Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Labour / Time

In something of a palinode, one of the questions not dealt with enough in my book is the question of the origin of negativity in a relational and social process of struggle. Here I want to try to correct that absence, and to try to think the question of class struggle in relation to the horizon of real abstraction and real subsumption.

First, my understanding of class struggle qua negativity is classical, in the sense of finding its origin in an experience of commodification and alienation that bears, primarily, on time. In Marx's classic statement from part 7, in the chapter on 'The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation':

within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. (my emphasis)

The despotism of capital is a despotism of time, which finds it locus on the labour process through the extraction of value. Of course this is not the only form of capitalist alienation or commodification, but time is, I would argue, its privileged vector.

Capitalism, therefore, negates our experience of time, subjects that temporality to 'capture' and deployment within the value form. This capture produces the effect of negativity in this relational 'friction' as a felt need. This is true of even the most anti-humanist forms of Marxism, as we see in this statement from Althusser's Reading Capital:

In the capitalist mode of production, therefore, the time of economic production has absolutely nothing to do with the obviousness of everyday practice's ideological time: of course, it is rooted in certain determinate sites, in biological time certain limits in the alternation of labour and rest for human and animal labour power; certain rhythms for agricultural production) but in essence it is not at all identified with this biological time, and in no sense is it a time that can be read immediately in the flow of any given process. It is an invisible time, essentially illegible, as invisible and as opaque as the reality of the total capitalist production process itself. This time, as a complex 'intersection' of the different times, rhythms, turnovers, etc., that we have just discussed, is only accessible in its concept, which, like every concept is never immediately 'given', never legible in visible reality: like every concept this concept must be produced, constructed.

Capitalist time is rooted in biological time, but not identified with it; it overrides and negates this time, creating a new temporal experience of knotted times, that are never given or legible as such. Hence, at least Althusser implies, the difficulty of transition from the felt need of resistance to an actual knowledge of capitalist time.

Therefore, negativity operates in this 'frictional' relation, generated not only by the capitalist negation of time in the labour process (and more generally in the 'social factory'), but also by the felt and actual political resistance to this, i.e. class struggle, including sabotage, strikes, abstentism, and all other methods of extracting 'free time' from capitalist despotism.

The first difficulty is that why identify this with negativity and not some intrinsic 'creativity' or ontological positivity? Here first I would argue that penetration and shaping of subjectivity under capitalism, in terms of real abstraction and real subsumption, ideological operates through such 'ontological' or 'metaphysical' anthropological determinations. Second, and far more speculatively, I would argue that the 'anthropology' of the human is one of unemployed negativity (Bataille), or a fundamental discordance of lack/excess (Freud / Lacan), that when subjected to capital is subject to the 'employment' of negativity, but does not escape this discordance. Hence the 'festival' of negativity, in terms of lack and excess, that operates as the constant negation of the captured and positivised time of capitalism. There is, if you like, an intrinsic but historically conditioned, negativity.
The second difficulty is that a capitalism of real abstraction and real subsumption seems to absorb any 'anthropology'. As Daniel Bensaid notes: 'the Grundrisse and Capital present themselves as a labour of mourning for ontology, a radical deontologization, after which no space remains for any 'world beyond' whatsoever, any dual content, any dualism of the authentic and the inauthentic, science and ontology.' (116, Marx for Our Times) The 'place' of negativity would therefore seem to be closed, having no where to reside. This is only extended by Value-Form Marxism (VFM), in which the real subsumption of all relations under capitalist production, including through socially mediated abandonment (unemployment, exclusion from the market, etc), and the power of real abstractions to shape subjectivity and existence go 'all the way down'.

As I take on board this analysis it seems to leave no point of resistance or agency available at all, and no point of negativity. The working class is merely adjunct of capital, tamed negativity at the service of capital as a totalising dialectical 'machine'. Class struggle drops out of the equation, it seems, due to this dominance. Here I would stress the 'within and against' position of the proletariat, and, contrary to Hardt and Negri, and many of the VFM theorists, still stress the immanent friction of negativity in the 'immediate process of production' (including in its generalisation across the social factory). This negativity of class struggle takes the immanent forms of memories of past struggles, including traces and remnants of the achievements of such struggles in areas of relatively non-commodified life, or in acts of radical de-commodification. The 'historical anthropology' or 'ontology' of the human also maintains this frictional relation in the labour process, as we are subject to the negation of our time and struggle to negate the despotism of capital.

It is the immediacy of the relational extraction of value in labour that provokes resistance, which is vectored through 'lived experience' (historically conditioned of course), and through the necessary strategic knowledge of this extraction. This is why I would suggest the impossibility of retreating into some 'reserve' of negativity, but only its articulation 'within and against' the capitalist despotism of time, which is to say its strictly relational form.

Of course, the further difficulty is the fragmentation and destruction of the worker's movement, which did play a role in the development of capitalism through the valorisation of labour, but which did also, often despite itself or against itself, carry the utopian traces of the critique of labour itself. While we have individual negativity if you like, often in the truly negative forms of psychic or physical distress and suffering, what is truly missing is a collective articulation of this negativity. Here the labour process still, negatively, offers points of collective articulation in terms of collective resistance to the imposition of the value form, as would also consumption.


Matt said...

Another interesting post Ben, and it got me thinking about this abstract concept of 'life-time' which might be opposed to the 'working-time' of capital. On a crude level this could simply be understood to mean that we expend our biological lifespan making profits for capital, rather than having the time to invest in oursevles. Yet as far as I'm aware, for Marx, the value of our free-time resides in two sources: 1) the reduction of necessary labour time in communist societies will allow us to develop our capacities as a species through 'really free labour', which is prefigured in our successes within the arts and sciences (Grundrisse); this would be the reading of Marx which would depend upon a concept of labour as an 'ontological positivity' along with a humanist enlightenment teleology, and 2) there's the idea that political praxis-as 'practical critical activity'- negates the capitalist organisation of time through things like strikes, absenteeism, riots, sabotage, etc. Of the two it's this latter notion I have difficulty in understanding. On the one hand, does this negation not derive its value from creating the possibility for more free time in the future (again, to conduct 'really free labour')? Or is this negation of the utility of 'working-time' valuable only as an intensive state of being brought on by a kind of condensation of time through the practical negation of 'working-time'? In either case, it's hard for me to see where the negation lies exactly. This was also the impression I got from reading Bataille's 'Accursed Share', or even the sober works of Andres Gorz-both of whom explicitly advocate the negation of labour for negation's sake: it appears to me that they can only do so by implying that the mode of being which results from this is somehow superior, more emancipated, etc. It also risks presenting the critique of capitalism as a kind of literal 'refusal of work' strategy-as if the passive refusal to get involved in anything which might be potentiallly utilisible to capital (from active engagement with party politics to placard waving at demonstrations, etc)is sufficient to change things for the better. I wondered what you think about this-and apologies if I've misunderstood your post.

Benjamin said...

Dear Matt,
No, a very good point. I'm probably a closet affirmationist (as Peter Hallward joked) on this point... Perhaps the only way to really rescue negativity is that what Marx calls 'free time', which I'm all in favour of, of course (although never seem to take up), is the time of expansive negativity freed from re-employment by capital. Certainly, as has often been done, this can be re-coded as 'positive'. I see it as the oppurtunity to 'organise' a negativity, even in a project (here Sartre would probably be of more use, but I just admit ignorance and shame on not having read the Critique of Dialectical Reason).

Certainly I don't see the refusal of work as the 'answer', especially when capital deploys non-reproduction / unemployment as a mechanism of reproduction. Rather I'd argue for a still vague strategic negativity, which expands areas of non-commodified life and also tries, as I suggest above, to form the 'labour of the negative' in better, more equalitarian fashions. After all job security buys one scope for negativity that invocations of precarity as potential 'positive good' seem to me to deny or limit.

I'm all for humanist enlightenment teleology in a way, if it works. I think instead of figuring free time as positivity we figure it as engagement with negativity; the negativity of our own actions within time, in which we can't choose to do two things at once (or I can't), hence to not engage in value-production for capital involves negating to 'free' our own possibilities for negation.

Finally I see negativity in terms of a relational traversal of real abstractions. Not that beneath the cobblestones the beach, or beneath real abstractions concrete ontological positivity, but, as Marx suggests and I quote in the post on concrete / abstract, the concrete is achieved through abstraction. Through the traversal of abstract labour even to a kind of abstract negativity that rejects employment, although not action, but action freed from the implicit teleologies of value re-production.

A bit of a hodge-podge of Sartre/Bataille/Marx/Althusser - still it's my hodge-podge...

Benjamin said...

Just one more thing, please feel free to post/reply your answer, as you can tell I need the help...

Matt said...

Thanks for the candid reply, and I prefer this hodge-podge of abstract negativity to the weak soup of cultural studies empiricism or that universal boullion of living labour as the working class romance of Being.

I liked the logical argument behind your er, 'affirmation' of strategic negativity here:

'I think instead of figuring free time as positivity we figure it as engagement with negativity; the negativity of our own actions within time, in which we can't choose to do two things at once (or I can't), hence to not engage in value-production for capital involves negating to 'free' our own possibilities for negation.'

I wonder how this might tie up with the role of negation with epistemology in general? Something for me to think about. As it is, I see your position as occupying a space between the political affirmation of negativity in terms of a critique of capitalist value-production (in the literal sense of resisting its work demands along with opposing that upbeat 'positive mental attitude' of what K-Punk has termed 'capitalist realism'), and a philosophical understanding of negativity as part of a broader historical epistemology (rather than a straightforwardly postivistic eliminative materialism). On both counts I'm with you, and I look forward to reading your book and gaining a more sophisticated grasp of these problems.

Benjamin said...

Thanks Matt,
I was quite pleased with my spontaneous logical 'deduction' of negativity. The book originally started in a more philosophical mode, but actually became more political. I think the next task is connecting those two elements more firmly, and overcoming a certain wariness about 'transhistorical' philosophical claims...