The Real Movement

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Tag: labor

The Left needs to take a timeout

I have been thinking about universal basic income and the demand for a jobs guarantee – two ideas floated by, among others, a former Occupy activist, Jesse Myerson; and the relation between labor, money and goods like food, clothing, shelter. My thinking about the relation between these three was triggered by two comments from a tweep:

“There simply is not a one-to-one correspondence between labor under capitalism and use-values like food.”

Later he made an assertion that is incontrovertibly true:

“Currency, use-value, & labor are all separable.”

I like these statements because they get to the heart of my problem with UBI, a jobs guarantee and the discussion of issues related to both.

I am pretty sure no one would take exception to the idea that, no matter the type of society we consider, the members of that society always need, among other things, food, paycheck-for-allclothing and shelter. We, of course, need more than this basic stuff, so I don’t want to suggest that my list here is exhaustive or could ever be. Rather, let’s assume food, clothing and shelter, stand in for a host of concrete needs that must be satisfied by the means provided by nature. These needs require some definite level of interchange with nature, which are the source of the material means to satisfy them. And to appropriate these means to life from nature, requires some definite expenditure of human effort — labor.

So here is the thing:

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Marxian Hipsters, Old Skool Marxists and the Abstract and Fetishized Notions of Social Emancipation

worksource-oregon-job-fairThe hipsters of value critique can often be heard describing present society as one founded on an abstract and fetishized mode of social domination. Most of the rest of us have no idea what the fuck any of that means, but we know it sounds pretty impressive. If pressed to explain what this bullshit even means, the value critique hipster might refer to Adorno or some other theoretical heavy, as does the writer of this blog post, “The All-Penetrating Ether of Society: Adorno, Exchange, and Abstract Social Domination”:

“[A]ccording to Adorno, unlike the ‘idealist’ ‘subjective and ‘reflexive’ prognosis of reification, which centres on the undialectical appearance of the thing, and criticism that seeks to dynamize these things, the trouble is with the social ‘conditions’ that structure human interaction.

In Adorno’s view the later is theorized by Marx’s analysis of the fetish character of the commodity, which Adorno reads as a social category that expresses the objective social form of existing social relations.

“the fetish-character of commodities is not chalked up to subjective-mistaken consciousness, but objectively deduced out of the social a priori, the process of exchange.”

Ah!”, I nod in what appears to signal agreement, mostly because I don’t want to expose my complete inability to understand a single damn word the blogger wrote, “Yes, we must objectively deduce something that requires eight semesters of Hegelian philosophy out of something else that requires mastery of Capital, volumes 1, 2 and 3. Uh … by the way, would you like fries with your order?”

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

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.

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Platypus Question No. 9: The paradox of Left politics

In question 9, the Platypus group asks about the role of political organization in relation to labor issues.

“9. What role, if any, do you assign to political organization, such as an actual or potential political party, in working to progressively transform contemporary relations of work and unemployment? What should be the relationship between any such organization and the working class?”.

I think it is important to state, following the premises of historical materialism, as outlined by Marx and Engels, that there is no social organization that can give the working class control over work and unemployment. As many writers note, labor itself is premised on the fragmentation of the conditions of labor. This fragmentation cannot be overcome through any political organization nor by the establishment of a working class political party. One of the most important defects of the Left’s approach to labor and to overwork and unemployment is the idea these can be addressed by political measures and political organization.

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

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?”

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Platypus Question No. 7: “The politics of work and the broader project of social emancipation”

In question 7, the Platypus group asks about the relation between “the politics of work” and other political struggles:

“7. Given the breadth of issues and struggles pursued by the Left historically and today–race and racism, gender equality, environmental concerns, globalization, militarism, etc–what is the relationship between the politics of work and the broader project of social emancipation? Exactly how central or peripheral is the politics of work to social emancipation as such?”

The question, as formulated by Platypus, makes it appear as if the “politics of work” is, somehow, narrowly focused. Side by side with the “narrow” “politics of work” are the “broader” issues of race, gender, the environment, globalization and militarism. But what is racism but an artifact of the competition between white workers and black workers over which will sell their labor power to capital? Is there another facet of “racism” of which I am not aware? What is the “broader” issue of “gender equality” except that each woman worker will sell her labor power on equal terms with men?

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Platypus Question No. 6: Is there a concrete demand for the immediate abolition of wage labor?

In question 6, Platypus asks if there is a concrete political demand for the immediate abolition of wage labor:

“If the abolition of wage labor should indeed be a goal of emancipatory politics, what forms of politics or concrete demands should be pursued to attain this goal? How do we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’?”

The question is somewhat confused: Since the state itself is maintaining and enforcing the conditions for capitalist reproduction by extending hours of labor, a political demand for the abolition of labor is not possible. The problem is further complicated by the fact the Left faces is that it conflates opposition to fascist state economic management with opposition to social progress. To resolve these complications, we need to go back to my definition of overwork and unemployment.

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Platypus Question No. 5: Overwork, unemployment and the state

5. What remedies exist to address overwork and unemployment?

For the fifth question, the Platypus group asks what might be considered an adequate remedy to overwork and unemployment.

“5. Historically, the left has sought to remedy the problems of overwork and unemployment, through various means: full employment; a guaranteed minimum income regardless of employment; and/or shorter working hours for those employed. Which of these, if any, do you consider to be adequate responses, and how, if at all, should the Left pursue them?”

The question itself is evidence of a fallacy that is deeply embedded in Left politics, a fallacy Platypus seems to explicitly accept in their introduction to the questions:

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Platypus Question No. 4: The Great Depression, the Left and the Politics of Work

In question 4, the Platypus group asks about the historical influences that inform the politics of work:

“4. In the history of the Left, what examples do you regard as informing your attitude towards the politics of work and unemployment today, and what is relevant about these touch points?”

In think the seminal event in the formation of the Left’s attitude (not my attitude) toward the politics of work and unemployment is its inability, eight decades later, to come to grips with the Great Depression. To a large extent Marxism is precisely at the same point it was in its classical period and in some important aspects it has regressed.

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Platypus Question No. 3: Overwork and unemployment

In question 3, the Platypus group asks about the twin social diseases of overwork for some and unemployment for others:

“3. If the widely observable phenomenon of overwork and unemployment is a necessary feature of capitalist society, why and how is this so? What kinds of social necessity, in the present organization of the world, do you take to be underlying this phenomenon?  Then, given your understanding of the nature of this necessity, what would it mean to radically transform it?”

This question, as it is posed, is completely misleading; it is imprecise. First, from the point of view of the working class, what constitutes overwork? Asked this way, it is obvious that the premise of the capitalist mode of production is the overworking of the laborer, her unpaid labor. Her necessary labor — labor required for her existence — is only made possible by the performance of labor that is superfluous to her. “Overwork” is, from the perspective of the worker, not unusual, but the very premise of her physical existence. Moreover, from the perspective of the capitalist, the overworking of the worker to the point of exhaustion is a premise of his existence.

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