Platypus Question No. 8: Self-organization or the fight against austerity?

by Jehu

For their eighth question, Platypus is looking for promising examples of the Left’s attempt to address the politics of work:

“8. Where do you find the most promising attempts by the Left to address the issue of work and unemployment, today? What makes this contemporary work relevant and propitious?”

The difficulty answering this question stems, at least in part, from the fact it is not altogether clear what standard we should use to judge any attempt as “promising”? We are after all talking about labor, the activity on which the entire edifice of modern society is erected. And just to be clear: labor is also the heart and soul of the conflict between the two great classes. It is one thing for an attempt to be “promising” in terms of addressing the current crisis, with its stagnant jobs growth and wages, but quite another when we are making an attempt to address the emancipation of the social producers from their exploiters. So what standard should we be employing here?

Now let me just throw another wrinkle into that question: suppose we cannot separate the problem of stagnant job growth and wages in the present crisis from the problem of social emancipation? What then constitutes “promising attempts by the Left to address the issue of work and unemployment, today?”

Let me give an example of the difficulty this poses.

It is conventional wisdom that the emergence of a communist society is the product of the struggle of a well organized, politically astute class of proletarians who more or less impose their will on the capitalist class through a sophisticated assertion of their interests against the interests of the capitalist class. I don’t personally think this is true, but most people do, so let’s go with that. Self-emancipation as the declaration “I’m just not going to be a wage slave anymore” is, on the above premise, as complex as it at first seems: Basically, every proletarian on the planet — or at least the overwhelming majority — has to say “I’m just not going to be a wage slave anymore” at about the same time and agree how society will be henceforth run.

Frankly, I don’t think that is likely to happen any time soon given the present state of proletarian political consciousness and its movement. More likely is this scenario: Everyone on the planet gets told almost at once or, at least, over a fairly short period of time:

“I regret to inform that your services are no longer required. Security will escort you to clean off your desk and leave the building.”

Which is to say, it is entirely possible the proletarians don’t ever “emancipate” themselves; capital just fires them all. This is what happened between September, 2008 and February, 2010, when US capitalist firms showed something like 7.4 million workers to the door in what is likely the largest mass firing event in history. I had just left the company I used to work for, Capital One, about six months before the crisis really hit, when a former co-worker told me the company just announced the entire division would be shut down and everyone was losing their jobs. I think that division had about 500 employees — and all of them were just pushed out the door within 2 months.

We tend to think the proletariat has to “win communism”, or “build communism” but that is not at all true. Communism can be unilaterally imposed on the working class by capital, since it is only disposable time — time away from labor. What is more simple than firing the whole lot in a vain attempt to restore the rate of profit. This scenario for how communism emerges doesn’t require anybody to understand anything about what they are doing at all.

Capital just starts firing people in a vain attempt to restore profits, but profits never get restored — just as we are witnessing in Greece, Spain, etc.

At first, we would not even recognize what was happening. It would just look like a very bad “recession” — some might use the dreaded “D” word. Others would call it a “jobless recovery”, based on the artificial improvement in the bottom line of corporations created by reducing overhead and streamlining their operations. Since companies would be retrenching almost the entire time, trying to reduce costs, the wage bill would fall rapidly; only later would these reduced labor costs translate into the reduced consumption power of society. Keynesians, of course, would point to this “lack of demand” and proclaim that it was a crisis of underconsumption. As “demand” fell, i.e., as the reduced consumption power of the working class made itself felt, prices would fall with it — raising the spectre of deflation. Among bourgeois simpletons, this would lead to a lot of grumbling about “secular stagnation” and alleged “fiscal multiplier” miscalculations by international and national bodies. Others would complain that monetary and fiscal policies were powerless to help and were only hurting “recovery”.

How could you tell the difference between a “recession” and this scenario leading to the birth of communism?

Well, that’s the thing, actually: you couldn’t. It could be happening right now and we would never realize it. As Marx observed, every crisis is just a collapse of capitalism that gets interrupted by countervailing tendencies that temporarily reverse or impede it. And, by far, the most important countervailing tendency capitalism enjoys today is fascist state economic policy. If, as in Greece, the fascist state loses the capacity to pursue counter-cyclical fiscal and monetary policy, it only adds to the crisis by forcing the state to reduce its expenditures even as the “economy” is contracting.

The typical response to this scenario by some communists (for instance, some in the wertkritik school)  is that the collapse of capitalism is not the same as social emancipation. But what is the end of capital, if not the end of wage slavery? And what is “social emancipation”, if not the end of wage slavery? The idea that the collapse of capitalism and the social emancipation of the proletariat are not the same thing is an unsubstantiated argument. So far as I know, not one person presently making the argument that the social emancipation of the proletariat and the collapse of capitalism are not the same thing has ever demonstrated it based on the premises of labor theory.

And for good reason: They would have to show that communism as it emerges from the womb of capitalism in 2013 is not already at its higher stage. Which is to say, communism as it emerges from the womb of capitalism is not capable of supporting itself materially on the basis of the principle: “To each according to his need.” They would have to demonstrate that, since what emerges from capitalism is not the higher stage of communism, there must be some period of revolutionary transformation. No one I know of at present makes this argument on the basis of empirical analysis of the present level of development of the productive forces. The argument is either based on treating the category of value itself ambiguously, (simply as abstract homogenous labor time, not as socially necessary labor time), or by simplistically regurgitating the critique Marx made of the Gotha Programme.

But Marx’s critique points to the need for just this sort of analysis of the level of development of the productive forces and, therefore, to the phase of communism that is possible “just as it emerges from capitalist society”. Whether this communism is capable of surviving on the above principle has to be based on the actual level of development of the productive forces of capitalism from which communism emerges. We are, therefore, comparing the capitalism of Marx’s time, when capitalism was still a mode of production capable of expanding on its own, to the capitalism of our own time, when expansion of hours of wage labor is completely dependent on the state. There is no reason in our time to assume that the end of value production is not at once also the social emancipation of the working class.

And really, this scenario has profound implications for our analysis, because, as we know all too well, the working class really does experience non-labor, especially in the form of a massive tsunami of layoffs hitting every sector of the economy at once, more or less the way Joan Robinson described it: as a social and personal catastrophe that is far worse than wage slavery itself.

The present crisis: self-organization versus the fight against austerity

Using the above as a possible scenario for how the transition to a communist society may in fact unfold, how can we evaluate two very important modes of response of the proletariat to the present crisis — the anti-austerity fight and the attempt by the working class to establish an autonomous space outside the mode of production? Critical comments on these two modes have been provided separately by Werner Bonefeld and by Anna O’Lory:

The first comes to us in the form of a talk “What is the Alternative?” given by Bonefield to the Anarchist Bookfair in 2010. In regards to the anti-austerity struggle, Bonefeld makes this observation:

“What does the fight against cuts entail? It is a struggle against the reduction of life time to labour time. The fight against cuts is in fact a fight for a life. For the dependent masses, wages and welfare benefits are the means with which to obtain the means of subsistence. The fight against the cuts is a fight for the provision of the means of subsistence. And that is, it is a conflict between antagonistic interests, one determining that time is money, the other demanding the means of subsistence. This demand, as I argued at the start, might well express itself uncritically as a demand for a politics of jobs and wages, affirming the need for rapid accumulation as the means of job-creation.”

In the second, O’Lory, in an essay titled “At the Limit: Self-Organisation in Greece”, draws on her study of attempts by the working class to self-organize in the midst of the Greece depression. O’Lory concludes from her study of the limits of self-organization that,

“In Greece, today, as the State withdraws from the reproduction of labour power in the form of welfare, replacing it with workfare and policing, while capital, small and large, is forced to withdraw from investment and production, throwing a large section of the population out of the labour contract and into informal/precarious labour and unemployment, there is a resurgence of self-organising activity as well as of interest in it, notably on the part of the state. This self-organising activity is a direct response to the removal of previous sources of reproduction (wages, pensions, welfare), presenting itself as a necessity. Not only is this self-organisation symptomatic of the crisis, but it is itself pervaded by it.”

Both writers identify a common difficulty in both modes of response: an attempt to reproduce — even resurrect — the proletariat as a class dependent on labor. In Bonefeld’s discussion, the struggle against austerity becomes the focus of,

“a rallying cry for those who declared to make money create jobs, conditions, employment, that is, to create – in other words – the capitalism of jobs, of employment, of conditions.”

For O’Lory, attempts at self-organization ultimately are constrained by the fact that almost all means of consumption are outside the sphere of the self-organized community:

“Capitalism is not only not actively opposed or ruptured by communities of sharing, but it is a condition of the existence of such autonomous communities, which inevitably depend on capitalist commodity production and exchange for their survival (except if there are primitivist communes). Sharing has no intrinsic meaning independently of what is being shared and under what conditions it is being shared. It could evade money at an individual level, but is not intrinsically against it – it can equally be an outcome of friendship or an ingredient of capitalist production.”

In both cases, the writers indicate that the critical problem is one of overcoming the affirmative self-identification of the class as laborers. In their separate and apparently incompatible aims and methods of activity, both the struggle against austerity and the struggle for autonomous community founders on the fact that, if we assumed the emergence of communism under the scenario I laid out above, each seeks no more than to recreate what would now be defunct relations of production. Most important, this affirming self-identification includes the identification of non-labor time not as the new materially necessary condition of society, but as a social and personal catastrophe.

In plain English, the emergence of communism under my scenario means the working class has to stop seeing non-labor as a catastrophe to be remedied either by the state or by acting as its own capitalist.