A few notes on the idea of class deals
In a previous post I drew on the work of the Midnight Notes Collective (MNC) to describe social democracy as a class deal. I have also suggested that today capital offers (some? most?) workers in Australia a ‘high credit, high work, high consumption’ deal to, in some ways, compensate for the termination of social democracy, to reproduce the conditions of accumulation and to facilitate capital accumulation itself. I want to spend a few thousand words or so fleshing out the concept of the class deal as it seems crucial to grasp how capital rules in a specific moment and thus help those who want to subvert it. Also there is another political aim here, to better understand what social democracy was and what it means to exist in its wake. A confusion about this question is one of the many rocks on which the Australian Left-as-it-is is shipwrecked.[i] Most often the history of the last 40 years is reduced to a history of ideas: there once was a thing called ‘social democracy’ as a set of ideas, there is now a thing call ‘neo-liberalism’ and it has captured the organisations of the traditional labour movement (the unions and the ALP, especially the left of the party). A general response to the latest capitalist offensive is often an argument for a return to a romanticised idea of social democracy. This fails to account for the ways that this is both undesirable and impossible – the ground has shifted. To investigate the question of a class deal means accounting for class composition today – both subjective and objective.
Thus this post will divert from the style of my other posts – both in that it will rely more on theory and abstraction and, let’s face it, be largely a collection of notes and loose end (and not all the authors I will draw on fit so well with each other. I understand that this may cause some kind of pain to some readers. Sorry.) Also there is a problem in my historical narrative – I am trying to sum up broad periods of time, when the reality of how these deals unfolded, the struggles and contours of their rise and fall was in practice profoundly more complex and as phenomena they are far more difficult to date; there is considerable overlap between those periods of time designated ‘social democracy’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ (and just to reiterate from other posts I really dislike the vagueness of this term). Also the term deal makes it appear that these processes were overt and conscious offers: it’s more complex than that.
In the essay The New Enclosures the Midnight Notes Collective(1992) talk about the idea of the class deal in the following way. They describe a ‘Trinity of Deals’ which correspond to the First, Second and Third Worlds and that these deals were, at the time of writing, in a state of ‘Apocalypse’(318).That is they are naming these deals after they believe they have already entered into crisis. They do however briefly describe the content of these deals in a way that gives us a strong start point.
The New Enclosures are so radical in their attack on what proletarian struggles in the course of history have imposed as human rights because capital confronted a life-and-death crisis that precluded any social-democratic deal. At the end of WWII, capital (in its Western and Eastern modes) offered a variety of slogans to the world proletariat: from ‘collective bargaining’ and ‘racial integration’ in the US, to the family ‘social wage’ in the USSR, to ‘colonial emancipation’ in Asia and Africa. An enormous struggle ensued to determine the content of these slogans; but between 1965 and 1975, proletarian initiatives transcended the limits of capital’s historical possibilities. From the Watts riot to the ‘Prague Spring’ to Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ to the last US helicopter escaping from the fall of Saigon, the profit picture internationally turned sour and capital was facing euthanasia. Consequently, all deals were off and capital went on the attack everywhere (320).
Australia was included in the social democratic deal of the First world – a deal where workers were to provide social peace and increased productivity for the offer of job stability and low unemployment, a social wage/welfare state and increased access to a greater amount of commodities. Labour represented by the ALP and Trade Unions would also increasingly be involved in the governing of capitalist society. This in part explains the contradictions of unions in this period and the bitter struggles within them and sometimes outside of them: as they were both an arena of proletarian desires and the mechanism for their containment. It is difficult to separate either element (as many are want to do).
There are a number of elements that are necessary to flesh out here. Firstly the idea of a deal doesn’t mean the end of class struggle, rather the deal offered by capital is a form of both containing struggle and also often putting proletarian desires to work. Whilst the deal of social democracy only really became cemented and generalised after the WWII their origin point is earlier – they are part of capital’s attempt to address the dilemma posed by 1917. Capital had to face ‘a working class that had achieved political identity, and had become a historical protagonist in its own right’(Hardt and Negri 2003, 25). Capitalism had to deal with the possibility of its abolition posed by the revolutionary activity of the working class. Fordism was an attempt to decompose and recompose the processes of production to dissolve the ground on which the proletarian politics of 1917 stood; ‘to isolate the Bolshevik vanguards from the class and expel them from their hegemonic producer roles, by means of a massification of the productive process and a deskilling of the labour force’(26). But more was needed than this.
Paradoxically, capital turned to Marx, or at least learned to read Das Kapital (from its own viewpoint, naturally, which, however mystified, is nonetheless efficacious). Once the antagonism was recognized, the problem was to make it function in such a way as to prevent one pole of the antagonism from breaking free into independent destructive action. Working-class political revolution could only be avoided by recognizing and accepting the new relation of class forces, while making the working class function within an overall mechanism that would ‘sublimate’ its continuous struggle for power into a dynamic element within the system. The working class was to be controlled functionally within a series of mechanisms of equilibrium that would be dynamically readjusted from time to time by a regulated phasing of the ‘incomes revolution.’ The State was now prepared, as it were, to descend into civil society, to re-create continuously the source of its legitimacy in a process of permanent readjustment of the conditions of equilibrium. Soon this mechanism for reequilibrating incomes between the forces in play was articulated in the form of planning. The new material basis of the constitution became the State as planner, or better still, the State as plan.(28-29)
Thus from the 1930s on, and really gaining speed after WWII, where the working classes looked for something more from the defeat of fascism than a return to the old ways of life, capital had to shape a form of vast compromise. These class deals involved a constant pushing back and forth over who would get what and how much. There are also struggles inside classes over the deals – including amongst different elements of capital with many of the elements of what is now the political Right arising from those circles of capital that historically didn’t accept this deal - like Lang Hancock.
Important to grasp is how much these deals were deals – they needed to be consented to both by the ‘official representatives’ of the class as active agents in their negotiation and the class more broadly and passively. As such they had to offer an appealing vision of society and also a form of living that was generally agreeable and enforceable. Here perhaps we can use Althusser’s idea that ideology works to produce people as a subjects, that ‘all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects’(2008, 47). Or perhaps that deals construct a form-of-life, a way of going about everyday existence that must have a normality to it that gels things into position. Feminists have pointed out the gendered nature of the social democratic deal. The social democratic deal rested on the patriarchal structure of the wage with women in the home engaged in the unpaid reproduction of labour-power(Dalla Costa and James 1975; Fortunati 1995). The complex web of discipline (which Foucault analysed as arising in the 18th and 19th centuries) of authority in the family, the school, the workplace, the army, the hospital etc. was necessary to hold all of this together (Deleuze 1992).
There were often populations in society excluded from the deal – like Blacks in the US. Mitropoulos argues that social democracy in Australia was always framed within the borders of the nation-state:
Australian social democracy had been associated with certain protections for workers, among them the official recognition of unions and their inclusion in the state’s economic policy bodies, a high degree of state ownership and regulation of infrastructure and key industries, and centralized bargaining. The system operated through strict and ongoing assumptions: a definition of the constituent pieces of the state as labor and capital (as the apparently productive sectors of society) and, more insistently, the na- tional reckoning of each. The nation was — is — the allegedly self-evident, fixed terrain for negotiating favorable deals between labor and capital. This legitimated the exclusion of only the most marginalized and un- organized or simply those who, figuratively or not, remained be- yond Australia’s borders. These nationalist assumptions always implied a resolute forgetting of the rest of the world, specifically the relative standing of the national currency, and the petty (but by no means trivial) Australian imperialisms in the Pacific.(1999)
This should also alert us to the fact that social democracy was only possible in one country because of a global organisation of capitalist production – most specifically the attempts to coordinate this through the Keynesian Bretton-Woods institutions, and anchored in fixed exchange rates hinged on the US dollar and US military hegemony – what Varoufakis (2011) calls ‘The Global Plan’.
The three deals of the globe had to match to a certain class composition, a certain way or organising accumulation and work and the subjectivities bound up in with and against them. It is not an accident that Keynesianism and Fordism were twinned together.
However a second level of theorisation is needed as all this can appear as simply a process in which capital (in a top hat) and labour (cloth cap) sat opposite each other at a table and hashed it out whilst each hid a dagger behind their backs. But we must remember that classes in capitalism are expressions of processes of capital accumulation and any such deal happens in the context of the necessities for accumulation, the endless processes of ‘self-valorising value’(Marx 1990, 255). Classes within capitalism are created and restrained by these processes of accumulation – capitalists are subordinated to capital. Ultimately the deal of social democracy was both an attempt to secure the accumulation of value through, in part, increased state involvement and class compromise but its possibilities were limited by the dynamics of accumulation itself. And struggles that made demands that couldn’t be satisfied without threatening the rate of profit (by either capital acquiescing to those demands or by changing the organic composition of capital in retaliation to demands) had the potential to throw the entire system into crisis.
The deal of social democracy ended because the proletariat went beyond what capital accumulation could tolerate and thus the deal became impossible. Not simply the proletariat in the factories but rather the struggles right across society and the globe (and in society’s hidden spaces: the home, the asylum, the ghetto). Some of these struggles involved overt explosions and confrontations, others a general ethic of refusal and insubordination. It is crucial to grasp that these struggles were often built on the gains of the social democratic experience and the expectations people had for a better life. Speaking of the Italian movements of the 70s ( arguably a high point of this global wave of struggle) Negri writes ‘We draw our reason to hate the bosses and our inflexibility in struggle not from despair but, rather, from desire, from satisfaction, from wealth’ (2005, 77). The economic crisis that broke Keynesianism in the early 70s arises from the increased pressure on accumulation capital faced –the demands for wages and working conditions separate from increases in productivity, the demands for increased social spending, rent strikes and the like and often the refusal of work at the point of production in a whole series of wildcats or Green ban type actions, and the struggles of those marginalised by the social democratic deal for radical forms of equality. Some of the global dimensions of the ‘plan’ were radically challenged by national liberation struggles and the cost of the war in Viet Nam which contributed to ending the US dollar’s ability to function as an ersatz form of the gold standard. ‘When America turned into a deficit nation, the Global Plan could not avoid going into a vicious tailspin’(Varoufakis 2011, 93). The depressing numbers that appeared on the balance sheets of capital and the state were expressions of the struggle inside and against the capital relation. ‘Stagflation shatters the reformist dream with its accumulation of mechanisms of stagnation ( that is levelling-out of the rate of profit) and inflation pressures, wage pressures, demands for the appropriation of gross profit made by the new mass of proletarians reunited as a subject that is productive and potentially subversive in equal measures’(Negri 2005, 67). The economic crisis of the 70s was an expression of an entire form of life, a complex of social domination, thrown up in the air.(We can see capital’s attempt to understand this in the Trilateral Commission’s Crisis of Democracy (Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki 1975)and its obsession with the declining purchase of ‘Authority’.)
The response of capital was to go on the offensive, and the history of the last 40 years can be seen in many ways as a capitalist attempts to both terminated the class deal and impose a new regime and organisation of capitalist accumulation – and to address the continuing and newly developing proletarian attempts to stop this or go beyond it. The Midnight Notes Collective (1992) described this process as the ‘New Enclosures’ similar to the primitive accumulation that had launched capitalism. Across the global more common means of subsistence were commodified, capital became increasing mobile, the state retreated from social reproduction, and there has been the increased ‘appropriation and destruction’ of the global ecology (Federici 2012, 101-103).
These New Enclosures, therefore, name the large-scale reorganization of the accumulation process which has been underway since the mid-1970s. The main objective of this process has been to uproot workers from the terrain on which their organizational powers has(sic) been built, so that, like the African slaves transplanted to the Americas, they are forced to work and fight in a strange environment where the forms of resistance possible at home are no longer available.(Midnight Notes Collective 1992, 321)
This is the content of what is so often called ‘globalisation’ or ‘neoliberalism’. Virno writing specifically about struggles and capitalist reaction in Italy calls it a ‘counter-revolution (“counter-revolution” meaning not simply the restoration of a previous state of affairs, but literally, a revolution to the contrary, that is, a drastic innovation of the economy and institutions in order to re-launch productivity and political domination)’(2004, 99). Thus whilst there were many great battles and confrontations and moments of political innovation on the part of capital over the 70s and 80s and into the 90s they in themselves were not enough. Rather a new global and social organisation of production was needed. The impact this has had on people’s lives is almost impossible to quantify… but certainly Bruce Springsteen tried. Often this restructuring of accumulation used the demands and capabilities developed by the proletariat in struggle and threw it back at them. We can see this perhaps in the perverse way that the feminist demand for wages for housework was realised in the vast explosion of service work: where now the tasks of housework are paid as where they exist as wage-labour and their product as commodities(Federici 2012, 49).
But as devastating as these changes have been, other deals have also been needed, needed because capital in many areas of the world requires high levels of stability to operate, and this stability requires a form of consent. The new global order of capital is a profoundly complex, multisided and layered and territories of inclusion and exclusion cut across the globe. Thus Mike Davis(2006) talks of a Planet of Slums; a situation involving ‘new forms of apartheid’(Žižek 2008, 423). Some populations exist in areas where different deals are being formed and contested – and others are locked out. Modern capitalism ‘is characterized by the close proximity of extremely unequal populations, which creates a situation of permanent social danger and requires the powerful apparatuses of the society of control to ensure separation and guarantee the new management of social space’(Hardt and Negri 2000, 337).
And like the older social democratic deal, this new deal needed to be able to generate an appealing vision of society and existence and construct an entire form of life. The new deal that was offered in certain zones of the world promised a life of choice, opportunity and self-determination. But unlike the previous social democratic deal which was made to the class as workers via unions and social democratic parties, this deal was pitched directly to workers as consumers. Indeed the world of work, especially the world of production, has in this period of capitalism disappeared from view. This is certainly the case on the level of ideology, but also perhaps a reflection of how work has been changed and transformed. And key to all of this has been the vast expansion of credit. Capital fled into financialisation, and workers were offered increased access to the ability to borrow. Focusing on the US the MNC write:
Capital’s flight into financialization is one more move in the neoliberal effort to continually shift the power relation in its favor. Faced presumably with diminishing returns in the “real economy” and an inability to sell their goods, capitalists made two important moves: on one side, they leaped to the world of hedge funds and derivatives, and, on the other, intensified the availability of credit for the US working class, so that US workers would buy the goods that workers in China and other (mostly Asian) nations continued to produce at extremely low wages (compared to the US). The success of this game—whose eminent goal was deferring crisis—depended upon the high profits capitalists operating in China and in Third World nations could accrue because of the low wages, which were then invested in credit markets in the US, enabling growing financialization. This circuit came to an end only at the point in which the enormity of (both workers’ and capitalists’) debt sent its underwriters into a panic flight. (Midnight Notes Collective and Friends 2009, 4)
Credit is a necessary and inherent part of capitalism. The popular Left distinction between the so called real economy and financial speculation is an error. Rather ‘financial circulation and speculation’ is ‘the “bloodstream” of the economy. Can the heart and the blood be divorced from the living reality of the body’(Badiou 2010, 94)? But this doesn’t discount that from the late 70s on, as part of capital’s counter-revolution (and constantly accelerating up to and beyond the 2007 meltdown) finance has expanded its role and purpose in capital’s new order, and plays a crucial part in the current deal offered to workers in Australia. Finance capital was both where capital fled to in the face of struggles of the 60s and 70s and also the method and solution to the problems, barriers and malfunctions caused by the processes of fleeing (Holloway 2002, 196-203). So much so that ‘the financial economy today is pervasive, that is, it spreads across the entire economic cycle, co-existing with it, so to speak, from start to finish’(Marazzi 2011, 27). One element of this expansion of finance capital has been the development of access to ‘non-wage incomes’ for workers: credit cards, investments in finance capital itself, second mortgages, cars and household goods on credit, superannuation and so on (33). A particular global framework has needed for this to happen – what Varoufakis calls ‘The Global Minotaur’ the massive borrowing of the US state to facilitate the expansion of credit, often using funds from nations that produce the commodities which consumer in the North purchase(2011, 100-101).
We can see this empirically in Australia that household debt has vastly expanded. The Reserve Bank of Australia reports that household debt in relation to disposal income was less that 50% in 1980 and now stands at over 150%:
As you know, household debt has risen significantly faster than household income since the early 1990s. At that time, households on average had debt equal to half a year’s disposable income; by 2006, debt had risen to around one and a half years’ income…Most of the rise was due to housing debt, including debt used to fund investment properties. Other household debt, which includes credit card debt, car loans, margin loans and so on, has not changed much relative to income over the period.(Battellino 2010)
What is key however is the word ‘period’ that is the figures only start in this report in the 1980s – after the beginning of the end of social democracy. On the other hand ‘in the 1960s and 1970s the ratio of net saving to disposable income (called the household savings ratio) was generally above 10 per cent…it is now negative’(Kelly et al. 2004, 2). The use of credit cards has also grown in number: in 2004 ‘Australians owned 11.3 million credit cards – and there are only 15 million people aged 18 and over’(11). The national credit card system only became a reality in the US in 1968 and BankCard only came to Australia in 1974(History; Graeber 2011, 367). At the very least these show that the way workers fund their lives has shifted solely from what they are paid to what they can also borrow (and invest and speculate?). The RBA figures also do not take into account the development of superannuation where the ability to fund yourself in retirement arises from a compulsory investment of part of workers’ wages in financial speculation – and thus also turning wages directly into capital for investment. It is also worth considering how workers use their houses has changed as well – houses are not simply a place to live but become capitalised as a source of income, an asset to borrow against to be used ‘like ATMS’(Graeber 2011, 377). In a strike meeting of construction workers I recently attended there was some discussion about how funds raised for the strikers would only go to paying the mortgages on their home and not on their investment properties. There are other phenomena worth considering – the way that young people continue to live at home longer, or parents go guarantor on their children’s houses etc.
As for ‘high work’ a 2007 report by The Australia Institute reported that ‘Australians work the longest hours in the western world. Full-time employees in Australia work an average of 44 hours a week, much more than the ‘standard’ working week of 38 hours’ – and do unpaid overtime worth $72 billion a year(Fear and Denniss 2009, 2).
With all this comes a certain form-of-life. An inverted critique of work is at play. As workers were being tossed out of large industries and the public service we have been incited to become contractors, self-employed, small business people and make our own way in the world. The old joke from Canberra was that every time the government sacks people a bunch of cafes opens. This raises some pretty important terrains of investigation for future workers inquires – as I assume a substantial proportion of workers now work in small cafes, bars and shops where their bosses are little more than self-employed managers of the bank’s capital. And what is a bank after all if not be repositories of society’s capital? Whilst Sergio Bologna has made some arguments in relation to this in the context of Europe serious investigation of class composition is rare in Australia(Grimm and Ronneberger 2007). Attempts to simply transpose European concepts such as the ‘precariat’ may miss the novelties of capital accumulation in Australia even if they are useful to open the door and dissolve out of date images of work and working-life. Yet still it is worth considering that whatever the objective conditions of our lives, that the majority of people in Australia are proletarian, the majority of people in Australia consider themselves to be ‘middle class’(Snow and Wade 2013).
Whilst one couldn’t doubt the viciousness of the Culture Wars in the USA (the battles over cultural practices, life-styles, the body and expression) this deal really came into fruition when it allowed the expansion of life-styles. High credit and high consumption meant a proliferation of differences became possible – as long as these differences took the form of things to buy and sell and thus pathways for the valorisation of capital. ‘The capitalist logic of the general equivalent and the identitarian and cultural logic of communities of minorities form an articulated whole’(Badiou 2003, 11).
Of course it is more than possible to make a critique of all this. The promises of freedom from work were forms of intensifying work – flexibility means the increased power of the boss, various forms of contracting shift the costs of work (insurance, tools, training) increasingly on to workers’ own shoulders and debt itself is ultimately not a freedom to consume unlinked from the wage but rather a mechanism to compel you to work seemingly forever. But we shouldn’t downplay workers use of all this either:
Paradoxically, however, neoliberalism has thrown open a new dimension of struggle between capital and the working class within the domain of credit. For a whole set of credit instruments and speculative investments were offered to US workers, from sub-prime mortgages, to student loans, to credit cards, to 401(k) pension management schemes. Workers used them because their inability to project their collective power on the job to achieve significant wage increases, guarantees for pensions, or health care forced them to try to expand into the financial realm. With the dismantling of the socalled welfare state, workers in the US had to pay a greater share of the cost of their own reproduction (from housing and health care to education) at the very moment when their real wages were falling. Workers demanded access to these requirements for reproduction through the credit system. Capital’s “sharing” with workers of accumulated value through making credit available comes at a price: that workers’ desires for access of the means of reproduction (home, auto, appliances, etc.) are aligned with capitalists’ desires for accumulation. “Financialization” is not simply a capitalist plot; it too is a process and product of class struggle. True, there is an element of necessity in workers’ response to the attack on their conditions of reproduction, but without necessity there is no agency either.
The entrance to the credit system is no workers’ paradise, of course. Borrowing and the accompanying interest payments depress wages, sometimes quite substantially, and credit ties workers to the real estate and stock markets. However, it is an important achievement for workers to be able to “use someone else’s money” in order to have a home without worrying about rent increases and be paying the owners’ mortgage and his/her taxes, to have the desire (real or fancied) evoked by a commodity satisfied today, to have access to education that might make for higher wages in the future, and to have an automobile that makes a wider range of jobs and social contacts possible in the lonely landscape that life in the US often presents. This dangerous working class strategy hovered between using the credit system to share in collective wealth and debt peonage!
In a way, though neither “consciously” nor in a coordinated manner (as so many things happen in capitalist society), many in the US working class have collectively attempted to turn the neoliberal vision of transforming everyone into “rational economic” agents against the system itself by taking the Bush Administration’s “ownership society” rhetoric at its word. In so doing, they have brought the system into a crisis by implicitly threatening to refuse to pay their debt, i.e., to leave the key in the mailbox and walk out. As was pointed out long ago, if you owe the bank $1000 and you can’t pay, you are in trouble; but if you owe the bank $1,000,000,000 and you can’t pay, the bank is in trouble. What is often not mentioned is that if 1,000,000 people each owe the bank $1000 and can’t pay, then the bank is still in trouble!(Midnight Notes Collective and Friends 2009, 7)
Neither the new class deal nor the reorganisation of work solved for capital the antagonism of labour – it merely worked out a way to redirect it; redirecting towards the enhancement of lifestyle facilitated by the expansion of access to money separate from the wage. Hate work? You can reimagine yourself as professional poker player, a self-made man, an ethical consumer, a yoga teacher and on and on…as long as the expansion of credit could allow it. Now this class deal is now null and void on the global stage as the financial architecture that held it together exploded. But in Australia it still holds and this matters. If anything Australian workers are not borrowing and spending enough, which is part of the reason that the RBA is keeping the cash rate so low(Stevens 2013). In an insecure world capital can still offer workers in Australia a deal and conditions unlike the vast majority of the globe’s population and I suspect people know this. The fear that this will end is being mobilised as an argument for making ourselves even more prostrate in front of capital rather than necessarily causing increased and potential emancipatory struggles. Within this deal struggles are happening (often to counter capital’s attacks such as against pre-emptive austerity in the public services, especial in health and education, against Coal Seam Gas and attacks on the conditions of skilled blue-collar workers in construction especially) inquiry and militant research are needed to start to bring out and coagulate these into more powerful shapes. But this is a rough sketch of some of the aspects of where we live.
Photo of The UAW and GM bargaining teams negotiating the Treaty of Detroit taken from Seeking Michigan
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[i] I use the term ‘the Left’ in a very broad and fuzzy way. I am generally in agreement with those communist and anarchist arguments that highlight the difference between the working class and the Left and also the latter’s role in maintaining capitalist society. ‘Look. Capitalists are afraid of the history of workers, not of the politics of the Left. The ﬁrst they cast down among the demons of hell, the second they welcomed into the halls of government’(Tronti 2010, 189). Yet sometimes a collective noun is need to refer to that area or areas of society in which more overt opposition is being made, to quote Retort ‘ However weak and compromised the term has become, then, the Left remains the name – the best name, the placeholder, the banner soaked in blood – for the last best hope of mankind’ (2006, 14).