Jeremy Roos’ failed critique of 20th century communism

In 2016 it is astonishing to still see this sort of stuff written by radicals:

“All class struggles under capitalism must therefore start from the most elementary question of social reproduction: how to make a living and reproduce the “general conditions of life” without direct access to the means of subsistence. As Manuela Zechner and Bue Rübner Hansen show in their contribution to this issue, the recent transformations and crises of capitalism have pushed this question to the heart of contemporary movements: How do we sustain ourselves under conditions of austerity, precarity and unemployment? How do we provide care (personal, medical, psychological) in the face of a crumbling welfare system? How can we build social power by increasing our reproductive resilience?”

In his most recent essay, Towards a New Anti-Capitalist Politics, Jeremy Roos argues that, in the 21st century, the class struggle must begin not with wage labor, but with what he calls social reproduction.

What is social reproduction? Apparently it means we have to figure how we can make a living and reproduce without a job; how will workers survive when they can no longer sell their labor power to capital.

This would be a generous interpretation of Roos’ argument, however. In fact, Roos seems intent to establish a laughable theoretical proposition that, “Reproduction is always prior to production, as the latter cannot continue without the former.” Based on this nonsense he also insists, the Left must “shift attention back towards the related struggles taking place within the sphere of realization.”

The errors of 20th century communism

The error of 20th century communism, Roos explains, was that it insisted on “the primacy of waged labor and struggles within the sphere of production.” Roos, drawing on a number of writers, wants to correct this misplaced attention on waged labor.

I have spent a couple of days pondering the idea 20th century communism paid too much attention to waged labor. I did this because it is not enough simply to dismiss Roos as just another idiot without any real grasp of historical materialism; there is a sense in which Roos is terribly wrong and a sense in which he is (almost) right.

In the first place, 20th century communism spent all of its time paying attention to wage labor, but they were trying to manage wage labor, when the fucking point was to abolish it. If Roos is correct in any sense, it is in noting 20th century communism’s obsession not with wage labor itself, but with managing wage labor, i.e., managing the process of capitalist exploitation of wage labor.

The present situation indeed calls for a shift in focus from trying to manage the exploitation of wage labor; in fact, such a shift is long overdue.

But then Roos makes the incredibly silly argument that we should shift our attention from managing the exploitation of the workers to social reproduction and the sphere of realization. How can social reproduction (as if there is another, ‘non-social’, reproduction) and realization have priority over what is being produced? If you haven’t produced, how do you ‘reproduce’? And, if you haven’t produced, how can you ‘realize’ what you have produced?

Offering new packaging for the same failed policies

For me, it is distressing that Roos, who wants to reinvent the Left, doesn’t see a difference between abolishing wage labor and managing it; but, then again, this was exactly the problem with 20th century communism in the first place — so, basically, we are in the same place we were when Thatcher told us there is no alternative.

Managing wage labor, i.e., capitalist exploitation, is all about reproduction and realization over production and it’s all about volume 2 over volume 1. It is, in other words, all about knowing how capitalism works, but not having the slightest fucking clue how to kill it.

I mean, Roos isn’t wrong to reject 20th century communism with its attention to managing capitalist exploitation of the working class; but his alternative is just as wrong: rather than saying wage labor should be abolished he still wants us to manage it. He introduces new (21st century) terms, like “social reproduction” and “sphere of realization”, but he just means managing “wages” and “profits”. Either Roos doesn’t realize this, in which case his essay should be laughed out of circulation, or he does and he is a charlatan.

He can take his pick from that menu.

Here is the thing: The Left wants to talk about everything else in the world except the urgent necessity for the abolition of wage labor. And this is because, fundamentally, the Left accepts the bourgeois narrative that the abolition of wage labor would mean the end of human civilization.

Roos accuses 20th century communism of having had a productivist bias and this is mainly true. But Roos offers us no vision of a post-productivist Left; rather, he calls our attention to, as he puts it: “struggles over everyday life and living conditions at the point of circulation and consumption”. According to Roos this means a “broad shift towards redistributive conflicts over realization is progressively taking class struggle in the Global North out of the workplace”.

“Realization”? “Redistribution”? “Consumption”?

Do these terms sound vaguely familiar to you? Do they not call to mind the typical themes of class conflict in the second half of the 20th century, with its emphasis on post-war demand management.

The collapse of full employment

Why are these typical points of class conflict now occurring outside the work places rather than in them as before? The answer may be found in what Roos calls the ‘overdeveloped’ economies of North America and Europe, which have been hit hard by capital flight and by the progressive improvement in the productivity of labor owing to automation.

Since the productively employed population, (particularly in the United States), has fallen, those robbed of all means to life are now living a precarious existence outside the point of production; they have essentially been rendered redundant to the production of surplus value. This is a real demographic shift in the population: the need for labor in agriculture has all but disappeared and in industry it is rapidly vanishing as well. Billions of proletarians worldwide have been thrown into the vast industrial reserve and have next to no chance of finding work.

Here are the critical facts behind Jeremy Roos’ article: historically, the policies of full employment have depended on a growing population of industrial workers, but this is no longer occurring. As can be seen from the chart below, industrial employment generally grew from 1940 to 1979. However, from 1979 to 2000, industrial employment stagnated, and, after 2000, began falling to levels not seen since the 1950s.

Industrial employment 1940-2015 (Source: BLS)

At the same time as industrial employment fell, the civilian labor force participation rate in the United States also began to decline:

Civilian labor force participation rate (Source: Federal Reserve Bank)

As industrial employment began to fall in the US, total employment began to fall with it implying a growing population of unemployed workers. Yet, this fall never shows up in actual unemployment figures. Why is that?

Simple: after being unemployed for a period of time, Washington simply redefines you as no longer participating in the labor force. The result is that although unemployment is officially below 5%, no recovery in employment has occurred:

Total civilian employment 2000-2015 (Source: BLS, Federal Reserve Bank)

We are now seven years after the financial crisis, with a number of indicators suggesting the US is about to enter another recession without employment having recovered from the last one. This has never happened before in the post-war economic history of the United States; total employment has never failed to recover in any previous recession. If you look to the left of the last chart you will see that even during the recession of 2001 employment still increased overall. So far as I can tell, there is no other instance of employed workers decreasing in absolute numbers year over year since the Great Depression.

Moreover, mind you, this has not occurred in a vacuum: it has occurred despite multi-year trillion dollar deficits and effective 0% interest rates. Here is the fed funds rates, the key policy rate for the Federal Reserve:

Effective Feds Funds Rate (Source: Federal Reserve Bank)

And here are the federal deficits for the same period:

Federal deficits 2005-2015 (Source: Federal Reserve Bank)

With unprecedented federal deficit spending and unprecedented low interest rates, there is no question that we have witnessed the utter collapse of post-war economic policy in this crisis. We have now reached the point where no possible capitalist expansion can ever absorb this huge population of surplus proletarians and semi-proletarians even briefly.

No jobs, no wages

This collapse is the background to Roos’ essay that calls on us to turn our attention away from wage labor and focus on “social reproduction” and “realization”.

Rather than simply explaining these facts in a straightforward fashion, Roos tell us the class struggle has now moved from the point of production to the “sphere of realization”, of “consumption”, and of “social reproduction”. This is the most absurd and incomprehensible nonsense that I have read in quite some time.

What Roos is trying to say in his bizarre fashion is that people don’t have jobs and therefore no means to buy necessities of life. Why don’t they have jobs? Because their labor power is not needed within the limits of the present 40 hours work week. Within the limits of the present social working day, their labor power is entirely superfluous to the production of material wealth and needs of productively employed capital. Without jobs, they cannot access the means to life.

In a society where the vast majority of people live by selling their labor power, the need for this labor power is going away!

What is the purpose of shrouding these facts in the nonsensical gibberish Roos employs in this essay? Why does Roos call on us to focus on the “sphere of realization” and “consumption”, when the problem is simply that wage labor has now outlived its usefulness for the production of material wealth.

The question really has to be asked why, when post-war economic management has failed so spectacularly to maintain full employment, does Roos want us to turn our attention to the “struggles over everyday life and living conditions at the point of circulation and consumption.”

The failure of state managed capitalism

I can’t get into anyone’s head and will not try, but I believe the focus on “social reproduction” and “realization” is an attempt to revive the effectiveness of post-war economic management. I don’t mean this in any conspiratorial sense; rather, it is a natural response to the realization that existing economic management policies are becoming ineffective.

To give an analogy: if one antibiotic becomes ineffective in the treatment of an illness, the first impulse is to develop a new antibiotic. Almost no one argues that the antibiotic approach to treating illnesses should be questioned. Unfortunately, over time, of course, illnesses emerge that are resistant to all forms of antibiotics and we are completely fucked.

In a similar vein, when one sort of economic management is discovered to have reached its effective limit, we look for another one. This is exactly what happened during the crisis of the 1970s, when traditional Keynesian tools proved hyperinflationary. Rather than calling into question the very idea of economic management, the capitalist state simply adopted new tools. In addition to traditional tools of deficit spending and low inflation rates, the fascists began to encourage off-shoring and globalization. To make this stick, they had to promote free trade in order to allow goods now produced in Mexico and China to be sold in the US.

Although neoliberalism promoted the ideology of small government and low inflation, it actually saw massive deficits and loose monetary policy. It simply added to these traditional Keynesian policies the promotion of free trade and export of US industry.

What is now new is that today, federal deficits, low interest rates, free trade and globalization are no longer adequate to prevent the crisis. Even with these policies fully in place there is a growing population of surplus workers who cannot, under any circumstances, find employment.

For these workers, folks like Jeremy Roos want us to turn our attention to “social reproduction”, because for these workers production cannot come before consumption. which is to say, they cannot sell their labor power and therefore do not have access to the means of life.

The two premises of production for profit

Here is what is so silly in Roos argument:

In the capitalist mode of production, no worker can eat if he cannot first sell his labor power and no worker can sell her labor power if the capitalist does not first make a profit. At present we have two choices: we can either accept these premises of the capitalist mode of production or we can violate them.

Roos want us to focus on the problem of social reproduction, circulation and realization in order to violate the first premise: namely, no worker can eat if she cannot sell her labor power. But he wants to do this in a way that does not violate (or even theoretically confront) the second premise of the mode of production: namely, no worker can sell her labor power unless the capitalist makes a profit.

Roos wants to treat these two premises of the capitalist mode of production as if there is no necessary connection between them. As if, in other words, the capitalist does not make a profit because the worker cannot eat unless she sells her labor power.

This argument is silly. If the worker were not starving, she would never sell herself to the capitalist. Take away her starvation and wage labor is effectively abolished; take away wage labor and the entire mode of production collapses.

The Left needs to stop ignoring the urgent necessity to abolish wage labor. It is where capitalism is already headed and nothing short of this will end the present crisis.

6 thoughts on “Jeremy Roos’ failed critique of 20th century communism”

  1. Puritan self-abuse powers this monster. It’s not something we can see or touch. The only way I see out of this trap is to give people the self-abuse they crave in abstract sense. They’ll scream for hours reduction, so they can have more time to flog themselves. That is where I am at right now.


  2. All this talk about the importance of democracy over public spaces is a bit irrelevant and reeks of hopping-on-the-bandwagon/tailism of the long-defunct Occupy Movement and Arab Spring. Negri’s quote that Roos uses to support this idea seems particularly dumb: “…the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class.”

    Is “the metropolis” a means of production? Can “the multitude” live off it? Let’s imagine for a moment that New York City, for example, had been feeling generous and had allowed the Zucotti Park protesters to stay there indefinitely and exercise “democracy” over that public space. So what? What good is that public space really going to do for unemployed workers, once the symbolic appeal of that space as a rallying point has worn off (as it inevitably will)? It’s not like those unemployed can start subsistence farming on the land in common and support themselves that way. There’s just not enough land, and that’s also not the way of life that they would aspire to, I’m sure.

    It is telling that Roos refers approvingly to the example of the English Civil War. First off, taking back control over common lands is not going to really help us that much at this point in human civilization. There are much bigger fish to fry (although evidently writers such as Roos have given up on the idea of taking over the INDUSTRIAL WORKPLACE). Secondly, keep in mind that the Enclosure Movement WON, and those in favor of the common lands LOST. Not a good model to emulate.

    One reason for why OWS lost steam (aside from police repression) is because democracy is fine and all, but you need some substantive decisions to apply a democratic process towards, or else it becomes demoralized, masturbatory, and obsessed with trivial problems. And there’s no greater backbiting and vindictiveness that you see than when there are only trivial matters and the stakes are very very low (as anyone in academia can testify).

    Applying OWS-style consensus to the question of who should speak next at a rally is fine and all at first, as a lesson and demonstration of how things work. But if it stops there, then people (except for the die-hard activists) lose interest. At some point, you need to be taking over a factory, taking over the economy, planning actual communal PRODUCTION with that decision-making process, or else the whole process will rightly come to feel like an overblown farce.


    1. I agree with you in spirit, but I think it is important to redirect our attention away from taking over things entirely and begin talking about how to regain control of our own human capacities by eliminating wage labor.


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