23 August 2011

The labor process and consciousness

Response to “Apprehensions of the social”, part 1 of 4
By Chris Wright

I had earlier written a reply to "The Tea Party marching toward oblivion", but I made the mistake of writing it in the comments area and my browser crashed.  It was long, so I have not re-written it, but Walker's post "Apprehensions of the social" once again inspires me to take up the questions presented here.

The ideas here are not new.  For what it is worth, Jacques Rancière has already taken up these very categories of the aggregate, the collective, and the individual in his essay "The Hatred of Democracy". Gáspár Tamás has also touched on these themes in his essays on what he calls Post-Fascism, which is focused on "how citizenship is becoming an exclusive privilege."  Gillian Rose also took up these specific concerns in her last works, and it is especially evident in the introduction to Mourning Becomes the Law.  My own work (presented in talks at the first and second US Historical Materialism conferences in New York City in 2010 and 2011) is an attempt to develop a concept adequate to the problems presented here.

The current problems we are seeing I believe have to be understood in relation to significant changes in the labor process and the valorization process, to changes in the spatial and temporal organization of domination.
In other words, if we do not see social movements of the sort which appeared (and which was presented and understood as more or less uniformly the same, as far as the workers' movement was concerned) from the 1840s to the 1940s, this is because we have seen changes in the forms of appearance of the capital-labor relation, that is, changes in the entire cycle of valorization from the labor-production process to the circulation process to the consumption process.  As such, the form of appearance of labor and capital has changed, as has the self-understanding of the constituted social groups.

Each transformation of the labor process is a response to a crisis of valorization, that is, it involves a struggle to reshape the whole valorization process in order to reset accumulation. As Moishe Postone notes in his discussion of the treadmill effect, this involves the long-term secular expulsion of living labor from the production process and its replacement by dead labor, that is, constant capital replaces variable capital proportionally within total capital. Not only does this mean that living labor becomes less and less important for the production of value, it also means that each crisis of valorization becomes more difficult to resolve than the last one. This is against the idea of ascendant/descendant phases of capital common to decadence theory, but it also is not the breakdown theory a la Grossman, Mattick, et al.

Empirically since World War II a point has been reached where more and more dead labor is not animating more and more living labor, which is what happened with industrial capitalism (the breaking down of skilled labor into unskilled labor added lots of workers to the global total for a long time).  Rather, beginning in some industries as early as the 1890s, but really gaining speed after World War II, was the direct application of scientific knowledge to the labor process which not only meant the replacement of living labor with dead, but also less and less expansion in the deployment of living labor relative to dead labor. This was first in the form of chemicalization, but which eventually took the form of computerization, robotics, bio-engineering, etc. That is, we have a host of production processes today in which the R&D spent on scientific and engineering parts of the production process form the core labor expenditure, and the laborer operating the constant capital does not really comprehend the labor process because the labor process is a direct extension of scientific knowledge, that is, a kind of haute bourgeois consciousness.

This is a definite shift from the machinery and tools of the industrial and pre-industrial world, which were generally extensions of a labor process that was an extension of what an individual worker could do.  Any car mechanic could understand an automotive assembly line, the tasks performed, etc., and many assembly line mechanics were their own car mechanics (until computers became key to running automobile systems).  You can't bio-engineer corn in your home chemistry lab. The science involved in a microprocessor plant far exceeds the knowledge of the workers there and even of the programmers who write the code for the software that uses the processors.  The loss of working-class identity politics goes hand in hand with the transformation of the labor process at this point.

The production process has also decentralized.  Several major changes coalesced during World War II and after to allow for a de-densification of production.  Telephone, telegraph, fax, and finally computer networks have increasingly made communication spread over a vast, often wireless, grid.  The development of the independent power plant (coal, oil, nuclear, whatever) and the grid of electrical networks using a rhizomatic structure (Deleuze and Guattari were not futurists, their rhizomatic structures were merely giving theoretical voice after the fact to capital's own structural transformations), onto which you could place a production facility, mall, office center, etc. at will, just by extending the grid.  Gone were the needs for a power plant servicing the production facility.  In transport, the automobile and truck allowed businesses and workers to extend away from rail lines, laterally in space.  Massive changes in oceanic and air shipping also introduced (cost- and time-) efficient global shipping, so that a commodity could have pieces of it produced all over the world, assembled finally in one place, and then shipped further still.

In other words, gone were the massive fortresses of workers. River Rouge at Ford, once filled with 80,000 workers in charge of everything from the power plant to the steel production all the way to the cars that rolled off the line at the end, becomes not only unnecessary but counter-productive.  In fact, after the massive workers' struggles of the first half of the 20th century, these facilities and the cities they reside in are now a concentration that represents a threat to the valorization process and political stability.


  1. This is very helpful in making more concrete some of the processes we've thus far been discussing in rather too abstract terms. I like your point that "working-class identity politics" (an illuminating way of putting it) broke apart with the fragmentation of the production process. One potential challenge to this view is the failure of an analogous working-class identity politics to emerge in the great sweatshop regions of China. More than 300,000 workers are interned at a single Foxconn 富士康 facility in Shenzhen, for instance. Ching Kwan Lee has argued in Against the Law that the plot of agricultural land guaranteed to the millions of migrant laborers who fill the sweatshops has provided a fallback option that forestalls the development of a coherent collective identity: whenever conflict gets too intense, the workers can just go back to the villages. Does this seem like an adequate explanation to you?

    When you write "Empirically since World War II a point has been reached where more and more dead labor is not animating more and more living labor", do you have only the rich countries in mind, or does this include China and other sweatshop assembly areas? I would be interested in looking at these figures if you have a reference.

  2. In early 20th century Russia and even during the Civil War, it was very common for the working class to return to the land and become peasants during periods of job-scarcity. During the civil war, Russian cities depopulated on a massive scale.

  3. I think that I would restrict my comment, at least for now, about the amount of dead labor animating living labor, to the developed countries. One of the interesting things in places like china, which was also true say in Russia in 1913, is that because labor can be so cheap, it is often more profitable to employ a lot of laborers to do certain tasks than to employ a machine. For example, having workers carry steel beams from one part of the mill to another versus spending on a massive lift.

    The capacity to go back to the land has always been at issue, but I think one problem is that it is not so easy to do now as it was 100 years ago. Still, one problem for China in becoming the next global power, and for India too, would be the seemingly near impossible task of modernizing agriculture. As long as that problem remains (and solving it from a capitalist point of view would be central to building a more massive internal market), it also remains as a certain kind of safety valve.

    I do think that even in the developing countries, such as they are, the kinds of technology they are forced to employ does not give the same room for expansion of employment that industry did in 1900 or even 1930. If you want to compete in microchips, rather than merely circuit boards, you need a $2 billion plant with probably 50 workers and a huge, highly trained and equipped R & D team.

    My main indicators for changes in the relation of dead to living labor are taken from changes in productivity, total output, and the number of workers engaged in that production relative to investment in gross fixed capital stock. I make no claim that I could at this point provide something I could pass by a review board, and so maybe I should less sanguine about my comment.

  4. There is a wealth of information available digging in articles like these:



  5. Thanks for this essay, it gives us a lot to think about and I think it will definitely help advance the conversation on this blog. I am wondering where you think the collapse of "working-class identity politics" has left us. How does the loss of a working-class identity change our understanding of what the role of the left is? What new opportunities are we presented with for realizing the overcoming of capital, or do you view this loss in terms of a regression?

    Also I would be curious to know what kind of connection, if any, you see between the loss of working-class identity and the proliferation of identities and identity groups throughout the neo-liberal period.

    Obviously these are big questions that would defy any attempt at a definitive answer at this point, but I am curious to hear what your approach to these issues would be.

  6. I wish I had an answer to your first questions! I think the best we can say is that some of the old illusions, which seemed virtually unimpeachable because they expressed the positive identity labor at a certain, definite point in the development of the capital-labor relation, are vulnerable. The ideas that it was enough to abolish private property, get rid of the capitalist class, exchange the working class for the capitalist class in power over "industrial society" i.e. that the problems were at the level of distribution of wealth and power, are severely shaken and have been systematically taken to task theoretically (c.f. Postone, Tamas, Rose, Bonefeld, Backhaus, Reichelt, etc.)

    As for the rise of identity politics, I don't think that is new. Identity politics have always existed as long as specific forms of oppression are at issue. And I believe that much of working class politics remained a kind of identity politics as well, insofar as working class was a positive identity, rather than a relation to be abolished along with the entirety of class society.

    What I find disturbing in the present is that whereas for a long time "identity politics" in the form of the workers' movement, women's movement, anti-colonial movements, civil rights, anti-slavery, etc. had two dimensions, an identitarian, regressive dimension that sought to find its rightful (rights-full?) place in capitalist society, it also had a universalizing, anti-identitarian dimension which did not want to solidify the gender, racial, class, etc. identity but which sought to abolish it, and in general the oppressor identity which was its opposite, today that anti-identitarian element has been undermined not only in the workers' movement but in all of these movements.

    I think there is a jockeying for position in contemporary identity politics which is also willing to acknowledge the validity of the oppressive side, thereby, most importantly, validating the ethical acceptability of racialization, gendering, sexualizing, nationalism, etc.

  7. The difference I would note between class identity and the other forms of identity therein is that class threatened to cut out the very heart of capitalist society as a society based on impersonal, objective forms of domination, whereas the other struggles primarily tackles relations not of impersonal, objective forms of domination but personal, directly social forms of domination. To the degree that capitalist society can allow for the mitigation of direct forms of domination, a certain jockeying is inevitable. The class aspect however is more difficult to deal with insofar as a positive working class identity is always sort of oppositional to capital and thus must be hidden in the guise of the citizen-consumer and employee. The impersonal, objective character of capitalist domination lends itself to this masking at the point at which workers are broadly included politically and as consumers.

    I would also just add that racialization and gendering, for example, have a specific ground in the capital-labor relation. In the case of sexualization/gendering, for example, it is tied to the separation of private and public the family and reproduction on one side, and civil society and the state on the other. That is, the separation of citizen and bourgeois in capitalist society is sort of always-already gendered because prior to that women were driven into the private world of the family and public space was accorded to men, itself a somewhat natural outcome of the absolute separation of the space and time of production for a wage from the space and time of unwaged (hence private, not social, not public) reproduction. This is why it is not enough to invert private and public (as Gaspar Tamas suggests in his otherwise excellent "Rudiments of a Political Philosophy of socialism"), but to remember the importance of the slogan of the women's movement that the personal is political, thought I would express it more in the vein that the private is public/political, that is, it too is a domain of social relations of power that must be opened up.

    As a result of this, I think that identity politics has taken on a particularly pernicious character in pluralist and multicultural conceptions, tolerance, etc. Lost is the desire to completely destroy oppressive relations, but rather to allow them to subsist in their equal difference, side by side, leaving them essentially unquestioned.

    The good part is that radical theory around this, like Judith Butler for example, begins to recognize the need to abolish gender as much as to abolish class, that revolution entails the surpassing of the relations, not the equitable sharing of society among them.