Is the Working Class Liquidated?
A debate with Blaumachen



There is little that we can say with certitude about the revolution that will end capitalism. There is not that much from the past from which we can deduce it, since the actual experience of anti-capitalist revolutionary struggle was so limited in time and in scope, and the world has changed so much since. Still, pro-revolutionary Marxists think that the experience of the working class struggle taught us something about the coming revolution.

We think that its history confirms that the working class is the revolutionary subject of our times. Its struggle reflects that in its conditions, the ‘must do it’ and the ‘can do it’, the necessity and possibility, that are always present at the birth of great social change, are united. It must overthrow capitalism, because crisis forces capitalism to an attack on the workers that ultimately becomes a threat to their survival. And it can do so, because collectively, and more socially than ever, it is producing all ‘real wealth’, all the use-values, regardless of their (capitalist) value. It can produce a new world on a new foundation. It doesn’t need capital but capital needs it. For the production of (capitalist) value capital remains dependent on the exploitation of the working class, it cannot do without. So it’s on the terrain of production that the decisive battles in the class conflict are waged.

History also tells us there are no shortcuts. The struggle must make the working class into “a class for itself,” a class that recognizes itself as such and fights for its class interests, from which the communist perspective can emerge. Only through massive, autonomous, struggle in which the working class organizes itself and breaks down all the divisions which capitalism imposes on it, including national borders, can it generate the power that can defeat capitalism. Without self-organization of the struggle that involves the class as a whole and without its generalization beyond sectoral and national borders, the revolution cannot succeed.

How can that happen? History shows us that there is no automatic process leading to revolution. Capitalist crisis and ferocious attacks on the working class do not necessarily produce revolutionary class struggle. They can lead to its ugly opposite, as in the 1930’s. History also shows that the overthrow of the capitalist state does not necessarily mean that capitalism is defeated. The value-form is more deeply rooted than the state and will reproduce capitalism as long as it is “transitionally” permitted to survive. Still, the hope and expectation of pro-revolutionaries is that the inevitably deepening crisis of capital will fan working class resistance, over the course of which the working class will realize its power and the catastrophic implications of capitalism; that a struggle which began defensively, against the consequences of the crisis, will shift into an offensive, against the roots of the crisis, against capital.

This requires such a gigantic change in consciousness compared to the splintered, atomized existence of the working class today that to many it seems impossible, utopian. They underestimate the sudden acceleration history is capable of. What is utopian is to expect that capitalism, somehow, will continue to muddle along without major catastrophes, or to think that it can be ended without the collective worker realizing and exerting its power, without an unprecedented development of self-organization and unity in the proletarian struggle.

This has never occurred before, or we wouldn’t be living in the misery that now afflicts us. Whether it is possible or not cannot be proven simply by pointing to events in the past. Marxists have to look at the social reality of today, at the conditions in which the subsumption of labor and of society as whole is accomplished in our times and not that of a century ago, at the cracks that appear in it, at the new struggles that emerge from them. That is an investigation IP is undertaking.

Others still look for shortcuts. Some believe a lesser development of class- consciousness is required because the Party can compensate for it. Their model is the Bolshevik party’s leadership role in the Russian revolution, despite its disastrous outcome. We have criticized this view in several articles in IP so we won’t return to it here. What strikes us is the theoretical poverty of the groups defending this model. They cling to the past and see nothing new. The same cannot be said about another current of pro-revolutionaries, known as “Communisateurs”. The name comes from their conviction that the revolution will be a process of “communization” in which the value-form is directly attacked, as opposed to the “classic” view that sees the reorganization of human life as beginning in a “period of transition” after the political defeat of capitalism. Like IP, this current thinks that there are flaws and gaps in the revolutionary theory we inherited. Like us, they try to understand the changes in the mode of production, the changes in the ways capital subjects the working class and its implications on the development of revolutionary consciousness. Still, they too look for shortcuts. Since today, despite the shockwaves in the Arab world, the unification, the coming together of the collective worker in revolutionary struggle still seems impossible; they claim it’s not needed. What is needed instead, in their view, is a generalization of “ruptures.”

IP has been discussing with one of the groups of this current, the Greek group “Blaumachen”. You can find the texts on IP’s blog (IP article and Blamachen reply). The text that follows is part of that debate and replies to Blaumachen’s second reply, written by Rocamadur.


Dear Rocamadur:

There are quite a few things upon which we agree. Both IP and Blaumachen see the present crisis not as a mere cyclical downturn but as a crisis of the very foundations of capitalism, the value-form. We also agree that should capitalism be able to restore conditions for the accumulation of value (which we don’t see as possible without a massive, destructive, devalorization of capital), this would not mean the reintegration of the masses of unemployed but quite the contrary, a continuing shedding of “superfluous” workers from the production process. We agree that revolutionary struggle will not be the emancipation of, but the emancipation from, wage-labor: the abolition of the value form. It will not be the culmination of ever expanding defensive struggles for better conditions within capitalism but a result of a change in the content of the struggle, which will express itself in a praxis of concrete attacks on the value-form. Furthermore, we agree that capitalism has undergone a major restructuring since the 1970’s that led to a re-composition of the working class. We agree that this has had serious implications for the conditions in which the class struggle develops, but we disagree on what they are.

Is the working class liquidated?

You begin your response with a citation from Jasper Bernes according to whom “... the reordering of the working class as in-itself -- the reordering of what Italian operaismo might call its technical composition -- renders its conversion into the proletariat, as revolutionary self-consciousness, nearly impossible.”

We don’t dispute that such a “reordering” or re-composition has occurred, but does it preclude the development of class-consciousness by the collective worker through struggles at the point of production, even if the locus of the point of production is no longer primarily the Fordist factory?

For you, there isn’t any doubt. “The restructuring was a process of ‘liquidation of the working class’ (which transformed) the latter from a collective subject confronting the bourgeoisie into a sum of proletarians, everyone of whom is individually related to capital, without the mediation of the practical experience of a common class identity (.…) This transformation while homogenising the essential conditions of the reproduction of the vast majority of the global population into the ‘proletarian condition’ -- i.e. selling one’s labour power as the only means to survive -- …. destroyed workers’ identity and the actuality of ‘common interests’. (.…) A unifying class consciousness (revolutionary self-consciousness of the proletariat) is out of the question today (…) because the current content of the relation of exploitation doesn’t affirm the working class as a social entity seeking to prevail against the opponent class.”

While we agree that this restructuring precludes a repetition of “the historical patterns of class struggle either of the late 19th/early 20th century or the Keynesian era” (for which you seem to feel quite a bit of nostalgia), how can you so confidently conclude that it has destroyed any basis for an emergence of the collective worker as a class that can abolish the value-form, starting from the now global point of production? Where in your text is the analysis that proves that claim? For you it seems that capitalism overcame the danger of generalizing class struggle simply by continuing to do what it has always done, raising its technical composition.

What this restructuring has not changed is the presence of the necessity and possibility of revolution in the objective conditions of the existence of the working class. The necessity will only increase, as you surely agree. The possibility is intact too: the re-composition of the global working class has not taken away the potential power of the collective worker. It has created new obstacles to the realization of that potential, but has created new pathways to it as well. But the collective worker objectively retains the power, both to meet the material needs of human society, since it is the creator of most use-values, and to break the power of capital by halting the production of value.

You seem to be implying that the collective worker has lost the latter by a declining dependence of capital on living labor: “…The bourgeoisie does not give a shit to guarantee (its) reproduction, capital tends more and more to free itself from maintaining the level of reproduction of the proletariat. Value’s utopia consists in emancipating itself from its dependence on living labor.”

That is a strange formulation since it conjures up an image of a personified Value, with a suicidal dream to boot. But let’s assume you mean that capitalists pursue this utopia, which is true, but then value punishes them for it. For value cannot be produced without living labor, without the abstract labor of the collective worker, and, therefore the reproduction of the labor-power of the collective worker cannot be dispensed with, contrary to what you claim. Yes, capital inexorably seeks to reduce the role of living labor in the production process (as it always has), and yet just as inexorably finds itself dependent on the exploitation of living labor (and therefore its reproduction). This is a contradiction which capital cannot resolve and whose exacerbation it cannot prevent.

It is true that the objective presence of its necessity and possibility does not guarantee revolutionary change in a society. History shows that even where it was a matter of life or death, death sometimes prevailed. It did when the decisive social agents would not or could not think outside the box, remained imprisoned by their mindset. Today, the box is the value-form. How can the working class uproot the value-form if it accepts it as a given, as natural, as the world outside of which there’s nothing?

So the question is, have the reification of social relations eliminated the very possibility of a development of consciousness at the point of production? The claim that it has is not new. It was already made in some texts by Adorno and especially Marcuse before the restructuration of the 1970’s that in your eyes is responsible for it.

You seek confirmation for it by pointing to the fact that even the most radical demand struggles today “have left nothing behind....,” which is true, but that was the case in the Fordist epoch too, when what was left behind were union organizations and left political parties that were integral to the management and control of the working class in the interests of capital. What has changed is that in the present epoch such demand struggles rarely (and then only locally and for a short time) can protect even the existing living and working conditions of the proletariat. The question, though, is, do such struggles have a potential to generalize, to spread, to escape the control of the unions, the left, and the leftists; do they constitute a social terrain upon which the consciousness of the collective worker can develop?

Your answer is no, but besides portraying the fragmentation resulting from the re-composition of the working class as overwhelming and irreversible, you don’t provide much in the way of argument. Instead, you seem to accept “the liquidation of the working class” as a given, a dogma.

No dogmas, please

Marx has shown that while for a whole historical epoch the value-form was a condition for the enormous development of real wealth, despite the alienated forms in which it manifested itself, and the horrors to which primitive accumulation and the capitalist production process itself led, the very trajectory of capital would inevitably result in a contradiction between the valorization process and the expansion of real wealth. We now live in an epoch in which that contradiction becomes ever sharper with each passing day, in which the continued existence of the value-form condemns humankind both to the massive destruction of real wealth and to ever more rigid limits to its further creation. The value-form has passed from being a condition for the creation of real wealth to becoming an insurmountable obstacle to it. How can this obstacle be smashed? We have to look for the possibility of the negation of capitalism, the abolition of proletarian labor, in the actual contradictions of that order and in a determinate subject of revolution. Can it be smashed without a determinate social form? Doesn’t the underlying contradiction of capitalism have to have an expression in an actual social force? And isn’t that social force, the productive power of the class – the collective worker – that produces, not just value, but material or real wealth?

You reproach us for painting a false picture of the class struggle as involving two autonomous subjects battling it out, while in fact capital and labor are mutually dependent parts of the value accumulation process. That is true, but as Bonefeld writes, in this relation, “Capital can not autonomise itself from living labour; the only autonomisation possible is on labour’s side. …. Labour exists in and against capital, while capital, however, exists only in and through labour. …. The social practice of labour exists against capital and also as a moment of the latter’s existence.” (1)

Capital is not self-valorizing; as valorizing value, it is produced by the labor of the collective worker. But isn’t human action, the praxis of the collective worker, also productive in another sense, doesn’t it also possess creative possibilities that can smash the capitalist social relations and transfigure the collective worker? It is those possibilities, those aspects of labor, and the collective worker who instantiates them, that hold out the prospect of exploding the commodity form and the reified world that it has created. That form and that world, produced by abstract labor, can only be shattered – if shattered they are to be -- on the bases of the actual reality of social labor itself.

Marx claimed that labor does not just produce value but is a “living, form-giving fire” (2). We need to investigate the specific modes that this “form-giving fire” assumes today, which contain the prospect of threatening the form of value itself, and which cannot simply be subjugated to the needs of capital alone. We have to look at those elements in the praxis of the collective worker, that capitalism requires both for its valorization and for the production of “real wealth,” elements that are indispensable to the accumulation process, but which also contain the prospect of destroying it.

The very creative faculties and processes, for example – not reducible to instrumental rationality – that unleash the productive powers of labor, are necessary for capital but also potentially escape reduction to its imperatives. Those creative faculties, including the imagination of the collective worker, are essential to the innovation that capitalists require in their struggle against rivals; but that same capacity to imagine new forms and modes of human action constitutes also a potential danger for capitalism when it sinks deeper into crisis, creating ever more avoidable pain, making the contrast between what is and what can be, ever starker.

The restructuring that recomposed the working class since the 1970’s was more than a conspiracy of capital to fragment the working class. Even if that intent was part of what shaped it, it was also the logical evolution of capitalism itself, implied by the spread of its real domination over labor. Marx already foresaw this re-composition and described how it clarifies the above mentioned contrast for the collective worker: “He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor. In this transformation, it is neither the direct labour time he himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body – it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and wealth.” (3)

In other words, the re-composition reveals the absurdity of the value-form.

It is true that it also has fragmented the working class, that it has made class solidarity more difficult by breaking up huge concentrations of Fordist production or shifting them to countries without a tradition of working class struggle, that it used and uses its globalization to divide and rule the working class, that new segments of the working class are for now cut off from the collective memory of resistance to capital, that the penetration of the law of value in all nooks and crannies of society has reinforced reification. These are some of the real obstacles on the course of the development of the consciousness of the collective worker. But it has also meant, as you concede, “homogenising the essential conditions of the reproduction of the vast majority of the global population into the ‘proletarian condition.’” It also made capitalism dependent on the free flow of information and created instantaneous means of communication that are used by the working class to overcome its fragmentation; it made production more than ever a global social process in which the collective “general intellect’, as Marx put it, creates most real wealth but becomes un-measurable by value the more it conducts automated processes. This contradiction at the core of capitalism becomes ever sharper, and with it a potential within the collective worker arises that Blaumachen appears to overlook.

The question whether the collective worker can abolish capitalism (and thereby itself) remains open and will only be answered decisively by history. The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes. But we are not contemplating the question from outside; we are part of the process. We try to understand it in order to contribute to it. This understanding cannot be based on unquestioned premises but must come from the investigation of the lived experience of the collective worker at this moment in the trajectory of capitalism. We think that this may, indeed, reveal the bases for the development of the self-consciousness that you believe is no longer possible at the point of production.

Ruptures

Others, who share your premature premise that the revolutionary potential of the working class as a class has been liquidated, have concluded that the revolution has become impossible. We’re happy that you don’t agree with them, although theirs seems to be the more logical position, if indeed the proletariat cannot overcome its fragmentation.

But you still see a generalization possible. Not a generalization of working class struggle, but of struggles in which the proletarians cease to fight as a class. ‘Ruptures’ “with being proletarian and necessarily fighting as such, which can only mean keep living all this shit.” We also see the need for ruptures, for a change in the content of the struggle, from resisting the consequences of capitalism to concretely attacking its roots. But for us, the locus of such a rupture is the collective worker at the global point of production; it is there that the bases for communization will emerge, where the bases for the self-overcoming of the collective worker as a wage-working class, will develop. And it is in the actual lived existence of the collective worker, insofar as it produces real wealth and lays the bases for the “social individual” that such ruptures can arise.

You on the other hand see this rupture instantiated in “lootings as a proletarian practice emerging in a great deal of instances within” class struggle. Looting to live, looting to reproduce one’s existence, individual and collective, is an inevitable facet of class struggle and quite likely increasingly so. But to the extent that it is individual (grab whatever you individually can) and not collective (organized by the collective worker), it risks degenerating into the actions of individuals as constituted by capitalist social relations, and not a class. Your defense of looting of goods for re-sale and individual profit misses the point. The question is not whether this is understandable given the circumstances but whether it challenges capitalist, reified social relations or confirms them. After all, grabbing things and selling them for profit, is something which capitalism has always done.

Looting to distribute use-values is one thing; looting as an expression of mere rage is another. The thrust of our earlier criticism of elements of Blaumachen’s analysis was not looting, but destruction, not of capitalist social relations, but of real wealth. A bank building could become a school or a distribution point for goods to be distributed to people. “Burn baby burn” is not the action of the collective worker so much as an impotent manifestation of sheer rage, the political effect of which is to permit capital and its state to re-consolidate its control, physical and ideological, even where that rage does not result in the death of workers in the targeted building (as happened last year in Athens) or the destruction of the very physical plant in which real wealth will have to be produced on a communist basis -- a production of use values, the product of concrete labor, not the abstract labor of a wage-working class. In short to the extent that the target is the value form, capitalist social relations, there can be communization. To the extent that the target becomes primarily buildings, symbols of class rule, physical plant, the struggle will be lost. We’re well aware that the abolition of the value-form cannot be a peaceful transformation, that violence and destruction are unavoidable. But there is a danger in fetishizing violence, in attributing to it powers that in reality reside in collective determination and self-organization. With your theory of “ruptures,” you seem to be falling into that trap.

Mac Intosh and Sander

Notes (1) Werner Bonefeld, “Human Practice and Perversion: Beyond Autonomy and Structure” in Revolutionary Writing: Common Sense Essays in Post-Political Politics (Autonomedia, 2003), p. 78.

(2) Marx, Grundrisse, p. 361.

(3) Idem,p.705


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