12 October 2011

Blog Self-Critique

This started out as a comment, a sort of anti-critique, on Walker’s post, but as I looked at Walker’s post, I realized that the points that I disagreed with were not actually specific to this post, but were more general claims made over the course of this blog. It extended too long for one post and so has become a number of shorter ones.

In this post I would like to address two issues, for the sake of space but I will post other parts of this anti-critique over the course of a week or two. Those themes are:
I. The opposition between working class and capitalist
II. The use of the category “working class identity politics”

When Jack suggested that dichotomies are helpful in mobilizing people and I agreed and offered, what I believed was a better opposition for mobilizing people (capitalists vs. workers). I thought that 1% vs. 99% was problematic for a variety of reasons, many of which Walker has conceded and thought that workers vs. capitalists is better. I never, however, advocated this as a means of actually grasping the society in which we live. This opposition, I would argue, is a good heuristic because it opens the door for a more fundamental understanding of our society in a way that income statistics—especially when viewed globally—do not. It certainly comes closer, again viewed globally, to the actual conditions of social life than 1::99. Critiques of the distribution of wealth, such as 1:99, do not actually grasp the problems of capitalism, as Marx noted in his graduate student days

"An enforced increase of wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including the fact that it would only be by force, too, that such an increase, being an anomaly, could be maintained) would therefore be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not win either for the worker or for labor their human status and dignity. Indeed, even the equality of wages, as demanded by Proudhon, only transforms the relationship of the present-day worker to his labor into the relationship of all men to labor. Society would then be conceived as an abstract capitalist."

For this reason, Marx believed that working class politics must focus on the productive process itself, on alienation itself, not its consequences. For Marx, working class politics, if addressed adequately, grasped the core of the capitalist dynamic in a way that, for example, nationalist or anarchist politics did not. For Marx, working class politics attempted to grasp the central social relationship of capitalism.

This blog often uses the term working class identity politics to characterize the entire history of the working class movement, which I think makes both working class and identity politics hollow categories.

Identity politics claims a certain ontological essence that pre-exists engagement with social structures and which needs to be recognized and granted its particular sphere and particular cultural import. The classic examples, the Black Panther Movement, Second Wave Feminism, Gay Liberation, all called for the overcoming of a form of discrimination on the basis of an identity that was believed to be prior, and thus more fundamental than, one’s position in relation to the productive apparatus of society.

Understood within the context that self-declared identity politics arose, identity politics were a counter unity to the unity of the Fordist “social contract.” While these “insurgent identities” understood themselves as radically other from the dominant Fordist concepts of cohesion, they were not. The important difference between, let’s say, Algerian insurgent identity politics and French nationalism was that the Algerians understood themselves as radically anti-racist and anti-imperialist, while the French assumed their racial superiority and the naturalness of their empire. These two sides of the Fordist identity politics coin were equal and opposite responses to Fordism. However, at this moment, in part due to the efforts of insurgent Fordist identity politics, though not entirely, Fordism as a regime of accumulation of capital that was actually in the midst of a collapse. 

These critiques of Fordist collectivity from the standpoint of a different collectivity outlived their historical moment and survived into the post-Fordist world. They thus were attacked, as one might expect, as essentializing by the principle philosophical ideology of neoliberalism, post-structuralism. 

In the post-Fordist world, new forms of identity politics arose and these were often mistaken as the same movements as their predecessors because they claim to represent the same identity and because often their members were similar, however, they were different in their object of critique. (In this way, the uses of Islam in Algerian revolutionaries’ self understanding is distinct from that of Iranians’ use of Islam, in that, at least during the war with the French, Algerians’ Islam could never be accepted as equal by the French State and so Algerians needed a state of their own in order to developadequately Fordist social forms. In Iran, on the other hand, the revolutionaries who ultimately triumphed believed that their Islamic essence was being corrupted by British-American-Jewish abstract domination. (Given the role of British Petroleum in Iran there was an element of truth to the claims of British and American domination, but the actual capacity to affect Iranian politics was far less than the clerical revolutionaries believed.) No longer was the problem one of exclusion from Fordist affluence. The problem became the insidious and abstract power of Americanization, the UN, homogenization, financial capital, the perceived power of Israel/Zionists/Jews, the power of secularism.

These identity politics ideologies attacked the way that abstract social forces attempted to homogenize and wipe out forms of particularity. This ranged from the silly and market driven French attempts to defend the particularity of their cheese and wine to the far more destructive if more mediated self understandings of northern Irish Catholics, Serbians, or Hutus. Identity politics makes a claim that a certain collective feature is before socialization and essential. Identity politics are, in practice, an ideology of consumption, of culture—what one eats, what one worships, one’s daily rituals, what one does for fun, etc. To the extent that since the 1970s working class identity has become a cultural claim about forms of consumption—wearing Dickies apparel, for example—working class politics became a form of identity politics and it is actually the right wing that has most appealed to this streak. (Think of Sarah Palin’s "Real Americans.")

However, to the extent that working class politics was about the character of the labor, the wage rates, the hours, the benefits, it was not identity politics. At the heart of these politics is a social relationship—one could stop being a worker at any moment—it is not a claim of ontological essence. Even the less incisive politics, such as wage struggles, nonetheless are concerned with a social relationship. 

To claim that working class politics were always identity politics is to seriously misunderstand the character of 19th and 20th century labor history. Marx, after all, hitched his horse to working class politics because he saw them as getting the closest to the core of the logic of capitalist society, exactly because they pierced deeper than the other forms of critical politics in his day, such as Bakunin’s Pan-Slavism.

As long as we live in a capitalist world, we will live in a world of laborers selling their abstract labor time. Furthermore, as long as we live in a capitalist world and this condition of selling one’s labor time as a commodity, i.e. of alienation, prevails, working class politics will continue to have the potential to pierce the heart of the capitalist logic. There is always a dimension in which working class politics are not identity politics, quite the contrary; they are the politics of the universal. This relationship can be teased from contemporary labor struggles far more easily than it can in for example gay rights. Even environmentalism, which shares the sense of the universal with working class politics, nonetheless is an ideology that moralistically critiques consumption and does not address the question of alienation. Ultimately, as Marx, Marcuse (listen to his lecture from Ford Hall), and Postone (despite claims to the contrary) all argue, it is ultimately the responsibility of workers to liberate themselves from their alienation.


  1. I'll just throw out the idea that communist politics is not identity politics and critical theory is not identity theory because they do not affirm the working class.

    There is a working class identity politics however, based on an ontological positing: the positive positing of labor as the ontological foundation of all human social existence. This is pretty much the Traditional Marxist reading of labor, a view in which the way forward for humanity is the victory of labor. It is also pretty common to less radical kinds of working class politics as well.

    This view of the victory of labor not surprisingly did not conceive of the problem of the abolition of capitalism as the abolition of labor as primary social mediation (one might as well abolish breathing according to the traditional view), and it tended to view revolution as the replacement of bad distribution and bad control of a fundamentally ok system of production (rational, planned economy or workers' councils, the question remains 'who whom').

    A politics of "proletarian self-emancipation" in these terms is the elevation of the working class to power and the final recognition of the primacy of labor. For a critical Marxian theory, "proletarian self-emancipation" is the self-abolition of the class and its liberation from labor.

    The dominant strand in working class politics has always been the one which takes a positive view of labor. Opposed to this is a communist politics, which has always been a minority, including among the Marxists. Thus, even though both sides might refer to working class politics or proletarian revolution, what the two mean by those phrases are polar opposites.

    As for the question of whether other kinds of politics are not capable of being universal, I have my doubts. There is an element in struggles against racial oppression that demands universal human recognition and which opposes the very notion and constitution of race. There is a similar element in struggles over gender and sexuality. In each of these, there is a universal dimension. The struggle against oppression of that sort does not have to become an identitarian struggle for the binary opposite.

    The problem is not their lack of a universal dimension, but the way in which capitalist society is fundamentally structured by an indirect social relation which subordinates all direct relations of domination to itself. Attacking direct relations of domination (including the direct domination of the worker by the capitalist or the working class by the capitalist class) does not, unfortunately, get at the capital-labor relation.

    So instead of making a one-sided claim for working class politics as the "really universal" politics, I would suggest that one of the critical problems of our time is the decline of all liberatory politics which envisioned themselves as universal and their becoming almost completely absorbed in identity affirmation.

  2. Both Frank and Chris have made key points here, which I gestured toward in my post but didn't really explain. I completely agree with Frank that labor politics is not necessarily a kind of identity politics. But I also agree with Chris, that historically (and to this day, if my labor organizer friends are any indication) it primarily has been a kind of identity politics.

    The reason is that the urgency of winning some mitigation of the horrific conditions of labor slides easily into an uncritical affirmation of labor itself as the basis for demanding the dignity of workers. As I think we all agree, our ultimate political goal must instead be the abolition of labor. But it's not at all clear how the concrete workplace struggles that animate the labor movement, and which foreground direct rather than abstract forms of domination, can become the foundation of such a movement.

    Perhaps the more immediate problem, though, is that even the capacity for a workers identity politics seems to have collapsed because of the fragmentation of the workforce and, with the rising organic composition of capital (ie increasingly capital-intensive forms of production), the decreasing prominence of work in popular consciousness. We can now also add the plummeting rate of participation in the labor force to this list.

    If labor politics is the best or only way to overcome capitalism, we should focus our attention on how to reconstitute it. But I think it might be at least as fruitful to begin exploring new collective subjects as the basis of our politics. Despite the naive and premature uses that the Occupations are making of it, I'm not sure I would dismiss "human beings" out of hand as a candidate. After all, modern society does not limit us qua workers or any other particularity, but as human beings. But this raises its own difficulties and would require much more discussion.

  3. I agree about the problems of the ontologization of labor and its effects on the labor movement. I, however, do not see this as identity politics. The problem with the ontologization of labor is that it is liberal-- central to Locke, Rousseau, and Smith to name just three. (And like most liberal claims it has no claim about racial, cultural, gender, or ethnic particularity.) This is the ontologization of a process and a relationship among subjects and between subjects and objects. Labor, as a process, is not identical to laborers, but the claim of, for example, Irish nationalism that there is an identity outside of space and time of an individual and a cultural essence. One can stop being a laborer, but one can never-- at least in the identity politics logic-- never stop being Irish.

  4. About Walker's Adornian point about the impossibility of labor politics: I think that society remains contradictory-- and remains so exactly because it is a society where labor is the central mediating category. Walker's claim that certain possibilities are foreclosed is dependent on viewing society as a non-contradictory totality. Because society remains contradictory and contradictory in and through their relationship to labor, people's every day life is one of the dialectical problem of labor. The problem of what politics to pursue, I think that it would need to begin in workplace relationships understood broadly. The concept of your time and the boss's is accessible to everyone, for example, and this can be unpacked. From my experience doing exactly this, it works well.

  5. "Walker's claim that certain possibilities are foreclosed is dependent on viewing society as a non-contradictory totality."

    Well, no. It's dependent on knowledge of the history of the labor movement over the last thirty years. The explanations that Chris (here and here) and I (here) have offered actually points to the proliferation of contradictions as a key factor obscuring more fundamental relations. I would be interested in your response to these points because they are crucial to the question of whether a labor politics is viable.

  6. My sense is that Chris's sense of the contradictions (and they are not contradictions so much as impediments to radical consciousness) of contemporary captialism is overly concretistic. Walker's is one sided in its understanding of liberalism.

    The possibility of grasping the productive process: Chris writes, "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."

    This is actually a very old problem. Adam Smith makes a similar argument about the impossiblity of conceiving all the inputs into a basic worker's coat in the _Wealth of Nations_. This problem of grasping one's role in a productive totality is more an issue of Durkheimian anomie than of Marxist politcs. The problem that revolutionary politics needs to grasp is not so much the concrete productive process as the engine of the treadmill in the treadmill effect-- the ever reoccuring need for abstract labor. One could even argue that a worker, confronted with modern forms of production, could realize that he did not need to be minding the machine, far more so than any other time in human history, that his labortime was not necessary to the production of wealth.

    Furthermore, one could argue that the centralization of production is a historically specific phenomenon of Fordism and decentralization has been more typical of capitalism, certainly in its liberal forms. Again, Adam Smith makes the same point about decentralization. (I should add that the liberal regime of capitalist accumulation was more "successful" at generating a genuinely international revolutionary Marxist movement than the more concentrated Fordist period.)

  7. Again on an issue of space, Chris writes:
    "The de-linking of lived space from worked space in the form of workers moving to the suburbs (and not even to the suburbs their job moved to) breaks the relationship between workplace and residents. The effects of this break were visible in many strikes in the 1980s and ’90s, where workers in the plants were often white and had fled from the now Black and Latino neighborhoods where the plants were located, undermining any possible unity. The Chicago and Detroit newspaper strikes were an especially stark presentation of this problem."

    The break between workplace and home is typical of all capitalist societies, so I will assume that you mean a long commute between work and home. This process of suburbanization of both the working class and industry is actually a phenomenon that begins in the late nineteenth century. In major industrial cities like Chicago and Berlin, for example, one can this occuring as factories need greater space and mass transit begins to spread. A wide variety of urbanists before world war one begin to speak of a simultaneous centripetal and centrifugal tendency in urban development. (This is something that Burgess of the Chicago School picks up on and that Henri Lefebvre calls implosion explosion.) The long times that workers would travel between points in, for example, Berlin did nothing to stem the radicalism of the working class. If anything the freeway and cars make workers closer to work despite being more miles from work.

    I had intended to address Walker's arguments about the collective, aggregate, and individual in my next blog post. So I will respond to those issues there. I will briefly add though that the post-Fordist era has seen the grown of a distinctly liberal sense of the collective that supercedes the nation and is not the sub-nationalities that Walker mentions. In particular, I have in mind the concepts like global civil society, Europe (in the sense of the EU, which is in crisis now exactly because it is more than the sum of its parts), The West, The Developed World, and The Global City. I can also think of other examples that are conservative in content, but liberal in form like Christendom or Islamdom. In all of these there is a sense that they are more than the sum of their parts, that the invisible hand is creating an interconnected society.

  8. I would like to suggest that Frank has read my points as general comments about capital in general, but rather they are specifically attempts to grapple with the particulars of development since WWII.

    Conceiving all the inputs is different from being able to comprehend the labor process one performs. Like suburbanization, this separation has roots already in the 19th century, such as the chemicalization of some production processes already in Germany and the U.S. in the late 1900's. However, this was a small part of the labor to which the workers were. The large majority was, even where mechanized, comprehensible to the worker performing the work and was frequently improved by input from the workers themselves.

    This is the foundation of the politics of "workers' control of production". Where the workers cannot comprehend the labor process, one can hardly expect to control it. Bolshevism and Social Democracy had some limited notion of this, but didn't over-much worry about it as it was happy to see the problem of capitalism as a problem of workers' control of state power and who told the scientific and intellectual personnel what to do. Councilism depended exactly on such a possibility of comprehension, as did revolutionary syndicalism.

    Secondary to this effect is the disconnection of the production process spatially, which takes on a different character when very little of the production process as a whole is comprehended. The council form is distinctly undermined. The internationalist possibilities of the statist notion was always in doubt.

    What Adam Smith describes is the breaking up of the process which nonetheless is comprehensible to any worker. They may only now be able to perform a single function in that chain, but there is nothing about the process that is essentially the dissolving of the prior process into individual tasks.

    The change in the kinds of knowledge are expressed quite clearly in Philip Mirowski's work on the changing relationship of capital to knowledge in the last 150 years.

  9. As for the break between workplace and home...

    Absolutely, that separation is central to capital. In fact, it is central to the manner in which capital constitutes gender relations, which is no trivial matter.

    However, I think Frank seriously underestimates the way in which early capital tended to bring larger and larger quantities of workers together into more densely packed spaces, what Guy Debord described as urbanism as a problem for capital of how to bring workers together efficiently while overcoming their increased potential resistance to capital. Relying on generic, under-theorized concepts like implosion-explosion or centralization-decentralization and saying that because decentralization of the labor process was something Adam Smith discussed evades the actual world.

    Even though suburbanization certainly began much earlier than the 1940's, for example, and even though workers traveled at times for a long time to get to their work, you have to evade every specific of that process to brush it off as effectively trivially more of the same.

    Travel on mass transit with plenty of other workers, largely through working class areas with mixed utilization of residential and industrial and commercial, and the frequency with which, despite this, many workers lived near to their jobs or to other workers and other factories.

    Suburbanism, as an attempt to resolve the problems of urbanism, did not merely involve long commutes. It involved the creation of communities where individual homes were separated (home ownership in the U.S. is not quite the same as home ownership in China, which is largely owning an apartment in a massive complex, a matter not to be dismissed out of hand; the Levitt brothers, founders of the Levittowns that were central to post-WWII suburban design, were famously quoted as saying that no man who has a lawn to mow has time to be a communist); living, working, and shopping in rigorously separated commercial, residential, and industrial zones; travel which was increasingly isolating; the regression of daily life into the household, thanks to TV.

    I make no claim that the problem of needing to separate the workers from the means of production, from their own capacity to reproduce their existence or from other workers, and then the need to bring them back together under conditions amenable to capital (usually overlooked) is a new problem. I am suggesting that what was a marginal tendency among the working class before WWII in the U.S. becomes a central dynamic connected to the reorganization of capital intended to sustain and reproduce the capital-labor relation.

  10. I never, in any way, ever suggested it somehow means that the capital-labor relation is not the issue, nor that a proletarian politics is not possible.

    What I am suggesting is that a proletarian politics is not likely to appear in the same mode we think of. If I am too concrete, it is only to escape the indifference to changes in empirical reality too common to Marxist theory. There is a tendency to lump together forms of resistance which have developed, and I would suggest that with the changes in the labor process and the organization of capital in various ways, the political expression of proletarian politics in 1848-1871 really could not be reproduced in the 1890's to the 1930's and really wasn't the same. If it develops, as we hope, it won't take forms like those of yesteryear.

    The broader question of whether or not labor can be associated with an identity politics, I must continue to insist that you make implicitly ontological claims about labor as if it was intrinsically non-identitarian. Unfortunately, the formation of a community of interests as workers, which seeks to pursue its own interests as a community identified with being workers, with an ethics, a sense of belonging and place, and seeking its own legal constitution and the securing of its rights, seems an awful like an identity. In fact, nothing could be clearer than that working class identity typically went hand-in-hand with identifying other groups as not really workers. The development of a women's movement, of anti-imperialist movements, of anti-racist struggles all specifically pointed out the ways in which the workers' movement tended to form an identity which instead of being universal was all too particular and non-inclusive.

    The idea that other identities are not plastic, that they are merely particularistic, strikes me as a bit naive. I hope that does not sound too harsh, but the boundaries of identities change all the time. Each has its own element of negativity. Each struggle for national liberation was also an anti-colonial struggle. Each struggle for racial or gender liberation had a component against racialization and gendering as such.

    I am not suggesting that this makes labor less central to capital. I am suggesting that communist politics aren't likely to look like they did in the 1930's or even the 1960's because the politics of the 1930's didn't look like the politics of the 1880's, any more than the politics of the 1960's looked like those of the 1930's.

    I am suggesting we can't look for a new communist politics in the forms that reflected the organization of capital and the labor process that dominated a different period, even if the overthrow of capital remains the abolition of labor, the value-form, the money-form, the commodity-form, etc.

    I'll end on a question. Frank, when you said "My sense is that Chris's sense of the contradictions (and they are not contradictions so much as impediments to radical consciousness)" do you mean that what I raise fail to be contradictions or that what I call contradictions you would say are merely impediments? I suspect I know the answer, but I am too uncertain to venture my guess.

    Sorry, also, I won't post for a while. I just appreciate Frank and Walker's in-depth engagement, this is to me major stuff.

  11. I'd like to hear some clarification from Frank about his points.

    Frank, are you trying to maintain the historical specificity of "identity politics" to a peculiar product of neoliberalism (or post-fordism, which I take to be identical). Or disentangle the lineage of national and identity based struggles that arose under fordism from the Labor centered struggles before them?

    In the first option the distinction between "identity politics" and everything else is not about basing a politics on categories posited as transhistorical like race, gender or ethnicity, but it's doing so in a way that does not designate a subject that is capable of seeing beyond itself. Algerian nationalism, in this view, was not for its own sake but in the as a way of claiming the right to alter the productive relations (even if that meant building their own version of Fordism). We see this again in the Panther's program which are mostly economic (The Panther's did not lack a class analysis, they merely believed that national liberation struggles were the opening front to a larger class oriented politics). However, the "identity politics" that have prevailed since the 80s have no vision of overcoming, merely of being heard. It's about ensuring that there are black presidents and women CEOs. Identity is no longer a revolutionary subject, but an interest group that must have a seat on the social negotiating table.

    The second option says that the positing of political categories as prior to history is the essence of identity politics. In this argument the distinction from labor-centered politics is that the proletariat is understood as a peculiarly capitalist phenomenon. It may take up the mantle of the entire history of class struggles, and "class" itself may be ontologized, but the proletariat in itself is a modern creation. This gets understandably confusing though when we're debating the transhistorical conception of labor in Traditional Marxism and indeed plenty of practical labor politics did carry this transhistorical "identity" quality. I'm thinking here of the verse from the song "which side are you on" that goes, "My daddy was a miner and I'm a miner's son."

  12. Regardless of which one Frank meant I think he's right to call on us to be more precise with the moments of revolutionary politics of old we're being critical of. My understanding of traditional Social Democratic and Bolshevik labor unity politics is that it's not about the ontological homogeneity of "working class people," but of the historical capacity of proletarian subjectivity (and I might be eliding everything into Lukacs, but I'm not too upset about that). The subject of the proletariat is the subject made possible by capitalism which can imagine both taking power and its own dissolution. These two possibilities make it "revolutionary." Class interest is content of the collective will of the proletariat, but its the very capacity to manifest a collective will that has a revolutionary form that is essential to The Proletariat.

    Jumping out of Marxist categories The Proletariat is an answer the the more general problem of determining a revolutionary subjectification. This word, in Ranciere's usage, means, "The production through a series of action a body and a capacity for enunciation." The question is the form and content of a specific process of subjectification, but also its historical possibility. This is where question of "concrete" vs. "essential" critiques comes in. It's hard to say something is impossible through concrete analysis, which it's hard to says something is likely through purely essential analysis.

    This doesn't actually bear on the debate about whether or not politics of proletarian unity and class interest are "identity politics" but it does clarify the stakes of the debate. It's not simply about ideal cleaniness (i.e. whether or not a politics is about to imagine life after labor) but also about practical capacity. Does a politics meet the criterion for revolutionary subjectification or not.

  13. There is a lot that could be said about this, which I would like to say, but I think it would be difficult to engage in that level of depth here. Some of it would require a great deal of disentangling and clarification.

    For example, when I say that Social Democracy, Bolshevism and Councilism shared an ontological notion of labor and constituted a kind of identity politics of labor, I am not discussing their self-conceptions. I'm taking up the way in which they theoretically comprehended capitalism (anarchy of production, exploitation, domination of workers by capitalists), what they understood by revolution (extension of democracy in politics to democracy over production; abolition of private property in the means of production; workers control of production), and what they thought of as socialism (modern industrial production under democratic control; social ownership of "modern" production; "soviets plus electrification") and suggesting that all other differences aside, they rested on a common set of notions which assumed the primacy of labor to our species being, rather than the primacy of labor as specific to capitalist society. The result was a positive identification with labor which found its most perverse expression in the arbeit macht frei of Nazi labor camps and Stalinist gulags, but which already had an identity politics associated with its own press, its own culture, its own lifestyle, its own ethical standards, its own political representation as a separate interest group, etc. within capitalist society. Far from wanting its own abolition, it sought its recognition, whether in this society or in a world of its own making.

    The struggle to overcome the capital-labor relation in the present will not take the forms we are accustomed to thinking of, and further that maybe what we are accustomed to thinking of was far more historically specific than we thought it was.