Discuss: Low wage fast food jobs suck, but they ain’t the problem

by Jehu

For the weekend I thought I would provide some space for anyone who cares to engage me in flame wars over a simple proposition:

Low wage jobs is not the problem; the problem is wage slavery

I have been thinking about the twitter thread I began last night on fast food workers, their low wages and yesterday’s actions in 60 cities.

Bloomberg, the bourgeois mouthpiece, characterized the action this way:

“Thousands went on strike in cities including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit,  Milwaukee and Indianapolis, according to local organizers and the Service Employees International Union, which is advising the strikers. About 200 workers showed up at the two-story Rock N Roll McDonald’s store in Chicago’s River North neighborhood  this morning chanting: “Hey hey, ho ho, poverty wages gotta go!”

There may be some deliberate clues to the nature of this action provided by Bloomberg: The River North community was targeted for obvious reasons that it is a high profile area, not because the 200 folks actually work there. ap_fast_food_wage_protest_ll_130829_16x9_992It was, in other words, a photo op. The involvement of the SEIU, a labor union tied to the Democrat Party, should be noted as well. And the chant, “Hey hey, ho ho, poverty wages gotta go!”, clearly demonstrates the limited aims of the movement. (The article quickly degenerates from there, with a number of argument for why the fast food industry needs low wages to survive — none of which have any relevance to this discussion. If you can’t survive paying your workers a decent wage, get a real job like the rest of us.)

In any case, however, I do not think any of these things suggest the movement is not valid — this is not the point of my argument. I had to think about this because my argument was fairly incoherent last night, and I did not feel I was getting to my point. I am intimately familiar with both SEIU and with the practical economic reality of working in retail. And I am also highly familiar with the Democrats, since my family has been very involved in it for decades. My argument really doesn’t involve any of these issues either, however.

So what is my point?

My argument was an attempt to separate the actual class struggle at the core of these actions from both its political expression and from its decidedly moral tone that, somehow, “low wages are unjust”. Theoretically at least, communists are convinced labor under the mode of production is not the problem of particular sorts of useful labor. In principle, therefore, we are speaking about labor abstracted from all of its particular, specific and useful qualities.

This abstraction from particular useful labor includes all of its characteristics including the wage rate. We refer to this as abstract homogenous labor and point out the mode of production is composed entirely of this sort of labor. Our opposition to wage labor, therefore, is equally “abstract” i.e. not premised on any particular attribute of any particular sort of labor. It doesn’t matter for us whether wages are high or low, fast food or high tech, service sector or public sector — we hate all equally.

This not a “political position” based on some ideology or morality; it is essential to the entire cause itself: The struggle against wage labor can ONLY assume the form of a struggle against abstract homogenous labor and no other form. It is not true in the least that the struggle can begin with some particular form of useful and broaden into struggle against abstract homogenous labor; it must be directed at abstract homogenous labor from its inception or it will fail.

And I want to be absolutely fucking crystal clear about this: Every defeat the working class has suffered at the hands of the capitalist in the past two hundred years can be traced to this defect. It is not an accident in my opinion that every defeat in the last 200 years has been a defeat of labor in some particular form — this is exactly what is supposed to happen. It is only after the defeat of every particular struggle of labor — up to and including the labor of entire nations — that the fight against abstract homogenous labor itself can begin.

Communists of every variant already know (or at least sense) this theoretically, but they have yet to give voice to it. Their agitation among the class remains wholly within the fractures of the present division of labor. Moreover they seem to be believe that they only need express these divisions more vociferously in order to give rise to a general struggle. If the working class would only expresses its divisions harder and more actively, somehow it will overcome these divisions.

This, I would argue, is a fucking recipe for failure.

In the commonplace lingo of modern society, these divisions, which accord with the capitalist division of labor, are referred to as politics. It is the very basis for assuming the actions by the SEIU, a known tool of the Democrat Party and of Obama, is judged to be valid. For certain, the struggle of the fast food workers is valid, but hardly because they are underpaid service workers in a filthy industry. Being underpaid and working in a filthy industry is what it means to be a wage worker. Their struggle is valid because abstract homogenous labor itself has to be done away with entirely.

I am not sure how else to put this out there in a way that doesn’t sound fucking callous and uncaring, so I will simply put it out there. But my intention is not to be callous and uncaring: I simply want to raise what I think is a very relevant point of analysis. That point is that there is a very big jump from the everyday struggle to the ultimate aim, but communists don’t want to grapple with this. Somehow they think the ultimate aim takes care of itself so long as we struggle harder on the day to day issues.

It ain’t going to happen; it has been demonstrated for decades this can’t happen, and no one can show, even theoretically, how it does happen. Theoretically, no form of labor can be demonstrated to be abstract homogenous labor and, therefore, the struggle against it cannot be such. This because abstract homogenous labor is only produced by a single commodity: labor power itself. You cannot struggle against abstract homogenous labor without struggling against wage labor, i.e., without abolishing labor power.

Recognizing that the struggle of the working class must be a struggle against abstract homogenous labor itself presents a difficulty, since it is definitely not the place of communists too invent the slogans of the working class on its behalf. The aim of putting an end to abstract homogenous labor (which is at the moment only a theoretical aim) can only be set by the class itself.

The problem of reform versus revolution restated

What communists can do, however, is argue for the widest possible direct association among the proletarians. Such an association would neither respect nor express any division among the working class that exists within capitalist society. We tend to put a lot of emphasis on “demands”, while Occupy showed the really important thing was association itself, not demands. Occupy demonstrated, I think, that association is the demand. There is no need for any others. Association is itself the abolition of abstract homogenous labor; it is the answer communists have been vainly looking for in politics.

A demand against abstract homogenous labor, against wage labor, cannot be formulated as special demand in any case since this demand is only a demand for association. Nor can it be formulated as a political demand on existing state because it is simply a demand for association to replace the existing state.

So the problem communists have articulating a path from the everyday struggle to abolition of abstract homogenous labor is precisely  the same problem as figuring out a path from limited to universal organization of the class. This means, conceptually and in practice, that the aim of the association is the association itself, not its aims — whatever those might be. How to make the association universal is a matter of demonstrating association can indeed replace the state for the working class. Which is to say, it is a matter of demonstrating the working class can manage its own affairs without the state.

Does this make sense? I don’t know for sure; I am just looking for a practical way out of the impasse posed by the Left. The Left, i.e., politics, is dead. Waiting patiently for it to return is a completely Christian mistake — the Messiah never will return and neither will politics.

This argument is (probably) badly and (obviously) provocatively stated, but I want some input to round the edges off. Of course, if this whole thing seems a bit out there, you can just call me an asshole for raising this issue in the context of an ongoing struggle of some of the lowest paid workers in the United States. That will work too.