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You are here: Platypus /The shipwrecked society

The shipwrecked society

Jonathan Black

Platypus Review 120 | October 2019

IN A SERVICE ECONOMY, where most workers are readily replaceable or completely superfluous, the old idea of wage claims arbitrated through the state is an increasingly hopeless proposition. The labor theory of value still holds but wages are artificially propped up, within definite limits,[1] to maintain the consumption of commodities, especially the consumption by the capitalist class of the wealth creating commodity labor-power (we need jobs and any jobs will do).[2] [3] Today a deepening of the interventionist state-craft of Keynesianism haunts the political imagination of the Left of the political class.[4] If the ideology of neoliberalism could be broadly described as technocratic political solutions to social problems, then our Neo-Keynesians seem to fit the bill, attempting to use the dangerous, sickly gasps of the increasingly unrepresentative nation-state to insist on strengthening the executive of this outdated and degraded system of representation and administration or as Karl Marx aptly described, “this supernaturalist abortion of society."[5]

Today the increasingly militarized state uses personalized and surveillance technology to lock the superfluous population into a techno-bureaucratic Kafkaesque nightmare. In Australia the suicide inducing Robodebt system acts as an impersonal weapon wielded to discipline the reserve labor army.[6] [7]  The massively expanded prison population and renewed and expanded use of prison labor in the United States since the 70s is another example of this trend.[8] Civil society, contrary to common narratives, still generally aspires to bourgeois notions of freedom despite the state becoming increasingly detached from such aspirations.[9]

Tracing political upheavals, fracturings or realignments today to emergent social forces turns Marx's critique of Hegel’s naturalization of the state on its head.[10] To be exact, tying political upheavals to society presupposes that social interests are represented and administered by the state in a meaningful way. The missing element in this formulation is the will of society (a mass social base of support). Ignoring this element universalizes the common affairs of the increasingly self-interested managerial capitalist class as the common affairs of the whole of society. Today this approach, especially when applied to this or that election cycle, has led to both alarm and optimism from establishment and would-be anti-establishment members of the political class.[11]

The hostility of the political class and the state to society is not new, but today the hostility’s openness might signify a deep fear that the feeling is becoming mutual. This fear is on stark display in the hysterical response by the political class, and their lackeys in the commentariat, to the perceived threat of “populism.” However, in spite of political crisis, society, with some notable but short lived exceptions, seems to be locked in the same stasis it entered in the second half of the 20th century.

Theodor Adorno described the great stasis of our social relations in his essay, “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society” as such, “contemporary society exhibits, in spite of all assertions to the contrary, as its dynamism and increase of production, static aspects. These include the relations of production. These are no longer merely the property of the owner, but of the administration, all the way to the role of the state as total capitalist. To the extent that its rationalization converges with technical rationality, a.k.a. the productive forces, they've undeniably become more flexible. This has created the illusion that the universal interest has its ideal as the status quo and universal employment, not the liberation of heteronomous work.”

Today the atomization of our social relations seems total and thus any hope of emancipation seems to have been permanently blocked.  The ideological basis of the “populist” narrative is the prevailing common sense that the last man has indeed become so immersed in the End of History, that as such Herbert Marcuse’s one-dimensional men have now become so deranged, deplorable and outright dangerous that any new mass social movements emerging that champion freedom are impossible.[12]

For example, German philosopher Byung-Chul Han doesn’t believe in the possibility of a new emancipatory politics emerging today. Han proposes that the Deleuzian notion of a control society has morphed under neoliberal capitalism into a self-control society. As Han writes in his essay “Why revolution is no longer possible”: “Neoliberalism turns the oppressed worker into a free contractor, an entrepreneur of the self. Today, everyone is a self-exploiting worker in their own enterprise. Every individual is master and slave in one.”

What Han inadvertently provides here, through his blinkered Heideggerian take on “modernity,” is a fairly accurate trans-historical description of social relations under capitalism. Under capitalism “oppressed workers” have always been “entrepreneurs of the self” in that they sell the only commodity they own; namely their labor-power, which as Marx puts it, “has no other  repository than human flesh and blood.”[13] Social relations under capitalism, that is, social existence in bourgeois society, is the free competition of individuals attempting to sell their labor-power to the capitalist class. This basic social relation hasn’t changed. This freedom though, the free competition of labor-power, has become and is becoming increasingly degraded. Positing capitalism as an autonomous totality, as Han does, ignores the fundamental contradiction of our age: the rising tide no longer lifts all boats, it sinks them.

For the vast majority of people, their “boat” is their labor-power and with each new technical innovation in production the commodity labor-power is becoming more and more worthless. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon accurately describes the resulting social relation of this contradictory existence as such, “the proprietor, like Robinson Crusoe on his island, wards off with pike and musket the proletaire washed overboard by the wave of civilization, and seeking to gain a foothold upon the rocks of property.

“Give me work!” cries he with all his might to the proprietor: “don’t drive me away, I will work for you at any price.”

“I do not need your services,” replies the proprietor, showing the end of his pike or the barrel of his gun.

“Lower my rent at least.” “I need my income to live upon.” “How can I pay you, when I can get no work?”

“That is your business.”

Then the unfortunate proletaire abandons himself to the waves.” [14]

Today the working class are still buffeted about on the waves in their precarious little boats, their labor-power. The brutal reality of this precarious existence becomes ever more apparent as the storm clouds of crisis hover, ever present on the horizon, set to cyclically overturn the boats of even the more valuable workers.

As the commodity labor-power becomes increasingly superfluous, the alienated imperatives of capital become ever more invasive into the worker’s social existence. Whether it’s the aggressive anti-social competition between workers within any given firm, the vicious disciplining of the reserve labor army by the state, constant precarious re-skilling, the indifference or opposition by the capitalist class to workers being educated or even the pressure to turn hobbies into profit, what Marx called the social relations of production take a specific historical form relative to the forces of production. While the exact substance of the interpenetration of the relations and forces of production is historically specific this dynamic has always been central to capitalist production.

Marx describes the moving interplay between the relations and forces of capitalist production as historically developing first as formal and then as real subsumption. Under formal subsumption the labor process continues much as before but the means of production become monopolized as the property of the capitalist class. As capitalism necessarily develops the productivity of labor-power, it requires the real subsumption of the labor-process, that is, the subordination of the social individual to the specific ideal required by a highly productive labor process. Real subsumption dissolves previous social norms and beliefs (religious beliefs, cultural norms, gender relations, etc.) and sublimates them as Marx puts it to “a new relation of domination and subordination (and this also produces political, etc., expressions of itself).”[15]

As capitalism progresses the real subsumption of social relations to the labor process is ongoing, as is the expansion of wealth as capital. As Marx puts it, “capitalist production is not only the reproduction of the relation, it is its reproduction on an ever growing scale; and in the same proportion as the social productive power of labor develops, along with the capitalist mode of production, the pile of wealth confronting the worker grows, as wealth ruling over him, as capital, and the world of wealth expands vis-à-vis the worker as an alien and dominating world.”[16]

Today, social and political discourse is overawed at the seeming supernatural totality of capitalist power. Self-described accelerationists on the Left and Right see the anti-human juggernaut of modern capitalism as a new opportunity. Byung-Chul Han as somewhat of an anti-accelerationist sees the atomization of our social relations as an irreversible and lamentable development. The pervasive common sense of capitalism as a seemingly insurmountable totality also manifests as the state absolutist identitarianism and nationalist Fordist nostalgia embodied by democratic socialism. In this malaise the diminished and seemingly endless task of what was the Left has been reduced to “consciousness raising,” which will supposedly result in the emergence of a pure (politically correct) revolutionary subject.[17] All of these understandings misrecognize or ignore real subsumption as an ongoing, yet historically specific, symptomatic process arising from the interplay between forces and relations of production.

As Adorno clarified technological development is “only the image of human productivity itself, cybernetics and computers merely being an extension of the human senses: technical advancement is therefore only a moment in the dialectic between the forces of production and the relationships of production and not some third thing, demonically self-sufficient.”[18]

We live in an age of entropy where the self-contradiction of capitalist production slowly but continually erodes the social relation on which capitalism reproduces itself — wage labor. The appearance of late capitalism as an autonomous totality is only the ideological form it takes as it continually degrades the environment, the social individual and indeed its own arena of self-valorization. The impulse to either lament or celebrate capitalism as a unified totality hinders any potential of seeing society in motion and thus precludes the possibility of developing a predictive capacity that might be wielded by a new emancipatory politics. It also relegates the history of the failure of socialism to a litany of positive examples of what not to do rather than attempting to decipher the motivations and tactics of those locked in the perilous struggle for freedom. Moreover, being overwhelmed or nostalgic today indefinitely postpones the task we must undertake if we are to become free; organize ourselves to use politics to do away with politics as we know it, the state, so that we can all have access to work to do away with work as we know it. As such the productive forces will no longer work against the producers but for them. As Friedrich Engel's explained, “the difference is as that between the destructive force of electricity in the lightning in the storm, and electricity under command in the telegraph and the voltaic arc; the difference between a conflagration, and fire working in the service of man.”[19]

The Gulf Stream, Winslow Homer, 1899

The arrival of this non-linear process will not be achieved by a return to some idealized past or by the emergence of a pure subject but rather as Ernst Bloch put it, “the process is made by those who are made by the process.”[20] Well provisioned freedom and free-time has been and remains possible.

“A squatting child full of sadness releases

    A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.

    No longer can I, bathed in your languor, o waves,

    Follow in the wake of the cotton boats,

   Nor cross through the pride of flags and flames,

   Nor swim under the terrible eyes of prison ships.”[21] | P


[1] Ruess, A. Keynes, “Wage and Price ‘Stickiness,’ and Deflation,” 1995, <http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2009/0809reusskeynespartIII.html/>

[2] Jehu, E. “Society chose Barbarism and it has its own peculiar political economy,” 2019, <https://therealmovement.wordpress.com/2019/04/18/society-chose-barbarism-and-it-has-its-own-peculiar-political-economy/>

[3] Marx, K. Critique of the Gotha Programme II, 1875, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch02.htm/>

[4] Mitchell, B. “An MMT-Green New Deal part 2,” <http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=43081/>

[5] Marx, K. First Draft of the Civil War in France, 1871, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/drafts/ch01.htm/>

[6] Hickney, S. “Centrelink’s Flawed Robo-Debt System is Killing Our Most Vulnerable,” 2019, <https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/centrelinks-flawed-robo-debt-system-is-killing-our-most-vulnerable/>

[7] Reynolds, E. “Centrelink debt drove man to suicide, says family,” <https://www.news.com.au/finance/money/costs/centrelink-debt-drove-man-to-suicide-says-family/news-story/317208e77b3c634c16baa4224f899642/>

[8] Scherrer, C. Shah, A. “The Political Economy of Prison Labour: From Penal Welfarism to the Penal State.” <https://mulpress.mcmaster.ca/globallabour/article/view/2774/2704/>

[9] Tietze, T. “Why We Shouldn’t Blame Voters for Our Appalling Asylum Policies,” <https://newmatilda.com/2014/07/14/why-we-shouldnt-blame-voters-our-appalling-asylum-policies/>

[10] Marx, K. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/ch03.htm#023/>

[11] The Piping Shrike. “Crack Up,” 2018, <https://meanjin.com.au/essays/crack-up/>

[12] Illing, S. If You Want to Understand Trump Read the Frankfurt School <https://www.vox.com/conversations/2016/12/27/14038406/donald-trump-frankfurt-school-brexit-critical-theory/>

[13] Marx, K. Wage Labour and Capital, Chapter 2,  1849 <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/index.htm/>

[14] Proudhon, P,J. What is Property, Chapter 2,1840 <https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/proudhon/property/ch02.htm/>

[15] Marx, K. Economic Works of Karl Marx 1861-1864, The Process of Production of Capital, Draft Chapter 6 of Capital,  <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/economic/ch02a.htm/>

[16] Ibid.

[17] This trend is exemplified by Carlebach, E. “Forgetting Mark Fisher,” PR 115, <https://platypus1917.org/2019/04/01/forgetting-mark-fisher/> and Forgarty, E. Roland, J. Kliman A, “An Interview with Andrew Kilman,” PR 119 <https://platypus1917.org/2019/09/01/protest-and-accommodation-an-interview-with-andrew-kliman/>

[18] Adordo, T. Society, <http://freudians.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/theodor-w-adorno-society.pdf>

[19] Engels, F. Socialism Utopian and Scientific, Chapter 3, 1880, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/ch03.htm/>

[20] Keller, C. “Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature,” 2016, <https://www.krustelkram.com/utopian-dreaming/2016/4/22/ernst-bloch-utopian-function-of-art-and-literature/>

[21] Rimbaud, A. The Drunken Boat, 1871, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55036/the-drunken-boat\>

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