Is the proletariat crucial to capitalism? Yes, absolutely. It is actually more crucial to capitalism than the bourgeoisie. You can have capitalism without the bourgeoisie but you cannot have capitalism without the proletariat. Overcoming capitalism requires the self-abolition of the proletariat. This makes the question of left-wing politics extremely difficult. How can you talk about the self-abolition of the proletariat when working people are being pushed against the wall? I think it is very difficult to try to mediate the issue of defending the achievements of working class movements in a neo-liberal universe, and a position that avoids hypostatizing the working class as the bearer of the future. I don't claim to have any easy answers to that, but I do think the abolition of the working class is the key to the liberation of humanity. I agree
with Marx's formulation.
Moishe Postone, 'Rethinking the Critical Theory of Capitalism', Principia Dialectica
2 (2006), p.13
I have a lot of sympathy and agreement with value-form Marxism of the kind proposed by Postone, Finelli, the Krisis group, and Principia Dialectica. They argue that capital is the Hegelian subject that radically 'posits its presuppositions', i.e. constantly re-establishing itself through the value-form that absorbs all content, creating a totality through real subsumption and the process of real abstraction. In this situation they radically disagree with the Trontian (or more precisely Negrian) proposition that Labour is an alternative ontological creativity - rather labour is a category of capital / the value-form. In this situation labour has to be abolished, and the valorisation of the proletariat is a false hypostatisation leading to the defects of Statist socialism.
This is where Postone's question is crucial: in a neo-liberal capitalism devoted to dismantling workerist forms can we simply call for the abolition of labour without being complicit with these processes? Of course the value-form model argues for a continuing ruthless critique of labour, rather than any appeal to an entitlement to work, and is premised, I guess, on the future 'proper' crisis of the system that will lead to the abolition of the value-form. In this case defending the achievement of labour / social-democracy would be something of a Katechon, delaying the coming of the evil one, and so redemption.
I'm divided on this point, as a recent email debate I've had with SBA has proved; both attracted to the kind of Polanyian workerism that Kinkle and Toscano diagnose in The Wire, and in agreement with the critique / dissolution of labour thesis. As usual my 'compromise' is the defence / expansion of non-commodified forms (or the negation of the commodity by de-commodification), including labour. In fact Postone agrees that partial containment of the market by the state is necessary: 'The only way we could reach such a [pre-revolutionary] situation would be on a practical level, that is, through a series of reforms, some of which are more pressing than others.' (from this pdf) One of the most precise articulations, I think, of this type of strategy has been Owen's work, which combines the defence of the utopian elements of social-democratic coupled to the refusal of work thesis.
I still think, however, that the concept that some teleological capitalist dynamic of real subsumption right down into the neuro-biological will somehow destroy the human subject and so release a 'capitalism beyond capitalism' (cf Alex's comment), or some new communist forms ('install the Ho Chi Minh Chip'), is profoundly wrong.
Capitalist 'meat puppets' - a science-fictional 'absolute adequacy between capital and its agents' - would simply lead to fully-integrated agents of capital. I can't see how liberation from the humanist paradigm, or the human body itself, necessarily threatens capitalism. After all capitalism has no necessary requirement for the 'human person' - it is as happy with humanism or anti-humanism.
I notice that in Alastair Reynolds revelation space universe we still have unionised genetically enhanced monkey repairmen; perhaps they are a better future than the radically 'enhanced' 'diamond dogs'...