Labour is not lost

This post is a collaboration between postcyborg and MDL

We have no intention here of performing an autopsy on the recent UK General Election, but do wish to elaborate on some points of contention present in the surge in leftward political energy in economies of the imperial cores, particularly those of us in the US, where we reside. This post comprises some thoughts that we aim to further elaborate on in future writing. The obvious discomfort and proliferation of a seemingly infinite variety of reaction in the wake of this recent event requires much discussion as we continue to move forward. It is understandable for one to look upon the current state of things and despair. Between the abdications that simply seek another opportunity to perform the same ritual and the cynicism-inducing blanket rejections of those that see bourgeois democracy as nothing more than a dead end, there is little hope to be gained. If there is any hope, however, it can be found in the historical continuity of class struggle, and the task at hand to chart its development and engage in it.

This is no need for a retreat, nor a moment to return “back to the drawing board” as it were. History is not so kind as to give us this. We still stand on the precipice of a shift in the balance of power between labour and capital, of yet more swerves in the moving contradiction between them. Though this moment appears to demand a heavy feeling of defeat, there is potential to escalate the growing wave of energy for these movements beyond what the present holding pattern frames as possible . Another crisis is already in motion. The immobility of capital’s processes of expanded reproduction, stagnant and declining profitability of industry, the inter-imperialist antagonisms emerging from within the world bourgeoisie, the waves of revolt that are igniting throughout the peripheral regions of the world: this is a time of radical contingency. That this is an age of monsters appears certain, but what is not yet so certain to us is the actual capacities of either capital or its opposite, the proletarian class. Behind monstrous figments are human materiality, deformed and exaggerated .

The apparent stalling out of the potential for success of the Social Democratic hypothesis, encapsulated by Labour’s failed pivot, points us to an inability of the left of the Anglophone sphere to properly contextualize the composition of class struggle in their corner of the world. The political goal of a better quality of life, of a society that takes production and reproduction as a social act of the collective body, is here assumed to be shared by those within and without the specific tactical position of parliamentary democracy. Though this may be the case, we are in need of asking ourselves, with sobriety and honesty, whether this is possible to maintain within the interests of a political body under the assumed social organization of the nation-state? 

When the democratic seizure of power at the level of the nation-state’s political institutions becomes the goal of the organized working class, they inherit the task of managing capitalist development. Assuming this role causes one’s political fortunes to become firmly locked in step with the progress and wellbeing of the nation. The oft misunderstood necessary condition of a communist movement – a true proletarian internationalism – is obscured in such national horizons. Though the necessity of internationalism is increasingly understood and felt in the now-glaring visibility of a globally generalized capitalist mode of production, its realization is increasingly fading to the background of competing visions of nationalisms now predominant in the political composition of the imperial cores of our epoch. This particular statement comes to mind:

“We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class. At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development becomes subordinated to working class struggles; it follows behind them, and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital’s own reproduction must be tuned.” – Mario Tronti, Lenin in England (1964)

In Marx’s Capital, Volume I, a clear relation between the real life movement in struggle of the working class is posited as the driving factor, the motive power of capitalist development. In the class struggle to reduce the standard time of the working day, the ensuing restriction of the production of absolute surplus value brought with it the revelation of relative surplus value in the technological revolutions that intensified labour productivity and the exploitation of labour-power. The relationship of labour and capital is brought forth here as inherent to each other’s mutual development. This dialectical tension reveals that capital is labour, but as structured within a class relation where the capitalist exploits living labour, subjecting the proletariat to the supremacy of the dead, objectified form of its past activity — capital. So says the voice of the worker to the capitalist: “The thing you represent when you come face to face with me has no heart in its breast. What seems to throb there is my own heartbeat.”

Although the principle holds true, the conditions of production and wage labour are different than when these words were written, and today the path towards a realization of the class struggle is not so simple in the imperial cores. The suppression of labour movements over the past half century, the rapid decline of labour unrest and work stoppages in union activity, the global restructuring of capital and labour that ensued in the neoliberal regime of accumulation of the past half century; all of these factors and more have severely incapacitated the degree to which a traditional workers’ movement in core regions can still function as an effective counter to the influence of capital. With the advent of a capitalism sustained as a globally integrated economic synthesis, and the structural reorganization of production seen during the neoliberal regime of accumulation, deindustrialization is the characteristic condition of productive capacity of the core. Finance capital and service sector employment reign supreme in an imperial core dependent on surplus value capture via commodity capital circulation, with direct valorization from production processes now largely originating in the world’s peripheries. 

The various programs proposed by the Social Democratic parties and politicians in the imperial core constitute an attempt to regroup and revive the fading class composition of the former century. This composition hinged on a family wage compact, funded through the dominant place of the collective national capitalist in the world economy, able as it was to export capital into the peripheries. The standards of living that gave definition to today’s “developed” world depended upon a general rate of profit prevailing within these national economies that could sustain capital accumulation. This situation is no more, any resemblance between the current balance of class forces, hegemonic standard of living and capital composition and those of the past is strictly illusory, as glimpsed in the increasing reliance on household debt to reserve one’s membership in the “middle class,” itself hollow and bereft of material weight. This past era of state-promoted stakeholding in the national capital withered and frayed as the national capitals themselves began to dissolve into the world market. The social transformation referred to as deindustrialization marked an epochal attempt to spatially reorganize production in order to lessen the total wage bill of the capitalist class (among other motivations and proximate causes). A pattern of stagnating production from the 1970s on stimulated a profound restructuring of the core-periphery relationships that had defined this prior compact, as capital sought new blood-christened labour markets in the peripheral regions, composed of (often recently dispossessed) proletarians with no comparable position of negotiating power, divided by borders and made more fungible through direct force from relatively less-mediated dictatorships of the bourgeoisie. In this process, certain capitals within the imperial core came to dominate proletarians over a wider geography, and captured a relatively higher share of total surplus value, but the national capital as such becomes unbundled, operating and accumulating more or less unfettered by national borders.

The horizon of the post-2008 turn to Social Democracy, with an apparent insurgent “socialism” reanimating the corpses of the old labour-aligned parties, is the attempt to rebuild such a state apparatus to discipline the national capital into returning to the negotiating table. The basis for this supposed socialist resurgence isn’t a militant and numerous worker’s movement, which has yet to recover much of its former strength, but the living memory of the spoils and signifiers of the past compact forming a nexus of affective attachments against a backdrop of objectively worsening living conditions. This expresses the double limitation of the Social Democratic program in the current conjuncture: this movement is an attempt to accomplish through political constituency, rather than social composition, a return to a labour and welfare compact with national capitals that have in the meantime ceased to exist altogether. The negotiating table has been sold for scrap parts. The problem here is two-fold, both aspects rooted in the protracted decomposition of the working classes of the imperial core. In the absence of a movement with the strength, ubiquity and capability of demanding more than the meager offerings of liberal politicians, Social Democracy is now nothing more than a campaign promise, easily backtracked. But even if such a movement was built, as long as its composition is oriented along national lines, its accomplishments will only ever be incomplete. The intransigence of a national worker’s movement in the imperial core is nothing in the face of the new weapons of capital strike and capital flight wielded by multinational capitals pumping surplus labour from a dozen or so countries apiece.

This unfortunate terrain is the immanent contradiction of Social Democracy itself: there is no national solution to a global contradiction. The working class made use of Social Democracy-oriented parties to navigate the simmering contradiction between national capitals and the world market at the turn of the last century. An international socialist movement was stitched together in the precise moments when these parties splintered and their programs reached their limits. But soon, as the long crisis between world wars turned to counter-revolution and the unmarked graves began to fill, this movement decomposed and national scale Social Democracy served as a dry enough tomb to inter the putrefying body of internationalism.  

To return to Tronti’s call-to-action, to “start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class,” it must be conceded that this struggle, though still present within the developed core of empire, has taken on an entirely new shape. To start again from the beginning is to acknowledge this and proceed accordingly. The off-shoring of direct production processes that valorize capital in the pursuit of cheaper labour in peripheries was a feat that, on the one hand, sustained profitability by reducing costs of production in variable capital and, on the other, avoided the potential for the social unrest and radical movements of the 1960’s and 70’s from finding their way into the factories. The growth of technological innovations introduced to production processes within these cores that tend towards automation have shed living labour and excluded the working class of the core from the point of production so broadly now that it is apparent that a proletarian movement here cannot rely exclusively on a traditional conception of past labour movements. To this end, it is no coincidence that a deindustrialized core is seeing a rise in popularity for political programs (often implicitly) calling for economic nationalism that promise to re-industrialize the nation while at the same time remaining utterly reliant on the fictitious profits generated from massive, speculative investments of finance capital in unproductive sectors of the economy, most notably real estate. The husks of capital left behind in its geographic shifts from the heart of empire has left now a rentier economy that survives on the cannibalism of cities through gentrification, and the increasing rise in rents to accelerate the circulation of the working class’ wages back into the hands of the collective capitalist manifest as landlord. 

These greater heights of technological development and automated labour processes has produced the now extremely visible phenomenon of the relative surplus population characterized by Marx’s general law of capital accumulation. As similar advancements in production processes to increase labour productivity have entered into the peripheral regions where it was first deployed, a global rising organic composition of capital in tandem with an increasingly predominant practice of accumulation by dispossession to reduce costs of raw materials has contributed to the displacement of proletarians across the globe. 

Proletarianization — the process of being stripped from any means of social reproduction that isn’t mediated by the commodity market, particularly the market in labour-power — does not per se automatically translate to inclusion within the reserve army of wage-labour and the material community of capital. Classically, the proletarian work-force, wandering the killing fields of capitalist social relations in search of work and subsistence, tend to exceed the mass of workers that can be profitably exploited by capital, and so are dynamically absorbed and expelled from waged work according to the needs of accumulation, enabling precise arbitrage in the capitalist struggle to dominate the proletariat. This fluctuating mass constitutes what Marx referred to as the reserve army of labour, always waiting at the gates of the social factory, or, more precisely, relative surplus populations, whose numbers gravitate around, and enable, growth in the productive forces. The phenomenon today, with mass dispossession and globally dropping necessary labour-times, has taken on the character of absolute surplus populations, with the newly dispossessed only dubiously brought into relation with a cramped global capital quagmired in overdevelopment. In an age that pushes itself toward the full realization of automated production, the growing mass of surplus population is growing more acute and manifesting itself into numerous series of fracture points in the stability of the present order. The technology promised to us as a utopian dream of luxury here in fact reveals a contradiction from which our epoch may not emerge without unleashing the most abject horrors.

The growing mass of absolute surplus populations among the proletariat in the present stage of capitalism’s development has led to a heightened awareness of capital and the state’s responses to the phenomenon. Mass incarceration, police brutality and street executions, rampant instability of housing among the proletariat, and labourers and refugees from peripheral regions migrating across weaponized landscapes to the core increasingly for greater opportunities for higher wages, are a few among the multiplying monstrous presentations of contemporary class struggle. The propertyless masses, with only labour-power to sell, must move in tandem with capital’s concentration. The distinctive feature of the social organization of this era, seeing the rising mass of surplus population, is the rising reliance on a carceral capitalism, a forced enclosure of this proletariat, deemed unproductive from the perspective of capital, except as a means of reducing the social wage, and thus a “problem” to be managed with severe brutality. The rise in absolute mass of the incarcerated, the ubiquity of police violence, and the escalation of the concentration camp system for detaining immigrants, refugees, and non-citizens bolstered by the reaction formation of intensifying nationalism the world over is a testament to this already prevalent and now expanding apparatus of repression that structures the wage-relation and thus the conditions of existence and struggle for the proletariat.

In this situation, we must come to understand that the practical realization of a proletarian internationalism as actual is not simply a necessity as determined in the abstract realm of “theory,” but the only possible way that the global proletariat may gain control of the current moment. The rise of the industrial labour force in the peripheries of empire puts the conditions for the bulk of today’s real accumulation and expanded reproduction of capital firmly out of grasp for the proletariat of the core. As the capital-labour compact of the liberal-democratic order continues to break down, the state’s abandonment of its former role as a guarantor of social reproduction via social safety net systems, so-called welfare capitalism, erodes into an increasingly vulgar privatization, commodifying further the means of subsistence of the working class. The phenomenon of the so-called middle class has entered a period of near-terminal decline, continuing a trend that began to gain prevalence and recognition during the turn of this century and saw its solidification in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, with the spectacle of debt-defaulting and mass foreclosures. 

The previous means of homeownership and comparably substantial retirement plans once desired by and accessible to some members of the working class no longer exist as a buffer to ward off social antagonisms. This has resulted in a stark generational divide in broader political consensus. The results of the UK General Election this month show a sharp divide between youth votes for Labour and so-called baby boomers for the Tories. What we experience now is an unprecedented climate for politics that exists at the juncture of generation and class, for which we still lack a clear language. The past construction of this so-called middle class in the US helped neutralize the militancy of labour organizations seen in the first half of the 20th century by both entering workers into debt obligations for mortgage payments that individually dis-incentivized work stoppages and built up a racially structured property relation amongst the class through the racialization of federally-backed mortgage loans, commonly referred to as “redlining.” In tying the interests of a portion of the class directly with those of the national economy through debt structured plans for property ownership, this middle class buffer was further concretized by the US dollar’s place as a global reserve currency in the post-WWII reconstruction efforts arranged by the Bretton Woods agreements. As budget deficits rose in the next two decades and accelerated during the Vietnam War, the export of US national debt as surplus capital would soon take the place of metallic reserves. This would in turn begin the gradual erosion of this middle class construction, beginning within the core the universalizing of the condition of proletarian. 

That this has now become apparent to have reached its limits of stability as capital also reaches limits towards overaccumulation, overproduction, and overcapacity, facing down another crisis of reproduction on a global scale, must also illustrate to us the impossibility of a return to a guarantee of quality of life based on this model. To do so would entail the maintenance of an imperialist global production process, a further displacement of production processes to more cheaply exploitable labour forces, and an expansion of extraction of minerals and raw materials for production by transnational corporations of the core throughout resource-rich regions. This bind, this impasse of immobility of capital’s reproduction approaching in the current moment, now too coincides with an increasing ecological consciousness, and the task of carving out a political and economic solution to this crisis takes on an immediacy that it certainly deserves. But to concede the political task at hand solely to the terrain of the institutional political structures of the bourgeoisie is to make an error in what is the possibility of politics at present. While it is myopic to simply state that the proletarian struggle should not engage on this front, it is also certainly problematic to let there be illusions about the extent to which this can realize proletarian internationalism at this specific historical moment. 

What is missing from these prescriptions is any conception of the proletarian movement as movement. Rather we are faced with a static depiction of political power, of a project of political constituency as opposed to class composition. There are here pre-worn paths by which the working class must travel before it is to stand on its own too feet. We lack here a sober analysis of the class that we have at present, its fractures, and the material limits to its capacity within the core now to directly confront capital in the sphere of its valorization. This is why it is now crucial that we take seriously the task of realizing an international class movement in practice. 

The class struggle of the global proletariat far exceeds the activity and tactical coherence of any organized left of the imperial core. It is long past due to concede that we here in the heart of empire are in danger of a total elision of any internationalism in favor of self-limiting to the nation in a more or less zero sum competition with the working class abroad. 

In a global production process and globally integrated economic syntheses, no phenomena exist in a vacuum. There still is material solidarity we can construct and build amongst each other, and synchronization in action that may still occur. In the wake of the coming crisis, these regions will surely bear once again the brunt of any attempts at recovery or stimulus package spending that occurs within the globe, “democratic socialism” or not. We will most certainly see global shifts in the geographical organization of capital to pursue cheaper labour inputs, maintaining wage suppressions to sustain profitability, the deployment of further countertendencies to declining profitability that are now already at a limit, as capital must restructure once again if it is to survive, indeed needing the onset of crisis in order to do so. Likewise it is near certain that the national capitals of the decaying husks of empire will have exhausted many means of their own to mitigate crisis, and will too be forced to enact severe austerity measures to prevent the edifice from coming down. 

To this end, and facing these potential outcomes, does it do us any good to organize a politics on a basis for a quality of life that is now rapidly receding from the realm of possibility? And further, will it be worth it if we succeed at the expense of mobilizing the forces of imperial capital to put the rest of the global proletariat in its place, so that we may attempt to once again experience life as it was? In order to move beyond these pitfalls of the present political consensus, the challenge posed between the social democratic surge and the historical continuity of the communist movement is largely the question of the quality of life, an observation that can also be gleaned by the surge in movements globally in response to the precarity of existence and economic security from many, and even the participation of proletarianizing ex-petit bourgeoisie in many movements.

If there is a “new articulation” to be had, it is not only the Idea of Communism, but its means of practical realization, not simply in the localizable everyday, as a way of life, but as a total vision of social organization and cohesion that can allow us to see a world unbound by the logic of private property, the commodity form, of production for exchange. It is true this must exist in some manner materially before we may conceive of this in the ideal, but precisely what this calls for is that we proletarians must develop a collective technical knowledge and language of the world as is, of the present state of not simply things but relations, in order to not only state that the way out must be through, but also how this is to be achieved. We must not become so weighed down by the task that we resort to utopian schemes not themselves grounded in the construction and infrastructural limitations of the material community of capital today, from which our task properly begins. To do so echoes Hegel’s warning: “The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom.” 

The task at hand is to not only challenge the material security of social democracy and its continuity of the 20th century promise of class mobility that mystified the universalization of the proletarian condition in the core regions for a generation, but to radically reconstruct what quality of life is possible in our self-activity and seizure of the means of our social reproduction, and the methods of achieving this. There is no need to jump into such fanciful Utopianism of the FALC ilk, or to concede ground to the cultural conservatism of the reactionaries that seek to redefine socialism as the suburban ideal of the 50’s, but to re-articulate and be able to demonstrate the real possibility of the expropriation of the material forces of social production, for purposes of our own reproduction and enjoyment, to build the new world from the impasse arrived at by the old.

The material community of capital demonstrates to us the present truth that all reproduction is inherently social, and this is mystified by the fetish constructs of bourgeois ideology that render economics nothing more than the management of abstract symbols of wealth through the strategic administration of tautologies for the public, all the while concealing the brutality with which capitalism’s crises are being maintained:; the utter disposability of living labour for the dominance of its objectification in its past, dead forms. Now is a time to assert the dominance and autonomy of the living that may have proper reverence for the dead in its social appropriation for the class that is itself its sole maker.

The crisis of capital is always a crisis of reproduction on an expanded scale while maintaining the profit that the capitalist class survives on through the exploitation of the proletariat, while manifesting to the proletariat as a crisis of its own material reproduction of existence, though not as a class, but as individuals scattered by the surging gusts of alien forces designated as “economy.” Though the theological devotion to capitalism’s fetish forms leads it to automations and shedding of the living labour that poses a threat to its existence should it be too integral to its processes, capitalism is always grounded by its inability to escape the need for commodified labour-power. 

The mass generation of a relative surplus population in the event of crisis, and the new proletarianization of formerly secure middle classes, points us to a contribution to Marxist crisis theory by Uno Kozo. In his contributions to Marxist crisis theory, though capital must be able to purchase labour-power as a commodity, it is not a commodity that the capitalist mode of production can directly produce on its own. This “ontological defect,” as Uno calls it, belies that labour-power is only maintained through a structural coercion of the proletariat’s capacity to perform labour to appear as the free sale of labour-power as a commodity. Labour itself is an activity that cannot be separated from human activity; it is the metabolic interaction of our own lives, its intentional and creative character the defining quality of our species-being. Now we may look at the present moment and say that the so-called Labour Party certainly suffered a defeat, but there is no defeat for the movement towards the emancipation of labour. Labour is not lost, for it may never be so.

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