Marx After Growth #4 The Class Relation, Sean O'Brien
Updated: Oct 19
The Class Relation
Welcome back for the fourth and final lecture of ‘Marx After Growth’. I’m Sean O’Brien and this lecture series is brought to you buy the good people at the 87 press. You can find the lectures, including recordings and transcripts, on their blog, The Hythe. Many thanks to the 87 and everyone involved in design, editing and promotion for all your great work over the past few months.
In this final session, we’re going to talk about the class relation: what it is, how its reproduced, and how the dynamics of its reproduction have important implications for how we conceive of the production of gender, the ascription of race, and the changing horizons of cycles of struggle, especially as the reproduction of the class relation is thrown into crisis in the late-twentieth century.
First, though, we need to define the class relation. So, what is the capitalist class relation? The class relation is the relation between capital and labour, a relation in which the capitalist owns the means of production and the labourer owns nothing but her labour power, and therefore an antagonistic relation in which each depends upon and reproduces the other. Capital finds the source of surplus-value in the exploitation of labour, while the worker finds the means of subsistence in wage-labour.
So, the first critical point to make here is that class is not an identity or social group, nor is it a structural position located within a social landscape. Such empiricist and structuralist approaches to class can be called, as Richard Gunn has argued, ‘sociological’ conceptions of class (2018). In contrast to the sociological approach, the Marxian approach sees class as a relation, a relation of antagonism between capital and labour that cuts across society and the individuals who comprise it.
As Gunn writes:
the sociological conception of class faces the embarrassment that not all individuals in bourgeois society can be fitted, tidily, into the groups which it labels ‘capitalists’ and ‘proletarians’. This embarrassment is produced by the conception of classes as groups or places, and to escape this embarrassment, sociological Marxism has recourse to categories like ‘the middle classes’, the ‘middle strata’, etc.: such categories are residual or catch-all groups and, in short, theoretical figments generated by an impoverished conceptual scheme. The Marxist conception class, on the contrary, faces no such difficulties: it regards the class-relation (say, the capital-labour relation) as structuring the lives of different individuals in different ways. (Gunn 2018)
We’ve talked already about this relation in terms of its historical specificity and distinction from other forms of class society. Whereas slave societies and feudal societies, for instance, are defined by personal relations of domination and direct relationships of force, the capitalist class relation is defined by objective domination and impersonal compulsion. ‘These objective dependency relations’, Marx writes, ‘appear…in such a way that individuals are now ruled by abstractions’ (1993: 164).
So, the capitalist class relation cannot be reduced to a straightforward struggle between capitalists and workers. Recall Michael Heinrich’s insistence that ‘capitalism rests upon a systemic relationship of domination that produces constraints to which both workers and capitalists are subordinated’ (2012: 16). And even worse than that, the worker produces this relation of abstract domination herself, and in fact does so by the very act of her labour. As Max Horkheimer puts it, ‘human beings produce, through their own labour, a reality which increasingly enslaves them’ (qtd. in Bonefeld 2004: 107).
In other words, class struggle is not simply a struggle over the spoils of the production process, since what constitutes each pole of the class relation as a class is not simply the appropriation of surplus-value by the capitalist class, but the form of the production process itself. As Moishe Postone argues, ‘the struggle between producing and appropriating social groups does not, in and of itself, constitute them as classes’, even if ‘the antagonism of workers and capitalists is structured such that ongoing conflict is an intrinsic feature of the relationship’ (320).
This emphasis on objective domination has led some theorists to argue that class struggle should be seen as ‘system-immanent’, including Postone, who argues that class struggle is in fact ‘structurally intrinsic to capital’ (36), suggesting that ‘this conflict’ is ‘a constituting moment of the dynamic trajectory of the social whole’ (320) and ‘a driving element of the historical development of capitalist society’ (319). Fair enough, but as Werner Bonefeld reminds us, ‘however much capital appears to have autonomised itself, it presupposes human social relations as its substance’ (117).
As Bonefeld argues, human beings constitute this abstract form of domination through compulsory participation in the reproduction of the class relation, a relation of antagonism which, in Bonefeld’s words, ‘is founded on the continued separation of labour from its means’ (108). Marx makes this point in Theories of Surplus Value where he writes, ‘accumulation merely presents as a continuous process what in primitive accumulation, appears as a distinct historical process, as the process of the emergence of capital’ (1973: 272). That is, accumulation proceeds through the reproduction of the class relation.
How then is the class relation reproduced? This question is of central concern for Marx, who insists that the appearance of a society of free individuals pursuing their rational self-interest necessarily ‘abstracts from the conditions…within which these individuals enter into contract’ (1993: 164).
When discussing social reproduction, Marx distinguishes between simple reproduction, by which he means a rate of accumulation necessary to sustain society at a given standard of living—in which the production and consumption of capital goods is equal—and expanded reproduction, which refers to the reinvestment of capital to increase the scope and scale of production (1992: 144-166). Marx then proceeds to examine simple reproduction and argues that,
Whatever the social form of the production process, it has to be continuous, it must periodically repeat the same phases. A society can no more cease to produce than it can cease to consume. When viewed therefore, as a connected whole, and in the constant flux of its incessant renewal, every social process of production is at the same time a process of reproduction. (1990: 711)
Simple reproduction occurs in every society, then, and refers in the most basic sense to the necessary way in which a given society must produce enough surplus to replenish the means of production used up in the production process. As Marx writes, ‘No society can go on producing, in other words, no society can reproduce, unless it constantly reconverts a part of its product into means of production’ (711). In any society, then, a portion of the product—a minimum surplus to consumption—is needed to ensure the reproduction of the conditions of production.
‘If production has a capitalist form’, Marx writes, ‘so too will reproduction. Just as in the capitalist mode of production the labour process appears only as a means towards the process of valorization, so in the case of reproduction it appears only as a means of reproducing the value advanced as capital, i.e. as self-valorizing value’ (711).
In other words, if the object of the capitalist production process is not the satisfaction of needs but the production of value, the capitalist process of reproduction is nothing other than the means by which the production of value can continue.
If we look at the production process in isolation, it appears as if variable capital (or the cost of wages) and constant capital (or the cost of means of production) are both advanced by the capitalist, but as Marx demonstrates, when viewed in terms of reproduction, we see that the capitalist does not actually advance his own money but rather the product of the unpaid labour of others from the previous cycle of production, and that all capital is in fact surplus that has been capitalised over time.
‘The purchase of labour-power for a fixed period is the prelude to the production process’, Marx writes, ‘but the worker is not paid until after he has expended his labour power, and realized both the value of his labour-power and a certain quantity of surplus-value in the shape of commodities. He has therefore produced not only surplus-value’, he continues, ‘but also the variable capital, the fund out of which he is paid, before it flows back to him in the shape of wages; and his employment lasts only as long as he continues to reproduce this fund’ (712).
So, it’s not only that the capitalist pays the worker only a portion of the value she produces. As Marx writes, ‘What flows back to the worker in the shape of wages is a portion of the product he himself continuously reproduces. The capitalist, it is true, pays him the value of the commodity [labour power] in money, but this money is merely the transmuted form of the product of his labour’ (712). The variable capital advanced is nothing other than the product produced by the worker and transformed into money.
What’s more, ‘if the labour-fund constantly flows to him in the form of money that pays for his labour, it is because his own product constantly moves away from him in the form of capital. But this form of appearance of the labour-fund makes no difference to the fact that it is the worker’s own objectified labour which is advanced to him by the capitalist’ (713).
This is also true for constant capital, as Marx goes on to show. If an investment of $1000 yields a surplus of $200 a year, and, sticking with simple reproduction, the capitalist consumes this surplus each year, then over five years the capitalist will have consumed the entire value of his initial capital, which has been replenished over this period by the appropriation of an equivalent surplus.
Now, ‘it is true’ Marx writes, ‘that he has in hand a quantity of capital whose magnitude has not changed, and that part of it, such as buildings, machinery, etc., was already there when he began to conduct his business operations, but’ as Marx insists, ‘we are not concerned here with the material components of capital. We are concerned with its value’ (715).
In other words, once the capitalist has consumed the entirety of his original investment, ‘the value of’, as Marx puts it, ‘his present capital represents nothing but the total amount of surplus-value appropriated by him without payment. Not a single atom of the value of his old capital continues to exist’ (715, emphasis added).
Seen from this angle, it makes no difference where the total capital came from initially. Over time, it necessarily is replenished by appropriated surplus-value, a fund, or what Marx describes in terms of a ‘revenue arising out of capital’ (712), which the worker reproduces continuously so long as she is employed and out of which is drawn the purchasing costs of constant and variable capital.
‘Therefore’, Marx summarises, ‘entirely leaving aside all accumulation, the mere continuity of the production process, in other words simple reproduction, sooner or later, and necessarily, converts all capital into accumulated capital, or capitalized surplus-value. Even if that capital was, on its entry into the process of production, the personal property of the man who employs it, and was originally acquired by his own labour, it sooner or later becomes value appropriated without equivalent, the unpaid labour of others’ (715).
Here then is not only the production of surplus value, but the reproduction of the capitalist class relation, as the worker reproduces capital in the form of surplus value which is appropriated by the capitalist, and the capitalist reproduces the conditions of exploitation as a necessary feature of the process of capital accumulation. The capitalist pays the worker the cost of her reproduction, which she uses to purchase the means of subsistence she has herself produced, and once spent leaves her once again with nothing to sell but her labour power.
In Marx’s words, ‘The capitalist class is constantly giving to the working class drafts, in the form of money, on a portion of the product produced by the latter and appropriated by the former. The workers give these drafts back just as constantly to the capitalists, and thereby withdraw from the latter their allotted share of their own product’ (713).
Put another way, the worker receives ‘a portion of the product’ they produce, as Marx writes, but not directly. Their access to this product, which is in fact the property of the capitalist according to bourgeois property law, is mediated by money, paid to the worker in the form of wages. These wages are then returned to the capitalist when the worker purchases their own product from the capitalist in the form of commodities in order to reproduce themselves.
This in effect means that the production process is also a reproduction process. Marx writes,
the worker himself constantly produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist just as constantly produces labour-power, in the form of a subjective source of wealth which is abstract, exists merely in the physical body of the worker, and is separated from its own means of objectification and realization; in short the capitalist produces the worker as a wage-labourer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the worker, is the absolutely necessary condition for capitalist production. (716)
In other words, it is not simply exploitation but the reproduction of the class relation through the production process itself that forms the basis for the accumulation of capital. Of course, how this all got started is another question, namely that of so-called ‘primitive accumulation’, or the separation of the worker from the means of production, but Marx brackets this historical discussion for now. The point is that, regardless of how the capitalist acquired the initial capital, after a particular length of time, sooner or later, all capital is ‘value appropriated without equivalent’ (715), as Marx puts it.
So, Marx argues, the worker and the means of subsistence forever move in opposite directions:
From the standpoint of society, then, the working class, even when it stands outside the direct labour process, is just as much an appendage of capital as the lifeless instruments of labour are. Even its individual consumption is, within certain limits, a mere aspect of the process of capital’s reproduction. That process, however, takes good care to prevent the workers, those instruments of production who are possessed of consciousness, from running away, by constantly removing their product from one pole to the other, to the opposite pole of capital (719).
And if wages and operating costs are paid out of a fund generated as a revenue by previous labour, and if workers are paid only enough to maintain themselves at a given level in order to return to work, then capital continues to grow, and workers continue to rely on the wage for their subsistence.
If, therefore, as Marx argues, ‘a division between the product of labour and labour itself, between the objective conditions of labour and subjective labour-power, was therefore the real foundation and the starting point of the process of capitalist production’—in other words, so-called primitive accumulation—then, he continues, ‘what at first was merely a starting-point becomes, by means of nothing but the continuity of the process, by simple reproduction, the characteristic result of capitalist production, a result which is constantly renewed and perpetuated’ (716).
It’s therefore no coincidence that workers and capital meet time and again in the marketplace, the former with nothing to sell but their labour power as the latter own of the means of production. Workers and capitalists are both in fact reproduced by the production process itself. The relation between capital and labour—what we have been calling the capitalist class relation—is as much a product of the production process as are the use values that are produced as commodities.
As Marx writes, ‘capitalist production therefore reproduces in the course of its own process the separation between labour-power and the conditions of labour’ (723). At the end of each cycle of production, both worker and capitalist return to the position from which they started. ‘The capitalist process of production’, Marx summarizes, ‘seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer’ (724).
Capital accumulation therefore constitutes a historically distinct mode of social reproduction, which is the reproduction of capital as a social relation. This diagram, which you might remember from the first lecture, shows what is called in the French translation of Capital the ‘double moulinet’, or double millstone. The reproduction of capital covers the production and circulation of capital, or what we discussed in that first lecture as the general formula for capital, and the other sphere covers the reproduction of labour power through the consumption of commodities purchased with a wage.
The ‘double moulinet’, or what Marx calls Zwickmühle in the original German, refers to a grave dilemma, being caught in a trap or an iron grip, and this sense of the term will be important when we turn to look at the relationship between cycles of accumulation and cycles of struggle later in the lecture. But it’s worth noting here that social reproduction, and indeed the reproduction of the commodity labour-power, requires additional activities entirely absent from this picture.
When Marx discusses the reproduction of labour-power, he does so in terms of activities that are directly mediated by the market. If Marx is uninterested here in those activities necessary for the reproduction of labour-power that aren’t directly market-mediated, that’s because, as Maya Gonzalez and Jeanne Neton have argued, ‘the activity of turning the raw materials equivalent to the wage into labour-power takes place in a separate sphere from the production and circulation of values’ (2014: 152).
Marx’s focus on the production and circulation of values effectively precludes an analysis of reproductive activities that are indirectly market-mediated and how they might relate to the directly market-mediated sphere, to borrow terms developed by Gonzales and Neton in their essay, ‘The Logic of Gender’. Though a history of Marxist Feminism lies outside scope of this lecture, I want therefore to pause here and consider the Marxist Feminist critique of social reproduction.
There’s an expansive history of Marxist Feminist engagement with the relationship between the gender distinction and capital accumulation, particularly in terms of social reproduction and the gendered division of labour. In the 1970s, for instance, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James began to argue that, despite being unwaged, women’s reproductive and domestic labour is central to the process of capital accumulation, in that it’s necessary for the reproduction of labour-power.
In ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’, Dalla Costa argues that, ‘on a world level, it is precisely what is particular to domestic work, not only measured as number of hours and nature of work, but as quality of life and quality of relationships which it generates, that determines a woman’s place wherever she is and to whichever class she belongs’ (1973: 19), a place capital dictates to women insofar as they are ‘transformed into a function for reproducing labor power’ (29). And in a similar vein, James states in Sex, Race and Class that ‘our feminism bases itself on a hitherto invisible stratum of the hierarchy of labour powers—the housewife—to which there corresponds no wage at all’ (1975: 14).
Drawing on Dalla Costa’s work, Maria Mies has noted that ‘the housewife and her labour are not outside the process of surplus value production, but constitute the very foundation upon which this process can get started. The housewife and her labour are, in other words, the basis of the process of capital accumulation’ (1986: 31). And more recently, Silvia Federici writes, ‘the body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance, as the female body has been appropriated by the state and men and forced to function as a means for the reproduction and accumulation of labor’ (2004: 16).
These arguments emerged historically with the Wages for Housework movement—or, more formally, The International Wages for Housework Campaign—which was founded in Padua, Italy, in 1972 by the militant feminist group Lotta Femminista, a splinter of the Italian far-left Potere Operaio (“Workers’ Power”), in conjunction with likeminded groups such as Rivolta Femminile in Italy, Midnight Notes in the US, and the Power of Women Collective in the UK.
Insisting that the domestic sphere was a primary space of capitalist exploitation and thus a crucial site of anti-capitalist resistance, the Wages for Housework movement demanded that domestic work—and by extension reproductive activities in general—be understood as work, challenging both the capitalist division between paid and unpaid workers and the notion that domestic labour is an unproductive and thus less politically significant form of work.
The Wages for Housework movement was tied to the second wave feminist movement and shared many of its concerns at the outset, particular in terms of challenging the ‘dominant view of housework as something natural for women’, but gradually became distinct from mainstream 1970s feminism as the latter became increasingly focused on formal equality in the work place.
As Federici writes:
Wages for Housework, as we intended it, was a product of the same revolt against domesticity and ‘male supremacy’ that the rise of the feminist movement of the ‘70s expressed, although we brought a different strategy. […] Often referred to as a ‘body politics’, feminist politics, at least in its first phase, was a ‘reproduction politics’, centered on the idea that domestic life is a site of unequal power relations and ‘revolution begins at home’. […] This concern did not last. With few exceptions, by the mid 1970s most feminists had abandoned reproductive work as a terrain of struggle, concentrating their efforts on gaining entrance into the male dominated occupations, obtaining equal pay for comparable work, campaigning for the Equal Rights Act or gaining legitimacy within the academic world. Wages for Housework was an exception to these trends. Like other feminists, we were convinced that housework was the root of our oppression as women. Unlike them, we believed that, for this very reason, it should be our main ground of struggle, and that the most effective way to free ourselves from it should be to refuse to do it for free. (2018: 16-17)
Contentious claims about value-production aside—claims long since abandoned by Marxist feminism—the Wages for Housework movement faced harsh criticism for its focus on white women in industrial countries, particularly from the black radical Marxist, Angela Davis. There was certainly a black Wages for Housework movement, as evidenced in this photo, but as Davis argued, in the case of South Africa, the apartheid government was so successfully able to dismantle the domestic life of black families—in an effort to undermine stable black community—that it would appear to undermine the Wages for Housework thesis that capital requires domestic work.
Davis also noted that many women of colour were doing paid domestic work in the homes of white families, and that, unlike in the isolation of the domestic sphere, ‘On the job, women can unite with their sisters [and] challenge the capitalists at the point of production’ (1983: 240). But her main criticism of the movement was that the housewife becomes indistinguishable from her work—that her subjectivity is invested in and formed by it—and that wages won’t fix that problem. But was this really the argument of the Wages for Housework movement?
In fact, the campaign never intended for domestic workers simply to be paid a wage. As Federici clarifies in ‘Wages Against Housework’, originally published in 1975, ‘To say that we want wages for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a wage makes our work visible, which is the most indispensable condition to begin to struggle against it, both in its immediate aspect as housework and its more insidious character as femininity’ (2012: 19).
This shift in articulation from ‘for’ to ‘against’ in the essay title is meant to emphasize that the demand for wages for housework was actually meant to politicize the domestic sphere as a space of capitalist domination and thus a primary site of struggle, and was part of a strategy that aimed to challenge the entire system of social reproduction upon which capital accumulation is built.
The Wages for Housework movement, as I mentioned above, emerged out of Italian workerism (or ‘operaismo’), which had already begun to examine the relationship between capital accumulation, communist struggle, and unwaged or non-industrial forms of work, particularly in terms of what Mario Tronti called the social factory. As Dalla Costa writes:
The territory as a social factory, struggles on wages by the various entities that inhabit it, all this was already a fundamental assumption of workerism. But the Feminist Movement revealed that women work behind the closed doors of the home; that the home is a production center, it produces and reproduces labor power daily; that capitalist accumulation passes through two great poles, the factory and the home. Therefore, the woman is the main subject of the social fabric. But there is no housework in Marx. This was the discovery of those most accustomed to handling Capital. (2015)
Marxist Feminism, then, can loosely be understood to emerge on the one hand from the recognition that the gendered distinction under capitalism is tied to capitalist social reproduction and the reproduction of the commodity labour-power, and on the other from a general consensus that Marx and many Marxists since have overlooked this fact.
‘The Logic of Gender’ picks up on this line of thought, but refines it in value-theoretical terms:
Marx reduces the necessary labour required to produce labour-power to the ‘raw materials’ purchased in order to accomplish its (re)production. Any labour necessary to turn this raw material, this basket of goods, into the commodity labour-power, is therefore not considered living labour by Marx, and indeed, in the capitalist mode of production it is not deemed necessary labour at all. This means that however necessary these activities are for the production and reproduction of labour-power, they are structurally made non-labour. This necessary labour is not considered as such by Marx because the activity of turning the raw materials equivalent to the wage into labour-power takes place in a separate sphere from the production and circulation of values. These necessary non-labour activities do not produce value, not because of their concrete characteristics, but rather, because they take place in a sphere of the capitalist mode of production which is not directly mediated by the form of value. (2014: 152)
Gonzalez and Neton thus reject earlier claims that reproductive labour is value producing. In their account, all reproductive work is ‘dead labour’, as it adds no value to the commodity it produces—labour-power—whose value is determined only by the basket of goods equal to its reproduction, and not the effort involved in turning that basket of goods into the commodity labour-power outside direct market-mediation. Their focus is instead on the production of gender as social form.
‘The Logic of Gender’ thus marks an emergent line of thought in Marxist-feminist critique. Influenced by communisation theory and the German new reading of Marx, the analytical framework presented by Gonzalez and Neton provides an alternative to what they argue are the inadequate binaries—of productive and reproductive, waged and unwaged, and public and private—for understanding the relationship between the gender distinction and capital accumulation.
In place of these categories, ‘The Logic of Gender’ proposes two overlapping spheres—the directly market-mediated (DMM) sphere, and the indirectly market-mediated (IMM) sphere—as categories of analysis for understanding the types of domination required to quantify and enforce different kinds of productive and reproductive activities. Here’s how they explain this distinction:
The wage buys the commodities necessary for the reproduction of labour-power, and it also buys services which participate in this reproduction, whether directly (by paying a private nanny, for example) or indirectly (for example, by paying taxes for state-expenditure on education, which is part of the indirect wage). These services, whether they are productive of value or not, have a cost that is reflected in the exchange-value of labour-power: they imply, in one way or another, a deduction from surplus-value. What remains are the activities that are non-waged, and that therefore do not increase the exchange-value of labour-power. These are the non-social of the social, the non-labour of labour. They are cut off from social production; they must not only appear as, but also be non-labour, that is, they are naturalised. They constitute a sphere whose dissociation is necessary to make the production of value possible: the gendered sphere. (Gonzalez and Neton 2014: 157)
While abstract, value-productive (including reproductive) labour is socially determined by ‘direct market-mediation’ and hence involves ‘no structural necessity toward direct violence’, being characterized by objective domination and impersonal compulsion as we’ve discussed previously, activities belonging to the indirectly market-mediated sphere of ‘non-labour’ (including paid, non-value-producing reproductive work) are compelled by other mechanisms, ‘from direct domination and violence to hierarchical forms of cooperation, or planned allocation at best’ (2014: 155).
The relation between the gender distinction and capital accumulation has been a key concern in the communisation current, evidenced in a series of exchanges between Marxist feminists and the post-68 ultra-left collective Théorie Communiste (TC) which have played out in the pages of the communisation journals Endnotes and SIC, the materialist feminist journal LIES, issues of TC’s own journal and a number of other publications including Communisation and Its Discontents.
But what is communisation? Communisation can be defined as a conception of revolution that rejects any notion of transition, positing instead the revolution itself as communisation, insofar as the former directly and immediately produces communism through communist measures. TC write:
In the course of revolutionary struggle, the abolition of the state, of exchange, of the division of labor, of all forms of property, the extension of the situation where everything is freely available as the unification of human activity—in a word, the abolition of classes—are ‘measures’ that abolish capital, imposed by the very necessities of struggle against the capitalist class. The revolution is communization; it does not have communism as a project and result, but as its very content. (2012: 41)
In other words, ‘The revolution will be communist, or it will not be’ (Endnotes 2010: 9). No seizing of the means of production and managing them in a socialist state, no ‘socialist commodity production’ according to the dictates of ‘Marxist political economy’, no affirmation of labour, no dictatorship of the proletariat. All of this is rejected outright by the communisation thesis.
‘Communisation, then’, in the words of the Endnotes collective, ‘is the immediate production of communism: the self-abolition of the proletariat through its abolition of capital and state’ (2008: 209). More specifically, communisation seeks the abolition of ‘the capitalist class relation, and the complex social forms which are implicated in [its] reproduction – value-form, capital, gender distinction, state form, legal form, etc.’ (Endnotes 2012: 26), as well as the ‘abolition of “race” as an indicator of structural subordination’ (2013: 222), in Chris Chen’s words.
Communisation is therefore also a practice, the practice of making communism, understood to develop historically through distinct ‘cycles of struggle’, which TC member Roland Simon defines as ‘the whole of the struggles, organisations and theories that constitute a historically defined practice of the proletariat in the reciprocal implication between the two terms of the exploitation’ (2008), which is to say, the class relation, or the contradictory relation between capital and labour.
Cycles of struggle are here theorized according to a periodising logic rooted in Marx’s categories of formal and real subsumption, which we’ve talked about in previous lectures. According to Marx, already existing labour processes are first formally subsumed in their pre-capitalist forms through the introduction of the wage. To produce surplus value under such conditions, capital must lengthen the working day beyond what is necessary for the reproduction of labour power, producing what Marx calls absolute surplus value.
Driven by competition and limits to the working day, capital increases the productivity of labour via technological ratcheting, reducing the amount of socially necessary labour relative to surplus labour, producing what Marx calls relative surplus value. For TC, this process of real subsumption entails ‘the integration of the reproduction of labour-power in the cycle of capital’ (2005), changing the nature of the contradiction between capital and labour such that they relate to each other internally.
A great cinematic example of this process of integration can be found in a scene from the classic film, Modern Times (1936), of a worker who goes by the name “Worker” and is played famously by Charlie Chaplin, repeating over and over again the same gesture of tightening bolts at the assembly line. Modern Times is quite clearly about the deskilling of labour, the monotony of the Fordist assembly, and so on, but the film also stages the integration of labour into the machinery of capital.
In a sense, Modern Times ‘stages the breakdown of a factory worker’s subjective boundaries into the wrenching function he is paid to repetitively perform’, as Sianne Ngai has argued (2001: 38). But seem from another angle, we might say that the film demonstrates how the subject is produced as worker through the act of wage labour. In other words, real subsumption is also the production of worker identity and is at the root of the long cycle of struggles based on the affirmation of labour.
Theorie Communiste call this affirmative politics programmatism, or the struggle of labour to affirm itself as a class both within and against capital, and aim to historicize it as a cycle of struggle keyed to the period of capital accumulation in which the integration of labour into the reproduction of capital gives rise to the growing strength of the working class and its forms of organization:
Generally speaking we could say that programmatism is defined as a theory and practice of class struggle in which the proletariat finds, in its drive toward liberation, the fundamental elements of a future social organisation which becomes the programme to be realised. This revolution is thus the affirmation of the proletariat, whether as a dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalised self-management, or a ‘society of associated producers’. Programmatism is not simply a theory—it is above all the practice of the proletariat, in which the rising strength of the class (in unions and parliaments, organisationally, in terms of the relations of social forces or of a certain level of consciousness regarding ‘the lessons of history’) is positively conceived of as a stepping-stone towards revolution and communism. (2008: 155-156)
In TC’s account, this cycle of struggles comes to an end in the 1970s with the defeat of the worker’s movement and the restructuring of the class relation, which dissolves the various institutional constraints that mediated the antagonism between capital and labour, including the welfare state, the official organs of the worker’s movement, and national labour markets. For TC, as Endnotes summarizes, this process of restructuring ‘represents a counter-revolution whose result is that capital and the proletariat now confront each other directly on a global scale’ (2008: 214).
There are serious problems with using Marx’s categories of formal and real subsumption as periodizing models, as numerous others have pointed out, and yet it cannot be denied that something fundamental has changed in the relation between capital and labour since the 1970s—a fact made most obvious in the growing superfluity of labour—and that the old class-mass parry sequence is obsolete, as proletarians experience class belonging no longer as leverage but as limit.
Marx, you’ll remember, talks about growing labour superfluity as an inevitable outcome of capital accumulation. He writes, ‘it is in fact capitalist accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces indeed in direct relation with its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to capital’s average requirements for its own valorization, and is therefore a surplus population’ (1990: 782).
As we’ve seen, this process of expulsion follows from capital’s tendency to increase productivity by reducing the time socially necessary for the production of a given commodity, producing relative surplus value. With the reduction of socially necessary labour time, the density of fixed capital in the production process rises, squeezing labour out of the cycle of accumulation.
Again, Marx is instructive here: ‘the higher the productivity of labor, the greater is the pressure of the workers on the means of employment, the more precarious therefore becomes the condition for their existence’ (798). For Marx, then, ‘“Proletarian” must be understood to mean, economically speaking, nothing other than “wage-labourer”, the man who produces and valorises “capital”, and is thrown onto the street as soon as he becomes superfluous to the need for valorization’ (764, fn. 1).
In his essay on what he calls ‘wageless life’, Michael Denning makes a similar point. Noting that ‘unemployment precedes employment, and the informal economy precedes the formal, both historically and conceptually’, Denning argues ‘we must insist that “proletarian” is not a synonym for “wage labourer” but for dispossession, expropriation and radical dependence on the market. You don’t need a job to be a proletarian: wageless life, not wage labour, is the starting point in understanding the free market’ (2010: 81).
Indeed, as Marx argues, the essential superfluity of the proletariat is immanent to the wage relation, insofar as the ‘free labourer’ is always already a ‘virtual pauper’, as Marx puts it, a pauper-in-waiting that over time becomes a pauper in actuality (1993: 604).
Crucially, this process by which labour is made superfluous does not result in the disappearance of work, as various theories of automation have suggested in either apocalyptic or utopian terms over the decades. Rather than mass unemployment, the growing superfluity of the proletariat is exemplified by generalized underemployment, since workers might sell their labour-power for an amount beneath the threshold necessary for their reproduction.
As Aaron Benanav and John Clegg have argued,
This surplus population need not find itself completely ‘outside’ capitalist social relations. Capital may not need these workers, but they still need to work. They are thus forced to offer themselves up for the most abject forms of wage slavery in the form of petty-production and services—identified with informal and often illegal markets of direct exchange arising alongside failures of capitalist production. (2014: 606, fn. 4)
This is why, as Angela Mitropoulos argues, rising precarity ‘might well indicate a decrease in the actual time of work while nevertheless amplifying all the senses in which one is always available, always preparing for, or always seeking work’ (2011). Expelled from production, labour is forced to seek the means of its reproduction in the sphere of circulation, greasing the wheels of capital as facilitators of exchange rather than producers of value, often for meagre wages.
Consider the explosive growth of the service sector since the 1970s. The service sector by definition resists technological innovation, which is why it has been the primary site for absorbing surplus populations and why it tends toward low productivity and low wages. This is the outcome of real subsumption, for ‘in a society based on wage-labour’, as Benanav and Clegg write, ‘the reduction of socially-necessary labour-time—which makes goods so abundant—can only express itself in a scarcity of jobs, in a multiplication of forms of precarious employment’ (2014: 593).
In recent years, communisation theorists have also sought to tie the process of racialization to the production of surplus populations. If capital accumulation expels human labour from production, gradually devaluing the commodity labour-power, then this process of expulsion might also be what produces the abstraction “blackness” in an era of deindustrialization:
When the commodity labour power no longer exists, the human container that would have possessed this labour power endures as an empty shell. All that is left is a physical residuum, an inert fleshy materiality that marks the lack of labour power, a purely physical existence without a subjectivity. The human container is desocialised, or in other words, a thing that is without any social utility. Ultimately this purely physical existence is reduced to mere appearance, in which the phenotypical attribute comes to mediate and determine the form of social existence of this human container once it is integrated into the class relation. Consequently, “blackness” appears as a representation of the lack of labour power, its positive instantiation. The phenotypical attribute “blackness” comes to naturalise this lack as an inherent attribute of the human container itself whereas it is merely the social representation of the absence of labour power. (R. L., 2014)
The above argument rests on the conception that, with the expulsion of labour from the production process, the reproduction of the class relation is thrown into crisis and the value of the commodity labour-power falls toward zero. ‘In this sense’, they argue, ‘there occurs an internal differentiation in the reproduction of the class relation: on the one hand, there is the social reproduction of labour power and on the other hand, the asocial physical reproduction of human beings’.
What remains is a ‘desocialized’ fleshliness that persists as ‘mere residue’. While Marx called the result of this process pauperism, the process of pauperisation here comes to ‘assume the form of racialisation of the distinct sections of the proletariat’, in other words to appear as racial blackness. Thus ‘the structural position of those racialised as black objectively embodies the immanent tendency of capital’s non-reproduction’.
Deindustrialization—and the expulsion of labor from the site of production—is simultaneously a process of abjection at the level of class composition, a casting-off that has visibly racializing effects on the sociological appearance of unemployment. Race, having a material function for capital, emerges as an economically modulated demographic rather than an identity category that precedes mediation. Racialization figures as a feature of exploitation tied to the recomposition of capital, while exploitation becomes properly legible only when read across the history of racial domination.
Joshua Clover’s theory of riot as ‘the confrontational struggle for social reproduction outside the sphere of production’ aims to think racialization together with the end of programmatism (2016: 115). Clover seeks to grasp the ‘internal and structural significance’ of riot, according to which what he calls ‘riot prime’ emerges as the form of antagonism appropriate to the ‘ongoing and systemic capitalist crisis’ (1) that has unfolded throughout the capitalist world-system since the 1970s.
Drawing on Giovanni Arrighi’s model of systemic cycles of accumulation and Robert Brenner’s account of the transition in the 1970s from long boom to long downturn, Clover situates this crisis—which he understands in value-theoretical terms as an ‘increasing domination of dead over living labour’—in relation to what he calls the ‘arc of accumulation’, arguing that ‘both Brenner and Arrighi succeed in excavating the strong relation between the logical account of self-undermining accumulation and the historical account of capitalist cycles’ (132-35).
Synthesizing these accounts, he writes: ‘From roughly 1830 to 1973 there was a core of productive capital in the west with its ratcheting system of expansion’, and ‘it is according to this’ that Clover calls ‘the period from the eighteenth century to the present a metacycle, a great arc of accumulation in the capitalist world-system following the course of circulation-production-circulation prime (137).
Tracing a history of struggle against the backdrop of this ‘arc of accumulation’, Clover identifies three hegemonic forms of antagonism: riot, or ‘the setting of prices for market goods’, which prevails in the pre-industrial markets of mercantile economies; strike, or ‘the setting of prices for labor power’, which replaces riot as the dominant form of struggle during the decades of industrial expansion; and ‘riot prime’, in which the riot, having returned transformed, now operates ‘within a logic of racialization and takes the state rather than the economy as its direct antagonist’ (10-15).
Clover maps this ‘tripartite sequence’ onto Marx’s formula, M-C-M' (or money-commodity-money prime), and thence to the schema, adapted from Arrighi, of ‘circulation-production-circulation prime’ (17-20). For Marx, as we discussed in lecture 1, M-C-M' represents ‘the general formula for capital’, whereby monetary value congeals in the commodity-form only on the condition that it be realized at a profit (1990: 247-57).
This is the process of capitalist accumulation understood generally as a circuit through which the total sum of capital increases with each profitable reinvestment. As Arrighi argues, however, ‘Marx’s general formula of capital (MCM') may be reinterpreted as depicting, not just the logic of individual capitalist investments, but also a recurrent pattern of world capitalism. The central aspect of this pattern is the alternation of epochs of material expansion (MC phases of capital accumulation) with phases of financial expansion (CM' phases)’ (2005: 86).
Citing Arrighi, Clover writes:
The first transition, riot-strike, corresponds both historically and logically to the Industrial Revolution and its extension and intensification of the wage relation at the beginning of Britain’s long nineteenth century. The second transition, strike-riot prime, corresponds in turn to the period of “hegemony unraveling” at the end of the United States’ long twentieth century. A rise and a fall. A certain shapeliness amid the mess and noise of history delivering us now to the autumn of empire known variously by the terms late capitalism, financialization, post-Fordism, and so forth—that dilating litany racing to keep pace with our protean disaster. (2016: 17)
During phases of financial expansion, no real recovery of accumulation is possible, but only more or less desperate strategies of deferral (18). Under these circumstances, circulation increasingly displaces production as the primary sphere in which both capital and labour seek their reproduction. Clover uses the term ‘circulation struggle’ to name those struggles that occur in the sphere of circulation, which include riots but also blockades and occupations, all of which are defined as struggles for the means of social reproduction outside the productive sphere. And in the era of riot-prime, circulation struggles take on a distinctly racialized form.
In Clover’s words, ‘the riot is an instance of black life in its exclusions and at the same time in its character as surplus, cordoned into the noisy sphere of circulation, forced there to defend itself against the social and bodily death on offer. A surplus rebellion’ (122).
In the absence of steady economic growth, as labour markets slacken and unemployment rises, these riots remind us that any theory of communist politics today needs to reckon with the distance between the working class and the proletariat, a gulf that widens daily as the demand for labor continues to decline and the figure of the waged worker recedes from its place on the world stage.
It seems sort of impossible to pick the right moment to stop and bring this lecture series to a close with so many questions left unanswered, and with no doubt a surplus of internal contradictions and incommensurabilities left unresolved and unaddressed. I hope despite these limitations and shortcomings that the series has been useful for helping to make sense of our topsy turvy world.
Thanks once again to the 87 press for hosting and to all of you who’ve tuned in to the series. If you want to think these things through further with me feel free to get in touch…
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Sean O’Brien is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. His research has appeared in Cultural Critique, Discourse, Science Fiction Studies, and Bloomsbury’s Companion to Marx, and is forthcoming in Crossings. He is co-editor of ‘Demos: We Have Never Been Democratic’, a special issue of the visual culture journal Public based on work developed during the 2015 Banff Research in Culture residency. His criticism has also appeared in a number of electronic journals and literary magazines, including GUTS Magazine, The Capilano Review, Vector, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Current projects include a collaborative book, Anti-Social Reproduction, and a monograph, Precarity and the Historicity of the Present: American Culture from Boom to Crisis.
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