German author Norbert Trenkle's 2001 discussion of the Krisis Group's Manifesto against Labor, summarizing its main points and providing a brief account of the history and origins of the Krisis Group.
Presenting the Krisis Group’s Manifesto against Labor—Norbert Trenkle
I would first like to say a few words about the Krisis Group and its journal, Krisis. I will not speak at length about them, but will only offer a definition of what they are.
First, Krisis is a German language theoretical journal of social critique which appeared after 1986 and arose within the context of the leftist movement of 1968. A group of people who had passed through various communist and Marxist groups reached the point where they understood that the critique developed by Marxism, the critique of capitalist society, had reached its limits and that they had to go beyond it, that is, Marxism must also be subjected to criticism. Not from the point of view, however, which is fashionable today, i.e., saying that Marxism was completely mistaken and that capitalist society is the best possible society, but from the point of view that Marxism itself was not sufficiently radical in its critique.
From that perspective, which the group had acquired during the mid-1980s, they began to re-read the works of Marx and the theoreticians of what is known as western Marxism, such as Lukacs, the Frankfort School, and others. From that basis, we began to develop a critique founded primarily upon the critique of the commodity and of value, or, more precisely, on the critique of commodity and value fetishism, which we consider to be an essential aspect of Marx’s work. Whence a whole series of radical critiques of modern society were developed, including the critique of politics, the critique of democracy, the critique of patriarchal domination and, most essentially, even a critique of labor.
We began to undertake this critique of labor already at the end of the 1980s, in a very different social context from the one we live in today. At that time, at least in certain segments of society, there were various forms of a critique of labor, critiques which were not perhaps very coherent and were somewhat inconsistent, but which constituted points of reference. During those years, however, the “value of labor” began to be increasingly emphasized in official discourse—its ethical, moral and political value—precisely in the very midst of a situation where increasingly larger numbers of people were unemployed or else under-employed in more or less acceptable conditions. And it was in that context that we decided to publish the Manifesto against Labor—as a provocation. As a provocation it caused powerful repercussions not only in Germany, but also in other countries, having appeared in a Brazilian edition, for example. Later, our friends from Fortaleza and Sao Paulo will speak a little about the Manifesto’s impact in their country, as well as that of other texts.
I shall attempt to present a brief introduction to our critique of labor, without taking too much time, because I want to leave some time for discussion. To begin my short summary, I shall refer to the headline of a German newspaper, the Bild-Zeitung, which has 5 million readers, a very populist muck-raking type of newspaper. In an interview with this newspaper given on April 6th of this year, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said: “There is no right to be lazy”, implicitly referring to Paul Lafargue’s book, The Right to be Lazy. The ordinary reader of this newspaper, of course, does not know who Paul Lafargue is, he has never heard of him. He does, however, have some understanding of this insinuation. What was Schröder’s message? That the cause of massive unemployment is not the dynamic of the capitalist economy, but is the fault of those people who do not want to work and who prefer to “take advantage” of the social state, of the “community”, and the rest of that sermon. What surprised us a little was that this polemic had a very positive impact on almost all sectors of society. “Yes, yes, it is true, there are many people who do not want to work, who cannot be…, etc.” And, of course, as a consequence, the restrictions on the unemployed increase. The rates are cut, more pressure is exerted to make them accept any kind of work, in dreadful conditions and with low pay, saying: “If you do not accept this, you will not receive any more money”, and things of that kind. But why does such a large part of the population identify with this polemic? Why is it believed that the unemployed are responsible for a situation which is obviously the result of the enormous productivity developed by capitalism, which is no longer capable of organizing labor on a generalized level?
It is truly paradoxical. Productivity is constantly increasing, there is more and more potential to produce social wealth, but under capitalist conditions this potential cannot be mobilized so that the whole world participates in this wealth—material wealth and the wealth of disposable time. To the contrary: a schism is produced on a global level. A minority labors in the smaller sector of very high technological productivity, while the majority of the world’s population, from a capitalist point of view, is superfluous; which means that it is expelled from the more or less regulated sector of labor and must gain its livelihood under dreadful conditions, with very low pay and no job security. In both sectors, the pressure to waste yet more of one’s time of life increases and competition is also outlandishly exacerbated, simultaneously regulating the division of an extremely unequal material wealth. In the capitalist core, and especially in Europe, this process of schism is still restrained, or, more precisely, retarded, by the existence of what remains of the social state. But the latter is being continually reduced, which leads to a continuous expansion of the precarious sector here as well.
Since it is obvious enough that the cause of massive unemployment and the lack of job security is the capitalist structural dynamic, why, then, does this polemic which blames the unemployed, those people who supposedly do not want to work, have such an impact? The basic reason for this is that labor is and continues to be the basis of modern capitalist society. It continues to be its basis, not only materially—I shall explain this shortly—but in the sense that it is also its psycho-social basis, drilled into the people’s minds and consciousness, people who are—or, actually, we are—constituted capitalistically. The whole world today is socialized in this society as it exists and is impregnated by it. Capitalism is not an external thing, but exists within the people themselves. And labor is one of the basic moments of this psycho-social constitution.
What is going on here? One of the main foundations of society, labor, is breaking apart. The whole world knows this, knows that unemployment is always growing and that working conditions are getting worse. This is pointed out in the newspapers, in sociological studies and is also, of course, an everyday experience. For some 25 or 30 years this knowledge has been present in social consciousness. But, at the same time, identification with work as the center of life itself is almost total. A contradictory situation is consequently produced. Precisely because the foundations of society are breaking up, there is a very strong tendency to want to re-establish them, to fundamentally reaffirm labor. A quite generalized fundamentalism of labor is thus established. This is a very important psychological reason why a polemic such as that of the German Chancellor—Tony Blair and others, especially the social democrats, do the same thing—has such widespread resonance.
What do I mean by saying that labor is the basis, the material foundation of capitalist society? It has traditionally been asserted that labor is the foundation of all societies. This was especially true of Marxism: it replies that labor is the foundation of all societies, from the beginnings of culture to communism. I deny this. Of course, all societies have always needed to produce goods in one way or another. There has always been the need to produce food, build houses, make clothing and other things of that kind. Every society must have some way of producing. But this production of the means of existence, of means of life in the broadest sense, never constituted the center of society in non-capitalist societies; it did not constitute society itself, nor was it society’s driving force. This role was not played by work or production, but by other factors and other moments, such as kinship, consanguinity and religious relationships, which constituted the social context and which, within this social context, in one form or another, produced goods to sustain society. In capitalist society, meanwhile, the opposite is true. Here it is labor which has the function of constituting society, it is what forms society itself. And within this social context formed and constituted by labor, of course, other relations and other spheres exist that are not directly defined by the logic of labor and the economy: the private sphere, sexual relations, the political and cultural spheres, etc. This form of social constitution is specific to capitalist society. I think it is very important to emphasize this, but it is necessary to approach it more closely in order to understand it better. If I said that, in capitalist society, labor constitutes society, this function is not fulfilled merely by being an activity producing concrete useful goods, but because labor is an activity of abstract production. This does not mean that it does not produce concrete goods, but that the goal of production is not concrete use, but an abstract end. Goods are produced so as to become representatives of value. And value is nothing but past labor, dead labor.
These goods which are produced as representatives of dead labor are commodities. But these commodities are not produced for simple exchange, in the sense that I make a loaf of bread, you produce a dozen eggs, I give you the bread, you give me the eggs, and the business is finished. No. Commodities are not produced for direct exchange, but for a presupposed end. And this presupposed end is the production of value for the valorization of capital. It is what one could call—and Marx did call it this—“an end in itself”. Why is it an end in itself? Because the reason for production is to increase a certain quantity of value as represented by money. In simple terms: capital valorization is ultimately nothing but investing a certain sum of money to produce commodities, to sell them and to obtain at the end of this process a larger sum of money. At the beginning and at the end of the process we find the same abstract thing: value represented by money. Money is something totally abstract; abstract, because it abstracts from the concrete content of what is produced and what is bought or sold by means of it. It does not matter whether bread, houses or hospitals are produced, or weapons, or automobiles for a totally destructive and irrational transportation system. It does not at all matter to what concrete uses the products are put, or the consequences of their production processes, or even the consequences of their consumption—such as, for example, the ecological consequences of the system of private automobiles. Of course, concrete objects are always produced, but these concrete objects are always related and subordinated to the abstract goal of production.
To say that labor constitutes society always implies this self-referential process which is its own end. Labor constitutes society insofar as society is constituted by commodity production and capital valorization. These are three aspects of the same system. Only in this way does labor constitute society, and only this kind of society can be called a commodity society. Many non-capitalist societies have also produced commodities in another context—always for direct exchange. But only capitalist society is the total commodity society, a society where all relations are subordinated to the logic of the commodity.
Describing modern society in this way also means changing the perspective concerning the relation between capital and labor, or between capital and the working class. Not only does capital represent that end-in-itself, which is defined by the “money—commodity production—more money” circuit; labor also represents this circuit. Of course, the person who sells his labor power does not do so in order to work, but to survive; he sells his labor power so he can buy the commodities he needs to live. From this immediate point of view, labor is not an end in itself, but an end for something else: the purchase of means of subsistence. This is, however, only a particular moment and a particular point of view within the presupposed self-referential process of valorization. In the material sense, all labor power constitutes an integral part of the great self-referential machinery of production for the sake of production, which does not cease to produce even if it destroys the social and natural foundations of society. It does not stop producing because it cannot do so without breaking with its own logic, a logic which requires a constant dynamic of production, since it consists merely of the increase of that abstract category, that fetish called “value”. Labor not only participates in this process, it constitutes its essence. Value is dead labor.
And this fact is most recognized when people are obliged to defend their jobs in one way or another. As they defend them, they do not ask, “Does what we are producing make sense? Is it even a danger to our own lives?” Even if it is a nuclear power plant, it does not make any difference; jobs are defended by all possible means. In this defensive struggle, no one asks about the concrete end of production or about its possible or actual consequences; the only issue is whether or not they can continue to sell their commodity: labor power. But in order to be an integral part of this gigantic machinery of valorization on a material level one must mentally and ideologically identify oneself with that machinery. In this way modern individuals do not distance themselves from labor. They do not define it as merely any function necessary to make money, in the sense of “I work, I make money, and that’s all”, but they consider it honorable to work and to make their living by working, instead of being “lazy”. But that is not all. In addition, the mechanism of working, that is, of functioning within the machinery of valorization, is implanted in the very psyches of individuals socialized by capitalism. For this reason, they feel the need to constantly be in some kind of motion, even if they are not working in the strict sense of the word. They cannot stop moving, they constantly feel the need to be doing something, and they are not capable of leisure. This phenomenon may, perhaps, be more prevalent in Germany than it is here in Portugal, but I think that the trend is the same. It is the tendency to continue in the rhythms of work even outside the job, of occupying one’s free time with activities which have the character of labor, such as, for example, the whole cult of sports, of body building, but also the endless “entertainment” within the culture industry. In this sense, one can say that labor has also established itself as an end-in-itself in the psyches of modern individuals.
Seen from this angle, the relation between labor and capital must be re-evaluated—and analyzed in a very different way than traditional Marxism has analyzed it. From the perspective of traditional Marxism, as everyone here knows, the class struggle was the cardinal point. Only the working class was supposed to be capable of overcoming capitalism. This belief was justified with the argument that the interests of the working class were opposed to capital. It was, then, logical to concentrate on the working class as the revolutionary subject. But if we shift perspective, as I am attempting to do now, this point of view is invalid. Of course the interests of capital and labor are opposed in some way: struggles for higher wages, better working conditions, recognition of union rights, etc., cannot be immediately reconciled with capital’s interest in increasing its profits. But these opposed interests are rooted in a common social system. Two poles exist within this common social system, capital and labor (other interests also exist, but I am now speaking from the point of view of traditional Marxism). And these poles struggle with each other, of course, but this struggle, in itself, neither transcends nor overcomes the social constellation which constitutes their common boundaries or foundations.
From the historical perspective, one could say that it seemed for a while that the class struggle went beyond capitalism. Why? I would say that the principle reason for this appearance was that in that period, above all during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, capitalism had not yet fully developed in accordance with its own logic. What does this mean? Well, according to the immanent logic of capitalism, if we view it as a totalized commodity society, each producer and seller of commodities must be the bearer of rights. And the worker, from the formal point of view, is nothing but a seller of a commodity, of the only commodity he possesses: his labor power. But during the period under discussion he did not possess those rights which correspond to a seller of commodities. The proletarian classes, the working classes of the 19th and early 20th century did not have the right of political representation, to form unions, they were not bearers of the rights of the citizen; they did not possess those basic rights which, by the logic of capitalism itself, correspond to every seller and producer of commodities. What, then, was the unconscious objective of the class struggle? The objective was to realize these rights. The bourgeois classes, of course, did not voluntarily renounce their privileges, but defended them with all the means at their disposal. But this was not a defense against a supersession of capitalism—as the two contending parties imagined it to be—but against the supersession of a particular phase of capitalist development. The result of class struggles was thus the realization of a society where the whole world is the bearer of the same rights, where the existence of trade unions, of social legislation, and of the rights of labor, become the norm. This does not, of course, mean the end of human exploitation, of repression and social inequalities (which are, to the contrary, increasing), etc., but all of this takes place within the established and generalized form of the democratic and legal State, the latter being the political form which corresponds to commodity society.
The systemic identity of capital and labor became increasingly clear in this historical process of the realization and generalization of capitalist society as a totalized commodity society. We see this, for example, in the ideological expressions of the representatives of the labor movement, which went more or less like this: “Those capitalists do not work! We work, they do not work, they are parasites, they do nothing! We are the basis of society because we work!” This is exactly the same polemic which the bourgeois classes directed against the feudal classes in the 18th century: “We are the ones who work! Those dukes, counts and other nobles do no work at all. We are the ones who represent society.” The workers movement only assumed this polemic and turned it against the bourgeoisie. In this manner, they undoubtedly increased their self-confidence and won public acceptance. But how? By identifying themselves offensively with their supposed enemy: the bourgeois class. The latter, on the other hand, had no difficulty in showing that it also worked and was by no means “lazy”. Henry Ford, for example, called himself “the number one worker in my company”—just as the Prussian king Frederick II said: “I am the number one employee of my State”. Nor was he lying, in any respect. The functionaries, the managers and businessmen of capital obviously work. And they often work an extremely grueling schedule: 11, 12 or 15 hours a day are not exceptional for them. Of course, they work at a much higher level in the social hierarchy, they make a pile of money, but in order to do so they make themselves into slaves of the valorization process of capital, just like the worker in a factory or a cashier in a supermarket. They, too, must obey that abstract end-in-itself which yields to no one. The capitalists do not rule over this automatic process, but are ruled by it, they are functionaries of its constant dynamic.
Little by little, this social reality was positively accepted, it was declared to be a kind of second nature. This has reached the point where workers are now exhorted to see themselves as businessmen, as the “entrepreneurs of their labor power.” This is quite consistent ideologically, because if the businessman is a worker, the worker is also a businessman. But it is not by chance that this reversal of the identity of the two poles takes place now. It has the function of legitimizing the deregulation of the labor market, in a situation of a crisis of labor characterized by the constant diminution of sectors of labor with job security and the constant growth of sectors with temporary, precarious and low-paid jobs. This situation is sold ideologically with a defense of the businessman, saying: “We are no longer workers, we are all businessmen”. The relative advantages of a secure job are called obsolete and a kind of barrier to the realization of one’s “individuality”; and the life of the “new businessman” is described as that of a “creative individual” who does not allow himself to be restricted by formal rules, by bureaucracy, and things of that sort, but who is happy to constantly be in motion and not to be tied down to a definite job.
What is terrifying about this is that this ideology has been so widely accommodated. I know many people of my own generation, for example, who as of 8 or 10 years ago, did not identify with work at all. They worked only when necessary, in order to survive, or they tried to live on social security. But today they are small businessmen, they work with computers or in advertising, they don’t earn much money, but they identify with what they are doing, they work 15 hours a day and are proud of it. They are often only minor employees in precarious conditions, without long-term contracts, and are obliged to take several temporary jobs at the same time, but they actually define themselves as entrepreneurs of their own existence and are proud of their “flexibility”.
We are, then, confronted by a paradoxical and contradictory situation: the crisis of labor, the crisis of the society of labor, of the society of commodity production, is accompanied by an extremely strong identification with labor—as the reactions to Schröder’s attack on the “lazy” has already demonstrated. In other words, the material foundation of the society of labor is breaking up while, simultaneously, a fundamentalism of labor is produced which seeks to achieve the impossible: to re-establish that foundation. I confess that for some ten or twelve years now I have nourished the slight hope that, with the downfall of labor’s objective basis, the ideology of labor would also be shattered. One must, of course, take account of the fact that the social climate of that time was different. Today we face a very different situation. I do not want to say, however, that the identification with labor is total and airtight. There are always many contradictions, not only economic and social but also ideological. For example, the very well-known contradiction wherein labor is being eliminated by the permanent increase of productivity and, despite this fact, it is the unemployed who are blamed for this process. It is quite obvious that this is an irrational argument—but it does work.
One thing remains clear: there is no automatic emancipatory process set in motion by the crisis on an objective level. No. The reactions to “resolve” the system’s contradictions could be totally opposed to any impulse towards liberation from the system.
One must view the tremendous increase in racism, which is almost always related to the ideology of labor, within this context; as is shown by such expressions as the following, for example: “These people who come here, these blacks, they don’t want to work, they take advantage of our social welfare system”, and things of that kind. Or else the immigrants are accused of “stealing” jobs. These two forms of denunciation are, of course, mutually contradictory: if one does not want to work one cannot at the same time be a rival in the struggle for jobs. These two things cannot simultaneously co-exist. But in racist ideology—as in any other ideology—this does not constitute a problem, because it is not a matter of rational and coherent argument. Racism, like other ideologies which capitalism produced in its long history—above all, anti-Semitism—comes into its own during the crisis because it allows the supposed culprits to be defined and thus reaffirms society as it is.
We find ourselves, then, in quite a difficult situation for thinking about the formation of an emancipatory social movement. There is no specific social interest which one could say is opposed to capital and therefore the capitalist system. There is no social class (nor has such a class ever existed, and it never will exist) which could be defined as a potential revolutionary subject. And this means that the revolutionary strategies of traditional Marxism—and in a wider sense, of the traditional left—must be tossed in the gutter; strategies which essentially consist in the attempt to awaken the alleged revolutionary subject by means of agitation and propaganda and to organize it in the party form.
What, then, should be done? There is no simple answer. What can be said is that, on the one hand, it is absolutely necessary to struggle against the increasing economic and social pressure and repression which grows along with the crisis process. But these struggles can only become powerful if they cast doubt upon the prevailing logic of valorization and the commodity, if they do not accept them as invincible social forms. Otherwise, they can always be easily derailed by having to accept, for example, that social spending “must” be reduced because global competition allows no other alternative, or that squatted buildings “cannot” be occupied because this violates the rights of private property, etc.
Against such ideological and practical deception, which is one of the principle causes for the collapse of the social movements of the 1980s and 1990s, it is absolutely necessary to put forth and extend a discourse of radical criticism of commodity society and labor and all of its institutions, these being principally the State, the market and patriarchal domination. Such a discourse could be capable of creating points of orientation of reference for the various particular struggles and helping to ensure that they could be the basis for an anticapitalist movement which measures up to the 21st century.
Lisbon, Livraria Ler Devagar, 6-2-2001
“The Spanish version of this text was revised by the author prior to its publication at http://planeta.clix.pt/obeco, the Portuguese-language website of the journal Krisis.”