Political Economy of Labour Repression in the United States: An Interview with Andrew Kolin

Andrew Kolin’s Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States (Lexington Books, 2016) successfully demonstrates how labour repression is organic to capitalism; something that is central to the very constitution of the capitalist economy and its state. Traversing the history of the United States, the book is a survey of the evolving relationship between capital and labour and how repression has been (re)produced in and through that evolution – something that is structurally manifest in the institutional exclusion of labour. However, by presenting it as an expression of class struggle, the book refuses to deprive labour of its agency. It does not view labour as passive or even merely reactive. It suggests that insofar as the political economy of repression is composed through capital-labour interactions, it is contradictory and provides moments of escape or liberation from repression.

Pratyush Chandra and Pothik Ghosh talk to Andrew Kolin. Professor Kolin teaches Political Science at Hilbert College. His books include The Ethical Foundations of Hume’s Theory of Politics, One Family: Before and During the Holocaust, State Structure and Genocide and State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of G.W. Bush.

Radical Notes: Why is the book called “Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States”, and not the “History of Labor Repression in the United States”? Considering it is a rather comprehensive survey of labour history in the US, how do you explain your choice of the title?

Andrew Kolin: Although the book provides an historical survey of labour repression in the United States, the underlying theme is to consider the causes of labour repression, which coincides with the rise of American capitalism and its cycles. In considering the political economy of labour repression, the dependent variable over time is labour’s institutional exclusion from the state and the economy. The independent variable is the class struggle between capital and labour during various economic cycles.

Labour Repression

Radical Notes: Reading through the book, one gets a sense that perhaps the logic of capital-labour relations, or rather conflicts, has determined the course of the American history. Is this reading correct? Can it be justifiably claimed that the American state is a product of this logic?

Andrew Kolin: Prior to the Civil War, capital was in conflict with slave labour in the south and wage labour in the north. After the Civil War as industrialisation accelerated capital sought to maximise control over wage labour at the workplace. The great strike wave of the latter part of the 19th century was labour’s response to capital’s efforts to homogenise labour at the workplace. The extent to which capital could increase control over labour was determined by the economic cycles of American capitalism. Crushing strikes did not end class conflict, but only temporarily displaced it. During the Great Depression and with the New Deal, the goal was to have the state mediate class conflict. This worked fine until the 1970s when economic decline set in and the social welfare state was diminished. Starting in the 1980s, the state was no longer concerned with mediating capital and labour, and clearly focused, instead, on supporting finance capital.

Radical Notes: Although the book is mainly about the post-revolutionary institutions, what we find interesting is the way you discover their roots in the very operation of colonialism and waging of the anti-colonial struggle. How would you summarise the role of the politics of labour — its various segments, especially, waged, indentured and slave — in the American Revolution and the building of post-revolutionary institutions, both democratic and repressive?

Andrew Kolin: Property owners understood the need to mobilise labour in order to make the democratic revolution possible. The American Revolution allowed property owners to sever economic ties with Great Britain making it possible for them to put in place policies that supported economic expansion within North America. Most significant was that the well-to-do and labour worked together toward creating a democratic revolution. This in turn created responsive state governments that responded to the needs of the many, that is, until there was a realisation that the system of government should be reframed to better represent the interests of the propertied elites. The constitutional convention established a state structure that severely restricted labour from having a direct role in policymaking. What followed was that states working with property owners made it legally possible for the rise of the corporation. This was enabled by moving away from corporate charters, which were under state control, to the idea of the corporation as an independent legal entity with due-process rights.

Radical Notes: A crucial lesson that seems to come out from your analysis of labour repression in the US is that the tapestry of labour forms and technological changes that we find is actually capital’s mode of coping with the challenges that the working class poses. Do you agree?

Andrew Kolin: Labour repression past and present has been expressed by the organisation and reorganisation of the workplace, for purposes of controlling the labour process. The goal is to increase the production of surplus-value by speeding up the pace of work through technological innovation.

Radical Notes: How do you think segmentation, engineered through the mechanism of institutional inclusion-exclusion, has shaped the officialdom of the labour movement, or what many call, “labour aristocracy”?

Andrew Kolin: Institutional exclusion has divided labour into reform and radical segments. The AFL, under the leadership of Gompers and Green, and even the more progressive ‘CIO’ Lewis accepted capital’s monopoly of control over the workplace. This, in turn, forced labour leaders to function in partnership with capital toward the goal of achieving workplace harmony. Nonetheless, labour’s rank and file has been more progressive than its leadership, engaging in strikes and various forms of labour unrest without the support of labour leaders.

Radical Notes: Do you think the involvement of immigrant, semi-skilled and unskilled segments of workers time and again played a significant role in radicalising the American labour movement whenever it found itself mired in reformism and status quoism? What has been the impact of rank-and-file activism in the US?

Andrew Kolin: Looking back through the mid and latter parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was immigrants, semi-skilled and unskilled labour segments that were the force behind many of the great strikes. They were also heavily involved in creating the socialist and communist parties. These labour segments also fought against the greater imposition of technology at the workplace. Many of the major accomplishments of organised labour came from these rank-and-file activists. They supported not only the formation of the CIO, they agitated for many of the eventual New Deal reforms, which did result in better wages and working conditions.

Radical Notes: Throughout the history of labour repression and class struggle in the US that is narrated in the book, we see an interesting cyclicity of offence and defence, conflict and compromise. Can you see significant moments of leap in the history of the labour movement in the US that had the potential to radically break out of this cyclicity?

Andrew Kolin: Although the mainstay of labour repression has been labour’s institutional exclusion, labour has been successful in achieving a number of reformist demands. And even though radical labour segments have been oppressed, one finds within the capitalist economy the existence of non-capitalist enclaves in the form of public and worker ownership. The future challenge for organised labour is to increase the scope and scale of worker-based ownership, the basis for building a more radical form of economic democracy.

Radical Notes: Neoliberalism and the dominance of finance capital seem to have finally liberated capitalism from hurdles like democratisation and the impact of institutionalised/ territorialised working-class politics. What are “the limits of labor repression and possible options for the liberation of labor” today? What forms of organisation and working-class activities do you see emerging today that overcome the “legal boundaries” defined within and by the political economy of repression?

Andrew Kolin: There are two trends to consider in assessing the possible future limits of labour repression, one is the built-in feature of US capitalism—it cannot solve its problems. The persistence of the cyclical nature of American capitalism along with class struggle between capital and labour create the social effects pointing to an overall limit to a capitalist economy. A second trend is the existence on a limited scale of worker-based economic democracy. If it is to continue to grow, one can expect the appearance of an economy without labour repression. For example, key features would be that all goods and services would be produced by worker-managers. Companies would sell products for profit in a competitive market, in the absence of a class-based economic system. Each company would be owned and controlled by labour. Investments for expansion would be created by a tax on the company’s capital. Through a national fund, money would flow into the economy to public banks. The labourers in the banks would decide which projects were viable investments. Companies would be mandated to set aside monies to deal with modernisation and capital improvements. Since labour would monopolise decision-making the workers could reshape the companies or opt to leave but they could not make the companies sell capital in order to generate income. Minimum wages would have to be determined to be living wages. A company that could not pay workers a living wage would have to file for bankruptcy. All workers would be provided with a broad range of social services. This economic model has been put into practice at the Mondragon company in Spain. In the United States, there are no formal legal obstacles against labour forming a worker-based company.

Radical Notes: The ascendancy of Donald Trump and his politics of reactionary spectacle has often been ascribed to the rightward ideological shift of large sections of the White working class. How accurate is this ascription, and how would you explain this in political-economic terms? Also, in that context, how exactly do race relations currently function to segment and regiment social labour in its totality in the US? In your opinion, how has race historically functioned, if at all, in enabling and/or constituting what you call the “political economy of labor repression” in the US?

Andrew Kolin: I argue that this interpretation of a White, reactionary working class is incorrect. An interesting article appeared in the Washington Post on June 5, 2017, ‘It’s time to bust the myth: most Trump voters were not working class’. The authors cited the research findings of the American National Election Survey, which released its 2016 survey data. The conclusion was that over two-thirds of Trump voters came from the better-off half of the economy. Mainstream labour leadership supported the candidacy of Hilary Clinton. Trump did attract more working-class voters from the industrial belt, more out of desperation and a rejection of Clinton’s neoliberalism. As to the issue of race and the labour movement, the AFL had put in place policies that prevented people of colour from becoming union members. Racial tensions were heightened when people of colour were used as strike-breakers. Radical labour segments have been far more accepting of non-White workers. Recently, there have been some hopeful signs of mainstream labour breaking with its more racist past. Since the Sweeney era, the AFL-CIO has been more active in recruiting workers of colour. The AFL-CIO has supported the strikes of minority workers working for minimum wages as well as those seeking to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour. Organised labour is well-aware that its future is dependent on reaching out to and organising non-White workers.

Meeting on Working Class Politics (April 19-20, 2014), New Delhi

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society. Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845)

The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present. Karl Marx, To Domela Nieuwenhuis (1881)

The question of working class strategy has generally been reduced to issues of consciousness raising and particular organisational manoeuvrings to homogenise and hegemonise the self-activities of the working class. In fact, in programmatic terms, it is nothing more than competitive sets of reactive tactics that always claim to respond to the onslaught of capital. So even the question of class as a subjective force becomes irrelevant, leave aside its revolutionary character, rather it is just an arena for competition among various ‘working class’ organisations to present themselves as the most and even sole authentic class representatives negotiating with capital. Ultimately, the most astute negotiator should win. But then successful negotiators must be those who are most comfortable in dealing with capital.

But history confirms that every time such expert leadership has proclaimed their mastery over the working class, the class itself in class struggle has moved ahead and the question of lag between the ‘spontaneous’ consciousness of the working class and repositories of “revolutionary wisdom” is time and again raised. In fact, both leaders and capital tend to compete and collaborate in competition to harness and ‘productively’ channelise the energy and creativity of the working class, to teach it to behave coherently – for capital this means a process of successful subsumption and for self-proclaimed leaders a successful organising under their leadership.

However, it is in the solidarian relationship that develops among workers during the course of togetherness in their everyday confrontations with capital and its agencies that we find a self-consolidation of class energy and creativity happening. This is what is called a political recomposition of the working class. It happens through a refusal to submit itself to the mechanics of the technical composition – how capital (re)organises and imposes work to keep on appropriating surplus value, to subsume evermore labour by technological innovations. But it is important to remember, “[i]t would be possible to write quite a history of the inventions, made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working-class.” (Marx) Hence, it is the assertion of the autonomy of labour (political composition) and capital’s evermore intensified campaign to subsume it that constitute class struggle. It is the working class that acts to which capital reacts.

When in our January meeting we discussed the introduction of electronics and micro-electronics in the production process, it was mainly to understand how today the terrain of class struggle itself has been transformed. If we do not take these changes into account, any talk of workers’ politics and its revolutionary transformative character will be a useless doctrinaire discussion on class strategy. We recognise that technological change is not a linear process, to which other social variables and components must adjust. Technology itself is contradictory – it is a class struggle. Marx noted a long time back that capital innovates evermore “automatic system”. It is exactly this automatic system that has continued being central to the struggle between capital and labour. Today this system has acquired a global dimension – not constituted by individual “self-acting mules” aided by separated individuals or groups of individual workers but via networked machines and workers toiling in diverse spacetimes.

The technical recomposition of the working class around new inventions/technologies poses a crisis for existing political forms in the working class movement. These forms either become outmoded or co-opted, or have to transform themselves to contribute in the emergence of a new political composition to reassert the autonomy of labour.

We met thrice in Sevagram to discuss the evolving character of class conflicts and workers’ self-activisms, how they reflect upon various congealed organisational forms and their claims to class radicalism and politics. Our next meeting is in Delhi, April 19-20 (2014). We propose the following broadly defined agenda to continue our discussion:

1. Changes that have occurred with the incomparable leap in productive forces associated with electronics. What is a radical transformation today?

2. Changes in the composition of the working class in these forty years.

3. Appropriate forms of organisations and modes of activities from local to global levels.

For details, contact radicalnotes@radicalnotes.com

Notes on Fetishism, History and Uncertainty: Beyond the Critique of Austerity

Werner Bonefeld

‘What divides these gentlemen [the French socialists] from the bourgeois apologist is, on the one side, their sensitivity to the contradictions included in the system; on the other, the utopian inability to grasp the necessary difference between the real and the ideal form of bourgeois society, which is the cause of their desire to undertake the superfluous business of realizing the ideal expression again, which is in fact only the inverted projection [Lichtbild] of this reality’ (Marx, 1973, pp. 248-49).

Preface

We live at a time that resounds with misery. The headlines have changed from war and terror to what seems like a never-ending global economic crisis. Against the background of debt, default and sluggish rates of economic growth at best, accumulation by dispossession is back en vogue, a whole generation of workers appears redundant, and a whole mass of people have been cut off from the means of subsistence, struggling to survive – and despite appearances to the contrary, war and terror continue unabated. In this context, the notion that capitalism produces deplorable situations is a most optimistic point of view. Deplorable conditions (Zustände) are not the same as deplorable situations (Mißstände). The one says that poverty is a capitalist condition. Challenging it requires a fundamental change in the social relations of production. On the other hand, deplorable situations describe entirely avoidable socio-economic circumstances, be they the result of a chance development, government incompetence, or hard-nosed class-politics. As such it can be rectified by well-meaning political interventions and political programmes that benefit society at large.[1] Instead of capitalist profit, miserable situations require resolution by political means that hold the economy accountable to the democratic aspirations for a freedom from want. Deplorable situations require thus a social activism that challenges This misery and That outrage, seeking to alleviate and rectify This and That. What however are the social preconditions that constitute the necessity of This poverty and That misery? After all, what is needed is a praxis that fights the underlying conditions of misery. Adorno (1972) therefore condemns activism for its own sake, and rejects it as a pseudo-praxis that fights this and that but leaves the conditions that render this and that entirely untouched. In this way, ‘activism’ is not only affirmative of existing society but also regressive – it deludes itself that however bad the situation, it can be rectified by this or that policy, by this or that technical means. The activism of the given situation feels the pain of the world and offers its own programme as the means of salvation. The activism against this or that is delusional in its conception of society. It deceives those whose interests it pretends to represent by making them believe that a resolution to their plight is really just a matter of proper government. In its essence, activism for this cause or that cause is a political advertisement for some alternative party of government. It transforms the protest against a really existing misery that blights the life of a whole class of individuals into a selling point for political gain.

On Society and Economic Nature

Critical thought is none other than the cunning of reason when confronted with a social reality in which the poor and miserable are required to subsidise the financial system for the sake of sustaining the illusion of fictitious wealth. Yet, this subsidy is entirely necessary in existing society, to prevent its implosion. This rational irrationality of a capitalistically organised mode of social reproduction is at the centre of the critique of political economy. Its critique is subversive. It asks why human social reproduction takes this irrational form. Subversion focuses on human conditions and focuses on essentials: ‘Free labour contains the pauper’ (Marx, 1973, p. 604) and capitalist wealth entails the poverty of dispossessed labour in its conception. Its focus on essentials entails intransigence towards the existent patterns of the world. It demands that all relations ‘in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicably being have to be overthrown’ (Marx, 1975, p. 182). Debasement subsists as society unaware of itself; a society that is, in which human sensuous practice exists, say, in the form of a movement of coins that impose themselves with seemingly irresistible force on the acting subjects as if the world of coins were a world apart. The fetishism of commodities makes the human world appear as one that is governed by natural, immutable economic laws. Yet, nature has nothing to do with it. What appears as an objective force of economic nature is and remains a socially constituted force. Society is governed by economic abstractions that appear as forces of nature. Economic nature is a socially constituted nature. Society asserts itself in the form of a relationship between things and thus exists in and through the movement of socially constituted things.

Society is ‘objective’ insofar as and ‘because’ its ‘own subjectivity is not transparent’. Society is subjective ‘in that it refers back to human beings which form it’ (Adorno, 1993a, p. 43). Objectivity ‘realises itself only through individuals’. Society as a mere object comprises the socially necessary delusion that the social structures and social laws are innately natural. ‘The thesis that society is subject to natural laws is ideology’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 355). Social objectivity does not posit itself – it is ‘the posited universal of the social individuals that constitute it’ (1993b, p. 127). What this means is well brought out by Marx (1973, p. 239) when he writes, in the money fetish ‘a social relation, a definite relation between individuals … appears as a metal, a stone, as a purely physical external thing which can be found, as such, in nature, and which is indistinguishable in form from its natural existence’. That is, social objectivity ‘does not lead a life of its own’ (Adorno, 1993b, p. 127). It is a socially constituted objectivity – social relations vanish in their appearance as a metal or a stone, and this appearance is real. There is only one world, and that is the world of appearance. What appears in the appearance of society as a ‘stone’, or a ‘coin’, is however a definite social relationship between individuals subsisting as a relationship between ‘coins’. Society appears as some transcendental thing that governs by means of the ‘invisible hand’, which takes ‘care of both the beggar and the king’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 251). Its transcendent character is real: Money makes the world go round; yet, it does so only because, in capitalism, social individuals are governed by the product of their own hand. In short, the world does indeed manifest itself behind the backs of acting individuals, and society is indeed governed by real abstractions; yet, it is their own world (cf. Marcuse, 1988, p. 151).

Marx’s critique of fetishism amounts thus to a judgement on existence. That is, the critique of political economy amounts to a conceptualised praxis (begriffenden Praxis) of definite social relations in their appearance as relations, say, between coins (Schmidt, 1974, p. 207). It holds that theoretical mysteries find their rational explanation in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice, and argues that this practice exists against itself in the form of relations of economic objectivity. The limit to reification is reified Man, and in the face of reified Man, the critique of fetishism is an attempt at making society conscious of its own ‘monstrous’ world. In short, the meaning of objectivity excludes the possibility that it can also be a subject. However, to be an object is part of the meaning of subjectivity. Subjectivity means objectification. In its capitalist form it appears in the logic of things. Appearance [Schein] “is the enchantment of the subject in its own world” (Adorno 1969: 159). The circumstance that objectification [Gegenständlichkeit] exists in the form of a relationship between coins does thus not imply that there is an as yet undiscovered, and indeed undiscoverable, logic that lies solely within the thing itself. Only as a socially determinate object can the object be an object (see Adorno 1969: 157). Reason exists – but in irrational form. The irrational world is a rational world.

Marx’s work focuses on forms, at first on forms of consciousness (i.e., religion and law), then later on the forms of political economy. This focus on forms entails a critique of social relations that subsist in an inverted form of society– one that is governed not by the social individuals themselves but, rather, one that is governed by ‘product’ of their own hand. That is to say, every social ‘form’, even the most simple form like, for example, the commodity, ‘is already an inversion and causes relations between people to appear as attributes of things’ (Marx, 1972, p. 508) or, more emphatically, each form is a ‘perverted form’ (Marx, 1979, p. 90)[2]. The critique of economic categories as perverted social forms subverts the economic idea of cash, price and profit by revealing their social constitution. The movement of ‘coins’ does not express some abstractly conceived economic matter. It expresses a definite social relationship between individuals subsisting as a relationship between things and coins. In capitalism individuals are really governed by the movement of coins – they carry their relationship with society, and therewith their access to the means of subsistence, in their pockets. Although coins tend to inflate or become depressed, they are not subjects.  Yet, they impose themselves on, and also in and through, the person to the point of madness and disaster, from the socially necessary consciousness of cash and product, money and profit, to poverty and famine, and bloodshed and war. The bourgeois conception of wealth is money as more money, and this idea of more money objectifies itself in the persons as mere ‘agents of value’ (Adorno, 173, p. 311) who depend for their life on the manner in which the ‘logic of economic things’ unfolds – access to the means of subsistence appears to be governed by fate and fate appears in the form of economic growth, which if money does not posit itself as more money cuts off a whole class of people from the means of subsistence. What a monstrosity! An economic thing, this coin, that in its nature really is nothing more than a piece of metal manifests itself as a power by which ‘the life of all men hangs by’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 320). However, this is not a monstrosity of economic nature nor is it one of reified things. That is, the mythological idea of fate becomes no less mythical when it is demythologised “into a secular ‘logic of things’” (ibid., p. 319) or into an abstract system-logic that structures the economic behaviours by means of price signals, which comprises the freedom to wealth and the freedom to starve. Its economic nature is in its entirety a socially constituted nature.

On Society and Praxis

There is, says Adorno, a need for a ‘practice that fights barbarism’, and yet, he argues rightly, there can be no such practice (Adorno, 1962, p. 30). Barbarism cannot be fought in a direct and immediate manner – what really does it mean to struggle against money, resist the movement of coins, combat the law of value, and fight poverty in a society that contains poverty in its concept of wealth? A ‘practice that fights barbarism’ is about the social preconditions that render barbarism. To put this point in entirely different manner: The struggle for humanisation points the struggle against constituted relations of misery in the right direction; the humanisation of social relations is the purpose and end of the struggle for the human emancipation from reified economic relations, from relations in which an increase in social wealth manifests itself to the class that is tied to work in the form of a constant struggle for access to the means of subsistence. However, the effort of humanising inhuman conditions is confronted by the paradox that it presupposes as eternal those same inhuman conditions that provoke the effort of humanisation in the first place. Inhuman conditions are not just an impediment to humanisation but a premise of its concept. What then does it mean to say ‘no’?

It is not the independence of economic categories of cash and coin, value and money, as forces over and above, and also in and through, the social individuals that require explanation. Rather, what requires explanation is the social relations of production that manifest themselves as a relationship between economic things, which assert themselves behind the backs of those same individuals that comprise and sustain society. Adorno’s notion that the ‘total movement of society’ is ‘antagonistic from the outset’ (Adorno, 1970, p. 304) entails therefore more than it first seems. Not only does the fetishism of commodities presuppose antagonistic social relations but society exists also by virtue of the class antagonism. That is to say, ‘society stays alive, not despite its antagonism, but by means of it’ (Adorno, 1973, 320). The struggle against capitalism is therefore not a struggle for the working class. Whichever way one looks at it, to be a member of the working class is a great ‘misfortune’ (Marx, 1983, p. 477). That is to say, class is not a positive category. It is a critical concept of the false society. The critique of class society finds its positive resolution not in better paid workers or conditions of full-employment, etc. It finds its positive resolution only in the classless society, in which mankind has rid itself of ‘all the muck of ages and found itself anew’ (Marx and Engels 1976: 53). – as a commune of ‘communist individuals’ (Marcuse 1958: 127).

In a world governed by the movement of coins, the critique of class society is entirely negative. A constructive critique of class society does not amount to a critical practice. It amounts, argue Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) and Adorno (1970), to ‘ticket thinking’. Such thinking is ‘one-dimensional’. It argues in interests of the wage labourer with a claim to power. That is, rather than understanding capital as a social relationship, it takes capital to be an economic thing that given the right balance of class forces, can be made to work for the benefit of workers. Ticket thinking proclaims ‘falseness’ (Adorno 2008a: 28). Instead of the ‘optimism of the left’ that puts forth a programme of capitalist transformation which does ‘not talk about the devil but looks on the bright side’ (Adorno 1978: 114), there is therefore need to understand the capitalist conceptuality of social labour.

Affirmative conceptions of class, however well-meaning and benevolent in their intensions, presuppose the working class as productive force that deserves a better, a new deal. What is a fair wage? Marx made the point that ‘”price of labour” is just as irrational as a yellow logarithm’ (Marx, 1966, p. 818). The demand for fair wages and fair labour conditions abstracts from the very conditions of ‘fairness’ in capitalism, which is founded on the divorce of social labour from the means of subsistence, and instead of overcoming this divorce which is the foundation of capital and labour, it proclaims that dispossessed workers be paid better. That is, the divorce of social labour from the means of subsistence transforms labour into a proletarian who is ‘the slave of other individuals who have made themselves the owners of the means of human existence’ (Marx, 1970, p. 13, translation amended). Why does this content, that is, human social reproduction, take the form of an equivalent exchange between the owners of the means of subsistence and the dispossessed seller of labour power, and how can it be that wealth expands by means of an exchange between equivalent values? The seller of labour power is fundamentally a human factor of surplus labour time, which is the foundation of surplus value and thus profit. The equivalence of an exchange between quantitatively different values has thus to do with the transformation of labour into a surplus value producing labour activity which expands social wealth, allowing money to lay golden eggs. Even on the assumption that when hiring labour, equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, this transaction between the seller and buyer of labour ‘is all that only the old dodge of every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has robbed them of’ (1983, p. 456). That is to say, theory on behalf of the working class affirms the existence of a class of people tied to surplus value production. Chapter 48 of Volume Three of Capital provides Marx’s critique of the theory of class proposed by classical political economy (and shared by modern social science), according to which class interests are determined by the revenue sources (or, in Weberian terms, market situation) of social groups, rather than being founded in the social relations of production as Marx argues (on this see Clarke, 1992). Political Economy is indeed a scholarly dispute over how the booty pumped out of the labourer may be divided and distributed amongst the component classes of society (Marx, 1983, p. 559) – and clearly, the more the labourer gets, the better. After all, it is her social labour that produces the ‘wealth of nations’.

However, the critique of political economy is not political economy. In distinction to political economy’s focus on the distribution of wealth, it asks about the conceptuality of social wealth, that is wealth in the form of value, and it asks how this wealth if produced, by whom, and for what purpose. According to Marx, wealth is produced by labour for the sake of greater wealth in the form of value, and value is value in exchange that becomes visible in the form of money. Value is wealth as valorised value. Time is money. The critique of political amounts thus to a conceptualised practice of capitalist form of social wealth as one that is founded on the transformation of the workers’ life time into labour time. There is no time to waste and there is always more time to catch. This, then, is the ‘nibbling and cribbling at meal times’ as ‘moments are the elements of profit’ (Marx, 1983, pp, 232, 233). The time of value is the time of socially necessary labour time. Work that is not completed within this time is wasted, valueless, regardless of the labour time that went into it, the sweat and tears of its productive efforts, the usefulness of the material wealth that was created, and the needs that it could satisfy. From the appropriation of unpaid labour time to the endless struggle over the division between necessary labour time and surplus labour time, from the ‘imposition‘ of labour-time by time-theft, this ‘petty pilferings of minutes’, ‘snatching a few minutes’ (ibid., p. 232), to the stealing from the worker of atoms of additional unpaid labour time by means of great labour flexibility and ‘systematic robbery of what is necessary for the life of the workman’ (Marx, 1983, p. 402), the life-time of the worker is labour-time. The worker then appears as ‘nothing more than personified labour-time’ (Marx, 1983, p. 233) – a ‘time’s carcase’ (on this, see Bonefeld, 2010b).

The notion, then, that the hell of a class ridden society can be reformed for the sake of workers is regressive in that it projects a ‘conformist rebellion’ (Horkheimer 1985), that, say, instead of ending slavery, seeks a new deal for slaves. Although ‘the world contains opportunities enough for success [communism] …everything is bewitched’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 2011: 20). That is, there is only one social reality, and this is the reality of the ‘enchanted and perverted’ world of capital (Marx 1966: 830), which reproduces itself not despite the class struggle but rather by virtue of it. Sensuous human activity subsists through the world of economic things, and thus appears ‘as a thing’ (Marx 1973, p. 157).

In capitalism, every progress turns into a calamity

Capitalist social relations have produced a staggering expansion in social wealth and phenomenal increase in labour productivity. Within a miniscule historical period of time, it has transformed human society beyond recognition. Nevertheless, despite this unprecedented expansion of human productive power, the time of labour has not diminished. In capitalism, every social progress turns into a calamity. Every increase in labour productivity shortens the hours of labour but in its capitalist form, it lengthens them. The introduction of sophisticated machinery lightens labour but in its capitalist form, it heightens the intensity of labour. Every increase in the productivity of labour increases the material wealth of the producers but in its capitalist form makes them paupers. Most importantly of all, greater labour productivity sets labour free, makes labour redundant. But rather than shortening the hours of work and thus absorbing all labour into production on the basis of a shorter working day, freeing life-time from the ‘realm of necessity’, those in employment are exploited more intensively, while those made redundant find themselves on the scrap heap of a mode of production that sacrifices ‘“human machines” on the pyramids of accumulation’ (Gambino, 2003, p. 104).[3]

Capitalist wealth is wealth in value. Value is category of constant expansion, on the pain of ruin and by means of ruin. Value is wealth in the form of restless expansion of abstract wealth qua destruction. Concealed in the concept of capital as self-valorising value lies the conceptuality of social labour. The necessity of its affirmation qua destruction – discussed by Marx at times as the dialectic between the forces and the relations of production – belongs to the constituted existence of social labour in the form of capital.

Destruction is the constituted nightmare of the capitalist mode of social reproduction:

‘Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence; too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does bourgeois society get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.’ (Marx and Engels 1996: 18–19)

This commentary on globalisation by the 29-year-old Marx is not a brilliant anticipation, which after all turned out to be far too optimistic. Rather, it conceptualises the critical subject and, in doing so, shows what lies within it. What lies within the concept of capitalist wealth are its determinate necessities. These belong to the critical subject of society unaware of itself and constitute its conceptuality. Creation qua destruction is a valid necessity of capitalist social relations – it belongs to its conceptuality [Begrifflichkeit]. “Conceptuality expresses the fact that, no matter how much blame may attach to the subject’s contribution, the conceived world is not its own but a world hostile to the subject” (Adorno 1973: 167). Man vanishes in her own world and exists against herself as a personification of economic categories – an “alienated subject” (see Backhaus 1992) that constitutes the world of things and is invisible, lost and denied in its own world – the expansion of wealth entails the disappearance of wealth as a whole class of people tied to work is cut off from the means of subsistence as if the social metabolism really is governed by the mythical idea of fate.

There is only one human measure that cannot be modified. It can only be lost (Max Frisch)

Marx conceives of communism as the real movement of the working class (Marx and Engels 1976) and argues that history is a history of class struggle (Marx and Engels 1996). This argument recognises that history has been a history of rulers and ruled, and this is the only history that has been – a bad-universality of transition from one mode of domination to another. The universality of history is, however, both real and false. In the history of the victors the victims of history are invisible, and it is their invisibility that makes history appear as a universal history that akin to a sequence of events, records the times of glorious rule, from which the memory of struggle and insubordination is necessarily expunged. The courage, cunning, and suffering of the dead disappears twice, once in a defeat in which ‘even the dead will not be safe’ from an enemy that ‘has not ceased to be victorious’ (Benjamin 1999: 247), and then again in the present, which either denies that the dead ever existed or ritualises their struggles as an heroic act that culminated in the present as the unrivalled manifestation of their bravery (Tischler, 2005). The struggles of the past transform into a monument of history, erected in celebration of the present mode of domination, for which the dead perform the role of legitimising fodder. It is true, says Benjamin, that ‘all the rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them’. There is thus no ‘document of civilisation’ that is ‘not at the same time a document of barbarism’ (Benjamin 1999: 248). History though universal in its appearance, is not some automatic thing that unfolds on behalf of the masters of the world by force of its own objectively unfolding victorious logic. ‘Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession, in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate’ (Benjamin 1999: 248). Nevertheless, however universal the progress of history might appear, the future has not already been written, class struggles have to be fought, and their outcomes are uncertain, unpredictable, and fundamentally open, then and now. What appears linear to us was contested, uncertain and unpredictable at its own time. Its progress towards the present appears logical in its directional dynamic because the time of the present eliminates any doubt in its own historical veracity as a pre-determined outcome of a sequence of recorded events that dated the time of the present in the past.

What alternatives might there have been in the past and how many struggles have been at the knife’s edge and could have led to a course of history that would be unrecognisable to us? There is no inevitability in history, nor is history an irresistible force. It is made by the acting subjects themselves and what is made by Man can be changed by Man. History appears inevitable and irresistible only afterwards, which gives history the appearance of some objective force and directional dynamic, a telos of becoming and achievement, towards which it seemingly strives. For the proponents of present society, history has been concluded. Others say that it is still continuing towards some assumed socialist or communist destiny, at which point it will conclude. History does however not make history. That is to say, ‘[h]istory does nothing, does not “possess vast wealth”, does not “fight battles”! It is Man, rather, the real, living Man who does all that, who does possess and fight, it is not “history” that uses Man [Mensch] as a means to pursue its ends, as if it were a person apart. History is nothing but the activity of Man pursuing its ends’ (Marx 1980: 98). Historical materialism is not the dogma indicated by clever opponents and unthinking proponents alike, but a critique of things understood dogmatically. That is to say, the ‘human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape’, but not conversely, the anatomy of the ape does not explain the anatomy of Man (Marx 1973: 105). If the anatomy of the ape would really explain the anatomy of Man then the ape would already possess Man as the innate necessity of its evolution – a natural teleology or an already written future.[4] The future, however, has not already been written. Nor will it be the result of some abstractly conceived objective logic of historical development. History does not unfold, as if it were a person apart. History has to be made, and will be made, by Man pursuing her ends. These ends themselves are not theologically determined, naturally founded, or historically active. The purpose of capitalism is the profitable accumulation of abstract wealth. The commune of human purpose is not an existing human purpose. Its reality is a negative one. That is to say, linear conceptions of history do not reveal abstract historical laws. They reveal accommodation of thought and practice to the existing ‘objective conditions’. Linear conceptions of history conceive of it as a continuum of progress of the present into its own future.

The political left claims that history is on the side of the oppressed and that the struggle of the oppressed therefore moving with the current of history’s forward march. This proclamation of progress makes ‘dogmatic claims’ (Benjamin 1999: 252) about a future of freed proletarians. How might one conceive of a liberated future that is not also a future present? Benjamin calls the conception of history that conceives of existing reality as transition towards communism, the ‘bordello’ (ibid.: 253) of historical thought. It criticises capitalism with a claim to power, envisages progress as a matter of party political success, advertises itself as the theory and practice of progress of a history that ‘runs its course…according to its own dialectic’ (Lukacs, in Pinkus 1975: 74). At its best this idea of history as imminent progress represents the sentimentality of the epoch, at worst it believes in itself, asserting a dogmatic claim to power for the sake of power.

On the Critique of Progress

History has no independent reality. It appears as a sequence of events, from one battle to another and from this division of labour to that division of labour. This appearance is real but by itself, devoid of meaning. What does it really mean to say that history is a sequence of events? Events of what and what was so eventful? Its appearance as an objectively unfolding force towards the present conceptuality of social wealth is deceptive. It gives rise to the idea of the coming of the society of human purposes as an ‘event’ of historical becoming towards which history somewhat strives. This view of history makes it appear as if the society of the free and equal derives from existing society, demeaning the very idea of the society of human purposes. The difficulty of conceiving of such a society independently from capitalism, has to do with its very idea. In distinction to the pursuit of profit, seizure of the state, pursuit and preservation of political power, and economic value and human resource, it follows a completely different entelechy of human development – on in which wealth is free time, the purpose of humanity its own purpose, and one in which equality is an equality of individuals human needs. For the sake of human emancipation, the idea of history as a force of relentless progress has to be abandoned – the idea of progress is tied to existing society, which legitimises the existence of poverty as a condition of future wealth. History appears as a transcendent force of progress only when one abstracts from it, leading to its description of a sequence of historical events, for which the terms ‘historicity’ provides the name. That is to say, in order to comprehend history, one needs to ‘crack the continuum of history’.[5] One needs thus to think out of history, out of the battles, out of the struggles of the Levellers and Diggers, slave insurrections, peasant revolts, the struggles of Les Enragés, working class strikes, riots, insurrections, and revolutions, including St. Petersburg (1917) and Kronstadt  (1921), and Barcelona (1936) [6], to appreciate the traditions of the oppressed, recognise the smell of danger and the stench of death, gain a sense of the courage and cunning of struggle, grasp the spirit of sacrifice, comprehend however fleetingly the density of a time at which history almost came to a standstill.[7]  History does not lead anywhere; it has no telos, no objectives, no purpose, and it does not take sides. At its worst, it continues on the path of victorious progress under darkened clouds and smoke filled skies. History is made. At best, its progress will be stopped. Such history has not been made yet, though it has often been attempted. In our time, this attempt is called communism – this attempt at negation that seeks to rid the world of ‘all the muck of ages’.

What is cannot be

The true picture of the past, says Benjamin (1999: 247) ‘flits by’. When? How? It flits by ‘at a moment of danger’, at moments of courageous struggle when the time of the present appears to have come to a hold, a time at which everything seems possible, and where everything is up in the air, a time of great unpredictability and uncertainty, and thus a time at which the ‘bloody grimace’ (Adorno 1975: 43) of progress attains actual force in the experience of struggle. Thus the true picture of the past flits by at a time of greatest uncertainty, a time at which the certainty of tomorrow dissolves and at which the monuments of the past crack to reveal their hidden secret. This is the time of historical comprehension, in which the mass produced view of a glorious history transforms form a historicity of events into an experienced history of death and destruction, pillage and rape, enslavement and dispossession. This then is the time of intense uncertainty that reveals the bloody grimace of the past struggles, which up-to-now had hidden in the seemingly civilised forms of rule and power. This then is the time at which the dead victims of history step off the monument built by the state in its role as memory entrepreneur (see Tischler 2005). There is no redemption. There is only the realisation that history was not what it seemed, and there is a sudden understanding of the earlier sacrifice and deadly struggle. The experience of a time at a standstill is intoxicating, and full of danger. It is this experience that allows a glimpse of the past to take hold in the present, revealing a deadly certainty. That is, redemption is a matter of staying alive at a time when the certainty of tomorrow is no more: for ‘even the dead will not be safe’ if ‘the enemy’ wins (Benjamin 1999: 247).

The time of human emancipation is akin to pulling the emergency-break on a run-away train – here and now so that the continuum of history ‘come[s] to a stop’ (Benjamin 1999: 254). Another way of putting this is to say: the future present is both a present in transition towards its own future and a now-time that explodes this continuum of history. The time for pulling the emergency break is not tomorrow. It is now. Compared with the time of the present, Now-Time appears as a myth. The present is the time of seeming certainty and predictability. Now time says that now is the time of uncertainty.  Now is the time to stop the forward march of the time of the clock, adding units of time to units of time, ticking and tacking according to the rhythm of a world in which time is money and money is wealth. Now time appears as a myth because its acuity is a time that does not add to itself (Bonefeld 2010b). It does not move forward in relentless pursuit of abstract wealth, accumulating living labour on the pyramids of abstract wealth, appropriating additional atoms of unpaid labour time for the sake of an accumulation of abstract wealth alone. In Now time, time is courage and cunning. Now is the time for taking aim ‘at the clocks’ so that their ticking and tacking stops, and time ceases to be money and instead becomes a time ‘for enjoyment’ (Marx 1972, p. 252). Now time is not the time of the present. It is a time against the present, seeking to stop it in its tracks. Conceived as a present time, now time ceases as a time that fights barbarism. Instead it converts the ‘no’ of Now Time into a ‘conformist rebellion’ for existing conditions, which it defends with doctrinaire belief in the progress of the present, according to which all will be well in the future once the communist bead of the rosary of history has slipped through our hands.[8]

Towards a Conclusion without Promise

Only a reified consciousness can declare that it is in possession of the requisite knowledge, political capacity, and technical expertise not only for resolving capitalist crises but, also, to do so in the interests of workers. Its world-view describes capitalist economy as an irrationally organised practice of labour, and proposes socialism as a rationally organised practice of labour by means of conscious planning by public authority. The anti-capitalism of central economic planning is abstract in its negation of the capitalistically organised mode of social reproduction. ‘Abstract negativity’ (Adorno 2008a: 25) barks in perpetuity and without bite. Instead, it sniffs out the miserable world, from the outside as it were, and puts itself forward as having the capacity, ability, insight, and means for resolving the crisis of capitalist economy ‘for the workers’ (see ibid.). Abstract negativity describes the theology of anti-capitalism. Theologically conceived, anti-capitalism is devoid of Now-Time. Instead of rupturing the continuum of history, it promises deliverance from misery amidst ‘a pile of debris’ that ‘grows skyward’ (Benjamin 1999: 249). Benjamin’s thesis on the Angel of History says that the poor and miserable will not be liberated unless they liberate themselves, by their own effort, courage, and cunning. Herbert Marcuse focuses the conundrum of this argument most succinctly when he argues that the workers have to be free for their liberation so that they are able to become free (Marcuse 1964). In his view, workers can free themselves only insofar as they are not workers, on the basis of their non-identity. Marcuse’s argument is to the point: to stop the progress of capitalism requires a non-capitalist identity, and the difficulty of its conception is a simple one: such an identity does not belong to the present, which is a capitalist present. What really does it mean to say ‘no’ to a capitalistically organised mode of human subsistence? To say ‘no’ to capitalism is simple. But to say what the ‘no’ is, is difficult. For one, the ‘no’ is not external to but operates within that same society which it opposes. Like Marx’s summons of class struggle as the motor of history, the ‘no’ drives the negative world forward. It is its dynamic force. Furthermore, to say what the ‘no’ is compromises the ‘no’ insofar as it becomes positive in its affirmative yes to something that has no valid content except the very society that is opposes. The ‘no’ is immanent to bourgeois society and gives it its dynamic.

There is thus need for a realistic conception of the struggle for the society of human purposes. Class struggle has to be rediscovered as the laboratory of human emancipation. This struggle does not follow some abstract idea. It is a struggle for access to ‘crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist’ (Benjamin 1999: 246). What then is the working class ‘in-itself’ struggling for? ‘In-itself’ the working class struggles for better wages and conditions, and defends wage levels and conditions. It struggles against capital’s ‘were-wolf’s hunger for surplus labour’ and its destructive conquest for additional atoms of labour time, and thus against its reduction to a mere time’s carcass. It struggles against a life constituting solely of labour-time and thus against a reduction of her human life to a mere economic resource. It struggles for respect, education, and recognition of human significance, and above all it struggles for food, shelter, clothing, warmth, love, affection, knowledge, and dignity. It struggles against the reduction of its life-time to labour-time, of its humanity to an economic resource, of its living existence to personified labour-time. Its struggle as a class ‘in-itself’ really is a struggle ‘for-itself’: for life, human distinction, life-time, and above all, satisfaction of basic human needs. It does all of this in conditions (Zustände) in which the increase in material wealth that it has produced, pushes beyond the limits of the capitalist form of wealth. Every so-called trickle-down effect that capitalist accumulation might bring forth presupposes a prior and sustained trickle up in the capitalist accumulation of wealth. And then society ‘suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence’ (Marx and Engels 1996: 18-19). For Benjamin and Marx, the experience of being cut off from the means of subsistence makes the oppressed class the depository of historical knowledge. It is the class struggle that ‘supplies a unique experience with the past’, and understanding of the present (Benjamin 1999: 254). Whether this experience ‘turns concrete in the changing forms of repression as resistance to repression’ (Adorno 1973: 265) or whether it turns concrete in forms of repression is a matter of experienced history. Critically understood, and in distinction to the classical tradition, historical materialism is not only a critique of things understood dogmatically. That is, at its best it thinks against the flow of history and, as such, it really ‘brush[es] history against the grain’ (Benjamin 1999: 248) so that the critical reason of human emancipation does not become ‘a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of’ (Adorno 1973: 143).

The existence of human labour as an economic factor of production does not entail reduction of consciousness to economic consciousness. It entails the concept of economy as an experienced concept, and economic consciousness as an experienced consciousness. At the very least, economic consciousness is an unhappy consciousness. It is this consciousness that demands reconciliation. In sum, ‘freedom is a hollow delusion for as long as one class of humans can starve another with impunity. Equality is a hollow delusion for as long as the rich exercise the right to decide over the life and death of others’ (Roux 1985: 147).

Postscript

Where is the positive? The society of human purposes can be defined in negation only. History holds no promise at all. History does nothing. It is made. In the struggle against a negative world nothing is certain, except misery itself. Nevertheless, uncertainty is also an experienced concept of struggle (Bonefeld 2004). Historically, it has assumed the form of the ‘council’, the Commune, the Raete, the assemblies: this democracy of the street, which, despite appearance to the contrary, manifests no impasse at all. It is the laboratory of the society of free and equal  – its validity is its own uncertainty.

Notes

[1] On the distinction between deplorable situations and deplorable conditions, see Bonefeld (2000).

[2] Adapted from the German original that uses the phrase ‘verrueckte’ Form. In German verrueckt has a double meaning: man and displaced. I translate this as ‘perverted’.

[3] The social calamity of capitalist development is taken from Karl Marx (1983: 416).

[4] On this see Schmidt (1983) and Bonefeld (2010a).

[5] I use this phrase in reference to Holloway’s (2010) negative theory of capitalism.

[6] On the connection between St. Petersburg and Kronstadt, see Brendel (2002).

[7] The notion of thinking out of history, rather than about history, derives from Adorno’s (1973) negative dialectics which argues that for thought to decipher capitalist society, it needs to think out of society. For him, thinking about society, or about history, amounts to an argument based on hypothetical judgements that treat the world as an ‘as if’, leaving reality itself untouched and leading to dogmatic claims about its character. Critical theory, at least this is its critical intent, deciphers society from within, seeking its dissolution as a continuum of inevitable and irresistible social forces, political events, economic laws (of scarcity), and empirical data. On this, see Bonefeld (2012).

[8] The ‘rosary that slips through our hands’ refers to Benjamin’s critique of an historical materialism that has slipped into the theoretical method of historicism, which conceives of history as a sequence of events.

REFERENCES

Adorno, T. (1962) Einleitung zur Musiksoziologie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1969) ‘Marginalien zu Theorie und Praxis’, in Stichworte Kritische Modelle 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1970), Ästhetische Theorie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1972), Soziologische Schriften I, in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 8, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1973) Negative Dialectics, Routledge, London.

Adorno, T. (1975) Gesellschaftstheorie und Kulturkritik, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1978) Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, Verso, London.

Adorno, T. (1993a) ‘Einleitung’, Der Positivismusstreit in der deutschen Soziologie, dtv, Munich.

Adorno, T. (1993b) ‘Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften‘, in Der Positivismusstreit in der deutschen Soziologie, dtv, Munich.

Adorno, T. (2008a) Lectures on History and Freedom, Polity, Cambridge.

Adorno, T. (2008b) Lectures on Negative Dialectics, Polity, Cambridge.

Adorno, T. and M. Horkheimer (2011) Towards a New Manifesto, Verso, London.

Backhaus, H.G. (1992) ‘Between Philosophy and Science: Marxian Social Economy as Critical Theory’, in W. Bonefeld, R. Gunn and K. Psychopedis (eds.) Open Marxism, vol. I, Pluto, London.

Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations, Pimlico, London.

Bonefeld, W. (2000) ‘Die Betroffenheit und die Vernunft der Kritik’, in Bruhn J, M Dahlmann, and C Nachmann (eds) Kritik der Politik, Ca Ira, Freiburg.

Bonefeld, W. (2004) ‘Uncertainty and Social Autonomy’, The Commoner no 8, Winter 2004, pp. 1-6.

Bonefeld, W. (2010a) ‘History and Human Emancipation’, Critique, 38/1, pp. 61-73.

Bonefeld, W. (2010b) ‘Abstract Labour: Against its Nature and on its Time’, Capital & Class, vol. 34/2, pp. 257-276.

Bonefeld, W. (2012) ‘Negative Dialectics in Miserable Times: Notes on Adorno and Social Praxis’, in Journal of Classical Sociology 12 (1), pp. 122-34.

Brendel, C. (2002) ‘Kronstadt: Proletarian Spin-Off of the Russian Revolution’, in W. Bonefeld and S. Tischler (eds) What is to be Done?, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Clarke, S. (1992) Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, 2nd ed., Palgrave, London.

Gambino, F (2003) ‘A Critique of the Fordism of the Regulation School’, in W. Bonefeld (ed.), Revolutionary Writing, Autonomedia, New York, 2003.

Holloway, J. (2010) Crack Capitalism, Pluto, London.

Horkheimer, M. (1985) The Eclipse of Reason, Continuum, New York.

Horkheimer, M. and T. Adorno (1972) Dialectics of Enlightenment, Verso, London.

Marcuse, H. (1958) Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis, Roudledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Marcuse, H. (1964) One Dimensional Man, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Marcuse, H. (1988), ‘Philosophy and Critical Theory’, in ibid. Negations, Free Association Press, London.

Marx, K. (1970) Critique of the Gotha Programme, in Marx/Engels, Selected Works, vol. 3, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

Marx, K. (1972) Theorien des Mehrwerts, MEW 26.3, Dietz, Berlin.

Marx, K (1973) Grundrisse, Penguin, London.

Marx, K. (1975) Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’. Introduction, in Collected Works, vol. 3, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Marx, K. (1966) Capital, vol. III, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Marx, K. (1979) Das Kapital, MEW 23, Dietz, Berlin.

Marx, K. (1980) Die heilige Familie, in MEW 2, Dietz, Berlin.

Marx, K. (1983) Capital, vol. I, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1996) The Communist Manifesto, Pluto, London.

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1976) The German Ideology, in Collected Works, vol 5, International Publishers, New York.

Pinkus, T. (ed.) (1975) Conversations with Lukacs, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Roux, J. (1985) ‘Das “Manifest der Enragés”’, in ibid, Freiheit wird die Welt erobern, Reden und Schriften, Röderberg, Frankfurt.

Schmidt, A. (1974) ‘Praxis’, Gesellschaft: Beiträge zur Marxschen Theorie 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Schmidt, A. (1983) History and Structure, MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Tischler, S. (2005) ‘Time of Reification and Time of Insubordination. Some Notes’ in Bonefeld, W and K Psychopedis (eds) Human Dignity, Ashgate, Aldershot.

Why must social science be critical, and why must doing social science be difficult?

Raju J Das

Now-a-days, we hear the word ‘critical’ everywhere. It is there even in business schools: there is indeed such a thing as critical business or management studies. Conscious (=conscientious) capitalism, capitalism with a humane face, is presumably born out of such things as critical business studies. If business schools can be critical, can others be far behind? There is critical sociology. There is critical human geography? There is critical anthropology, and so on. Not to be critical almost means stupidity.

What does ‘critical’ really mean? It means being critical of the world, i.e. its social relations and inequalities. It means critical of ideas about the world, the ideas that sustain those inequalities and the ideas that do not conform to (conceptually-laden) empirical evidence. If one says that the place of women is in the kitchen or that people have a natural tendency to be only selfish and to buy and sell for a profit, there is clearly something here to be critical of, because these false ideas have an influence on people’s actual behavior. One must be critical because one cannot assume that what exists = what can exist. Uncritical work, as Alex Callinicos has said, equates what can exist with what does exist, and thus becomes status quo-ist. We must be critical because as Marx says, what appears to be true may not be true, so we need to dig underneath the surface appearances which represent inadequately partial truth and we must be critical of ideas which reflect the surface appearances.

Marx said that one should be ruthlessly critical of everything that exists, of the existing order, ruthless in that one will not be scared of the results of one’s research, nor of the powerful people.

Intellectually speaking, one can become critical of existing ideas about society by asking a series of questions of a piece of work. For example:

  1. Does a piece of work merely describe an event/process or does it explain it as necessarily caused by specific processes?
  2. Does a piece of work give more powers to things/processes than they can possibly bear/have?
  3. Does a piece of work naturalize a phenomenon by treating it as universal when it is in fact historically and geographically specific?
  4. Does a piece of work stress the cultural/ideational at the expense of the material/economic?
  5. Does a piece of work distinguish between necessary causes/conditions from contingent causes/conditions for something to happen?
  6. Does a piece of work treat an event/process as a mass of contingencies or does it treat it as a manifestation/expression/effect of a more general process?
  7. Does a piece of work conceptualize/treat/ analyze an event/process in terms of its necessary conditions and necessary effects (which may change over time)?
  8. Does a piece of work stress harmony and stability at the expense of tension and contradiction?
  9. Does a piece of work ignore connections between things and how their connections form a system which influence the parts or does it stress the difference and disconnection between things at the expense of the connections and similarities?
  10. Does a piece of work stress the individual thoughts and actions as being more important than structural conditions of individual actions/thoughts?

But what is the practical point of being critical? What happens if a professorial colleague makes criticisms of another colleague? One could say that by making (polite) criticisms of the existing ideas of scholars, we can change their viewpoints.  Many people hold the idea that: there are interstices of capitalism which can be used in the interest of ordinary people, and that is a way of fighting against the system and that, more particularly, things such as co-ops, labour unions, NGOs, identity politics, and social-democratic type parties can be used to significantly mitigate or eradicate humanity’s problems. Now: one can critique this idea hoping that the person in question will change her/his existing idea into a more radical idea, and that this will have an impact on radical social change in the world itself.

But this assumption is, more or less, wrong, for the idea underlying the assumption is that radical social change depends on merely change of ideas and that the change of ideas of the professoriate is crucial to radical social change (=transcendence of global capitalism and installment of global economic and political democracy = socialism).

My several years in academia now tell me that it is very difficult to radically change the ideas of colleagues (and most students), although one tries! It is very difficult to make them understand that, for example, the global capitalist class relation is at the root of major social-ecological problems in different localities and in the world at large, and it must therefore be gotten rid of.

A few of these individuals may change their ideas. However, the academic stratum as such will not. As the ideological representative of the petty bourgeois and bourgeois forces, this stratum cannot relinquish its job of defending and protecting the sanctity of private property and capitalist private property. The places the academia occupies within the bourgeois ideological system define their class-role. This or that capitalist can support the cause of socialism by changing her/his side. Engels did. But the capitalist class as a whole cannot commit mass suicide. This applies to the professoriate as well. Consciously or not, they stick to their roles. Their being critical stops at the door of capitalism. At best, they may be critical of the time- and place-specific excesses of the system, of its anti-democratic nature, but not the system as such. They are critical of e-m-c (everything minus capitalism). Besides, for a large part of the professorate (the movers and shakers of the academic world, who are also often the gatekeepers of knowledge), the ideas are material because they have gripped the minds of the professoriate masses: that is, they have invested in their ideas and have made a career out of their existing ideas (e.g. professor X says that ‘labourers – and not just businesses – have an agency in making changes happen in society’ and has a large following with which come many material-cultural benefits), so why will they so easily change their ideas?

And, even if one is able to change their views, the fate of radical social change does not critically depend on what views are held by professors, although their views are not entirely immaterial. The reason is that: they are not the revolutionary class. Only the working class is that class, given proper ideological and political preparation. This is the class which must sell its ability to work for some compensation and which has very little power to decide the conditions of work and how regularly it will be employed. This class produces the source of profit, rent and interest and this class can stop its production. Genuine Marxists critique the capitalist world and ideas about capitalism which the academia holds, from the standpoint of the material suffering and political power of this class, which is an international class. A more correct understanding of society than it has is in line with its class-instinct, its material life situation, both what it is and what it can be.

The main – rather ultimate – practical reason why Marxists should be critical of existing ideas is to contribute to the raising of consciousness of this class, and not the raising of consciousness of professors. The working class (I am including the semi-proletarians in this category) is constantly being ‘deceived’: its thinking is characterized by partial truths and sometimes complete falsehood. This is a most important reason – apart from blatant coercion – why capitalism still continues. The working class takes capitalism as a natural form in which life has to be lived. This class does suffer from false consciousness, bourgeois consciousness. This is why the working class remains politically weak and the capitalist class, strong.

False consciousness is constantly being produced. It is produced for many reasons. These have got to do with two aspects of one mechanism: ‘control’. It is produced because the objective reality of the capitalist society creates falsehood (as Marx indicates in chapter 1 of Capital vol 1). Let us call it the Capital 1 Model. Because of the absence of direct control by working-subjects, over the way in which useful things are produced, because people are having to exchange the things they need for what they have, because they are having to enter market relations to satisfy their need for food and other things, they therefore think that these things by nature have a price tag, that we must always buy the things that are produced for profit in order to satisfy their need. Every person needs food. That is a universal and natural fact. But that food has to be produced capitalistically, by agribusiness or capitalist farmers, is not natural. People think it is. This idea of naturalizing something that is not natural needs critique.

False consciousness is also produced because of the presence of control of the ruling class over the working subjects’ ideas (as Marx explains in German Ideology). Let us call it the German Ideology Model. The ruling class, directly or indirectly, through the state or through civil society agencies (which are the darling of ex-Marxists dressed up as post-Marxists), controls the ideas of ordinary people and makes them believe that, for example, austerity is good, user-fees increase the quality of service, and so on. That this mechanism of control does not always work is a different matter. It is a different matter that coercion is often used to put people in their place, if after having correctly understood the reality they take action to remedy it. Force was used against even mildly anti-capitalist Wall Street occupiers in New York.

False consciousness is also produced because all kinds of petty bourgeois forces and their academic spokespersons come up with strategies which bind the working class with the bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces (e.g. join bourgeois trade unions; vote for social-democratic and even liberal type parties). The working class thinks that following these forces will bring lasting benefits. Let us call this the Lenin model (which insists on the independent political mobilization of the working class).

Because false consciousness is constantly created, there is a need for critiquing the ways in which this is created, who furthers its creation, and who disseminates it. The professors, even when they espouse some critical thought, are, at best, speaking the language of the petty bourgeoisie and left factions of the bourgeoisie (e.g. the enlightened elite who can think about the long-term and are willing to make short-term or localized and reversible sacrifices). The petty bourgeoisie has some hatred for capitalism because large producers crush them but they do not like the property-less workers either. Ideas do not hang in the air. Ideas are ultimately, if not immediately, ideas of classes and class-fractions. Critique of ideas is ultimately a critique of class and class-fractional interests therefore. Since the academia have a class-role to play – defend capitalist property with or without some reforms—their ideas reflect that function and therefore the interests of the class which they defend.

When one critiques the ideas of the academia, one really critiques the class interests they defend. Since their role is to defend these interests, whether by choice or not (and usually a combination of choice and coercion), any amount of criticism of their ideas is not going to bear much fruit. Therefore, the aim of criticism is not to change these people. The aim should be to clarify to the working class the true nature of the society and of the forces that stop the society from being changed. The point is to remove the layers of misconception from the working class which reflect bourgeois and petty bourgeois (including union bureaucracy) interests, which are ideologically produced by the academia, and which are disseminated through media (new and old), and through family, friends, and sometimes even by professors themselves. Consider the professors selling micro-credit, co-ops, ethical trade, unions, democratic revolution, or even ‘socialism in one country’, as solutions to problems of the humanity; and some of them also win prizes and grant money for knowledge mobilization and community engagements. A genuine critique of the ideas held by the academia will therefore be – can only be – from the standpoint of the interests of the proletarians. Capitalism is critiqued by many people. A proletarian critique is a different critique. It is a ‘critique of everything that exists’ type that Marx had advocated. By critiquing the ideas of the academia, genuine Marxists create conditions for the self-realization of the working class as a class, the realization of its own power and of what needs to be changed and how.

If what is said above is true and to the extent that this is true, this has implications not only for what topic one researches but how one researches it. The implication is quite precisely this: research has to be difficult labor. This is so because research has to be critical. It has to be critical for the reasons discussed at the outset (namely: it must uncover things which are not easily seen or felt; it has to be critical of various forms of exploitation and inequality, which are causes of many events/processes we observe, and so on). And, to critique – the labour of critique – is not easy – this is indicated by the 10 questions earlier provided as a sample of questions one must ask in order to be critical.

There is another reason, which is related to what is just said, why research must be difficult. Consider the following five statements.

  1. We research existing conditions (generally speaking).
  2. Existing conditions are present because forces to fight these conditions are absent.
  3. These forces are absent because it is not easy for these forces (e.g. revolutionary leadership; revolutionary ideas, etc.) to be present.
  4. So: our research presupposes difficult conditions, the difficulty of conditions. Difficulty can be thought of as an ontological condition: x wants to be but x cannot be, because of barriers to x’s existence. The current conditions exist because the future conditions cannot exist. Researching the presence of the current conditions is indirectly researching the absence of the future conditions (= the opposite of the current conditions), the absence which is caused by difficult factors.
  5. Therefore: research must be difficult. Dialectics demands this.

The vast majority of the global population, the working men, women and children, live in conditions of barbarism, the barbarism, which is described by the massive un- and under-employment, peasant dispossession, food insecurity, ecological devastation, constant threat of war, aggression and violence, and so on.  If transcending the present conditions of barbarism is a difficult affair, if intellectual and political preparation for this transcendence is a difficult affair, then researching the current conditions need to be – must be – a difficult affair. After all ideas more or less reflect the conditions which ideas purport to describe. Research must ask: why are the current conditions present? What forces support these conditions? What forces are undermining – and can completely undermine – the current conditions? Clearly, the cause of the current conditions and of their reproduction has deep roots. Ideas have to help us grasp the matter (=barbarism) by its roots. And when these ideas catch the imagination of the masses, then these ideas act like a piece of iron. Ideas do indeed matter, if we want to replace barbarism with civilization and sanity. But the ideas, not of any group or class, but of the class which potentially has the power to transcend the present barbaric condition.

Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.

Maruti: A moment in workers’ self-organisation in India

Pratyush Chandra

The Chairman of Maruti Suzuki, R.C. Bhargava, himself described the July 18 incident as a “class attack”. The management, which learnt from the Japanese how to instrumentalise unions as tools to educate and regulate workers in work discipline, are now learning a new lesson from their own Manesar workers – they want their own voice, which is in their control not in the control of the masters, whosoever they may be. They will tear away every interface if that obstructs their organic collectivity to emerge – then they will speak in their own voice, which will definitely be harsh and brutal, as it will be organic to the very core. They will speak in their own language, without any creative translation into a language that has systemic legitimacy.

The lesson that the Indian corporate sector learnt from the Japanese is graphically retold by Bhargava himself in his recent book, The Maruti Story. It is not just revolutionaries who called trade unions a school, even the Maruti management found them to be so – a necessary means for “continuous training of workers…if their attitude towards work, the company and its management was to be changed…. We understood the logic of their [the Japanese] system and so wanted to completely reverse the traditional culture and bring about a mutually beneficial relationship between workers, the union and the management.”(302) So the management “promoted a trade union at Maruti, before political parties and outsiders could establish”. The founder-Chairman of Maruti Udyog, V Krishnamurthy, “brought” even a union leader from BHEL. “The importance of the union was highlighted by ensuring that the president and general secretary of the union were seated on the dais at every Maruti function. They would, along with the top management of Maruti, receive all VVIP guests and garland them.”

Time and again, the Maruti workers have tried to build their unity beyond promoted, brought, bought unionism and its ritualism. Each time such unity has been institutionalised into a legal form, the management has either destroyed or bought it over, and promoted enterprise unionism. Since the last year, however, things have drastically changed. Maruti workers have understood the meaning of legitimacy, its functions and limits. This remarkable understanding is evident in what a Maruti worker expressed just after the worker-leaders were ‘bought’ and sidelined in 2011:

“Sahibs don’t understand the situation…. In these past few months, a handful of workers had risen to the position where they could control the workers…. By dismissing exactly those men, the management has thrown away a valuable tool.” (Aman Sethi, “Down and out on India’s shop floor”, The Hindu, July 29, 2012)

And again after the July 18 incident, in an interview recorded by a mainline news channel, a worker said:

“Our workers did not have faith in the union body. They were apprehensive about the union cheating them again…. [Yet they wanted that] the management should at least value and listen to the union body.” (NDTV, August 11, 2012)

They understood the limits and dangers of legality and representation, and the need to have extra-legal vigilance of their institutionalised body. Something the workers ensured by evolving shop-floor networks of line and departmental coordinators, and by frequent assertion of the general body. While the representative trade union, in accordance with the legal regulations and norms, included only the permanent workers, this organisational form was organic to the daily shop-floor coexistence of all segments of workers.

Defying every attempt to fragment and subalternise their collective consciousness, the Maruti workers forged a youthful (in a literal sense) unity among themselves beyond all kinds of regulatory and identitarian divides (including the caste and regional), demonstrating their uselessness, except for the purpose of regulating workers in favour of capital. This unity was remarkably visible during the 2011 strikes. They defied every agreement and manipulation from above that tried to break that unity, and they struck three times against them, and surprised the unions and their legitimate sense. Hence, even the need to form a sectionalist union (of permanent workers) – which the legalese and the prevailing industrial political culture compelled them to adopt for negotiations with the management – was continuously overwhelmed by the unity below that questioned the very basis for such unionist sectarianism and economism.

It was this collectivity that could not be destroyed by the management’s union busting, and it did form another union. But its easy registration and semi-recognition by the management made the workers evermore apprehensive, and they enforced constant vigilance on the representatives. However, the management misconstrued this collective apprehension as a distance between the general workers and the union, not understanding that its collective nature in fact tightens the workers’ grip over the union leadership. It is unlike the generalised yet fragmented weariness that leads to helplessness. The management miscalculated and thought its intransigence in dealing with the union will increase the distance and delegitimise the union in the eyes of the general workers. It could not anticipate that such an act was thinning the legal shield that protected it. And, so, what could have passed for the time being as another “class action” got transformed into a “class attack”, as Bhargava calls it. The management should not complain that it didn’t get the warning – workers themselves gave out sufficient signals.

However, one must grant that not just the Maruti management, the suddenness of the July 18 incident at Maruti astounded everybody – where was this anger among workers residing for the past one year? Nothing similar happened during the remarkable “non-violent” strikes in 2011. And prior to the incident nothing happened that could give a hint towards it. Therefore, a plethora of explanations and conspiracy theories has come up.

Interestingly, we can easily identify a basic logic behind the catalogue of ex-, post-facto explanations that various institutional and non-institutional bodies – the state, management, media, unions and radicals – are putting forward. A central thesis runs through all of them, which is that workers as a mass cannot have any coherent plan. Hence, those who see incoherence in the incident, either blame it on reactive spontaneity in the absence of (correct) leaders (radicals), or mob-like nature of the workers action (media elites). For many of these responses, there is some kind of pre-planning that must have come from outside (from Maoists/political unions, as the state and management maintain, or provocation from the side of management through their intransigence or by employing ‘bouncers’, as all the pro-workers institutions or groups opine). However, in the end no one is willing to concede general workers a coherent critical subjectivity that reasons them into taking things (read law) into their own hands, because for all the groups mentioned above, a rational subjectivity can emerge only through the repression of the inner nature (in the present case that of the mass).

All that even the pro-worker forces are willing to grant, and at most, is if the workers were accomplices in the July 18 incident, they were merely reacting to something the management wrongfully did that day (by calling the bouncers or by not resolving the issue of the suspension of a fellow worker) or have been doing lately (by not going for a speedy wage settlement or union recognition). All these self-actions by the workers are arrogantly clubbed together as spontaneity or spontaneous actions, which are generally considered to be reactive, and can have a political meaning only if harnessed by the organised political forces. It is interesting to note how these competitive forces, doing organisational shopkeeping, or at least advertising, among workers, have found workers’ direct actions erratic and even anarchic. They find the workers sensible and tractable only in those moments when they are led or when the consciousness of defeat and victimhood dawns over the workers – when “victim” workers are looking for respite and rights, and for experts who can represent them in the courts of law and negotiations.

These so-called political forces have a notion of politics that comes directly from the civics classes of the (post)modern schools that define politics in terms of institutions (or tangible forms of organisation) and their activities. Even the movements must be located among these activities, or else they are apolitical and even mere riots. Class struggle is reduced to the interplay of these institutions, ideologies and activities. They are unable to locate this representative interplay and their own activity as (re)originating in a continuous class struggle between capital and labour – in the daily imposition and subversion of the process by which capital acquires and incorporates living labour as merely an agency for its self-valorization. They are unable to see that recent unrests on the labour front in India have been largely political – i.e., they are related to a constant recomposition of class collectivity that short-circuits the re-segmentation of labour – the ever real-ising subsumption of labour by capital. In other words, this collective urge is not simply a wont to vocalise the aggregate demands of individual or sectional workers, as in a demand charter. Rather, it relates to their concern to transcend the segmentation on which the capitalist industrial polity thrives – the division between permanent, contractual, casual and interns. It is a marvelous experience to hear from general workers about these real divisions made on false premises. It is this open vocalisation that constitutes workers politics today. The Maruti workers’ struggle clearly is a finest example in this regard.

In one of the discussions that we had with workers in other industrial regions about the Maruti ‘violence’, a worker expressed how they work for the fear of the daily hunger and for feeding their family. Otherwise who would like to work under iron discipline and invisible eyes constantly watching over you, reprimanding you for every small mistake? Workers continuously look for every small opportunity that would enable them to dodge and abuse this system of surveillance.

The (more-or-less) open violence of primitive accumulation that joins the fate of labour to capital readies it for the inherent violence in the active imposition of work that capital as social power with its various apparatuses seeks to ensure. There is nothing reactive about workers’ actions to break out of this panoptic circuit which is now expanded throughout the society. The diverse immediate forms that these actions take are meant to surprise capital.

It is not the question of defeat or success of these forms or agitations that should concern us. In fact, our every success makes our actions predictable, increasing the reproductive resilience of the hegemonic system. Who knew this fact better than Karl Marx? He stressed on the need to watch out for opportunities to stage sudden radical leaps away from the guerrilla forms of daily resistance against the encroachments of capital, or else workers will be evermore entrenched within the system of wage slavery despite – and because of – frequent achievements in their everyday negotiations with capital. Those radicals suffer from the same Second International reformism and co-option politics, of which they accuse everybody, when they visualise class maturation as a linear succession of successes and achievements, not in the increased activity of the working class to catch capital off-guard by its volatile, yet collective thrust.

Today, the dynamism of this workers politics poses a crisis not just for capitalist strategies but also for itself as it constantly outmodes its own forms. The significance of the Maruti struggle and the July 18th incident lies in this process – they demonstrate the increasing inability of the legal regulatory mechanisms and existing political forms to ensure “industrial peace”. This means:

1) For capital, every crisis is an opportunity to restructure labour relations for its own advantage. Many times, it carefully shapes an industrial conflict to seek such restructuring. The recent conflicts have shown the limitation of the legal framework to generate industrial consent/peace, which has time and again forced capital to resort to coercion.

2) The automotive sector has been central to capitalist accumulation, so the needs of this sector have time and again restructured the industrial polity and economic regime globally. In India too, this sector has been in the leadership of pushing economic reforms in a pro-capitalist direction. The high-handedness and intransigence of the managements of Maruti and other automotive companies in recent conflicts is representative of the determination of Indian capitalists to force pro-capital labour reforms.

3) Legal unionism and existing organisational practices to compose and regulate working class assertion are becoming increasingly redundant. The labour movement must look out for new incipient forms in this self-assertion, as older forms are unable to lead working class consciousness, which is much more advanced than these forms, to its political end. The direct action of Maruti workers last year and this time cannot be simply explained by the crude notion of unorganised spontaneity, rather it shows their political will to transcend the segmentation perpetuated by the capitalist industrial polity.

Crisis and Class Struggle: The American Way

Pratyush Chandra

If we have to name a single industry prototypical of post-second world war capitalism, which to a large extent defined the nature and range of economic activities in this period, the choice would undoubtedly be the automobile industry. With the financial crisis finally taking its toll over this industry (especially the Detroit Three – GM, Chrysler and Ford), the crisis has almost acquired a general character. The most interesting aspect of this long impending collapse in the automobile industry is its bearing for the industrial regime that will evolve out of the present crisis – this will largely depend on the balance between the forces (classes and their agencies) which will see through this process of restructuring. The bailout package has already been declared and it aims to completely disarm the workers, that too with the assent of their own unions.

A foremost business magazine, The Economist (‘A Giant Falls’, June 4 2009) while assessing “where did it all go wrong”, found the “insupportable burden” of its commitments to workers (that they wrested through decades of their struggle) as the single most important factor that led to the bankruptcy of General Motors, the collapse of the American pride. So obviously the general consensus is being created that these commitments were not justified. It was a case of “mismanagement and decline”. Thus, “the auto unions, themselves once emblematic of what workers could achieve within capitalism, have been reduced to lobbying to save “their” companies, and a decades-long trend in private-sector labor negotiations has now confirmed collective bargaining as having shifted from demands by workers to demands on workers.” (Herman Rosenfeld, ‘The North American Auto Industry in Crisis’, Monthly Review, June 2009)

General Motors (GM), that shaped the American way of life and economy for so many decades, is bankrupt, now, and Obama has alighted to save it. The bankrupt capitalists hid themselves behind the State which is determined to save the “American way of life”. Such determination can be fruitful only under the condition of some sort of social corporatism – through the state-sponsored or negotiated peace among capitalists, and between workers and capitalists. The first reproduces a capitalist-class-for-itself, while the second submits the workers to the logic of capital accumulation and the competitive needs of “their” employers. Didn’t Gramsci teach us that corporatism (or consensus) is the only alternative, besides coercion, for dealing with the crisis of legitimation and accumulation in capitalism?

Around 90 years back, in October 1920, a crisis had struck another giant automobile company, Fiat, in Turin (Italy). To counter the militancy of Italian workers, evident in the tremendous Workers’ Councils and factory occupation movements, the Fiat management had offered a scheme of co-operation, which the workers summarily rejected. Gramsci and his comrades understood the designs of the State and Fiat behind their ideology of co-operation – to get the workers at their mercy. The Turin Communists understood that within this scheme, “[t]he workforce will necessarily have to bind itself to the State … through the activity of working class deputies…. The Turin proletariat will no longer exist as an independent class, but simply as an appendage of the bourgeois State. Class corporatism will have triumphed, but the proletariat will have lost its position and role as leader and guide.” (Quoted in Antonio Gramsci, ‘Some Aspects of the Southern Question’, Pre-Prison Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 325-326)

Where Italian premier Giolitti could not succeed, Obama has succeeded. The “working class deputies” in the US have ultimately bound the workforce to the State and the bourgeoisie, right at the time of a crisis, a moment that Marx and Engels acknowledged as “one of the most powerful levers in political upheavals”. Crisis indeed is a moment for heightening class struggle. Why not? If capitalism itself is shaped through open and hidden struggle between capital and labour, then should the moment of crisis be left out from this fight? At least capitalists are not going to do that; they know the meaning of the crisis – now or never! And in the absence of any strong labour movement, they know it is an opportunity not to be lost.

There are diagnoses and recipes going around to save the ‘economy’ from the deepening crisis, as if the economy in itself is something neutral, and we can struggle over its colour once it is saved. Even when capitalism is blamed (taking into consideration the growing interest in Marx throughout the First World) for its own ailments, the revival is recommended through various interventionist measures. There are many Keynesian quacks nowadays roaming and gossiping around irritating the capitalists – “we told you so”. But the capitalist knows what to do. Yes, intervention, if it’s must, but on whose cost – capital’s or labour’s? The capitalist must be bailed out, and the labourer must be reined in. Social corporatism is not at all bad, if it subjugates labour to the ‘general interests’ of the economy.

Capital doesn’t want to mess up with labour. It has tried to evade the very circuit in which labour-power has to be bought in, but every time it does that destiny reminds it of its painful bond with labour. This time capital had almost created a world of its own without the nuisance of labour. But these consumers and debtors, on whom it relied so much, betrayed it – it suddenly realised that these were in fact the same little urchins – those children of labour, whose devilish smell and smile it wanted to forget.

Time and again, the capitalist class is reminded of the basic lesson in political economy that ultimately profit generates in the productive sector, through engagement with labour. But this class which is composed of competing entities – individuals or groups – relapses into amnesia once prosperity steps in, as they compete to “accumulate, accumulate…”. Ultimately, they all find it ideal to directly jump from M(oney) to M'(oney) without going through the strenuous process of production where they must deal with labour, which simply cannot behave like another dumb ‘factor of production’.

Once capital comes to its senses, and realises its inevitable bond with labour, it tries very hard (and every means) to sterilize labour – alienating it from its creativity (hence, its destructivity) and thus, its humanity. Whoever – capital or labour – mobilises its class and community first during the crisis commands the post-crisis phase. Here labour is always at a disadvantage, it has to make an enormous extra effort and prior preparation to come to command. If it arrives late, it gives enough time for capital and its agents to put themselves in their headquarters. They don’t meet in the streets (only leaving their dogs and watchdogs for the street-fights) but in lavish boardrooms and in the offices of national and international agencies. The labouring multitude is reduced to its representatives, who are b(r)ought in these offices to negotiate a deal. Thus, the social compact is attained.

This is what has happened in the auto industry and will probably happen in many other cases until and unless the working class too realises that crisis is a moment of class struggle, not of negotiation and compromise. In fact, what is a compromise, but an institutionalisation of class struggle under the conditions of capital, in which the defeat of labour is immanent!