Monday, April 8, 2013

Communism is the real movement

Jehu has posted a a very interesting piece on his RE: The People blog and I want to bring attention to a very specific point in it:

"The needs of the worker versus the activity of the worker

In the negotiations, the worker now sits across the table from her activity (capital) and proposes this labor must take her needs into account. By definition capital (which is only her activity) cannot exist unless her needs as an individual form no part of this activity. On the other hand, the association of the workers proceeds solely from their needs, not from their activity (capital). Since their needs form no part of their activity (capital), these needs must confront their activity as an external subject (association). At the same time the activity of the workers appears subjectless, an autonomous process antagonistic to the actors themselves.
On one side of the table is the “subject”, the worker, who thinks she can negotiate with the “subjectless” process sitting across from her, capital. She thinks, in other words, she can negotiate with her own labor (capital). But this is only one side of the equation — the association of wage labor — this is the external manifestation or expression. Everybody focuses on this side because this is the visible, obvious, side of the relation. On the other side, sits the capital. The needs of the workers plays no role in its activity; it is solely concerned with the subjectless activity of self-expansion. When the needs of the workers confront the capital, through their association, these needs appear external to it — because they really are. The needs of the workers can only appear as external — as wages, as a cost of production — while the activity of the workers appears as the activity of the capital.
Some writers will admit there is no “necessary” relation between the needs of the workers and their activity — but this is ambiguous and misleading. It makes it appear as if there can be a relation between the association of the workers and capital or that this relation is established through the struggle between the two classes. There is, in fact, no relation at all between the needs of the workers (association) and their activity (capital) — none whatsoever. It is important to emphasize the point that in capitalism the needs of the workers play no role whatsoever in the activity of the capital.
This is true not because the capitalist is greedy — which he may very well be — but because capital is, from its very inception, a communist movement of society. Most communists do not realize the higher stage of communism is exactly the point where there is no longer any connection at all between the activity of the worker and her needs. This bizarre outcome can be restated in a more familiar fashion. Communism is that point where society operates according to the principle:
“From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.
In other words, society operates according to the principle that the needs of the individual have no connection to their contribution to the social labor of the community. This communist form of society would be impossible unless capitalism already contained the germ of this mode of existence. For this reason, labor theory assumes that with the emergence of capitalism, the material premise of communism already exists. It exists in the form of the wage labor relation itself, which severs the needs of the worker (association) from her activity (capital)."
The part I noted in italics is crucial, not only for the theoretical understanding of communism, but for understanding the current development of capitalist society and why the forms of struggle that most of the self-described communists/socialists/anarchists are constantly looking for have not appeared, and will not appear, in response to the last 40 years of capitalist development.
I tend to express this development as one where the working class no longer appears as an estate within capitalist society.
Some of the (anti-)political conclusions Jehu and I draw may indeed be quite different, as we have different understandings of the state and politics, but I believe he has grasped and expressed a fundamental point.  Today's struggle is not going to satisfactorily express itself in new unions or a revivified capitalism that is 'revolution friendly' with a fundamentally 'revived' working class nor a return to a pre-neoliberal Keynesianism.  The dissociation of the needs of the worker from her activity is progressive and irreversible, that is, it not only deepens, but it cannot be undone, nor should we want it to be undone as it is essential to communism.
My concern, and this is where we draw different conclusions vis-a-vis politics, is that capitalism, which cannot help but further this separation, does so at the increasing expense of the majority of the world and communism is by no means an automatic outcome of this process.  A political struggle remains against the attempt to impose this separation through the widening global gap between those for whom capital has a place in wage-labor and the increasing mass of those who are utterly redundant, and yet forced to reside within a world constituted by money.  That is, there is no movement "back to the land" or "back to small-scale production" or even to "workers' councils", just as there is no "back to the nation state" (Jehu's points here and here are pertinent.)  However, what is a political struggle that rejects the state, whether the bourgeois nation state or any kind of so-called "workers' state"?
I have tried to begin to tackle this in earlier posts on the political, so I am not going to rehearse that now as I also have not progressed far from there.
I would also like to note that, in spite of his hostility to John Holloway's conception of class struggle as constitutive, Jehu has put forward one of the most succinct expressions of just such a notion of class struggle.
“Even in times where labor conflict has been at unprecedented historical lows — as in 2007 — capitalism suffers crisis. This crisis is nothing more than the needs of the workers imposing themselves on capital, despite the workers actual submission to capital. It does not matter whether the workers fight or submit, their material needs must impose themselves on capital through a crisis because the material needs of the workers appears as a constituent of the needs of capital itself. The level of labor conflict has nothing to do with this crisis and will assert itself no matter the level of conflict. The needs of the workers are a material precondition for accumulation and cannot be settled at the negotiating table.
What Marxists call the “law of value” is nothing more than the needs of the workers making themselves manifest in capital’s operation as the requirements of capital itself. But here is the twist: The needs in this case are not the needs of the individual workers as individuals, but the needs of the workers as a single social laborer. We can, therefore, assume there are no unions, no rights, no freedoms, no democracy — and this law will still make itself felt. By the same token, unions, right, freedoms, and democracy are one after another abolished in a vain attempt to suppress this law. The law of value cannot be suppressed because the starting point accumulation is that the worker’s activity has nothing to do with her needs — it has nothing to do with forms and level of class conflict…
The antagonism between the needs of the worker and her activity cannot be overcome
The whole capitalist epoch, therefore, is the development of the antagonism between the activity of the worker and satisfaction of her needs. The unexpected conclusion is that once the antagonism emerges it can never be resolved in any other way than communism.”
He also has a very succinct and sharp critique of Holloway's mis-placed criticism of capitalism through the device of "doing vs. done":
“Part of the problem here is that communists describe the capitalist mode of production in completely negative terms, but this is not entirely accurate. Holloway, for instance, describes capital as a relation that breaks the “sociality of doing”. He has it entirely backward, capital does not ‘break the sociality of doing’, it actually creates the material basis for a truly social doing — and communism completes this creation. Capital is actually a revolutionary mode of production, but the revolution takes place at the expense of the worker. Against all previous modes of production it is revolutionary; against the social worker produced by this activity, however, it is an insufficient, historically limited mode of production. In any case, however, capitalism lays the material basis for its own supercession.”
I think this is a valid criticism of Holloway, but that is because he has an ontology of labor, labor as a good thing. There is a reason that, even if Marx said that “labor should become life’s prime want”, he refers in Vol. 3 of Capital to the the realm of necessity as the realm of labor, against the realm of freedom. The dominance of the realm of freedom only happens through the abolition of labor, that is, only when as you say our contribution to social labor and the fulfillment of our needs no longer have a connection.


  1. Hi,

    so I've been involved in a discussion about the concept of the "abolition of labor". Many of the people in the discussion feel this refers to "the drudgery of labor" or "wage labor" specifically and to abolish labor itself would be ludicrous. After all, all societies require some labor or human activity to function right? Or if you want a amusement park or swimming pool, you use labor to build it.

    Yet I think you raise an interesting point; what if people don't find labor to be "life's prime want"?

    I may need some clarification on the topic though.

  2. My most recent post is a response to your query. I could also recommend a number of readings on the matter, but that is a lot of material to read. Nevertheless, Adorno's Minima Moralia, Debord's Society of the Spectacle, Andre Gorz in general, Moishe Postone's Time, Labor and Social Domination all come immediately to mind, as does Paresh Chattopadhyay's excellent essay on Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program, which has a wonderful critique of Lenin's interpretation of it. Probably also Gillian Rose's Love's Work and Mourning Becomes the Law.