The Role of Unions Part 4: Will Barnes to IDN

You are willing to undertake a discussion of the unions. Hmmm, fine. But first…

1. I’ll refer you to a passage in Marx that IPers are fond of citing to me.

This is a strictly formal determination of the concept, Gesamtarbeit, for which collective labor takes shape in the various forms of work within the labor processes of capitalism, and where Gesamtarbeiter merely refers to the various layers and strata of workers who are deployed by capital within those processes. This determination is labor solely as it exists for capital, so many economic categories of labor power at work, laboring, in its service. How could it be otherwise? It is precisely when workers began to move, to act, to form themselves as a class subject, that those very labor processes are disrupted, that we cease to be mere economic categories of labor power, that the possibility of abolishing those labor processes, and ourselves as abstract labor, opens up.

You, however, utilize the concept differently. You speak of the “rage of the collective worker”… This is characteristic. For you speak of it as the subject of action; as, de facto, here and now, willing and acting; as conscious. In using the concept of “collective worker” in this fashion, you have managed to leap over the entire problem of revolutionary subjectivity, that of a class conscious proletariat.

The collective worker as you deploy the term has no real referent, that is, it does not refer us back to the working class, or any of its layers or strata, as it acts to the extent it does, or as they act to the extent they do, in daily life. It cannot: For if, like capital, the working class is global in its import (it is), then this action must manifest itself globally, immediately and directly. Please indicate for me any time when the world working class has acted.

One does not need to be a philosopher schooled in the problem of epistemology to see what you have done: Logically, you have assumed what requires demonstration. Dialectically, since that demonstration can only be social and historical, you have presupposed as given what can only be constituted through a long, torturous practice in which that practice and a developing awareness mutually mediate each other.

2. You assure me that in this era, unions can advance workers not one iota. I didn’t realize I had argued otherwise… well, I take that back. I argued in Wisconsin that the AFSCME and AFL-CIO unions were leading public sector workers down the road to disaster. Since by your own admission you had not read Loren Goldner’s piece when you posted, I doubt seriously you read the article on the situation in Wisconsin I and Paul Taylor posted here five weeks ago in which our perspective on the unions was laid out. I’ve attached the relevant section. It’s less than a page, so trouble yourself and read it; for it will confirm for you that we in fact do not see eye to eye on unions.

Why? There are two reasons.

First, I do not think the assertion that in this era unions are part of the structure of the state will stand up to close scrutiny. Certainly there are national components in the world system of social relations where this is the case; and where it is not, for example here in the United States or in France, I would argue that they are informally. But that does not mean they are everywhere statified, incorporated into state and controlled from there. Of course, again this is not, for you, a question of evidence, but something you have deduced from a theorization imperious to historical contents, in this case your view of state capitalism. In the months following the collapse of Lehman, this was inadequately hashed out on Meltdown. I opposed your perspective them, and gave my reasons. Since you ignored the response, there’s no reason to recapitulate it now. Second, there’s the question of the era. You uphold a theory of capitalist decadence. I do not, since I think it is incoherent. This critique is worth recapitulating, but not here, at least not at length, so I attached another short discussion. This is a discussion we’ve also had; well, one that I have had, because you have not…. I don’t think you can… offered a response. What is at issue here is the concepts of formal and real domination.

In Marx, these concepts refer us back to the modalities of capitalist control over workers in the labor processes. For you, and for IP, they refer to a periodization of the history of capitalism. Fine. Capitalist development and, with it, history, did not end with Marx.

As a Marxist, however, you are required to historically and materialistically demonstrate how and when the movement from forms of domination as forms of surplus value extraction gives rise and are connected to eras in the history of capitalism. “How” you, IP (or the ICC), have never indicated; “when” you have specified in terms of a moment in which one passed over to the other. In fact, you assign a date, 1914. This too will not stand up to historical scrutiny as the short attachment demonstrates…

I also deploy the concepts of formal and real domination as a periodization. I utilize them as part of an argument that links the modern science of nature to the bourgeoisie and capital. That argument rests on, socially and historically developing, a complex series of mediations. You do not start from a detailed historical analysis or even its summation, your protestations to the contrary notwithstanding; instead you start from an incoherent concept (decadence) that derives from an evidentially unjustified periodization, a general statement of the nature of the era, and then you deduce from it a particular consequence (the role of unions today).

This style of argumentation, which I call an abstract dialectic of concepts and which I reject, has very old antecedents. You must be familiar with it (but perhaps again you are not). Those antecedents found their most forceful elaboration among Scholastic philosophers situated in the urban enclaves of the precapitalist, tributary West…. But enough, I needn’t pursue this further.

So what about unions?

3. Methodologically, I, we… there are others, here on this list and others where you post… eschew your whole approach. It belongs to preKantian metaphysics, something that Marx had, at least implicitly, gone beyond by 1845. This is clear in Capital (all three volumes taken together), and not at all clear (since these are investigatory studies) in the works dating from 1858 through 1864 (which, to be sure, all otherwise valuable). It is clear even if in his explicitly methodological observations, Marx doesn’t always get it quite right. So I, we, start from workers wherever they are, including in unions. We do not argue the unions are part of the state, capital’s state, which is something that no workers who I know can get a handle on (and even among those few workers who are revolutionaries I know, it is something they do not agree with). Rather, especially in situations where a confrontation with capital looms, we argue unions do no possess strong institutional defenses against capital, that the contract and the grievance procedure are as often arrayed against us, as cumbersomely at best employed in our defense. We point out that the organization is hardened and inflexible, and, while this does serve the union bureaucrats (their power, status and incomes), the problem goes beyond them… In either case, it takes little to obtain assent… We indicate the weaknesses in unions also stem from their lack of generalization, from the absence of an institutional memory of traditions of militancy, and from decades in which struggles have for the most part been defeated. We argue this is not a flaw that can be remedied by a change in leadership, but is rooted in the fundamental nature of unions themselves, as institutions that seeks to obtain the best deal for labor on the terrain of capital, even and especially in situations where such a confrontation, as I said, looms, for it is here that inroads into the prerogatives of capital become vital if we are to defend ourselves even at most elementary levels of merely sustaining ourselves. We start from the defense of those institutions nonetheless… I have stated my reasons why in the attachment written with Paul… because we known and understand what lies the other side of defeat, and the dismantling or smashing of those institutions (unions). We think that this type of struggle can generate openings, moments in which the level of confidence and combativity achieved in the course of ongoing defensive struggle permits, nay, demands, going beyond unions while going over to the offensive…

Broadly, defeat in a class confrontation, great and small (and the really titanic defeats, Germany after 1932, Chile after 1972, exemplify the situation), do not issue in renewal of struggles, as you appear to think, but lead to a thoroughgoing rationalization and class recomposition, from which workers do not recover, the greater the defeat the longer the period of recovery, up to decades. This is the situation workers in Wisconsin now face as Walker has already stated to his cabinet heads who have informed their departmental heads that he wants to cut deeply into the work processes, rationalize them, casualize as many public sector workers as can be done, and to contract out those public services wherever possible to private firms.

On the other hand, it appears… I would like to think I am wrong, so tell me I am… you think that workers would be far better off if those mass organizations were dismantled; that if workers are pushed down to the last ditch, they will be compelled to fight back. Sort of a version of an absolute immiseration thesis. This is, if you hold such, mistaken. What lies down the road the other side of rationalization and recomposition is atomization, passivity, years of efforts to rebuilt a modicum of confidence, and today casualization, enforced long-term unemployment, perhaps lumpenization, all which we consider disastrous…

Will Barnes


Typical of your fine tuned attention to detail, there is one more thing Mac Intosh: You simply got a helluva lot of nerve… abetted by utter failure to examine the phenomenon in question… to assert that I “scoff” or “ignore” “an analysis of the changes in the composition of the working class” when three of the large works I written… and literally a dozen or more essays… take the detailed social and historical analysis of the class composition and recomposition… in mid-nineteenth century United States, in Germany in the twenties and thirties of the last century and in Russia from the initial formation of a proletariat in the early 1890s down to the period of Stalinist industrialization and the collectivization holocaust… and place that analysis at the center of discussion.

March 27, 2011

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