “voracious resource consumption” has created a situation within earthly nature in which the latter is homogenized, reduced to uglified raw material basins (denuded forests, open mines, desertified grasslands) at the start of a cycle of commodity production and toxic wastelands and garbage cesspools (wetlands turned into landfills, decaying urban centers, vast stretches of ocean densely littered with plastic refuse) at the end of that cycle, i.e., with commodity consumption. This ecological catastrophe, which includes within it, ongoing, the sixth mass species extinction in the nearly four billion year old geological history of life on earth - a biological regression reversing tens of millions of years of natural evolution and undermining the basis of life (and specifically human life) itself, is unfolding within the still broader context of global climate change itself occurring at an extraordinarily rapid pace (historically as well as geologically). The initial onset of rapid climate change, which has occurred in the past in transitions from glacials to interglacials, is characterized today as in the geological past by what is media spectacularly deemed “extreme weather” (increased intensity of cyclonic and hurricane storms and the tornadoic events they spawn, increased frequency of drought and wildfires, unseasonable amounts of precipitation and severe cold and intense heat, major flooding all from region to region and within regions, etc., generally, increasingly elastic seasonal weather regimes together with disappearing seasonal weather patterns), but promises much more: In the coming decades, as the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps melt, rising sea levels (as much as seventy five meters) will drown every major urban coastal metropolis in the world from New York to Shanghai and inundate, rendering useless, every acre of low lying agriculturally productive land contiguous with oceanic waterways. Glacial melts at mountainous altitudes across the world will reduce runoff in the great rivers of the world from the Andes and Rockies to the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau and turn once lush agricultural regions along those rivers in Peru, the United States, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and elsewhere into arid and desertified basins. By the time they reach 6° C (10.8° F), rising temperatures will make life unbearable within today’s temperate zones compelling population movements into the higher latitudes.
In the face of this what, to the contrary, characteristically exhibits the tendential direction of contemporary development of capital is the creation, enlargement and refinement of technologies of social control, and their integration with that aim, the social control of underlying, especially proletarian, populations. The very fact that biogenetic, informational and materials technologies form the most dynamic societal productive complex within contemporary capitalism elegantly speaks to the issue at hand: The elaboration of the means and wherewithal of a novel type of totalitarian control signifies capital’s retrenchment. The operative ruling class assumption is that is it necessary to pour societal resources into preparation for a maelstrom of social change (generated by natural change). These resources, societal wealth, are neither intended for nor aimed at meeting and curtailing the most dangerous effects of climate change.
Over the coming decades, our situation will, absent a proletarian overthrow of the order of capital, further deteriorate: We’ll witness a qualitative increase in regimentation and repression of domestic working populations to insure compliance with warming required, draconic restrictions on energy consumption; drought and starvation, massive, unnecessary death; depopulation of coastal areas around the world, dislocation and forced relocation; creation of huge frontier zones and camps of displaced persons along national borders, refugees in the tens and perhaps hundreds of millions living in squalor without hope; resource wars between states, ethnic cleansing and genocides as a regular feature of daily life. A climate change catastrophe will make access to resources immensely more difficult, interrupt and make production of agricultural foodstuffs and industrial raw materials less unreliable, inconsistent and irregular, will place demands that cannot be met on the infrastructural foundations of capitalism which capital’s movement at once produces and which capital requires to reproduce itself on an expanded basis, and will narrow the basis in earthly nature for human activity in its contemporary capitalist form to a point from which it cannot be sustained. As they unfold, all these problems, qualitative, utterly novel and unprecedented, will heighten inter-imperialist rivalries, tensions and struggle.
While undoubtedly, there are those who accept the media spectacular adjuncts to the state’s propaganda machine in their characterization of the current situation in terms of “recovery,” if by recovery we mean a renewal of accumulation in the epochal, historical sense (i.e., creation of new markets, or vastly expand existing ones, in order to restore a pace of accumulation that will insure a long-term growth within world capitalism without systematic resort to renewed, fictitious accumulation), then there will be no recovery: The crisis is something other and far more: It is not at all a question of a cyclical downturn within the business cycle so-called, but one of a systemic crisis, the onset of a third great contraction and devalorization in the history of industrial capitalism.
Today, we are posed between two moments of the open global crisis of capital in the systemic sense. I’ll specific this systems sense in terms of the “collapse” of capitalism, an immense devalorization that ruptures the global sequence of exchanges at countless sites and locales, and leads to interruptions of trade and the large-scale shutdowns of production, much like that which occurred in the period between September 2008 and January 2009. The return of an open crisis will not, however, finish capitalism, not even herald its end. Alternating between periods of stagnation or limited growth and open crisis, a prolonged, torturously slow decline is far more likely.
But in any event while I would like to argue that any moment, a large-scale feature or significant event is contemporarily determined from the total situation of global capitalism at that specific moment, I think it is necessary to recognize nodal aspects of the system of social relations which are crucial for resolution of the current phase of the crisis, and which, unresolved, will only deepen that crisis. I repeat that a return to the open crisis of capital in the systems sense in no way signifies the death of capitalism. In the end, only the sustained, revolutionary activity of a self-conscious proletariat that can transcend itself as abstract labor and abolish itself as a class, can overcome the value form and go beyond the order of capital.
As of this moment (October 2009), I would specify four such nodes, what I prefer to call chokepoints in the system.
These four are the banking situation in Eastern Europe beginning with the relations (inclusive of Lithuania and Estonia) between Latvia and the Swedish banks, and those between the Swiss banks and Poland, Hungary and Croatia; the volume of world trade and its relation to gross underutilization of productive capacity; the level of productive activity inside China; and, a whole interrelated series of features within the United States (levels of unemployment, conditions within the housing market, banking balance sheets, availability of credit and its use, situation within commercial real estate, etc.) which can be summarized in terms of consumption in the United .States and its decisive centrality for a revival of growth within world capitalism. It is consumption of this sort that I think is no longer achievable.
If, in fact, capitalism exists at two poles in the world today, the relation of production along the Asian industrial arc to consumption in the old metropolitan centers, more specifically, the relation of the level of productive activity in China to that of consumption in United States, is the central element, the motor if you will, of the world system without which it will again “collapse.”
There is a reason why the Chinese Stalinists had found their home market in the old capitalist metropolises, especially in the United States. It is their inability to solve the agrarian problem.
The problem of agriculture has been particularly pressing in China for the entirety of its history. The Achilles heel of economic development is agriculture, and the Stalinists have been incapable of revolutionizing it: Capitalism in Chinese agriculture has been the elusive goal, but it was never a question of whether China was a net importer or exporter of rice.
Rather, the central issue has been that capital’s spearhead, a small class of genuine capitalist farmers, has never differentiated itself out from the peasant mass: The classical relation of capitalist agriculture and industry… in which a class of capitalist farmers derives incomes from the exploitation of rural waged labor and proletarianized tenants with which it purchases machinery, implements, and luxuries from industrialized region within the country, here the coastal areas, and in turn ships produce and foodstuffs, chickens and rice, from the interiors to the coasts to feed the proletarian populations of the cities… had never obtained in China. Consequently, China has always been absent a developed, tight network of capitalist productive relations integrating the metropolises with hinterlands forming an inter-regional relation and generating that fabled self-sustaining dynamic of capitalist development.
In retrospect, the series of agrarian reforms instituted by Deng between 1977 and 1979 “de-collectivizing” and commercializing agriculture had been effective on both counts: By 2006, perhaps 99% of rural villages had been de-collectivized and now lack social support (free housing, health care and education); peasants have been saddled with the “family responsibility” system (each household contracts with the village in the person of the headman, likely a party official, for a portion of land to farm); and the best local lands have been sold off to developers with a pittance in the way of compensation (and a fat fee to the official); local rural ecologies have been wrecked and continue to be increasingly ruined by the application of chemical fertilizers, by polluting small industry… In all this, the Chinese peasantry to this day is still engaged in what, euphemistically, is called “subsistence” agriculture: As a class of landlords-become-intellectuals had for nearly four thousand years held the key to the stagnation of Chinese economic development (recruited from the landed gentry as a bureaucracy, a professional civil servant in the service of the Emperor, this class intentionally suppressed development through taxation policies that inhibited commerce, mining, etc. and encouraged large families making surplus labor available for the great irrigation projects it controlled), so the rural Communist party official has, so to speak, in altered conditions carried on this tradition by actively functioning as an impediment to rural agricultural development, standing in the way of the differentiation out of the peasant mass of a capitalist farmer. As a result, outside the new urban middling layers, there is no “home market” of any significance in China. 1
Unable to solve the agrarian problem, the Chinese Stalinists have nonetheless encouraged and fully subsidized the creation of coastal export industries that ruthlessly exploit all that proletarianized, surplus peasant labor thrown off by de-collectivization and commercialization.
The Chinese stimulus package aimed at renewing and massively expanding domestic infrastructure, though it has not yet run its course, will not substitute for the employment provided and the surpluses generated by the coastal export industries. Manifested in the Shanghai stock market and the skyrocketing price of real estate in the great coastal cities, it is a fictitious accumulation that has only the appearance of re-igniting sustainable domestic activity. If foreign demand does not return to levels prior to autumn 2008, trade, which has yet to recover half of that which lost by the beginning of 2009, will renew its contraction. Those raw material supplying economies (Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile, Canada) that depend on Chinese industrial consumption (copper, iron ore, steel, and foodstuffs such as wheat and soybeans, and beef and fish as well) were also effectively jumpstarted by the Chinese stimulus package and they will suffer immediately and immensely. In this, East Asia, Oceania and Latin America will return to conditions of open crisis.
Today, as in the period autumn 2008 - early winter 2009 demonstrated, the Chinese Stalinists are more than ever dependent on consumption in the old capitalist metropolises of the West, not just for their legitimacy and rule but for social stability in the country.
So capitalist expansion depends on a renewal of pre-crisis levels of consumption in the United States. Consider the latter.
Conditions within the housing market are deteriorating as home foreclosures, not longer subprime-based but largely the consequences of unemployed homeowners unable to meet mortgages, are increasing with recent monthly levels setting new records. Furthermore, banks, not wanting or more likely without adequate capital reserves unable to write down losses due to failures to meet mortgage payments, are refusing to foreclose on significant numbers of delinquents so-called and thus are hiding the true extent of bad debt they are carrying.
Beyond this, the FHA and Federal Reserve are the only parties financing mortgages, preventing a collapse in the market: The FHA is now broke and the Fed, well, Fed policy is driving Treasury practices, so money’ll just keep rolling off the presses. The situation is similar within commercial real estate. That landlords, often huge real estate development firms, have in many cases, especially in mall and large office complexes, dramatically cut rents, offered to renew and actually renewed leases on terms far more favorable to occupants has failed to have any real impact on an “alarmingly” increasing rate of vacancies. At the same time, commercial mortgages are increasingly classified as “non-performing.” After a miniscule uptick, bank lending is again falling, the securitized lending markets are virtually non-existent and business debt is rising masked only by the fact that large capitals are buying back their own corporate (junk) issuances at reduced prices.
This leaves unemployment on which all else now turns. Current levels of production in the broadest sense simply will not support increased employment levels; in fact, with figures that are methodologically cooked by an obfuscatory birth-date model and the use of historical averages to estimate employment decline, real unemployment actually translates into some twenty two million wage earners in the U.S. now out of work (one out of every fourteen women, men and children living in the United States today, one out of every six of the total number of wage earners and salaried persons combined in the U.S. economy). Unemployment will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, which means that consumption that cannot return to “normal,” i.e., pre-crisis, levels: Visible particularly in the construction industry as a whole, in the levels of commercial development and residential home sales, in the auxiliary appliance, electronic and home improvement industries, in banking as the financial mediation of this construction and these sales, all these very real but nonetheless phenomenal forms of the crisis… forms, complexly mediated, through which the U.S. ruling class realizes claims to surpluses circulating internationally through its dollar suzerainty… are expressions of the underlying condition in the capitalist world at large, under utilization at current levels of productive capacity or, if you prefer as I do, overproduction, which, in turn, is again is a further expression of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism today, the unhinging of the creation of real wealth from the production of value. These forms may change… housing sales may return to historically “normal” levels, although not those congruent with the inflated levels circa early 2007… but this contradiction will not disappear, it will not be sublated, it will only intensify:
Productivity today is so stupendous that it threatens to explode the value form, and is compelling and will further compel capital to impose a devalorization by any and all means (massive contraction, shake-out; and depreciation of capital’s values by way of depression; destruction of fixed capital, social landscapes incarnating means of production, mass of circulating commodities and human beings as labor power all by way of war)… This contradiction at the heart of capitalist production is today the other side of always latently, today explicitly present tendency toward overcapacity and overproduction, to the systemic inability to absorb the mass of commodities created in production: The conditions for a renewal of accumulation in the epochal, historical sense cannot be achieved short of the catastrophic destruction of objective substance (plant and equipment; built environment as infrastructure and the urban landscape insofar as each can be distinguished from industrial sites; the mass of circulating commodities; and ,human beings as capacity to labor, as labor power), i.e., short of imperialist world war…
Where the absolute domination of capital over society, hence de-industrialization and casualization, has gone the farthest (not to mention where it has never firmly taken hold), has penetrated the deepest, the movement of capital demands not just continuous and deepening deskilling, increasing compartmentalization and rationalization of those skills associated with technologies of capital …I won’t mention disappearance of the concepts (not the realities) of the State, capital, class, ruling class, and a meaningful concept of society… but an increasing and deepening “provincialization” of consciousness, and growing absence of practical self-knowledge, in general, an ongoing, qualitative lowering of the level of culture that is perfectly consistent with a world economy in which rentier formations are crucial to its development, with casualization on a world scale, with the intensification of the spectacle, and that is incompatible with the claim that social powers have been expanded and liberated by capitalism. Provincialization is the objectively subjective face and content of casualization. Here, efforts by bearers of capital’s spectacle aim at stripping social individuals of practical self-knowledge and understanding in order, first, to open previously inaccessible dimensions of social subjectivity to penetration by the value-form and, second, to better render them both fitting objects of paternalistically authoritarian social relations and, closing the circle, emotionally and existentially dependent, personally sensitive and self-indulging subjectivities (which can only function in the context of those social relations and) which only realize themselves through the consumption of commodities.
Today, here and now (circa late October 2009), the crisis of capital has become one of the proletariat, a crisis in its very existence, meaning:
Deep into the era of absolute domination the industrial proletariats of the old capitalist metropolises of the West have lost their coherency and are de-centered; quickened by massive job loss, apparently conjunctural but actually concentrating a long term developmental tendency, in the United States that proletariat is undergoing decomposition; the simply enormous numbers forming the casualized proletariat in the old metropolises are no longer concentrated in production; this proletariat is deeply penetrated by foreign, non-hereditary elements; most importantly, insight into the structure of society as a whole cannot be developed lacking a basis in production of the entire product, or at least in the control over significant aspects of that fragmented production (this much, of course, could also have been and can be said for the mass worker); and, in terms of class organs for self-defense, the numerical weight of casualized workers, lacking organization, merely reinforces and exacerbates the situation that characterizes the class as a whole under conditions of absolute domination, namely, want of strong institutional defenses (unions) against capital (where they exist these organizations are not generalized and are ossified, are fully integrated into the order of capital and a line of its defense), absence of a historical memory of traditions of our own militancy (the suppression of which unions in no small measure have played a large, very large role in) and, the presence in memory (where it is collective and in those regions where absolute domination holds sway) of decades of defeats in struggles.
Absent not just a massive proletarian upsurge but a genuine challenge to capital that makes creation of novel power the order of the day, imperialist world war and climate change catastrophe are ineluctable.
Are there, then, any other than the bleakest prospects for the development of a genuine opposition to capital?
Step back a moment…
In summarizing my initial remarks, I held out a promise to return to the question of the possibilities for consciousness among workers. The discussions of the two poles at which world capitalism tendentially exists, the collective worker together with that of the situation of the proletariat today, all mediate in the methodologically dialectical sense that unavoidable, because initial, abstractness of the presentation of the U.S. situation in an effort to achieve the concretion, conceptual determination and explanation creating comprehension, that will permit us to return, and in returning provide us with a sense of direction, and, of course, to redeem that pledge, to indicate those possibilities for consciousness among workers.
The Perspective of Hope
Consciousness, the Mass Strike, Councils under Conditions of Absolute Domination
The Perspective of Hope
Consciousness, the Mass Strike, Councils under Conditions of Absolute Domination
With the two poles of development at which world capitalism tendentially exists today inseparably linked and inextricably intertwined, a total rupture with capital can only come from within those two poles, from elements of the Gesamtarbeiter as they live, work and act in China or the United States, in both. Capitalism today can only be transcended starting from a rupture within its strongest, not its weakest, links, for from here and only from here can the real power of capital as it operates globally be successfully challenged. Yet to spell out the logic of this position does not as yet trace out the lineaments of that challenge, its practice…
In one, in my view the most important, respect, we still have yet to come to grips with the collapse of the revolutionary wave that, beginning in 1917, ended in 1920. Going all the way back to Lukács (“Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”) as he surveyed the wreckage in Germany in October 1923, and the hopes that disappeared with it (i.e., as he elaborated a brilliant but fatally flawed, because voluntarist, theorization of, essentially conceptualizing the Leninist position on, consciousness of class), our understanding of the compulsion exercised on workers… as they are flooded with the insights that constitutes consciousness… has and remains moral and logical whether voluntarist or merely exhortatory. Yes? No? Well, what does it mean to say that in the face of the crisis of capital the choices confronting the proletariat are “socialism or barbarism”? I’ll tell you: It means that for workers to rely on, continue to unquestioningly in the practical sense accept or, worse, collaborate with capital is suicidal, which is to say that while workers ought to choose revolutionary action, they might very well choose suicide.
Numerous proletariat strata themselves may have been recomposed, their reality no longer merely national, but, however decomposed and fragmentarily it exists, a Gesamtarbeiter now confronts capital at the level of the world. The great imperialist powers may be different, but ruling classes formed by so many individuals now conflicting now in accord are more than ever unified as personifications of capital; interimperialist rivalry may exhibit nuanced variations in aims motivating these antagonistic ruling classes, but under the dual, interconnected impact of the dynamics of capitalist development and an unfolding climate change catastrophe, absent proletarian overthrow of capital, imperialist world war is inescapable. Today we stand at a crossroads: The development of capital has come full circle, returning a world far more developed, far more integrated and far more explosively contradictory to the situation of crisis that workers confronted beginning in 1914.
Today in the era of absolute domination, with its ubiquitous casualization, the possibilities for consciousness among workers depend entirely on the extent, duration and depth of the crisis, and, because this crisis is no mere contractionary moment in cyclical renewal of capital, but one of the order of capital itself… a crisis in capitalist civilization in its entirety… the abolition of capital is no longer a moral and logical desideratum but practical and inheres in the crisis itself: This necessity is synonymous with the unrelenting pressure the crisis exerts on workers.
…While the concept of immiseration put forward below is, to be sure, socio-historically relative and the reality it refers back to entails over time a virtual collapse in consumption in the rentier formations of the world, especially the United States, it has been pointed out to me that immiseration does not always and everywhere have revolutionary consequences, to the contrary those consequences can be profoundly reactionary (Chris Wright, personal communication). I agree. I would immediately add, however, that reality has been specified here and elsewhere, discursively argued and literally imagined,2 and refers to a reconstitution of a coherentproletariat through a full employment, total and totalitarian mobilization under conditions of renewed imperialist world war…
Permit me to explain how under these conditions consciousness of class and a revolutionary challenge to capital can unfold.
In part, but only in part, a severe crisis… one that does not transpire over the course of year or two, but deep enough and prolonged enough lasts perhaps decades… entails generalized hunger, impoverishment, a scarcity of commodified goods requisite to simply sustaining groups of workers on a daily basis, in other words, immiseration.3
But it is not just immiseration that is at issue: Deepening immiseration with no end in sight, together with a new younger generation of workers within the class who do not know defeats and who have not been subject to extensive demoralization, compels not just isolated groups but masses of workers to struggle against capital in the most basic sense, in “economic” strikes. Masses of workers engage in an elementary strike struggle, a struggle that is, in other words, a strike wave. A wave of strikes creates its own dynamic: It enhances the chances that there will be some, perhaps only a few, but at least some victories, and it vastly increases the chances the state will not be able to entirely repress the strike wave. Moreover, it leaves workers taking stock of themselves and, under conditions of deepening immiseration, it certainly does not leave them any worse off. That is not only noteworthy but noticeable and noticed: A wave of strikes… legitimately a mass strike… tends to enhance the confidence and combativity of workers, both individually and as a class, that is, mass strike action coheres them, us, as an independent social agent as the transparent sociality of action itself forces this recognition into awareness. Confidence, combativity and independence (vis-à-vis other social groups) amount to, they constitute, an awakening of the proletariat: While the whole situation of abstract labor is contradictory… In work and activity, it produces and in producing it acts, it forms itself as a subject while all the time rendering itself a passive object for capital… in a mass struggle against capital, this contradictory character dissipates as workers, always tacitly recognizing themselves as a peculiar (i.e., conscious, acting) commodity anyway, form themselves as a social subject, as an agent effectively capable in acting and struggling against capital of changing the conditions of their, our lives and work.
Not all, perhaps only a few struggles will be initially successful. And though obviously there will be setbacks, what is of paramount import here is the struggle against capital in its societal sweep…Proletarian strike activity tends to qualitatively broaden as workers, living in desperate circumstances generated by deepening immiseration, witness changes in other workers and perhaps, an outcome of a strike wave, in the conditions of daily life: Before it ever runs its course and exhausts itself, a wave of strikes nearly always gives rise to another wave. One wave may be primordially “economic” in nature, strikes for wages and amelioration of working conditions; the next wave primarily “political” in the narrowest sense, strikes for changes in the administration of the state, in workplace enactments (legislation or decrees, as the case may be, governing sick leave, wage minimums, limits on tolerable deterioration in sanitation, temperature extremes), and, of course, at any time any mass strike may be characterized by elements of both indistinguishably bound together. Still, even with a modicum of success, all tend toward increased confidence and combativity. Even as some recede, others rise: Strike waves pass back and forth, from one set of demands to another, the demands sometimes coalesce, are even confused. The dynamic? It is in the nature of organization and toward an expansion in the nature and depth of demands:
In a wave of strikes, workers slough off old organizational forms (unions where they exist) and quickly generate new ones, forms in which masses of men and women are active and participate, strike committees, factory, plant and office committees, assemblies.
In a strike wave “economic” strikes, if not from the get-go, tend to challenge the prerogatives of capital and its representatives (foremen, supervisors, low level managers), tend to assert the necessity of more and more worker control at the point of production, sooner or later forcing workers into a confrontation with the state at some level (e.g., a municipality) at which it exists and operates; “political” strikes tend to bring workers immediately into confrontation with the state, its executive, the whole body of national offices and officers: A wave of strikes bring workers not merely into confrontation with the state but into direct confrontation with it, with the full array of its repressive forces. Mass strikes (i.e., waves of strikes) pose the question of power. Based on the resistance offered, repression undertaken, by the state patently in defense of capital, the distinctive character of different types of strikes… at this level… tend to disappear; and the resistance of (repression by) capital is that of the state and vice versa. Moreover in the face of resistance itself new insight forms, changing the conditions of life and work demands changing the entire organization of society, and with it recognition that it is precisely us, as workers, to the extent we exert ourselves en masse, that is as a class, that society can be transformed. This is consciousness of class as it unfolds and develops.
Workers push forward demands that arise from the relentless pressure of the crisis situation itself (i.e., they push forward demands, as it were, spontaneously) even as, and because, that pressure is pushed back, as a breathing space forms through the very success of struggle. Workers pushing forward demands spontaneously and from below, strike waves, the abandonment of old and the rapid creation of new organizational forms, a direct confrontation with the state, these are characteristics of a revolutionary situation. And, as rule, revolutionary situations give rise to councils (soviets) as the historically distinctive, novel, organizational form of working class power. Not only novel and unique: The councils remain to this day “the only undefeated moment of a defeated movement” (Debord). Though, it ought to be elementary, it is not: Councils are the organizational embodiment of a dynamic and expanding consciousness of class in all its unevenness, various levels and divergences. The party does not incarnate this awareness, though it may form one of its terms of reference to the extent it participates in councilar deliberations.
Against the deleterious effects of those institutional constraints, yet to be dismantled, that daily operate on, shape and form working class awareness, the relentless media spectacular efforts at pushing workers back into inactivity and passivity by way of fear of consequences, efforts to blow up worker doubts and felt inadequacies, councils are the singular, actual historical and necessary premise that, in sheltering workers from these debilitating effects and institutional constraints of daily life under conditions of absolute domination, allows them to permanentize and deepen insights into the structure of society, the necessity of its transformation in its entirety and the understanding we ourselves are the agent of that change. Councils are the organizational form in which consciousness of class raises itself to undertake activity as a novel power... Make no mistake, today, under conditions of absolute domination and casualization, even the most militant working class is burdened by the psychology of the oppressed, is the bearer of historically constituted needs and interests that render it utterly reactionary on a range of social issues from homosexuality to abortion, that intensely desires passive consumption of spectacular “entertainment”… As workers, driven by the depth, extent and intensity of crisis, practically challenge capital and its state, the dead weight of this past guarantees the fight within the councils to illuminate this practice in contradistinction to such needs, ideas and dispositions, to make explicit the emerging shape of a new, free global societal order it embodies, will take shape as a ferocious struggle against large layers of workers…
Based on, and inseparable from workplace and community assemblies from which they draw strength and personnel (and here the only guarantee that councils won't detach themselves from this base in the struggle for and against workers within the councils is firm, eloquent argument for the generalization, unification and self-defense of councils in the struggle against capital), it is within a councilar context that, because those assemblies can accommodate masses of workers, a revolutionary consciousness requisite to a thoroughgoing societal transformation can develop, one commensurate with objective, historical possibilities, that is, a form of universal organization can be found that can generate a global solution to the crisis of capital at the level of the world and to otherwise intractable problems posed by the capitalistically created, climate change-based destruction of the earthly foundations of natural life and human life and society.
Our theorizations aim at disclosing the historically formed structure of contemporary societies of capital in order to illumine the contours of a possible future so that we can act to change the world.
Unlike any number of revolutionaries so-called who engage theory, all our theorizations are necessarily driven by an inner logic that devolves in such practice; they do not just constitute a superior formulation, a mere “science” that is at any rate contemplative (in this sense ultimately bourgeois), failing to grasp its worth in terms of (and unable to incorporate into its very structure the question of) whether it can orient us practically to the revolutionary transcendence of capital: Like Debord, we make the whole truth of our theorization and stake everything on the return of the proletariat as a historical class. Should capital be able to stem the crisis, should this crisis not extend long and deep enough to compel workers by their very responses no matter how hesitant or tentative to create for themselves a revolutionary situation posing the question of power, it would be necessary to rethink all our theorizations and perhaps even to abandon them.
Will Barnes, 20 October 2009
- 1. Constitutive of (if only in part) yet subordinate to the tendential historical barrier to domestically driven economic growth in China, the “empirically” given limits to formation of a home market start from the size of the middling groups that would weigh in the balance of a strategic reorientation toward domestic consumption (in a population of about 1.5 billion, there are 40 million households, 120 million people, with an annual disposable income of roughly 5000 $US); from the actual structure of costs (these middling groups are concentrated in three cities in China, each at a great distance from the other two, viz., per unit distribution costs are exceedingly high) together with the quality of “consumable services” in relation to such costs (outside “big ticket” items such as cars, refrigerators and other durables, the level of services “delivered” is abysmally low so that, for example, a haircut will cost you 3 $US in Beijing, but one the quality of a $30 NYC haircut will cost you 70 $US); and from the orientation of the state toward domestic consumption (state driven infrastructural development does not generate the significant income gains for masses of Chinese requisite to push beyond these 40 million to a level at which personal consumption would become decisive in the “domestic” economy).
- 2. See note 1, above.
- 3. Since the question appears with some regularity in my political work, especially among young proletarians, I shall note that if one is looking for self fulfillment and personal affirmation, it will not be found in the sequence of acts that form a revolutionary overthrow of capital: Putting an end to the individual pathologies of capitalism… aggressive, brutally competitive and belligerent personage, compulsive cruelty, individuality absent all conscience all of which, and more, are endlessly featured in the television and filmic spectacle… will take at least two to three generations, well over a half century, of genuinely human sociality formed beyond capital. While authentic, affirmation relations will take shape among revolutionary workers, ending the bellum omnium bellum omnes that is daily life under conditions of capitalist production is a development beyond capital predicated on (whose conditions are) the self-abolition of abstract labor and the value form.