Rupturing the Dialectic: The Struggle against Work, Financial Crisis and Beyond1 by Harry Cleaver



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The Form of Value
In Capital, Volume I, Chapter 1, Marx’s analysis of abstract labor as the substance of value in Section One and of its measurement in Section 2 is followed by a dense examination in Section 3 of the form of value – an analysis that has been mostly ignored by most Marxists – but turns out to be very useful in understanding the class dynamics of such phenomena as money, credit, debt and the present repressive period of financialization, the imposition of austerity and the widespread resistance that has exploded in response.
His analysis of the form of value is laid out in four steps, each of which adds and examines new determinations to those previously discussed. The same is true when the analysis continues in the subsequent chapters. Although this is true throughout the book, I want to focus on how the these oft neglected sections provide not only an elaboration of his labor theory of value, but illuminate both the nature of the antagonistic class relations of capitalism and a theory of money in those relations – a theory further developed in the second and third chapters and in many other parts of the three volumes of Capital.22 This requires repeatedly mapping important concepts in his analysis from the abstract world of commodity exchange to the more concrete world of the class relation.
In the first step of his analysis of the form of value, the passages on the simple form, the primary emphasis is on its qualitative characteristics, especially the way in which meaning is a function of the form.23 The importance of this section was spelled out by Marx in a letter to Engels in 1867: “The economists have hitherto overlooked . . . that the simplest form of the commodity, in which its value is not yet expressed in its relation to all other commodities but only as something differentiated from its own natural form, embodies the whole secret of the money form and thereby, in nuce (in embryo), of all bourgeois forms of the products of labor.”24 The text is elaborated in terms of the exchange of random commodities but allow me to focus on the exchange between the commodity labor power – that workers are forced to sell – and money (or the wage) that capitalists use to buy that labor power.25 Outside of the labor market, individuals’ abilities and activities are diverse and autonomous from capital, they are not “workers” per se; they are, perhaps, subsistence farmers, or coopers, or shipwrights, or vagabonds, or traveling players, or highway robbers, but they are not part of capital’s active army of laborers.26 Without the power to force workers into the labor market, would-be employers cannot turn money into capital; they have no one to dominate and exploit. In the Phénoménologie Hegel pointed out that the masters require slaves to be masters, indeed require slaves to recognize themselves as slaves for the masters to recognize themselves as masters. So too here, capitalists cannot be capitalists without workers; they cannot control people except if and when those people accept their role as workers and recognize the capitalists as masters. In the language of the Hegel’s Science of Logic, a language adopted by Marx, this is a relationship of reflexive mediation – where the relationship of a thing to itself is mediated by a second that reflects some aspect of the thing back to itself, as a mirror reflects an image. In this kind of relationship within capitalism people are only defined as workers when they enter into a waged relation with some employer; the wage they receive shows them to themselves, to capital and to others as workers.
Indeed, in traditional orthodox Marxism, this definition has not only been accepted as defining the working class, but given orthodoxy’s belief that work differentiates human being from other kinds of being, it celebrates both work and people qua workers – not because they struggle against work but because they are only one revolutionary step away from finding complete fulfillment in un-alienated work freed from capitalist domination and exploitation.27 Inevitably, this celebration has been accompanied by a disparagement of those without a wage who have not been considered part of the working class and their struggles have not been considered an integral part of working class struggle. Unwaged housewives, students or peasants have often been told that if they want to join the class struggle they needed to get a job and a wage. However, as we will see, the labor market is not the only vehicle for the capitalist induction of people into the working class.
However, as I have argued above, for every dialectical relationship that capital imposes, or for every moment of the dialectic, there also exists the possibility of its rupture. In this case, there is the possibility not only of the temporary rupture of this mediation (say through absenteeism, soldiering on the job, strikes or insurrections – when wage deals are broken and workers withdraw from production and, sometimes, from the labor market) but of complete rupture (successful revolution) that would liberate the workers from capital once and for all. Throughout his active political life Marx observed, noted and often analyzed and wrote about such withdrawals, especially when they happened on a large scale, e.g., strikes over wages or working hours, insurrections such as the 1848 Revolutions or the Paris Commune. He paid less attention to the molecular withdrawals of individuals or small groups that repeatedly rupture capital’s ability to define people as workers, but several generations of Marxists have largely filled that gap with detailed examinations of on-the-job struggles.28
What is also missing in Capital – and for a long time in the work of Marxists who came later –is any detailed analysis of how capitalist success at organizing the activities of the unwaged has spread these relations of reflexive mediation throughout society. As we know from his analysis of both primitive and on-going accumulation, Marx was well aware of how business and the state created a “reserve army” of the unemployed through enclosures and then tried to organize it: via “bloody legislation”, poor laws, workhouses, prisons and the military (e.g., impressment).29 But nowhere that I have found did he discuss reflexive mediation as an aspect of the various relationships between capital and the unwaged. Yet clearly this was indeed one aspect of those relationships. Poor people only became “paupers” when so defined by poor laws and work houses. Those who lived off the land only became “poachers” when enclosures made hunting illegal and those who hunted were caught and prosecuted by the courts. The same was true with beggars, gypsies or freed slaves who only became “vagabonds” when begging and wandering was outlawed. Africans lived all sorts of lives until colonialism not only enclosed their lands but enslaved them. And so on. All of these kinds of unwaged relationships continue in our time (including slavery albeit mostly hidden in covert factories, isolated farms, homes and the dens of sexual traffickers). But progressively, since the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as workers were successful at fighting for shorter working hours, adult workers succeeded in imposing child labor laws and male workers succeeded in marginalizing female waged labor, two very large pools of unwaged labor have emerged in that part of the reserve army that Marx called “latent”: children in schools and women in homes.30 In the former, children suffer from years of imposed unwaged labor and in the latter women find themselves condemned to life sentences of unwaged, and often isolated, domestic labor. In both cases we can find relations of reflexive mediation of the sort Marx analyzes in his section on the simple form of value.
One example of unwaged work I have already discussed is schoolwork where repeated business intervention has shaped “education” into a hierarchy of work and power that includes not only the waged work of administrators, staff and teachers, but also the unwaged work of students. Within that hierarchy the basic work of one and all is the producing and reproducing of labor power. In the relationship between teachers (or professors) and students we see not only the hierarchical organization of authority and power – waged teachers have much more the power to impose work and discipline on unwaged students than vice versa – but also the same kind of reflexive mediation characteristic of the labor power – capital relationship elsewhere. Teachers can only be teachers if their students do the work the teachers seek to impose, accept their authority and see themselves as students.
Unfortunately, not only do many allow this relationship to define them as students but they also accept the grades imposed by teachers as legitimate quantitative measures of their quality as students, i.e., of their abilities and knowledge. High grades become ego-boosting; low grades cause anxiety and depression – a chronic and rampant problem. Similarly, all too many teachers embrace the power they have over students and have no problem ranking them quantitatively with grades, rewarding hard work and punishing the refusal to work. Here too, teachers may judge themselves all too readily in terms of the degree to which they have succeeded in getting students to do the work they have sought to impose and/or the degree to which those students have succeeded in meeting or exceeding the goals set for them.
Of course, just as waged teachers (like other waged workers) can refuse capitalist command and subvert or withdraw from the relationship (subverting by actually helping students learn rather than imposing work and withdrawing either temporarily in strikes, e.g., the recent one in Chicago, or permanently, e.g., the high drop-out rate of teachers who flee their long, intense working hours and low pay), so can unwaged students, either individually (cheating, truancy or dropping out – usually branded deviant or delinquent behavior) or collectively (student movements to change the content and structure of education, to refuse higher costs or to create free spaces for learning, e.g., the recent student struggles in Quebec) and in so doing refuse to do the work their teachers would impose and liberate time and energy for autonomous learning. As many of us have discovered, we have often learned far more during such withdrawals than we ever did in the classroom or bent over class preparations or homework outside of it. In short, this dialectical moment of reflexive mediation can be, and has been, ruptured by the unwaged, just as it can be, and has been, ruptured by the waged.
In the second step of Marx’s analysis of the form of value, the passages on the expanded form, the primary emphasis is again on qualitative relationships but one of them has a very quantitative dimension. Whereas in the simple form the exchange relation between X and Y, or between labor power and capital, was random and individual, in the expanded form we see the potentiality for the relationship to exist, or to be imposed, throughout the entire world of commodities, including the entirety of the labor market. In class terms, ideally workers have the possibility not just of selling their labor power to one capitalist but to any capitalist; capitalists, on the other hand, strive to create a world where they can buy labor anywhere and everywhere because people have been forced into the labor market all over. As Marx pointed out in Chapter 31 of Volume I of Capital, toward the end of his discussion of “primitive accumulation”, colonialism was essentially the extension of the enclosure of the commons and the imposition of labor markets throughout the world. 31 Capitalism, in other words, tends toward totalization, the imposition of its own way of organizing society everywhere. It seeks to convert all human activities into commodity producing work, including the production of the commodity labor power, and to convert all elements of human life – both things and relationships into commodities. Because of the absence of any theoretical limit to the variety of human activities or to the variety of elements that play roles in those activities, there is no theoretical limit to capitalist expansion; it is, therefore, at least potentially, infinite (a tendency that for a long time has been nicely captured by many science fiction novels and movies that have portrayed capitalism expanding off-planet32). In the language of post-structuralist literary theory, capital (not Marx) has sought to impose its own “master narrative” not only on this world but eventually on the universe.
At the same time, of course, every successful resistance to commodification, every successful defense of the commons, every successful refusal of work, whether in the factory, office, school or home, has created another limit to capitalist expansion, has thwarted its ability to totalize and to expand indefinitely. The problem, Marx writes, with the expanded form as a representation of capital’s tendency toward totalization and infinite expansion is that it is but a patchwork or mosaic of multiplying, but still distinct, relationships; it is, in Hegel’s terms “a bad infinity”.
In the third step of Marx’s analysis of the form of value, the bad infinity of the expanded form is overcome in the general form. The overcoming is achieved by Marx pointing out that if any commodity can be exchanged for any other, or in the case of the labor market, any individual or groups’ labor power can be sold to any capitalist, then some particular commodity, or capital in general, can serve as a universal equivalent that expresses the value of the commodity (e.g., labor power) being sold. Once again, the emphasis is on the particular quality of the relationships. In this case the universal equivalent also plays the role of universal mediator among everything else. In terms of the class relationship capital seeks to mediate among all members of the working class or groups of workers. Here we find Hegel’s analysis of syllogistic mediation – where the relationship between two things is mediated by a third – lifted straight out of the Book of the Notion and applied to the world of commodities, which in capitalism not only includes but presupposes the labor market and its antagonistic class relationships.
How does capital mediate the relationship between itself and the working class in the labor market? Although the wage (its bestowal or its withholding) has been the central vehicle, it has been complemented by many others – including the repressive use of force (company goons, police or military), labor law to impose contracts, labor market segmentation in which some workers are hired directly and others are hired through various forms of outsourcing, e.g., through employment agencies that do the usual work of personnel officers, sorting and sifting job applicants to find those most willing to work. The difference in modes of hiring may be structured along racial, ethnic, gender or age lines, e.g., it is common in the United States for employers to hire cheap immigrant labor through informal labor contractors. Schools and independent testing companies mediate between employers and potential hires when job offers are made contingent on various forms of certification. Where some family members are waged and others are not, the needs of the latter are used to pressure those looking for work to accept low wages and bad working conditions. Ideology, mass media, racial, ethnic and gender divisions of the labor force are all used to mediate the class relationship.
Beyond the labor market, both in the domain of waged production labor and in that of the unwaged labor of reproduction we can find capital seeking to impose these kinds of mediation again and again. On the job, capital has traditionally insisted upon its authority – what Marx called its despotism and in the United States is called “managerial prerogative” – to organize every last detail of production and thus to mediate the relation between workers, tools and machines and among workers. Where capital has been successful in paying some workers more and other workers less along age, gender, race or other lines, job tasks are allocated along similar criteria, e.g., locals get the better paid jobs, immigrants get the less paid jobs. In such job hierarchies capital seeks to use each level to mediate, i.e., help control and absorb the anger, of those below it. Where workers have had the power to impose labor unions and collective bargaining on capital, the latter has also sought to transform those unions into vehicles of mediation in which union officials, from shop stewards to top union bosses, serve business by getting the rank and file workers to abide by contract agreements (even when their employers are not doing so), sometimes using persuasion and sometimes using violence. Off the job, in the school and home, capital has also sought to organize things so that it can regulate/mediate the relations of reproduction.
I have already pointed out the systematic intervention of business in schooling; part of that intervention has involved mediating the relationship between teachers and students by shaping curriculum and testing and by setting administrators over both teachers and students with the power to impose rules on both that pit them against each other, e.g., forcing teachers to impose work pits teachers against students, using student evaluations against teachers pits students against teachers. As Hegel pointed out, complete syllogistic mediation requires that in any triadic set each moment mediates the relationships of the other two. In this case, the set of administrators-teachers-students – capital has sought to organize schools so that each group mediates the relationships between the other two.33
In the home, capital has done much the same, through the state, by shaping laws to define marriage and family, laws to regulate intra-family relationships and the distribution of wages so as to divide the family between waged and unwaged and pit them against each other – thus poisoning the relationship between spouses and between parents and children. Waged husbands have been expected to control their unwaged wives; both parents have been expected to control their children. Controlling unwaged wives has meant making sure they do the domestic work of producing (procreating) and reproducing labor power – that of their husbands, themselves and their children. Controlling unwaged children has meant bringing them up to accept the capitalist way of life, in part by playing truant officers and study hall monitors, i.e., making sure that their kids actually go to school and do their homework. Failure to do the former is usually punishable by law.
Once again, for every imposed mediation, there is the possibility of its rupture through struggle that may either bypass or destroy the existing mechanisms of mediation. In the labor market, the most obvious rupture is the out and out withdrawal of participation through refusal to search for a job. In the United States obtaining unemployment compensation from the state while only pretending to look for work has become, for some, a veritable art form. On the job, the direct appropriation of things and time, including the use of capitalist-owned equipment for non-work purposes, ruptures capital’s attempts to mediate and control the waged work place. Wildcat strikes refuse the mediation of the trade union bureaucracy and existing contracts. Student walk-outs refuse the mediation of teachers, of “representatives” in student governments, of curriculum and of official administrators.34 The women’s movement has repeatedly refused the mediation of men, of marriage laws, and of commercial definitions of beauty – all shaped by capital to mediate and maintain a gender hierarchy to women’s detriment. Civil Rights movements, which in the US began with blacks but soon spread to Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans, have all refused and ruptured both legal and extra-legal mediations that have organized racial and ethnic hierarchies.
In the fourth and final step of his analysis of the form of value, in the passages on the money form, Marx argues that the essential universal equivalent which comes to express the value of all commodities is money. What is true of all commodities, is also true of the commodity labor power whose value is expressed by its monetary value, its price, e.g., the wage.35 Put differently, of all the mediators that capital uses to manage the relationships among things and among people, money is the most pervasive. The price form is thus one moment of the more comprehensive money form. Qualitatively everyone who earns a wage by selling their labor power to capital is in a similar situation. Quantitatively, the amount of their wage or salary measures both the value of their labor power and their value to capital, while situating them within an elaborate money income hierarchy designed to pit them against each other such that they can all be controlled, i.e., kept in the labor market and kept at work.
As Marx argues in Chapter 6 of Volume I of Capital, the value of labor power is determined by the amount of socially necessary labor that must be allocated to producing everything necessary for its reproduction, i.e., the labor required to produce the means of reproduction, however simple or complex they may be, for any part of the labor force at any point in history. The wage, paid to workers, is intended to be used to purchase those necessities. In his day, Marx, like the classical political economists before him, could comfortably call the means of reproduction the “means of subsistence” and speak of a “subsistence wage” – given that a great many workers lived very near mere biological subsistence, with their income rising a little above it when labor markets were tight, but all too often falling below biological subsistence when the demand for labor lessened. With little or no savings, laid off low waged workers suffered from malnutrition, starvation and disease.36 Yet, over time, some workers became well enough organized to fight successfully for higher wages – just as they fought for shorter working hours – and in the process raised the value of their labor power above biological subsistence, forcing capital to allocate more of the work it imposed to producing things and services those workers had the power to make necessary for their continued willingness and ability to work.37 Other workers, less well organized for whatever reasons were less capable of imposing higher wages and as such differential success evolved, capital shaped its wage hierarchy – a hierarchy that would extend upward from bare subsistence to include what we now call the middle class.
Throughout the above historical process, there have always been the unwaged, who do not earn a wage or salary in exchange for selling their labor power. These, whether generated through enclosures forcing independent farmers off their land or through population growth, constitute a “reserve army” in the language of Chapter 25 of Volume I of Capital that must still receive some kind of income, or die. That income may be derivative of someone else’s wage or salary, e.g., the income of stay-at-home spouses or children. It may be accorded by the state, e.g., poor laws, family allocations, welfare payments, public services, school lunches. It may be made available by non-governmental organizations, e.g., charities that organize soup kitchens or shelters for the homeless. Or, unwaged income may be gained through autonomous production, e.g., peasant subsistence production, family or community gardening, non-capitalist participation in markets, e.g., the sale of surplus domestic production, street vending and peddling goods or services in the urban informal sector, begging or direct appropriation, e.g., theft. Here too, capital, through a variety of mediating institutions, laws and policing seeks to organize and control all of these activities.
To what I have already discussed about how capital has sought to organize unwaged (students) in schools, let me just add two points: first, while at lower levels the vast majority of students are clearly unwaged, in the United States at least, in what are called graduate studies where students are working toward “Masters” and “Ph.D” degrees, some students are effectively waged, e.g., teaching and research assistants, while others are not – a situation which, ceteris paribus, divides and weakens the ability of graduate students to organize collectively. Thus the according or withholding of such wages provides another form of mediation to manage students. Second, money mediates the relationship between capital and students not only in the payment of wages to faculty, administrators and some students, but in the size and patterns of both the state and private sectors’ expenditures on schools. In periods such as the late 1950s and 1960s, US government investment in “human capital” development meant spending money to enhance the production of labor power in order to improve productivity and spur accumulation.38 As such expenditures grew, money played a larger and larger role as mediator between capital and students. In more recent years as the imposition of austerity has included reducing public expenditures on schools, the private sector has stepped up its expenditures as part of a long term strategy to further subordinate school work to its needs.39
Beyond the educational system, capitalist efforts to mediate the struggles of the (largely urban) unwaged who have either dropped out of, or finished, school has also often involved the manipulation of money, through state welfare programs. Originally conceived in the 1930s as a socialization of the costs of economic change, later designed in the 1950s as investments to improve the quality of the labor force, such programs were dramatically expanded in response to urban uprisings of the 1960s that exploded from one end of the country to the other with the aim of staving off further rebellions. At the time, I was a student with a temporary job in the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington, D.C. Day after day while Watts (a black neighborhood in Los Angeles) burned, I listened to government economists discuss how to structure income support high enough to ward off future uprisings but low enough to induce the unwaged to look for waged work.40 Much of the discussion was over how money could best be spent to achieve these aims. Some supported a “negative income tax” in which those whose income was judged to be too low would simply receive a check in the mail. Others supported a variety of programs with tighter controls over the beneficiaries, e.g., Aid for Dependent Children where parents could be closely monitored, or Community Action Programs designed to channel the energies of struggle into forms easier to manage.
In all of this, we can see how the capitalist organization of the entire society into a global work machine involves a complex array of carefully structured syllogistic mediations – in the form of a wide variety of institutions and ways of using money – designed to keep everyone in society working, on the job and off.
However, once again, just because capital pays wages to hire labor power directly, or shape its formation indirectly through the structuring of consumption, or through private or public expenditures of money on schools, welfare, etc., such uses of money by no means guarantees the intended results. When Marx goes on in Chapter Two to draw on Hegel’s analysis of property and the contract in the Philosophy of Right to bring humans into the picture as the owners and exchangers of commodities and then in Chapter 3 to reintroduce syllogistic mediation in drawing the distinction between simple commodity exchange, e.g., C-M-C where money merely serves as a means to obtain consumer goods, and capitalist exchange M-C-M’ where money constitutes both the means and the objective of exchange, we are given initial representations of the kind of exchange characteristic of the labor market discussed in Chapter Six.
There, at last, he gets around to the most important form of C-M-C: LP-M-C, where LP = labor power, M = the money wage and C = means of subsistence, or consumer goods and services, that workers buy with their wages. LP-M, of course, represents the same exchange as M-LP, or the hiring of workers as part of the capitalist expenditure of money as capital.41 That expenditure, as indicated above, is aimed at providing workers with the monetary means of purchasing sufficient consumer goods (C) to reproduce their willingness and ability to work. As I have argued elsewhere, if things go according to capital’s plans, then consumption is reduced to the work of producing labor power. In such cases, to Marx’s exposition (in Volume II of Capital) of the “circuits” of capital we can add a circuit of the reproduction of labor power: LP-M-C . . . P . . . LP* that portrays how consumption must be converted into the production of labor power for it to be available on the market in the next period.42 If we juxtapose the two circuits, LP-M-C and LP-M-C . . . P . . . LP*, we can see the former not as just an incomplete version of the latter, but as representing an opposed class point of view.
For people who sell their labor power for a money wage (LP-M) that wage may be merely a means to the end of acquiring the means of subsistence, or consumer goods (M-C), necessary for survival and the elaboration of their lives. As with C-M-C more generally, the ends to which wages are put may be quite different from those intended by the capitalists who pay them. Capitalists have certainly tried to structure consumption so that it serves merely to reproduce labor power but it has not always succeeded. Sometimes its failures have been due to the subversion of wages achieved by their expenditure in ways that do not reproduce labor power. There are endless examples of such subversion. Some are dramatic, say when wages are used to buy guns that are then used in revolutionary uprisings against the capitalist order.43 Other uses are far less dramatic, but no less subversive. When wages are high enough to enable savings, workers repeatedly use their wages to avoid work, individually by quitting jobs and taking vacations, collectively through strike funds used to support them during prolonged strikes and pension funds that permit early retirement. Pretty much all uses of money wages that finance the diversion of time and energy from work and the reproduction of labor power subvert the employer’s expenditure of such money as capital.
The same is true for monies expended through other channels for the purpose of reproducing labor power, e.g., spending on education and welfare as investments in “human capital”. As it turned out, much of the money spent on education for this purpose in the 1960s in the United States was subverted by students who used it to finance their struggles against schools and school work, against the wars in Southeast Asia, and against racial and ethnic discrimination. In that period more or less similar struggles emerged in many other countries throughout the world. The same was true with regard to welfare state expenditures; such programs were progressively subverted by “poor people’s movements” and turned into vehicles of their struggles. 44
Beyond such negative subversion of money wages, people also use money to finance their own creative forms of self-activity, or self-valorization, in which they elaborate ways of being that constitute alternatives to those characteristic of capitalist society. In the United States “the movement” of the 1960s included a “cultural revolution” – not just in challenges to existing institutions, such as schools, welfare programs or systematic discrimination – but in the discovery, invention and experimentation with all kinds of ways of being that provided alternatives to working for capitalists and reproducing life as labor power. From Woodstock on the East Coast to Height-Ashbury on the West Coast young people, and many of their elders, diverted their wages, time and energy into the exploration of alternatives to practices they had come to despise and oppose. Although, with time, “the movement” as an identifiable mass activity disappeared, such invention and experimentation did not. Any serious investigation of manifold separate struggles that challenge this or that aspect of the ways capitalism organizes society also reveals how protests have been complemented by the creation of alternatives and efforts to circulate and elaborate them.
All of this, I maintain, demonstrates how Marx’s theory of money helps us to situate money within the antagonistic class relations of capitalism and to recognize it as a highly contested terrain of struggle.
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