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You are here: Platypus /We become silk moths

We become silk moths

Jonathan Black

Platypus Review 118 | July-August 2019

CAPITALISM IS IN A MOVING CONTRADICTION in that it presses to reduce labor employed to a minimum and yet posits wage labor as the only way for 99 percent of people to make a living. People may recognize this as a simplified (or bastardized, if you like) version of a section of Marx’s contentious “Fragment on Machines.” At first glance, substituting "wage labor" for "labor-time" may appear to dilute the problem.

Wages seem to imply a steady income at the same job but for many of us this is increasingly a dream; zero-hour contracts and unsteady gig economy jobs are the new normal, set to only get worse. But of course this is a symptom of the “moving contradiction”; the lack of steady work throws the state of things into contradiction. Not that 99 percent of us are waged workers, but that in an ideal world, as our society is currently organized, we would be. This is the common sense presented to workers from across the political spectrum; full employment is the goal towards which the great wheel of the interplay between state and market should turn. From this perspective, then, the difference between the left and right of capital is how best to achieve this end; what factors of production are malleable and what cannot be touched, lest it throw our great turning wheel out of alignment.

More often than not these malleable things are wages and the environment. Indeed, writing from Australia, the state has run headlong into an increasingly untenable situation, trying to stave off disappearing work with increasingly desperate and destructive measures. The stagnation of wages in recent history has given rise to renewed calls for a “fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” as illustrated by the recent 25 million dollar “Change the Rules” campaign launched by the Australian union movement around the 2019 election with extremely disappointing results. There was once a different slogan that seemed to give a more direct piece of advice to the working class—it read, “Abolish the Wage System.”

But isn’t a fair wage an end in itself? What about Universal Basic Income (UBI)? Why is it necessary to push towards the abolition of wages now rather than just promoting UBI?

Economist Milton Friedman was a famous proponent of Universal Basic Income

As Marx explains, wages are “only a special name for the price of labor-power… it is the special name for the price of this peculiar commodity, which has no other repository than human flesh and blood.” And a peculiar commodity it is; a worker sells their daily labor-power for permission to exist, and the moment that daily selling stops, for whatever reason, that permission is revoked. In Marx’s time the reserve labor army would discipline the workers; the workers would accept their conditions and work hard unless they wanted to join the ranks of the unemployed. This dynamic is still in effect but it seems to manifest differently; today the gig economy disciplines itself.

Underemployment has been steadily increasing even in countries where unemployment rates have returned to pre-recession levels, such as in the US and the UK. Full-employment under these gig-economy conditions combined with the continued eroding of the welfare state, have wrangled much of the reserve labour army into precarious work, resulting in growing inequality within the working class itself. People are working additional irregular jobs to make up for the shortfall in their livelihoods due to the irregularity of their main job, if they even have one. The trajectory of Western economies is that they are becoming so “flexible”, with so many new uses for the perpetually underemployed that it is now only in an outright recession that a significant rise in unemployment can be expected. Under these conditions then never before has the emphasis been so explicitly on notions of “hustling”.  Importantly, as we will examine later, this dynamic is not confined to the West.

The German philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes the subject of the gig economy not as inhabiting the disciplinary society envisioned by Foucault of obedience defined by prisons, factories, and psych-wards, but rather existing as an “achievement subject” whose discipline is found in a relentless internalized positivity. The achievement subject enters the fitness studio and engages in ethical consumption while simultaneously juggling their side hustles; all of this is underpinned with a “can do” attitude. Our subject thinks themselves free of external domination and gives themselves over to the limitless self-exploiting possibilities that the gig economy seems to offer. The sad irony of this situation is that the reason there are so many flexible jobs on offer is that there is not enough productive work to do.

This enforced positivity and internalized pressure for increased productivity leads to an automatic domination over our achievement subject in which they literally over-work themselves into sickness. For Han the abstract imperatives of capital and its use of personalized technology have invaded leisure time itself. Anyone engaged in group work chats on social media outside of work hours is of course familiar with this phenomenon. Han links rising levels of depression and other mental illness directly to this widespread over-work, a sickness he diagnosed as (in the English translation) “the Burnout Society.” Indeed, the World Health Organization has just added “burn-out” to its International Classification of Diseases (ICD), a condition entailing “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job or reduced professional efficacy.” Not only does this point to the official reification of the specific work ethic required by the gig economy but, if feeling negative or cynical towards one’s job could be diagnosed as a disease, then many of us are sick. In this sense Antonio Gramsci’s “morbid symptoms” are made bodily physical.

Conditions of full employment under gig economy conditions, subject to the ongoing moving contradiction of increasing underemployment, seem to point to what Marx called “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Under these conditions “the utterly precarious position of labor-power (is) on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life.” Marx warned, though, that in order for this contradiction to be resolved a high level of productive capacity should lay the conditions for a new society, and that without this precondition the leap to a new society would only “make want general.”

The increases in productivity over the last 200 years are unprecedented in human history but there is no new society, the old one just seems to drift in a slow-motion yet accelerating disaster in which ironically “want” will be increasingly made general. The productive forces progressively work against employment and thus against survival as steady employment is a pre-requisite of survival. This moving contradiction seems to set the balance of power increasingly, maybe permanently, weighted in Capital’s favour. Strangely enough in this seemingly hopeless context we have been told there is a solution to this problem, a detailed plan has been submitted by some academics to the political class and we are just waiting on them to implement it! It is of course our great saviour, UBI. 

From celebrity billionaires to left wing think-tanks and of course the always hilarious and epic #yanggang, the UBI seems to give some hope as to solving the contradiction of disappearing work and even replacing what was once the welfare state (or shoring up crumbling ones) in one quick and easy stroke. The most immediate and obvious problem with UBI, though, is who is going to implement it.

The gap between the political class and the rest of society has been on increasing display of late. A crisis of liberal democracy is playing out in various ways across the Western world but almost uniformly this crisis, marked by an increased polarisation and fracturing of previous political formations, is confined to the political class itself. Writing this from Australia, our political system has been on permanent farce mode in recent history with most average people checking out entirely. Elsewhere this anti-political sentiment has been on display; the unexpected rise of Brexit and Trump are stark examples of this.  There is much to be said about why, and to what extent, the political class has lost its mandate but of course anxiety around disappearing jobs is obviously a major dynamic at play. So then coming back to our UBI stans, the problem becomes what Government could possibly maintain a mandate long enough to implement a huge universalist project? Most importantly however, for arguments sake, even if it could be implemented tomorrow does radical redistribution solve the moving contradiction of technological unemployment? To answer this question, we need to consider what wealth is, where it comes from and what its purpose should be.

“Labor is the source of all wealth…” This has been a widespread vulgarization of a central part of Marx’s theory since he formulated it, a vulgarization still persisting to this day. If labor really is the source of all wealth, it would seem that it is labor’s lot in any society to create that wealth, no matter what, forever. This posits “labor” as an almost supernatural force in all societies; an undying, necessary, and for us socialists “heroic” force. Attributing supernatural qualities to unspecified labor is a particularly problematic notion if we reconsider Byung-Chul Han's multitasking “achievement subjects” set to overwork themselves into sickness. But maybe a worse outcome of this vulgarization is that it ignores the mechanism of accumulation specific to capitalist production.

If it is simply that labor is the source of all wealth, the problem becomes how best to get our hands on that wealth. Rather than attempting to dissolve the specific mechanisms of accumulation, the focus of anti-capitalist activists skips to methods of state redistribution. As German heterodox Marxist Robert Kurz put it,

“this activist mentality clearly rejects all rudimentary and vague perceptions of the nature of the value relation, stifles all reflection concerning it and insists on the interpretation that, suddenly, all the ‘capitalists,’ politicians and managers arbitrarily ‘make use’ of the laws of the system of commodity production. Unemployment, we are told by the crude agitational declaration of the ‘Marxist Group’, is not a structural law of the system of commodity production, but a negative act of will on the part of the ‘rulers.’”

As Marx clarified a number of times, nature is as much a source of wealth as labor. Furthermore, it is the interaction between labor and nature that under the specific conditions of capitalist production becomes the commodity “labor-power” which the worker exchanges with the capitalist for wages. Marx and Engels’s entire project leads us here; wage labor pre-supposes capitalism and vice versa. Moreover this points us to the most peculiar thing about labor-power. It is a commodity with the unique ability to create more value than it possesses. As we have seen, when it comes to the daily selling of labor-power, it is increasingly a buyer’s market. But what is the exact arena of that daily selling?

At the start of the working day a worker is provided with the raw materials and the tools (things they do not own) to create commodities, and over the course of the day those commodities, more valuable than the original raw materials, are created to be sold for the capitalist. By necessity, in order for the capitalist to make a profit, the creator (the worker) receives back less than the new value they have created. It is on the increase of this surplus value that the whole wheel of capitalist production turns. It is important to note that wages are not paid from a portion of the money made from the selling of the commodities but rather from money already available to the capitalist. So from this the question then arises, who sets the wages?

Like all commodities, the value of labor-power is determined by the labor-time necessary for its production. As Marx puts it, “the value of labor-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the laborer. Labor-power, however, becomes a reality only by its exercise; it sets itself in action only by working. But thereby a definite quantity of human muscle, nerve, brain, &c., is wasted, and these require to be restored.” Then coming to the determination of the price, as distinct from the value of labor-power, it takes place within a definite historical context of supply and demand, subject to the rise and fall of the prices of all other commodities that our workers must consume to maintain themselves. It is also determined by technological, environmental, and geographical contingencies, as well as the strength (or weakness) of the social base of organized labor in a given country. Into this chaotic, overdetermined situation comes the state; a powerful arbiter tasked with the maintenance of the system of wage-labor by any means necessary. The continued propping up of this outdated system of production has thrust us into what the late Marxist Moishe Postone considered a dual crisis of work and the environment. The recent unexpected loss of the Australian Labor Party in the 2019 election elucidates this dual crisis.

The largest swing against the Labor Party was recorded in Queensland, the state with the highest rates of unemployment and underemployment in the country. The Labor Party’s attempt to play both sides of the climate crisis, promising improved emissions targets while balancing this with a tepid agreement to open new coal mines, crumbled in the face of the Coalition’s unequivocal commitment to coal and the jobs it will supposedly create. All of this played out with the understanding that the largest new mining project, the Adani coal mine, would provide an injection of much needed employment.

The Indian mining company repeatedly promised to add 10,000 jobs a year from 2024, a figure restated ad nauseam by politicians supporting it. The state Land Court president Carmel MacDonald found in 2015 that Adani had massively "overstated" these numbers. Indeed testimony by Adani's own expert witness contradicted projections of 10,000 a year but rather that it would “increase average annual employment by 1,206 jobs in Queensland and 1,464 jobs in Australia”. None of this stopped the Coalition repeating discredited figures throughout the 2019 election and both major parties promoting it as a plan for job creation. To put it in the words of Adani Mining CEO Jeyakumar Janakaraju, “when we ramp up the Adani mine, everything will be autonomous from mine to port. In our eyes this is the mine of the future.”

Not only will Adani not create the tens of thousands of jobs it has promised, but it will in fact reduce coal mining jobs across the country, driving smaller coal mines out of business that cannot compete with highly automated production. The Australian Institute has estimated that by 2035 it will have stripped jobs at numbers curiously similar to the meager numbers it will actually add, “a loss of 9,000 in the Hunter Valley, 2,000 in the Bowen Basin and 1,400 in the Surat Basin.”

What the Adani mine will generate is an estimated 4.7 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, a disastrous development for the projected quarter of a billion climate refugees we will have by 2050. Maybe the massive expansion of our bipartisan refugee prison camps will finally deliver the job creation Australia is so desperately seeking.  In a strange sense the effects on the rest of the mining industry in Australia of new highly automated coal production in Queensland will play out as a microcosm of a worldwide tendency, especially in the developing world: that of “premature deindustrialization.”

The common story generally accepted in much of the de-industrialized West is that manufacturing jobs were relocated overseas to places like China and elsewhere in the developing world. This development is credited as a major, if not the major, causal factor in the shift towards service sector work, casualization, underemployment and unemployment. The story goes that as China became the industrial powerhouse of the world in the early 1980s it ripped away manufacturing employment elsewhere. While this is partially true, we must understand that this is not a static development.

Manufacturing jobs as a share of all jobs have been in steady decline in the West since the end of the Second World War, long before the rise of China. Furthermore, in recent history we have seen what the economist Dani Rodrik recently called “premature deindustrialization,” in which developing countries have lost their manufacturing jobs without securing any economic boom at all. He writes that “in most of these countries, manufacturing began to shrink (or is on course for shrinking) at levels of income that are a fraction of those at which the advanced economies started to deindustrialize. These developing countries are turning into service economies without having gone through a proper experience of industrialization.”

While Rodrik acknowledges that technological unemployment is indeed the major driver of this trend, the dynamic operates differently in developing countries than we might typically understand it in the West. As Rodrik explains, “the decline in the relative price of manufacturing in the advanced countries put a squeeze on manufacturing everywhere, including the countries that may not have experienced much technological progress.” This again points us to a common misdiagnosis in the “post-industrial” West: contrary to common narratives, industrial production has not actually disappeared within its borders.

For example, manufacturing in the United States has risen sharply since the early 1990s; it is just that with technological innovation, less and less human inputs are required during production. The misrecognition of this trend in the West has led to renewed workerist Nationalism and calls for job guarantees for the domestic working class, calls echoed across the political spectrum. As we have seen this is an increasingly futile effort; in the long term, regardless of trade policy, the jobs that are disappearing can never be brought back and attempts to protect the domestic working class can only lead to the increased militarisation of borders and of society itself. Strangely enough this leads us back to Marx’s insistence that Labour is not the source of all wealth.

For Marx the use of the word labor instead of the commodity labor-power to describe what the worker sells to a capitalist could lead to a reification of the concept of the working class as a necessary and, most importantly, timeless foundation of all societies. “Workers’ rights” under this understanding would be a right to work rather than a right to live.

Capitalism has been in the business of abolishing labor since the dawn of the industrial revolution: first it gutted skilled labor, accumulating masses of people to work its low and semi-skilled assembly lines, and today it throws those same accumulated masses off into a miserable and desperate high tech but low life dystopia. Those still employed in productive work find themselves hyper-exploited. While their relative wages might be higher than other sectors, increases in technological capacity in production mean they work longer hours for free.

As Engels explained, “human labor-power not only produces in a day a greater value than it itself possesses and costs; but with each new scientific discovery, with each new technical invention, there diminishes that part of the working-day in which the laborer produces the equivalent of his day’s wages, and, on the other hand, lengthens that part of the working-day in which he must present labor gratis to the capitalist.” As Marx further clarifies, “the whole capitalist system of production turns on the increase of this gratis labor by extending the working day, or by developing the productivity—that is, increasing the intensity of labor-power.” So then, from the specific historical moment we have examined, what should our response to this be?

It is a shame that the late Moishe Postone dismissed Marx and Engels’s revolutionary impulses, a dismissal evident in his seeming tepid endorsement of UBI as a potential solution to our crisis. This is not unique to Postone; UBI is promoted enthusiastically by the post-work, left accelerationist movement best represented by Nick Srnicek and the Autonomy think-tank. While the research being done by Autonomy is often vital, it seems folly in our age of anti-politics to present your findings hopefully to the political class (in this case small factions within the UK Labour Party) and trust them to eventually implement it in a meaningful way. The state’s ability to address the crisis of technological unemployment and continued environmental degradation is hopelessly insufficient as it is ultimately tasked with maintaining the specific method of accumulation driving both. Surely, then, our hope cannot come from above, but only from below.

Shorter hours without a loss in pay is an example of a change that has historically been realized from below. Today it is vital to push against the accelerating increase of gratis labor time handed freely to capital and thus begin to challenge the notion that the productivity increases of modern history are the property of the propertied class by natural right. A concerted and widespread movement for a massive reduction in working hours challenges this notion and therefore begins to challenge the very pre-conditions for wage labor. Conditions, as we have seen, already under relentless assault by capitalism itself.

To implement UBI in this age of delegitimized politics seems an impossibility without the immense problem of building a social base of support; a seemingly thankless task today. But for argument’s sake, while we are building hypothetical social bases, let’s build them around things that begin to dissolve the pillars of capital accumulation itself. Furthermore, a massive reduction in work hours is the only program for full employment not likely to result in the militarization of society and the further destruction of the environment. It also begins to push back against the real subsumption of leisure time we are increasingly experiencing as overworked “achievement subjects.”

Marx and Engels considered wage labor a form of slavery. This discourse has been lost, in part perhaps because we have internalized vague ontological notions of privilege. Without attacking wage slavery, which is the cornerstone of capitalist accumulation and its violent overseer the state, struggles to re-distribute the ill-gotten gains of ongoing imperialism, while absolutely necessary, are always going to be insufficient. The chains that drag us might be made of gold but they are still chains. In this sense, communist propaganda today, if it is to escape its bourgeois confines, needs to dispel vague moralism around equality and exploitation and champion freedom and free-time above all else.

A silkworm spinning its cocoon.
A silkworm spinning its cocoon.

Marx once described the wage-labourer as such; “if the silk-worm's object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker.” We are indeed stuck as silk-worms, we have laid the foundations for our transformation and yet we don’t transform. Imagine a sickly silk-worm pumping out more silk than it could ever need to transform and yet it remains barred from that process indefinitely. It is a hollowed out and ultimately meaningless existence. If we are to solve the crisis of work and the environment, the task for us is to dissolve the pre-conditions of wage slavery and begin our world-historic metamorphosis into Silk Moths.  | P

One comment

  • Posted 1 month ago

    This is an excellent essay.

    by Jehu on July 4, 2019 7:52 pm

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