Platypus Question No. 10: The utopian character of “the politics of work”

by Jehu

In their final question, Platypus asks what effect the decline of the workers’ movement over past century has had on attempts to come to grips with the politics of work, overwork and unemployment.

“10. A century ago, these questions were consciously taken up by a politically constituted workers movement in which socialists and Marxists participated. Today, discussions of this topic risk becoming utopian in the a-political sense. How, if at all, has the decline of workers movements and the death of the Left circumscribed our ability to engage the politics of work in the present?”

The problem with this question is that it assumes what has to be demonstrated: that a politically constituted workers movement taking up discussions of the politics of work was not itself utopian.

From the first it was always clear there were profound complexities inherent in a political movement that aimed to bring an end to the state, to put an end to politics. There were always profound complexities with converting private property into public property in an effort to put an end to all property. And there were profound complexities with proposing a non-class should politically constitute itself as a class in order to put an end to class society.

These complex issues were pointed out in the objections raised by any number of those who opposed Marx and Engels ideas. Marx’s response to them was summed up in a succinct retort to Bakunin:

“Mr Bakunin concludes from this that it is better to do nothing at all -just wait for the day of general liquidation — the last judgement.”

The response is rather jarring, since it is hardly the sort of defense of political struggle we might expect from Marx. Rather, it seems to be something on the order of “What other choice do we have as we wait for the laws of capitalist society to unfold?” No matter the outcome of such a political struggle, the working class would press its case against the capitalist class, even if that case was crippled by the disadvantages of it being: 1. a class that was not really a class; 2. a class that had no interest to assert against the ruling class; and 3. a class for whom no social organization could give it control over its material conditions of life.

Marx’s reply to Bakunin seems not based on the likelihood that the working class would succeed in toppling the capitalists, but in the logic of the communist movement of society in which,

“as the proletariat still acts, during the period of struggle for the overthrow of the old society, on the basis of that old society, and hence also still moves within political forms which more or less belong to it, it has not yet, during this period of struggle, attained its final constitution, and employs means for its liberation which after this liberation fall aside.”

This suggests to me that, in Marx’s opinion, the political struggle of the working class was never considered by Marx to be “its final constitution”. I imagine this to be a shocking heresy among those on the Left who think the political struggle is the highest form of proletarian struggle. However, Marx explicitly states in this brief but densely packed statement, that the political struggle was only a phase through which the working class must pass.

And what might constitute this phase as Marx understood it?

If you ask the typical communist of today, the answer might be something along the lines of a “workers’ state”, understood in its 20th century formulations as a “socialist state”, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or democratic socialism. In any case, this state could be distinguished from the present state in that the proletariat rules on its own behalf. However, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx provides a more modest description:

“We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.”

Winning the “battle of democracy” wasn’t going to be all that difficult, since the capitalist mode of production eventually throws all other classes into the proletariat. This is what capital does: strips the small producers of their property and then turns on the capitalists themselves. Society ends up being composed almost entirely of a mass of proletarians, plus a tiny stratum of surviving capitalists. As Engels explains in “Socialism” even these surviving capitalist themselves get expropriated and reduced to a superfluous population by the state. They are rendered entirely superfluous to the mode of production and the state itself becomes the capitalist.

Over time all the contradictions between classes in bourgeois society would be reduced to a single antagonism: the proletarians, on one hand, and the state, on the other. And in this antagonism the proletarian struggle would assume its final constitution: the abolition of the state and itself as a class.

The charge can rightfully be made against my argument that it is highly speculative; there is no way I can know what was in Marx’s or Engels’ mind. One thing that is not speculative, however, is this: For whatever reason, the working class nowhere actually successfully made the transition to communism. Indeed, in the Manifesto, Marx made clear at the outset that the proletariat was fighting an uphill battle in which its political victories were less important than the workers own union. This union would be facilitated in first place, not by its victories, but by the development of the productive forces themselves by capital:

“Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.”

At present we have to deal with the fact no such transition was made through the political struggle of the working class and no prospect exists at present, nor in the foreseeable future, for such a transition. So either we must throw in the towel on communism altogether or accept the idea that the conquest of political power was just one of several scenarios for how communism arises from present society. My argument suggests the political struggle is not the only way, nor even the most likely way, to communism; the collapse of capitalism can occur solely as the result of its own internal contradictions and without more. Which means, the collapse of capitalism is not addressed by a “politically constituted workers movement”, nor by any workers’ movement at all; rather, it must be addressed by the new society itself, by a society that has lost all the characteristics of a class society.

I will return to this point.

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Second, even if we leave aside the problem of whether the political struggle of the working class was ever a likely path to communism, we are still left with the problem of the unquestionably utopian character of “the politics of work itself”. The utopian character of “the politics of work” lies in the idea labor and politics can be concerned with something other than the production of values. The “politics of work” assumes labor can satisfy the needs of the working class, rather than the production of surplus value.

This is not possible and has not been possible at least since the Great Depression. With the abolition of commodity money, the production of values and the production of material wealth, of use values that satisfy human needs, have no material connection to one another. Even constituted politically, the workers’ movement is engaged in a purely utopian adventure in thinking otherwise. The politics of work does not “risk becoming utopian in the a-political sense”, because it is already utopian in the avowed political sense.

As I explained earlier, the problem we face at present is that up until the present, labor has determined all other relations within society, but labor is going away — it is being abolished by the development of the productive forces, by industrialization of the labor process. Despite this, both the struggle against austerity and the struggle for autonomy aim only to reestablish labor as the basis for social organization. Essentially, the “politics of work” aims at nothing less than preventing labor and commodity production from going away.

Its utopian character rests on the fact that labor itself is anachronistic, representing outmoded forces of production.  Since labor itself has become anachronistic, the “politics of work” seeks to replace labor — understood here as the production of value — with “labor” that produces nothing. As Bonefeld explains, the aim of this “labor” is neither the production of values nor use values, but to end the separation of the workers from the means of subsistence. The “politics of work”, in other words, expresses the fact that the working class is absolutely cut off from the means to life and can only access those means on condition of performing surplus labor. The utopian character of this politics is that it seeks to bridge the separation between the worker and means of life without touching on existing material relations.

For politics to not be utopian in the sense described by Platypus, it would have to set as its aim the abolition of this separation. But this separation cannot be overcome without, at the same time, overcoming the fragmentation of labor and, therefore, labor itself. Moreover, since labor is the premise of all existing social relations, ending the separation of the worker from the means of life must bring to an end all existing social relations.

When the working class experiences unemployment as “worse than wage slavery itself”, simpleton Leftists perversely interpret this as a demand by the working class for more wage slavery. For the Leftist the question then becomes how this separation can be overcome by basic income, jobs creation or cooperatives. Which is to say, the Leftist proposes various political measures to bridge the separation without ending the actual separation. The separation of the worker from the means to life are treated as a “defect” in existing social relations, not as their expression.

There is, however, another interpretation of the demand of the working class against this separation: to put an end to existing relations. Our simpleton Leftist cannot interpret the demand in this form, since for Leftists all demands of the working class are political demands. And, indeed, insofar as the demand really is only political, it cannot but be a demand for the state to overcome this “defect” by political measures. It is not until the state itself, acting as the capitalist, seeks to expand the separation of the workers from the means to life that the Leftist stands bewildered. This bewilderment is the result of nothing more than the Leftist running into the brick wall of his own utopian delusions. The collapse of this utopian delusion begins at the point where the fascist state, to protect existing relations, pushes the mass of society into abject poverty and starvation — as is already the case in Europe.

The Leftist simpleton, who cannot explain this action by the state, blames it on ideology. The social relations of the entire planet thus are the product of the ideas in heads of a handful of economists and policy-makers. The ideas of the economist and policy-maker are not to be explained by existing relations, but rather explain existing relations. If we could simply replace these ideas with “Left” ideas, we could replace neoliberalism with the “social welfare state”, poverty with “basic income”, unemployment with “full employment, and production for profit with “cooperatives”.

As I stated before, these utopian flights of fancy are not constructed out of whole cloth, but themselves reflect the thinking of a class who really experience the abolition of labor as a process that is worse than wage slavery itself. This is only to be expected because this class bears all the burden of the abolition of labor and none of its advantages. If the working class does not pay the price directly in unemployment and falling wages, it pays it indirectly in longer hours of labor. The improvement of the productivity of labor amounts to nothing more than tightening the screws on the vise.

Based on my argument above, it should be obvious that, from the start, the political struggle, as outlined in the Communist Manifesto, could only avoid becoming utopian if this struggle aimed at overturning all existing relations. The utopian character of the “politics of work” does not result from its threatening to become a-political, but in it only being political. Which is to say, it results from the utopian delusions of Leftists who stubbornly believe labor can be rescued from abolition by politics.

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