Real Domination and Consciousness

In this article I want to focus on how the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital – particularly over the past several decades – has resulted in significant changes in the composition of the working class, its ideology and modes of subjectivation, as well as raise certain issues concerning consciousness and the perspectives for capitalism in an epoch of social retrogression.

The end of the Fordist period of capitalist industrial production, with its “mass worker” concentrated in huge factory complexes such as FIAT Mirafiori, and the shift to the post-Fordist automated factory, as a culminating point in the acceleration of the tendency for the organic composition of capital to rise, has reshaped the class landscape of capitalism. The centuries old process by which rural laborers were transformed into industrial workers has reached its end-point in post-Fordist production. Post-Fordism has also entailed both a continuation and acceleration of a recomposition of the working class in which labor power is increasingly shifted from the manufacturing to the service sector, and in which the traditional Marxist distinction between productive and unproductive labor has been transformed.

The global tendency for a shift of labor away from the countryside and agriculture to the cities (urbanization) has accelerated in the past several decades, and spread from the traditional industrial centers (Western Europe and North America) to become a global phenomenon. Whereas this mass migration from the countryside to the cities had previously entailed a shift of a largely peasant population to industrial wage labor, in the present era this shift has assumed two distinct forms. The first is the continuation of the movement of rural labor into the factories, a process that now encompasses Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and even Africa; the transformation of the peasant into an industrial wage-worker, a proletarian. However, to this stream must be added another stream, potentially even larger: the movement of masses of rural laborers from the now depopulated countryside, under the impact of a global market in foodstuffs in which all the advantages lie with agro-business, into the shanty-towns around, and slums in, the burgeoning urban agglomerations. This second stream of rural migrants is condemned to chronic unemployment (or at best under-employment) inasmuch as its migration coincides with a dramatic decrease in the demand for unskilled wage labor in increasingly automated factories. Despite the increase in industrial output, manufacturing jobs, even in the Third World to which industrial capital is drawn by the allure of cheap labor, cannot increase as fast as the flood of rural migrants to the cities. Hence, the rapid growth of a population the labor-power of which capital has no need, despite the fact that it is abundantly available for exploitation in large numbers and at low wages.

To the shift of labor-power from manufacturing to service jobs in post-Fordist production must also be added a new phenomenon, one that corresponds to the chronic unemployment of rural migrants to the world’s urban complexes: the creation of a mass of chronically unemployed industrial workers who can find no jobs to replace those lost as a result of automation or the displacement of factories to low-wage countries (or, at any rate, no jobs providing a comparable standard of living). To this mass of permanently unemployed manufacturing workers, for whose labor-power post-Fordist capital has no use, can now be added a new stream of service workers whose jobs are being increasingly automated or “exported” as well.

Thus, even as production increases, capital can provide no jobs for an ever-growing part of the world’s population. Moreover, this is not simply the phenomenon of an industrial reserve army that serves to hold down wages. This is a human mass that has become an insuperable burden to capital; a mass that cannot consume, cannot realize the surplus-value contained in the plethora of commodities that are produced, even as it must be both maintained and controlled until or unless capital can dispose of it.

The changes in class composition just discussed are also integrally linked to changes in the ideologies and the mode of subjectivation of the working class. Ideology should not be conceived – as it too often has been in “orthodox” Marxism – as illusion or mere mystification, a trick of the ruling class to impose its will on the exploited classes. Rather, ideology is the complex of ideas, beliefs, and representations of the world, which shape the minds and behavior of individuals and social classes. In that sense, ideology, as an imaginary relation to actual social relations, is inseparable from human action or praxis, and thus cannot be separated from the material existence of human beings. Ideology, then, presupposes a human subject who is not the a-historical subject of metaphysics, pre-given in terms of desires, needs, and goals, but the historical product of a determinate set of social relations of production, political relations of power and domination, and culture and ideology. The specific form in which the human subject has been constituted, its modes of subjectivation, are as historically variable as the social relations of production themselves.

With the formal domination of capital, the law of value does not yet directly provide the bases for the subjectivation of the worker. Instead, capital simply takes the worker as he has been subjectivated in the pre-capitalist world, and merely adds the discipline of the factory, the foreman, and the bourgeois to the human subject as it has historically found him. The transition to the real domination of capital entails new modes of subjectivation in which the law of value and its quantification of all social relations are directly implicated. Not the pre-capitalist ideologies of crown and pulpit, or even the specifically proletarian ideologies (themselves linked to the pre-capitalist ideologies of artisan and citoyen), but specifically capitalist ideologies now shape the worker’s representations of the world. In the twentieth century, with the rise of Fordism and the epoch of permanent war, two modes of subjectivation bound the worker to capital, and have constituted formidable barriers to revolutionary modes of subjectification.(1)

First, subjectivation as a consumer; seemingly an extension of the individualism of the bourgeois, this mode of subjectivation itself is the antithesis of individualism, and indeed presupposes a social process of massification in which the person craves the belonging born of endless consumption -- the perfect counterpoint to Fordism which is based on production for a consumer market. Second, subjectivation through racial, ethnic, or religious identity; the formation of a nationalist and xenophobic mass through which a substitute gratification for the genuine longing for community felt by the multitude of the population (including the working class) can be channeled into a hatred of the Other and loyalty to one’s “own” nation or people (and ruling class). With the growth of a permanent mass of the unemployed in an era of automated production processes, subjectivation as a consumer becomes a threat to a capitalist system that withholds the goods of the consumer society from an ever-greater mass of the population. The likelihood, then, is that capital will increasingly turn to nationalism and xenophobia as a basis for the subjectivation of the mass of the population, and to racist ideologies. This means that capitalist war will increasingly assume the form of race war, a tendency that already became pronounced over the course of the twentieth century, and now threatens to become the veritable hallmark of capitalism in the twenty-first.

Racist ideologies, and race war, should not be construed simply in terms of biological racism, the form it took, for example, in Nazi Germany, or on a smaller scale in the Pacific war waged by the US against Japan in which biological racism was rampant. Any cut in the continuum of human life, any division based on purportedly inherent features or characteristics, national, religious, class, gender, or life-style, may provide the ideological justification for the extermination of a determinate social group. In an epoch where subjectivation is increasingly based on inherent group identities, on race, the wars spawned by the competitive nature of the capitalist mode of production, the life and death struggles of competing capital entities, will increasingly manifest itself as race war.

The infernal “logic” of the capitalist law of value has -- with its phase of real domination -- now turned variable capital, living labor, into a residual element in the production of commodities and the accumulation process. It has thus brought about a disconnect between the creation of real wealth and the operation of the law of value, with its irreducible basis in the extraction of surplus-value from living labor. It has also, thereby, condemned an ever-increasing portion of the world’s population to chronic unemployment in a world system where the very right to consume, and to survive, is conditioned on the payment of a wage in exchange for the provision of one’s labor power. In short, it has condemned an exponentially growing mass of the world’s population to a condition of penury, even as the prospect of real wealth for the multitude of humanity (a human Gemeinwesen) has become an objective-real possibility on the front of history – provided that humankind’s enslavement to the operation of the law of value can be overturned.

How can capital seek to “manage” this problem that its own laws of motion have created? One possibility is to those strata of the working class still employed. A second possibility is systematic repression of the mass of the unemployed (and under the new conditions of capitalist production, unemployable): resettlement in ghettoes, prisons, martial law, terror, etc. Such a course of action – the beginnings of which can already be seen -- risks a permanent state of civil war and constant social upheavals. A third possibility is the extermination of masses of the surplus population, and the mobilization of one’s “own” population on the basis of nationalism in a series of devastating race wars. It is the specter of such an orgy of nationalism and race war that looms on the horizon today, and against which revolutionaries need to prepare.

Against such a grim perspective, only the development of the consciousness of the working class can provide a revolutionary alternative. Yet it is precisely on the question of consciousness that Marxism, even the Marxism of the communist left, seems woefully deficient. Economic determinism, the concept of base/superstructure, in which the superstructure is determined by the base, is present even in Marx (though not as the dominant tendency). It then comes to prevail in the Marxism of the Second International, and shapes the vision of the Third International as well as that of the communist left. With respect to the question of consciousness, that vision is replicated in the relationship between interests and ideas in “orthodox” Marxism, with interests, understood simply as economic interests (almost a parody of Benthamite utilitarianism, with its vision of human behavior determined by a crude calculus of pleasure and pain) determining the ideas of social classes; in short, with consciousness as a mere reflection of economic interests. The problem, as the history of the working class in the twentieth century has amply demonstrated, is that at critical junctures (the two World Wars, the great depression, Stalinism, fascism, national liberation) the working class does not act on the basis of a rational construction of its economic interests. Had that been the case, capitalism would long ago have been overturned, for its continued existence has for most of the last century been a history of social retrogression, to which the interests of the working class have been sacrificed. The fact that the working class could be mobilized by capital against its own interests, demonstrates that consciousness is not reducible to economic interest alone.

Nor can such claims be sustained simply by recourse to the concept of “false consciousness” to explain the behavior of the working class when it fails to act in its own interests. The relationship between interests and ideas is a dialectical one, in which at critical junctures the ideas or consciousness of social classes have a considerable degree of autonomy from economic interests, and can even be determinate. Indeed, beyond the failure of too many Marxists to grasp this point (and its enormous implications), revolutionaries have for too long pitched their intervention exclusively to a rational construction of the economic interests of the working class, and failed to grasp the complex of factors that motivates the class. If revolutionaries are to have an impact on the working class, their intervention must also focus on the historical memory of the working class, the memories of its class struggles against capital, and beyond that the memories of the struggles of all the exploited classes against the miserable conditions of existence to which the ruling classes have historically condemned them. That historical memory, and the dreams of a better world, of community and a human Gemeinwesen, must be activated, must become vital elements in the struggle to overturn the conditions of existence of decadent capitalism. They are potentially vital elements in the class struggles to come, and their dismissal by generations of revolutionaries has left this rich field of historical memory to be distorted and utilized by the forces of capitalist reaction. Indeed, capital has been far more adept at this than revolutionaries, for whom the domain of historical memory has been largely equated with the domain of the irrational. There is certainly a feudal/bourgeois, a reactionary, dimension to historical memory, and it is the task of Marxists to unmask it. But there is also a still undischarged, a living, cultural surplus that Marxism is heir to, and that has a potentially significant role to play in the revolutionary movement. Revolutionaries themselves have an important role to play in forging a link between that cultural surplus and the class struggle; a role no less important than the elucidation of the immanent tendencies of value production and its historical trajectory, as a contribution to the class struggle. The activation of such historical memories, of this cultural surplus, is but one factor in the process of revolutionary subjectification that is integral to the creation of a human Gemeinwesen. It is however, a dimension of revolutionary struggle that Marxists have largely ignored, and to which I believe revolutionaries must begin to pay attention if they are to contribute to the struggle for revolution. This whole complex of issues, linked to the phenomenon of class recomposition in the present phase of capital’s real domination, should be a stimulus to a collective discussion within the revolutionary milieu.

Mac Intosh

1 I want to distinguish the ways in which a person or class is historically produced as subject to a set of rules, norms of behavior, mode of being, ideology (subjectivation) from the historical possibility that a person or a class can autonomously shape its own mode of being, freely create its own culture (subjectification). This latter, dependent on determinate historical conditions, is a potential of human existence, that capitalism, and especially the real domination of capital, blocks. Its realization, then, is contingent upon the revolutionary overthrow of a mode of production based on the capitalist law of value.

Home Issues of IP Texts Discussion IP's French site Links