Théorie Communiste, April 2014
Where are we in the crisis?
‘He took away our desire to laugh for ten years’
Movements as varied as the post-2011 Arab uprisings, the Indignados, Occupy, the demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil and Bosnia, the riots in Ukraine, the forconi (pitch-forks) movement in Italy, strikes and workers’ riots in China and South and South-East Asia and South Africa and even the events in Britanny, France in autumn 2013 and the current Europe-wide popular support for the politics of the far-right, define the phase of the class struggle, still within the manifest crisis of 2007-08, in which we now find ourselves.
2007 : A crisis of the wage relation
Within the configuration of capitalism that emerged from the restructuring of the 1970-80’s (the phase whose crisis we are currently living) the reproduction of the labour force was subject to a double disconnection: the valorization of capital was disconnected from the reproduction of the labour force, and at the same time consumption was disconnected from income in the form of the wage. The collapse of the necessary relation between capital’s valorization and the reproduction of the labour force disintegrated the previously coherent regional zones into which reproduction of the labour force was organized. The reproduction and circulation of capital are separated from the reproduction and circulation of the labour force. This crisis detonated because proletarians could no longer pay their debts, and it propagated through the collapse of the particular wage relation that had underlain global financialization (i.e. wage suppression required to ‘create value’, and globalized competition amongst the workforce). The wage relation is at the heart of this crisis.
It started out fine…
The revolutionary dynamic of this cycle of struggles appeared in the ‘suicide protests’, the struggles of the unemployed, precarious, and undocumented immigrants, the French riots in 2005, the Bangladeshi strikes where workers burned the factories, the riots in Greece in 2008, the more or less demand-based struggles in Guadalupe and the diverse struggles in Argentina: to act as a class is to have no horizon other than capital and the categories of its reproduction; and yet (and for the same reason) it is at the same time to challenge one’s own class-reproduction. We defined this as a conflict, the opening of a breach in the action of the proletariat which was the stake and the content of the class struggle now. This was the only way we could speak of the revolution as communisation. And we were not wrong. But nevertheless…
…then everything started going wrong.
Something reached its tipping point at the beginning of the 2010’s. The sovereign debt crisis provoked austerity policies in the ‘central’ countries, fiscal policy tightened, the hope of climbing the social ladder through education became nothing more than a trap, a leftover from a previous phase. Even the middle classes, the social strata who had until then put a little bit more (or less) aside in savings started to be touched by unemployment and precocity. Categories like the middle classes and ‘the youth’ do not just walk on like new actors into a scene already underway. The development of the crisis constructs these social categories as it afflicts them. Above all, the field of class struggle expanded from the wage relation to wage society. This is the phase we are in. Real subsumption is the constitution of capital as society; the capitalist mode of production as wage society. Wage society is a continuum of positions and competences within which relations of production are experienced merely as relations of distribution. Exploitation is experienced as an unjust distribution of wealth, and social classes as the relation between rich and poor. Within the structure of wage society and its relations of distribution, the attack on the wage is an attack on (amongst others) the middle classes, which forces them out into the streets. The determinations of this moment of crisis make the middle classes ‘temporarily’ (?) the representatives of the movement, often in conflictual alliance with the unemployed and precarious, while more-or-less stable workers remain distant, if not mistrustful. From their position within production, manual workers do not take part in the movements or, as in Turkey and Brazil, act totally parallel to them. The middle class, in its never-ending game of hierarchy and positioning, is the point of intersection of the wage society and all its promotions and degradations; it militates for wage society’s reproduction and ratifies the self-resupposition of capital.
These social categories appear as the primary agents of the social movements in the ‘emerging’ countries. China, India, Brazil and Turkey are pincered between on the one hand their functional position in the currently dissolving international system, and on the other their own development, newly acquired and already no longer capitalizable. Nevertheless, the middle classes of the developing nations are unfailingly enterprising, whether the wage society is in a mature or barely viable form in any given area.
As the crisis of the wage relation becomes a crisis of wage society it sets in motion all the strata and classes that live by the wage. In wage society it is always a question of politics and distribution. In its (fetishized) form as the price of labour power, the wage naturally appeals to the injustice of distribution. Someone didn’t do their job; namely the state. When the crisis of the wage relation becomes an interclassist movement as the crisis of wage society, this crisis is the delegitimation of politics itself, denounced now in the name of a real national politics. The legitimacy of the state and its relation to society is put at stake constantly in the struggles of the current phase. The forms this can take, which vary greatly according to local circumstances and the particular traumas of conflict, might look at first sight at odds, but have fundamentally the same basis everywhere; the state appears as both the problem and the solution.
For example, the strange mixture of state bureaucracy and liberalism constituted by the states and dominant classes of the Arab nations since the early 1970’s reached the limits of its development and began to disintegrate, but the recomposition of the state and the dominant class, in Egypt as in Tunisia, could not be implemented from the outside. This is the key to understanding the Arab uprising as a long-term process, of which the confrontations of summer 2013 between fractions of the bourgeoisie (the Muslim Brotherhood representing one side and the army, with the short-lived hegemonies it manages to put together, representing the other) were only an episode. The proletariat takes part not only because this counter-revolution is the form taken by the political limits of its own struggles, but because its very construction as a class, by and through the struggle, involves it in the recomposition of the state and the dominant class.
‘The denationalization of the state’ (Saskia Sassen)
Today the ‘global’ is not just the handful of ‘world’ institutions; it is incorporated within national territories and institutions. Whereas the goal of Bretton Woods was to protect national states against the excessive fluctuations of the international system, the aims of the current era are completely different; to incorporate global systems and functions within national states, whatever particular risks national economies might face. The denationalization of state functions operates through embedding global projects within nation-states (fiscal and monetary or social protection policies). The state is not a single unit, and globalization is not a general weakening of the state. Rather it operates through transformations within the state, i.e. the separation of the state’s constituent parts from one another.
The logic of the financial sector is now incorporated into national politics. It specifies what constitutes adequate or healthy financial and economic policy. It’s criteria and conditions have become the norms of national economic policy: independence of central banks, anti-inflationary policy, exchange rate regime. Keynesian policies were the opposite of this ‘denationalization’; an example of what Sassen calls ‘national integration’; the alignment of national economy, consumption, education and training of the workforce and credit and currency regulation. It is this denationalized state, permeated by and agent of globalization, that is identified as the guilty party in struggles around distribution in the crisis of wage society.
Class struggle therefore comes to rally under the ideology of citizenship; we see the flags everywhere. In the ‘Fordist’ period the state came to be the ‘key to everybody’s well-being’, but this mode of citizenship didn’t hang around through the restructuring of the 1970’s and 1980’s. And if ‘citizenship’ is an abstraction, the contents it refers to are very concrete: full employment, the nuclear family, law and order, heterosexuality, work, and the nation. In the crisis of wage society class conflicts are reconstructed around these motifs.
Ideological reconstruction of class conflicts
We have to begin by trying to understand current ideological discourses theoretically and conceive of them as more than just ripples on the surface; but this is not enough. The project here is to consider them as the practical elements without which the current period cannot be conceptually constructed. Individuals’ relations to production are never unmediated. In as much as these relations are exploitation and alienation, the relation consists of an interplay in which all moments of the mode of production are present. This non-immediacy is what in France makes the difference between the Front de Gauche and the Front National, at the expense of the former. Any politics that does not recognize this non-immediacy can only fail. Although the far-left have got this into their heads, the problem for them is that current ideological motifs form a system which inherently leans to the right; the French Communist Party that in 1977 championed ‘French production’ also specified ‘by French producers’. As an ideology, national citizenship responds to the real problems of our time: the crisis of the wage relation turned crisis of wage society, the crisis of the denationalized state, and the irreducible opposition between the winners and losers of globalization. The appeal to national citizenship is the proof that even those struggles grounded within wage society operate under ideology. However, if it responds to the real problems of the crisis of wage society, it is also unequal to them, because it treats them ‘inauthentically’ as representations of what they are not; the loss of values and the dissolution of family, national identity and the work community. In other words it only answers its own questions.
This ideology, seemingly critical, only criticizes in as much as it is the language of demands, reflected in the mirror that shows back to itself the logic of distribution and the necessity of the state. The practices at work under this ideology are effective because they offer a realistic image and a plausible explanation of what individuals actually live, and the reality of their struggles. The questions of distribution, work, welfare, devolution of national territories, values, and the family adequately structure individuals’ relations to what is at stake in this phase of the crisis. We need to explain how an objective process of the relations of production is reconstructed out of itself as the ensemble of meaningful ideological practices of
this specific phase.
Themes of the ideological reconstruction of class conflicts:
a) Territory and locality
Globalization and denationalization of the state create vast peripheral zones excluded from major economic activity. This feeling of territorial exclusion was what united the ‘bonnets rouges’ revolt against the ‘ecotax’ and company closures in Britanny in Autumn 2013. For the Breton workers of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Picardie, Lorraine or Champagne-Ardenne, the attack on the locality by global capitalism is a plausible explanation for the many local problems, and the preservation of the locality looks like a credible solution. In the vote to ‘limit the number of immigrant workers’ in Switzerland (9th February 2014), ‘yes’ won in the countryside rather than the towns, and in the regions with the fewest European immigrant workers and the most unemployed nationals. The locality is at the intersection of several of the other determinations of the ideological reconstruction of class conflicts (to which we come back later): the conflict of the ‘true people’ against the elites, the ‘intellectuals’, foreigners and people who live off welfare and other people’s taxes. In this type of revolt, the feeling of the abandonment of rural and extra-urban zones, eclipsed by the domination of the cities, challenges the legitimacy of the denationalized state. The motif of the locality links resentment against ‘tax increases’ and ‘bureaucratic micro-management’ under a general desire to end ‘social dumping’ and ‘keep jobs in the country’.
The Brazilian protests of spring 2013 broke out in the midst of massive expansion and renovation of central urban zones, as large portions of those cities sink into poverty and infrastructure decay. Questions of the reproduction of the labour force, and hence of the reproduction of class differences, are synthesized in urban policy: housing (in the areas ransacked by ‘urban renovation’), health, education and transport. The reproduction and social mobility of the labour force are put at stake in the concentration, quality and price of public services. The social relation that structures the struggles and defines the stakes in Rio or Sao Paolo, whether in inner-city evictions, transport, or public services in general, is not capital or wage labour per se but real estate property, which governs the organization of space. Interclassism is the symptom of this social relation of production. Because it is real estate that structures and poses itself as the central issue of class struggle and struggles over the organization of the city, these struggles concern a ‘secondary’ relation of production: rent. Although rent is indeed only another part of surplus value extracted in the capital-labour relation, its secondary character is revealed as it coordinates
struggles around income and consumption.
In struggles under the ideology of the locality (even with their various dynamics and perspectives) we pass from the wage relation to wage society, then to the wage as a relation of distribution, then to the legitimacy of the existing state. The perversities of the ideological reconstruction of struggles are grounded in this succession of displacements.
b) The family
The ideas of ‘liberty’,‘self-determination’ and ‘emancipation’ not only don’t mean very much anymore, but along with ‘choice’ and ‘rights’ have become the emblems of economic liberalism itself. For the ‘losers’ of globalization they have come to represent a threat, a faint, insidious plot to destroy what people see as the last institution able to protect against ‘individualism’: the family. The idealised image of the ‘traditional’ (not to say ‘eternal’, or even ‘natural’) family, the protective space sequestered from pure economic relations, with its fixed and reassuring roles, that serves as such an effective focus for claims against the determinations of capitalist development made manifest in the crisis, is of relatively recent origin. It formed in the interwar period, crystallizing around the figure of the male full-time worker, subject of social rights, husband and father, and began to disintegrate at the beginning of the 1970’s.
It isn’t just the people on the protests against gay marriage who experience ‘sexual ambiguity’ and so-called ‘gender theory’ as a threat. These threaten the order in which social roles ‘correspond’ to biological sex (unless it’s the other way round…), where the sexes ‘complement’ one another and every man and every woman has their ‘traditional’ place in the family, the prohibition of abortion beyond question. It’s as if the struggle (or rather the simple rejection of the social relations that govern production and reproduction) were fought in the name of the epoch that restructuring destroyed. Now the old world is set up as an idealised negative of today’s world. All the more so as this idealized opposite has a fully current value against the ideological function of a gender-theory ideology for which all that exists are free and freely modifiable behaviours; representations and prejudices. The ideological function of this gender-theory is the construction and legitimation of practices that deny the social constraints and determinations that constitute the gender distinction.
When we don’t have the freedom to ‘behave’ as we want, the ‘liberal’ theory of gender sounds at best like a fantasy and at worst an insult. Against arbitrary conceptions of gender like that of the journalist in Le Monde (5 February 2014) for whom ‘inequalities between the sexes reside in our representations of them’, what resonates with the working class in the conservative discourse is the recognition of the constrictive aspect of the social. Not only is the social constraint expressed (and strongly), but it is positively affirmed. The family is the bulwark of ‘the people’ and ‘real human nature’ against individualism, elites and experts in education, nutrition and sexuality etc.
c) The authenticity of the ‘true people’, intellectual elites,
and the nation
Economic insecurity drove a part of the proletariat and middle class to seek security in a ‘moral’ universe that wouldn’t move around too much and might just rehabilitate the traditional modes of behaviour associated with a world now disappeared. The ‘elites’, which used to mean big industrial or banking families and property-owners, is now identified with the left: experts and intellectuals excessively fond of social, sexual and racial change. This inversion was evident in the USA in the early 1970’s and now is everywhere, for the reasons already given: the social system abolished in the restructuration of the 1970’s is reconstituted as an idealised opposite of today’s world, now as a form of resistance or rejection of the capitalism that emerged from that restructuring.
We have evoked the importance of the family and its ‘traditional’ social roles in the reconstruction of class conflicts in wage society. The mobilisation against abortion is at the intersection of the preservation of such family roles and the combat against the elites. Ideology now requires that the wave of legislation that liberalised abortion in the 1960’s and 1970’s, which had been the result of women’s struggles, now appears as the meddling of doctors and judges in family life. In the anti-abortion mobilizations traditional sex and family roles are reaffirmed in accordance with the ‘natural order’ (actually that of the previous phase of the capitalist mode of production). This ‘natural order’ has become a major motif of anti-intellectual struggles that, on ideological and social levels, centre upon all the economic and social determinations of the capitalism that emerged from the restructuring of the 1970’s.
The rejection of globalization in this period of capitalism in crisis creates a working-class identity of authenticity that serves as a reference for nationalism. This identity may have completely trivial facets – for example in the USA the Republican party represents the folks that drink beer and real American coffee (not ‘latte’), who own guns and go to church. The French Front National is the party of staunch secularists who drink red wine and eat sausages and paté. There is no nationalism, nor even partisanship of national sovereignty, without an identity of the authenticity of the true people, without the possibility of saying ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘The people’, precisely in the multifariousness (demos, ethnos, plebs) that allows it coincide with the nation constantly menaced by elites, is both custodian and inventor of this ‘authenticity’. This shift of terrain and of jurisdiction in the face of economic or social attack is the very nature of ideology as the relation between an individual and the relations of production as their condition of existence.
What would a worker in the oil refinery in Berre, France, previously owned by Shell (British-Dutch), then LyondellBasell (based on Wall Street), who faces losing his job because it refuses to sell up to Sotragem (an Italian trading firm bought by a Slovakian), make of Cohn-Bendit’s declaration that ‘the emerging European identity has to be post-national. As this identity is fluid, individuals will undoubtedly find it less comfortable. In the most extreme case it’s possible that being European could mean having no predetermined identity at all’ ? You might almost sympathize if he felt like killing someone.
Whether aggressive towards foreigners and ‘internal enemies’ (Ukraine) or progressive (Brazil), the nation is the language and practical form that economic demands take today. Certainly what most unites East and West Ukraine is working-class nationalism; Svoboda in the West and the Communist Party in the East. We’ve seen national flags in Athens, Rio, Istanbul, Cairo and Tunis, and if they weren’t out in Bosnia, Sarajevo or Tuzla it’s because they could only have symbolized the effigy of an irredeemably decayed state, the state against which the workers revolt flowed uninterrupted into a citizen’s movement for the restoration of the nation. We saw the flags on the streets of Italy on 9 December 2013 in the ‘forconi’ movement. The alliance of social groups and ideologies that emerged that day could also prefigure further, equally surprising and disturbing developments. Beginning as a revolt of the traditional middle classes, on 9 December numerous precarious youth and unemployed adults joined the movement, along with local anti-eviction committees, social centres from Turin, the Milan ‘social construction centre’, the popular liberation movement and the San Siro residents committee. The success of the forconi movement is related to that of the ‘Unione Sindacale di Base’ in the union elections in Italy’s largest steel plant Ilva Tarente (11,000 workers), the general strike they called on 18 October and their campaign in Rome. The collusion of political, economic and union powers (‘La Casta’) is rejected on all social levels.
It is only when it is conceived as under threat that the nation becomes a motif for combat, but these threats can only be articulated in the terms that the nation itself dictates. For nation and authenticity to become the ideology under which conflict practices operate a further transposition is necessary. The economic conflict must already have been transformed into a cultural one (this priority only holds within the logical construction, in the immediacy of life these motifs exist in and only in their interpenetration). The conflict between the rich and poor will do the trick.
d) The rich and poor
What we have said about relations of distribution, the crisis of wage society, injustice, and the crisis of the denationalized state as the guilty party in that injustice is adequate to grasp how class contradictions become the conflict between rich and poor. The question is now to understand how such conflicts transform into cultural conflicts where the rich are not who we might have thought they were and the poor are at war amongst themselves.
In the beginning was the work ethic. And the work ethic begot the benefit scroungers.
The first priority is to ‘resuscitate the work ethic’, as if it were not doing better than ever. The victories of the working class are transformed into the right to be lazy, a fraud, on benefits; an obstacle to progress. However, war is not waged against the workers themselves, but against those responsible for corrupting the work ethic. Class conflicts are redefined so that the schism, thanks to the first transposition no longer between capital and labour but between the rich and poor, now becomes a division between two supposed fractions of the proletariat: the ‘hard working’ and the ‘benefit cheats and frauds’. This crack opens down both sides of the street (varying according to local circumstances and requirements); workers and the ‘lower middle classes’ turn against either the more ‘comfortable’ workers (on permanent contracts, protected by unions or contractual protections etc.) or the people ‘on benefits’, or both at once.
To a worker, the lifestyles of the rich, covered non-stop in the gossip press, no longer looks like it concerns them, but more like an alternate human race, a parallel universe. So if the welfare cheats and scroungers rob us, ‘who pays in the end’ ? The fact isn’t taken into account that public deficits were accumulated progressively and deliberately for 30 years in all western countries, in accordance with the forms of exploitation and accumulation of the capitalism that emerged from the restructuring of the 1970’s-80’s, except when someone says we were too generous back then. The demise of the workers identity is not insignificant in this process of division. The decline of industry, weakening of workers collectives and precarization of labour translate into an individualized experience of relations to the social and the political. The work ethic is no longer a collective power against the bosses, but a measure of individual merit derived from a personal choice.
The fault line therefore splits open less between capitalists and workers, or even the rich and poor, but now between ‘the employed’ and ‘benefits recipients’, between ‘whites’ and ‘minorities’, ‘workers’ and ‘cheats’. The Occupy movements momentarily overturned these divisions, but never reintroduced the meaningful divisions of class. The question remained one of income, not of relations of production. From ideological divisions ensued a meaningless ideological disarray. The ‘socially assisted’ become the ‘won’t work’, and in doing so also helpfully underwrite all sorts of other non-economic distinctions like ethnic groups, the broken disintegrated family, drugs and criminality.
…and to sweeten the deal, racism
In the case of the preservation or ‘restoration’ of the ‘social state’ in the name of the social, economic and ideological mirror-world of the post-war boom period, the nation, national citizenship and the ‘true nation’ get mixed in with the division between the ‘hard working’ and ‘others’. Foreigners are no longer rejected in the name of a racialist vision of the nation, but now for a less controversial reason: to protect the ‘national social system’. The primary effect of the war on benefit fraud targeting foreigners is to tie the welfare funding crisis to the problem of national identity. This racialization of the ‘protection of the social state’ follows an identical principle to the racialization of the fight against unemployment.
It is never a question of criticizing the social and economic system, but of making sure that the competition between workers inherent in the wage system bends the working class to the current conditions of the crisis. Immigration is not presented as the cause of unemployment (this wouldn’t stand up to anybody’s analysis or actual experience of job cuts) but ‘only’ as aggravating its consequences. The position ‘mobilise this resentment now and deal with the structural problem later’, was basically that of the French Communist Party at the beginning of the 1980’s and is that of the Front National today.
But workers have strictly no power over the supply or the demand of labour. The dice are loaded. If capital accumulation increases demand for labour, it also increases the number of surplus labourers. Globalization and the denationalisation of the state make these threats coherent. The laws of capital accumulation that necessarily create surplus labourers become secondary, they appear to operate rather because the ‘national community’ is broken.
The conflicts born out of this rupture are destined to be resolved in the restoration of the nation, and competition between workers is no longer seen as such, but now in increasingly ethnicized terms.
If the workers have strictly no power over the supply or the demand of labour, neither do they have any control over the effect of the reserve army on wages, or its subdivision and composition. A large part of the working class now experience a mechanism they thought had disappeared: absolute impoverishment. The same process of transformation of class contradiction into conflicts between the rich and poor now operates within this mechanism, but what’s more, under the auspices of the nation, national authenticity, the people, and racism, class contradictions are transformed into conflicts between the poor.
Immigrant labour is the cheapest way to get a workforce that fits this substitution mechanism (related to the mechanisms by which absolute impoverishment operate: the division of labour and mechanization) in which the native worker finds himself without a job, only for the bosses to announce that ‘fortunately’, the immigrants are here ‘to do the jobs we don’t want’. It is obvious to him both that immigrants are naturally suited to such jobs and that their presence here pushes wages down. In the west a very large middle-stratum of workers remain stuck within the national structure, and this does not fail to be a source of conflicts between proletarians. The low-paid workers of the global cities, precarious, immigrant and increasingly female, do not belong to a backward sector. That sector is an immediate element of a global economy and corresponds to non-national segmentation of the proletariat. In connection with other immigrant communities and their émigré compatriots in other countries, these low-paid workers develop strategies within the global capitalist system. Therefore, despite their poverty and precarity, in the eyes of this middle-stratum these sections of the class constituted by globalisation appear to be amongst its ‘winners’.
The state and the ‘parasites’
The restitution of the work ethic not only opposes ‘workers’ to people ‘on ben-efits’, it also has the virtue of creating a third category: the ‘parasites’. You will recognize the ‘parasites’ – they are the elites (not necessarily wealthy), all sorts of arrogant university graduates and experts, employed in the state agencies that regulate and administer everything, live off our taxes, and think they are superior to the authentic people and its values. What opposes the elites to the people also opposes work to parasitism. This conflict is arrayed in the name of values, and even more marvelously, the transformation of the contradiction between classes into a conflict between the rich and poor and between the workers and benefits recipients and parasites succeeds in defining the combatants in terms of values. The main effect of this cultural conflict is to make the economic basis of all conflicts disappear, or more specifically to make the resolution of economic problems into that of cultural ones. The unproductive elite, that represents the artificial against the true people, occupies the state and lives parasitically on the tax revenues. The conflicts that take form in wage society reshape class contradictions so far that arguments in which state institutions are class institutions are taken at face value. The reason state institutions are seen as class institutions is no longer that they represent and serve the economically dominant class (the owners of the means of production), now they appear to constitute and serve a class in themselves. There are strikes and social conflicts, but ultimately they are always about some or other capitalist or company that failed to do its job as capital. The guilty parties fall into the categories of ‘parasites’ and ‘profiteers’ opposed to the ‘ordinary people’ and ‘real producers’. Capitalism entirely escapes the social anger, apart from an imaginary ‘finance capital’ put together for the occasion.
Wage society characteristically dissociates the question of class conflict from the relations of production, and thus opens up a purely conservative perspective, containing all the motifs already discussed, which corroborates real subjective experience and feeds forms of class hatred that deny their own economic basis. Workers struggles with demands may be widespread and impressive and sometimes take a spiky turn, but these cannot be isolated from the general context in which and through which they take a significance that they themselves contribute to constituting.
To conclude this stage
In the phase in which we are now engaged, the problem of the class struggle is essentially the fact that the rejection of the present situation is not its overcoming beginning from what it is now, as it had been in the beginning of the crisis, but the desire to go back to an earlier situation. Nonetheless, all this is firmly anchored in the present. It is only now, in the current crisis-phase of capital and its state (as the crisis of wage society and the denationalized state) that the demise of the entire social, national and ideological assemblage that had shaped daily life and constituted the system during the post-war boom reveals and imposes itself as the cause and condensation of all today’s misfortunes. It is the current situation itself that promotes everything that passed away as an idealized opposite of contemporary society and its crisis, its state, its injustice and its amorality. Everything is at play as the crisis of the state-society relation, and everyone is at play within this crisis. There is a close association between the crisis of the wage relation, the crisis of globalization, the crisis of wage society, the crisis of legitimacy and recognition of the denationalized state, interclassism and politics. This association, this knot, is the current phase of the crisis as class struggle.
What dynamics are at work in this phase?
a) The crisis of wage society
The crisis of wage society is a moment of the crisis particular to the capitalist mode of production as it emerged from the restructuring. The question of the crisis of the wage relation turned crisis of wage society is one of a contradiction inherent in the phase of capital now entering crisis. The contradiction internal to that phase of valorization is that between immediately productive labour and the condition of productive labour itself; namely being a socialised labour force, a ‘general intellect’. The crisis we have entered comprises the interclassism inherent in the ‘socialized labour force’. Even with the many ambiguities that derive from the contradictory relation of productive labour contained within it, the crisis of wage society can be situated historically and understood in relation to the mode of development that preceded it.
b) Instability of the ‘crisis of wage society’ phase
In their general inter-class character, the social movements based on the wage as relation of distribution that focus around the legitimacy of the state’s relation to society, refer to the wage as both price of labour and form of redistribution and, according to the same generality, to all other revenues as depending on labour, i.e. rent, profit and interest.
The wage as price of labour therefore implicates what it conceals: the wage as value of labour power – necessary labour – and all other revenues as transformed forms of surplus-labour.
c) A tendency towards unity
We must not let the real tendency towards unity that exists within interclassist struggles erase their conflicts or let us think that their resolution is given or that cohesion is written into them. Dissolving the middle class, overcoming the stage of riots, and breaking the ‘glass floor’ which production remains to most social movements, all still depend on the practices of this conjuncture. Why hasn’t the middle class been out working for the victory of the counter-revolution? Why hasn’t the more or less stable fraction of the working class, especially in the vast areas of informal economy, been shoring-up its struggles and their hoped-for results, as it did in Egypt and Tunisia? And then again, this tendency towards unity can always be absorbed in politics, as in Iran in 2009. In Brazil, Turkey and Mexico, although they coincide temporally, it is hard to see any community between the different struggles.
The glass floor of production remains the central problem. Not that there are not strikes and workers’ struggles with demands, violent or otherwise, victorious or not, but they do not develop into a conflictual synergy with the ‘social movements’ of which they are nonetheless the permanent and necessary backdrop.
d) Necessity for the capitalist class to strike at the heart of the problem
The double disconnection of the reproduction of the labour force, current forms of globalization, the denationalization of the state and the question of its legitimacy are the contemporary forms of appearance of the crisis. They focalize struggles and the local recomposition of dominant classes.
But the specificity of the current crisis (crisis of the wage relation become crisis of wage society) creates a situation in which the capitalist class is driven inexorably to the heart of the problem: the relation of exploitation. For the capitalist mode of production and hence the capitalist class, the resolution and overcoming of the crisis depends (as it did in the 1930’s and again in the 1970’s, though in different conditions) on a restructuring of the very foundation of the mode of production: the relation of exploitation. This necessary penetration to the heart of the problem, following the crisis of the wage relation turned crisis of wage society, is the recourse to money creation, which both sustains and overtakes the crisis of the wage relation within which it develops. It becomes the crisis of value as capital, the only crisis of value.
e) Irreducibility of productive labour
Within this imperative for the capitalist class to strike to the heart of the problem is the central question of productive labour. Although each proletarian has a formally identical relation to their particular capital, they have a different relation to social capital according to whether their labour is productive or unproductive (this is not a matter of conscience; it is an objective situation). If the contradiction that productive labour represents to the capitalist mode of production, and therefore to the proletariat as well, did not appear at the centre of the class struggle, we would not be able to speak of revolution (it would be something external to the mode of production; at best a humanist utopia, at worst – nothing). Productive labourers are not, however, naturally and eternally revolutionary. In their particular action, which is no more than their own involvement in the struggle, the contradiction which structures the whole of society as class struggle turns back on itself and its own presupposition, because the relation of exploitation does not relate the worker to an individual capital, but through their relation to an individual capital immediately to social capital.
But what is always concealed in the reproduction of capital (it is in the nature of this mode of production that this contradiction does not appear clearly, surplus value becoming profit by definition, and capital being value in process) returns to the surface not only as a contradiction internal to reproduction (here understood as the unity of production and circulation) but as that which causes the contradiction itself: labour as the substance of value, which in capitalism can only be value as value in process. The contradiction (exploitation) turns back on itself, on its own condition. The way to the ‘heart of the problem’ is fraught with risks.
f) The question of the ‘glass floor’ as a synthesis of these dynamics
If we consider the large social movements, and interclassism, with their instability as demand-based movements within wage society which conceals as much as it reveals the wage as a relation of production, as a necessary moment of this crisis; if we consider the tendency towards unity not only as a problem of surpassing interclassism but still more as a problem of class segmentation; if we consider the necessity for the capitalist class to strike at the heart of the problem, and that heart as the irreducibility of productive labour, these dynamics synthesize precisely (as much from the point of view of capital as of the proletariat) at a breaking point that, for the contradiction between capital and proletariat, consists in breaking the ‘glass floor’ that production still is to the social movements that operate on the level of reproduction, but also consists, for workers struggles, as violent as they may be, in breaking the ‘glass ceiling’: surpassing demands. For a struggle with demands to go beyond what it is, is for it to place the contradiction between classes not elsewhere than the level of that contradiction’s own reproduction. It is true that the primary result of the production process is the renewed separation of labour and capital. But that doesn’t work without circulation, exchange, and all the other moments of the mode of production including the state. It is in this way, starting from the process of production but through practices that go beyond it, that class-belonging is posed and recognized in practice as an external constrain imposed by capital i.e. imposed as reproduction. It is impossible to determine how this ‘juncture’ can come about, and even more so as it will no longer be a ‘juncture’ but a completely new situation, emerging out of many particular struggles, which alters the given order for all struggles: a conjuncture.
It would be against the spirit of this text to conclude on such a flight of generality. If the synthesis of the dynamics of the current phase is breaking the glass floor and/or ceiling, there is nothing inevitable about it. As in the initial phase of every crisis, this is also the decisive moment for the capitalist class, when diverse possibilities for restructuring, that had previously existed only as the disjointed contours of the general movement of exacerbation of the tendencies of the declining period, become concrete. If we consider this synthesis not as a general determination of ‘The Revolution’ but as the possibility of overcoming a historically specific relation of exploitation, we must situate it within a conjuncture defined by all the determinations of the present. We suggest that China and South and South-East Asia have a better concentration of the ingredients necessary for the fusion; the extent and power of workers’ struggles caught between the asystematicity and untenability of the wage demand, the magnitude of socio-political movements and its critical position with the potential to wreck globalisation’s current zoning. This is not to say that the region is blessed, or that they are or will be ‘masters of the world’. Only that its importance and characteristics, internal and within global capital, make it this world’s weak link. There we have another work to undertake.
The rising visibility of the gender and class contradictions, and their association with the revolution and communism, are now far from us. The fact that for others ‘communisation theory’ becomes an ideology, whether as a slogan or a passport to the academy, now hangs over our frail heads.
translation: handke @ anche . no