Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Labour Metaphysics (some scattered and incoherent remarks)

We could treat the history of capital as unimportant because in 1845 (or 1867) and in 2007 it is identical in itself, and conclude that what was said of communism at its beginning is fixed in stone. But those who believe that the history of capital is without importance in the sense that, from the beginning, it is as it is in itself, have not yet managed to become Hegelian. Parmenides suffices. They leave the development alongside being as something which doesn’t form part of it, something accidental. Contrary to the Marx of 1843-46, if we can and must speak of revolution today as the abolition of work (and all the rest) we do it on the basis of the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, of exploitation, of the situation of the proletariat, without any reference to the “person” of the proletariat, to a “human essence”, to “man as community”. We are in contradiction with capital on the basis of what we are, that is to say of what capital is, and not from what we could be, a potential which would somehow already exist as suffering. It is the breakdown of programmatism which, at the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies, momentarily resurrected the very conditions of its emergence as if they could also be those of its overcoming. We momentarily all became Feuerbachians again, …some of us remained so. They have thus made of an ideology born of the failure of ’68, the eternal formula of the communist revolution.
Théorie Communiste, 'Much Ado About Nothing', trans. Endnotes

C Wright Mills famously remarked about the 'labour metaphysic' of the American New Left that made the proletariat 'the historic agency'. While this speaks to what we might call a strategic difference in terms of agential forms, it also speaks to the issue of the metaphysics of labour itself in Marx - or whether there actually is any such metaphysics. For example, Enrique Dussel treats 'living labour' as the 'creative source' of surplus-value, but rather than argue this is an immanent dynamic of the capital-relation instead he argues that living labour is in exteriority to the value totality of capitalism. [1] Dussel therefore affirms the positivity of living labour as the affirmation of otherness - an 'eternal' otherness. Hence his Shellingian critique, by drawing out Schelling's positive philosophy as the alternative to the 'negative' Hegel, appropriate for capital qua subject.
Chris Arthur follows Dussel to this point but dissents firstly on the appropriateness of the use of Schelling, although he concededs it could offer a useful analogy, and on the issue of labour as 'creative'. For Arthur labour is the source of value, but not creative of value. To be the source of value is to be that out of which capital creates value, while capital harnesses and exploits living labour to create value from this source. Capital is the 'creative' principle, but it does not create itself out of nothing. In this case labour is negated by capital, forming a 'contradictory unity' (here is where exteriority seems to lose its traction and a thinking of immanence take over, as Nicole outlines, or in a different form Theorie Communiste).

For Arthur labour is (still) the 'standpoint of critique', if the reality of this stand-point is 'historically open-ended'. In contrast, despite the backsliding identified by Nicole Pepperell, Postone insists that labour is the object of critique. In the form of their historicisation of capital Theorie Communiste would argue that these standpoints of exteriority (correlated with Schelling or with vitalism) are symptomatic of formal subsumption rather than real subsumption. That is, still conceptualising capital on its past modelling of labour as exteriority. While I think this is correct, and can only recommend Nicole's summary comment in the post below, the constant point of anxiety such models provoke is the seeming collapse of agency.

Whereas Wright Mills' point was that the horizon of the New Left was too constrained by a 'Victorian Marxism', the difficulty here seems to be the lack of forms that make-up the critique of labour / the rupture of the capital relation from within. Hence in the Historical Materialism symposium on Postone the recurrent charge that he completely evacuates agency. The difficulty here is between splitting a contradiction in unity and a contradiction that appears to only line-up on the side of capital; in the second case any standpoint of critique appears to be threatened because its immanence is always vulnerable to subsumption. This is excerbated in a time which seems to lack 'points' (to use Badiou's term).

This issue is further complicated by Virno's argument that within the current formation of real subsumption 'human nature' itself becomes visible as the site of subsumption. In this case we have not so much a vitalism, but the posing by capital (and the struggles within/against it) the question of the human in terms of the capacities that make us open to subsumption. In Virno's sense it is our very anthropological openness and dis-adaptation (our anti-nature we might say) that makes us all too suited to the 'nature' of capital as axiomatic machine of flexibility, mobility, and de-territorialisation. Again I see Nina's project as not simply 'becoming Feuerbachian' as a result of historical irony, but the attempt to think through the posing of the 'generic' human, and especially 'equality', within the anthroplogical determinations of capitalism.
It would also be on this unstable and deeply ambiguous line that projects of neuro-philosophy and eliminativism could be focused. On the one hand, styled as critiques of the self they appear as anti-humanist wedges against (why not?) bourgeois ideology, on the other hand, the flexbilisation of capital doesn't appear to have any necessary need for human subject as such, merely any form/content for accumulation. In a sense labour here as source of value within capital again comes into question; broadly whether the re-programming of our sensorium be oriented to value-extraction or in rupture with the law of value.
Here I'm sceptical of how far the second path can be taken without active struggle (itself something of a paradox in a paradigm which would regard 'will' and 'activity' as folk-psychological illusions). In a sense, as I understand it, SBA embraces this by placing the contradiction in capital; capital is a 'sorcerer's apprentice' that dissolves its own bases for accumulation. In contrast, it appears, Planomenology wants to follow the first path of critique, and it will be interesting to see how this deals with the problem of capital qua axiomatic and the seeming disappearance of agency as mere folk-relic of our psychology.

[1] The material on Dussel and Arthur is from Chris Arthur's review in HM 11.2 (2003).


Jasper Bernes said...

Hello Ben,

These posts (and comments) are really interesting, and useful, especially as I keep finding myself in conversations with people who have adopted the "critique of the standpoint of labor" a la Postone or the Wertkritik people. And I've been reading everything by Theorie Communiste that I can find.

I take Nicole's point very seriously (she's a fantastic reader of Marx), and I also take seriously your critique of the vitalism that underlies operaismo and post-operaismo, finding its worst expression in recent Negri. But the issue of the evacuation of agency in Postone or others is a big one. So even if I agree with Nicole that it's only because of the historical determination of capitalism that we can imagine work (non-capitalized "labor") or praxis as central to any society, I'm not sure that this makes it less true, or even less useful as a standpoint. So yes, we can say that it's only because of capitalism that we can conceive of societies as mechanisms for self-reproduction (a better formulation than "production" or "praxis"), and it's likely that our vision of past or future modes of social reproduction will be conditioned by capitalism, it doesn't mean that this very generic humanism (perhaps this is what IT is getting at) isn't the jumping-off point to consider just how we imagine a communist society functioning. I think we should be less worried about humanism than we should be about forms of endless, recursive criticality that put us on the backfoot. . . Saying that any human society will need to figure a way to satisfy the (historically-determined) needs of its individuals/groups isn't as dangerous, to me, as a stance that refuses thinking anything but the unthinkability of any horizon outside of capital. I admire TC for precisely this point, that they understand how historical forms of "productivism" or "labourism" were part of a capital-strengthening dialectic, but they don't reject the proletariat as actor, and their project isn't simply one of "refusal" put of a positive "communisation" (the practical specifics of which are unclear). One of their important points is that the "strategy of refusal" post-68 was itself part of the real subsumption of class antagonism, worker autonomy became precarity, and strengthened capital's hand in the sphere of circulation.

Well, these are my scattered thoughts. Thanks for the posts.


Benjamin said...

Thanks to you, and I share the concerns you express as well. As you might guess I tend to put the emphasis on the negative, so would see 'communisation' as the negation of mediations (including labour), but I am also inclined to an expropriative/defensive model (which TC et al would probably see as historically passe) precisely because of the need to retain what we have pending 'communisation'.
I've been reading TC as well, but must admit that I find there take on the 'proletariat' quite cryptic. It seems as if it no longer affirms itself as a class in itself opposed to capital, hence the collapse of social democracy / worker's states / unions / and other mediations. But what I don't see, in agential terms, is the radicalising birth of communisation as a process, rather struggle seems pretty absent or v underground.

Jasper Bernes said...

Yeah, don't get me wrong, I think your defense of the labors of the negative, of the negation of labor and capital, is important. And you're right that TC often speak of communisation as the negation of all mediations. I guess I struggle to understand what this could possibly mean. I'm down with getting rid of exchange, the value-form, etc. . .but I do think it's difficult to conceive of people meeting each other's needs or desires w/o some kind of (open-ended? voluntary?) mediation. Maybe mediation is the wrong term here. But, to speak of another contemporary text with a similar standpoint, The Coming Insurrection (which you've no doubt read) I recall that narrative epilogue which imagines, mid-insurrection, a group going to a store, dropping off their surplus product and taking what they need. Well, that's just magical, I think: it's magical to think that people wouldn't starve if there weren't some kind of coordination of activities, some way to transmit, as information but without price-signals and value, what goods people needed. I don't know if that's mediation or not. Perhaps the distinction is between personal and impersonal mediations, but at some point, it seems likely that some kind of positive form of social reproduction will come into being, like it or not. Unless we were to create small, entirely self-subsistent groupings, which means abandoning the labor-saving potentials of technology. . . I think Istvan Meszaros in Beyond Capital has some good stuff on this.

I'm not sure if some of the stuff here is TC or just their affiliates, but I do actually find a great deal of emphasis on struggle and on struggle that specifically requires and involves waged workers, "a revolution within the revolution" that greets attempts to emancipate and affirm labor with the self-abolition of labor. That's what makes it refreshing by comparison with the implicitly ethical universalism of, say, someone like Postone.

N Pepperell said...

Hi Jasper - On this:

So even if I agree with Nicole that it's only because of the historical determination of capitalism that we can imagine work (non-capitalized "labor") or praxis as central to any society, I'm not sure that this makes it less true, or even less useful as a standpoint.

This may get occluded in how I write about this sort of issue, but this is precisely my point: in other words, part of what's needed is a reconfiguration of what we think is required, in order for something to be "true". There is a tendency to regard historicising arguments as though they are debunking what they are historicising. In my reading, this is precisely not Marx's point. You historicise in order to get a better sense of how, and in what way, something is "true" - but also to assist in a process by which the accidental discoveries of history, however crass their origins, become things we can actively appropriate and accept as valid on a basis that might be very different from how they might contingently have sprung to plausibility in the first place.

There are various ways I would need both to develop and to qualify this - writing in a rush at the moment - but just wanted to take the opportunity to say that, if it sounds as though I would disagree with this point, I'm not trying to...

Nate said...

hi Ben,

Great post. Too much here for me to take in right now let alone process. Just a quick thought sparked by your final paragraph - with regard to this stuff and politics.... I may be replaying debates about accessibility of academic language and so on, but, I think it's fair to pose some sort of ratio between lexical difference and immediate political utility: the further a critical vocabulary is from the vocabulary of a given social struggle, the more work will be required to make the former relevant to the latter. That's bracketing contents. With regard to contents, I think if a critical vocabulary involves objections to another vocabulary's terms and what's more some of it's basic ideas - like relegating agency to just a mistake of folk psychology - then I think the distance effectively multiplies. Sorry that's not clearer, best I can do just now.

take care,

Benjamin said...

Thanks for all the comments - I have been slowly recovering from a bout of mild food poisoning so my thought processes have been interrupted by my digestive processes...
Jasper - I tend to agree; I think I was more 'ultra' leftist at some points but agree that mediation per se isn't the enemy (I think this partly comes from a misreading of Debord - or a correct reading of some of their tendencies). Robin Blackburn's long article 'Fin de Sciecle: Socialism After the Crash' in NLR and the collection he edited for Verso After the Fall has some interesting remarks on mediation / and price in socialist economies. He proposes a market socialism that I would once have regarded as reformist neo-capitalism, but now seems quite sensible...

Nate, I'm sorry but I can't quite grasp what you are getting at. I'm reluctant to accept the folk-psychological critique as such, not simply because I'm some neo-humanist phenomenologist (which I'm not) but because I fail to see how it gets us very far. If agency is an 'illusion' then do we have no praxis at all? Another disabused neurological praxis of alteration? or what?
I think you're right there is a distance here, whether it's a good distance of revision / shifting or a bad distance is what's not clear to me. Also it seems to be capital that is doing all the neurological intervening / alteration so i can't really see how we can appropriate that easily - although appropriating it would be excellent...

Nate said...

hi Ben,
My fault for reading and commenting late at night. I'm not entirely sure what I was on about either. From your reply, I think we're on the same page here. I think what I meant to say was that I'm skeptical about the idea that there's a political weight to taking apart ideas like consciousness (I'm skeptical about this for claims of the political consequences of a great many enterprises, as it seems to me that political content is contextual and not inherent in a body of ideas). I think the degree to which an idea is counterintuitive to a great many people is likely to be an obstacle to its having political consequences. As you say, "If agency is an 'illusion' then do we have no praxis at all?" Until the "agency is illusion!" position provides a convincing answer then it'll probably not get far, particularly in terms of having a political import.
I hope that's clearer, sorry I was (am) such a jumble.
take care,