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



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Casting about for alternative approaches I wound up studying Marx and, to a lesser degree, Hegel – both of whom were familiar with what economists call the classical political economy of the 18th and 19th Centuries. My interest in Marx was obvious – because his entire life and work were dedicated to overthrowing the capitalist grip on the world, he inevitably dealt with the struggles that subverted and threatened to transcend that world. My interest in Hegel was less obvious. On the one hand, a course on the Hegel’s Phénoménologie de L’Esprit at the Université de Montpellier had drawn my attention to his analysis of the master-slave relationship, but it was primarily to his Science of Logic and Philosophy of Right that I turned in trying to make sense of Marx’s exposition of his labor theory of value in the early chapters of Volume I of Capital. In both cases I discovered how these two authors grasped not only the dialectics of class struggle, but also, in their different ways, the tendencies of capital to infinite expansion and totalization. But whereas I found Hegel’s analysis, however critical, to be ultimately accepting of capitalism, I found in Marx not only an analysis of capital’s efforts to endlessly reimposed its dialectic but, more importantly, an analysis of the struggles that repeatedly ruptured, subverted and, sometimes strove to create post-capitalist futures in the present.


3 As will become obvious, I use the terms work and labor interchangeably. In this I differ from some, e.g., Frederick Engels and Hannah Arendt, who distinguished sharply between the two. In Engels’ case, in a footnote to Chapter 1 in the Fourth German edition, he wrote, “The English language has the advantage of possessing two separate words for these two different aspects of labor. Labor which creates use-values and is qualitatively determined is called ‘work’ as opposed to ‘labor’; labor which creates value and is only measured quantitatively is called ‘labor’ as opposed to ‘work’.” Arendt, in her book The Human Condition (1958) devotes two entire chapters to distinguishing between labor and work. Labor, she argues, is an inevitable and eternal part of “the human condition” and designates the activity of humans qua animal laborans who produce everything that is quickly consumed as part of “the ever-recurring cycle of biological life.” There is, she says, a compulsory repetition in labor “where one must eat in order to labor and must labor in order to eat.” Work, on the other hand, she associates with more durable production which occurs when humans qua homo faber violently transform elements of nature (e.g., cutting down trees for lumber, quarrying and mining the earth for stone and minerals) in the process of fabricating the physical things and world that humans share and give continuity to human society through time and generational changes.

4 This understanding of the crisis was formulated in the early 1970s on both sides of the Atlantic – among the Italian theorists of workers’ autonomy and kindred spirits in England, France and North America – and elaborated in a large number of articles, journals and books. For a brief overview see the prefaces and introduction to my book Reading Capital Politically (2000) or Polityczne czytanie Kapitału (2011).

5 »Das Kapital« Politisch Lesen: Eine alternative Interpretation des Marxschen Hauptwerks (2012)

6 This passage is also from the preface to the German edition of Reading Capital Politically.

7 Among those earlier Marxists upon whom Sweezy drew were Franz Petry, Michael Tugan-Baranowsky, Rudolf Hilferding, Henryk Grossmann, Evgenii Preobrazhenskii and Maurice Dobb.

8 “There is no need,” wrote Meek, “for us to follow Marx’s rather complex analysis of the ‘elementary’, ‘expanded’ and ‘money’ forms of value in any detail.” (p. 173) He then quoted Engels’ saying that all that detail was just about how the problems of barter exchange were solved by the emergence of money.

9 The publication of Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, in particular, set off a whole series of critiques by various more or less orthodox Marxists such as Mario Cogoy, David Laibman and David Yaffe, as well as various self-styled “radical economists” such as Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, David Gordon, Thomas Weisskopf, Anwar Shaikh and Richard Wolff. Spurred on by such controversies, by the middle of the 1970s the first major “return to Marx” in 20th Century was well underway within university courses being offered by veterans of the New Left who found positions in academia and within a proliferating number of outside study groups devoted to reading Capital.

10 Marx to Engels, June 22, 1867, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 42, p. 384.

11 In the process not only would the concept of abstract labor become irrelevant but so too would the associated notion of a generic concept of labor (or work) – as laid out by Marx in Section 1 of Chapter 7 of Volume I of Capital. See H. Cleaver, “Work is Still the Central Issue! New Words for New Worlds” (1999) in Ana Dinerstein and Machael Leary (eds.) The Labour Debate: An Investigation into the Theory and Reality of Capitalist Work, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2002.

12 On the shipyard workers see: Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century, London: Verso, 2006). On the Budapest factory workers see Miklos Haraszti, A Worker in a Worker’s State, London, Penguin, 1977. The original manuscript was written in 1972 and titled Darabbér (Piece-rates); it was suppressed by the Hungarian State but eventually published in Germany (1975) and in England and France (1977).

13 Cleaver, “Work is Still the Central Issue!” op.cit.

14 The Full Employment Act of 1946 codified that mandate, charging the federal government with the responsibility to so manage the economy as to avoid socially disruptive levels of unemployment. It was a one important element in the overall Keynesian strategy with which capital sought, and was largely able for a time, to limit and harness workers’ struggles (more on this below).

15 Toni Negri, "Crisis of the Planner-State: Communism and Revolutionary Organization," (1971) in Toni Negri, Revolution Retrieved: Selected Writings on Marx, Keynes, Capitalist Crisis & New Social Subjects, 1967-1983, London: Red Notes, 1989.

16 The centrality of mental labor in Marx’s analysis was made quite explicit in Chapter 7 of Volume I of Capital where he famously noted that the worst of human architects was better than the best of bees because humans thought out their projects in advance.

17 “Quand le temps de la vie est devenu entièrement temps de production, qui mesure quoi? . . . quand l’exploitation atteint de telles dimensions, sa mesure devient impossible.” p. 34 in Toni Negri, “Valeur-travail: crise et problèmes de reconstruction dans le post-moderne,” Futur antérieur, No. 10, 1992.

18 Ibid., p. 35.

19 The problems here include not only the measurement of the amount of work, but even the measurement of the “product” being produced by that work. For instance, what exactly is the “product” of psychiatric services? Economists often dodge the problem by measuring the monetary value of output, however it is defined, but they know that by so doing they are forced to assume that “the market” actually provides a reasonable proxy measure of the products themselves.

20 See Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1872 lectures “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” and Chapter 14 on “The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture” in Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1999) as well as his later book The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Businessmen (1918). The essence of these critiques were rediscovered by students in the 1960s and turned against what they called “universities as factories.” In recent years, as business has been increasing its influence on the structure of schooling, a whole new body of literature has emerged critiquing the “corporatization” of education.

21 Just last week, a lead article in the October 14, 2012 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Grades Out, Badges In” proclaimed “Grades are broken . . . college grades are inflated to the point of meaninglessness – especially to employers who want to know which diploma-holder is best qualified for their jobs.” The article then goes on to discuss current experiments with the substitution of “badges” for grades and suggests that “One key benefit of education badges could simply be communicating what happens in the classroom in a more employer-friendly form.”

22 How I understand the fourth section of Chapter 1, on fetishism, is implicit in my reading of the previous three sections as not just determinations of commodity exchange in the abstract, but as denoting aspects of the class relations capital tries to impose. My reading is aimed precisely at defetishing the categories by grasping them as moments of the class struggle.

23 Marx’s analysis is focused on the qualitative aspects of the relationship even when dealing with quantitative relations; he does this, in part, by assuming equality in exchange – an assumption that he later uses to differentiate his theory of exploitation from cheating in exchange.

24 Marx to Engels, June 22, 1867, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 42, p. 384.

25 In terms of Marx’s exposition the analysis of this exchange is not reached until Chapter 6 on “Sale and Purchase of Labor Power” – a discussion that necessarily includes the wage (the money form of the value of labor power) which obviously hasn’t yet been introduced in Chapter One. However, when we do examine the sale of labor power for the wage as an example of the simple form of value we already begin to see an important aspect of money within capitalism: its role in buying labor power is, simultaneously, its use of money to bring people under its control as workers.

26 Capital may see them as part of the unwaged “reserve army of labor” but whether they will eventually be willing to prostitute themselves in the labor market always remains to be seen and will depend on the dynamics of their struggles.

27 Nowhere has this been more obvious than where orthodoxy has ruled, e.g., the Soviet bloc, with its socialist work ethic, its celebration of Stakhonovites, its financing of heroic statues of workers and its cultivation of “socialist realism” in literature and the arts.

28 The work in the 1950s of the American Johnson-Forest Tendency and that of the French Socialisme ou Barbarie group marked a turning point in Marxist attention to day-to-day struggles. In their wake came a great many detailed studies of the dynamics of on-the-job struggles. The work of Romano Alquati and Raniero Panzieri in Italy is particularly notable. Both researched factory conditions and published articles in the early 1960s in Quaderni Rossi (1961-1966) that were subsequently collected in Alquati, Sulla Fiat (1975) and Panzieri, La Ripresa del Marxismo Leninismo in Italia (1975). Mainstream sociologists, of course, with their research largely financed by capitalist institutions, had long studied such struggles. Economists, on the other hand, having shuffled off such concrete worries about work, largely ignored such struggles until forced to confront labor market segmentation and efficiency wages by a new generation of young radical economists in the late 1960s.

29 In Section 3 of Chapter 25 of Volume I of Capital, Marx discussed how capital’s tendency to substitute machinery for labor coupled with the ups and downs of the business cycle repeatedly pitch waged workers into the unwaged “industrial reserve army”. But in Section 4, his analysis of that reserve was limited to dividing it into three sections: the floating reserve (those looking for waged work), the latent reserve (those who might, at some point, enter the labor market, e.g., hard pressed agricultural workers) and the stagnant reserve (adult paupers able to work, orphans and pauper children who might be able to work) Beyond these “reserves”, he argued, the “surplus population”, cast off in the process of capital’s development also includes those unable to work due to injuries, disease or old age and those that he classified as lumpenproletariat: “vagabonds, criminals, prostitutes” who were, he judged, not likely to ever go looking for a wage.

30 Throughout most of the 18th and 19th Centuries, with a few exceptions – such as the schools for working class children created near his textile factory by the capitalist reformer Robert Owen – most capitalists were doing their best either to incorporate children into factory labor or confine them in workhouses. Schools were for the children of capitalists, not workers. By the time Marx was writing Capital, Owen’s efforts to spread his practices had come to naught and the driving of women and children into factories had proceeded so far that Marx thought it was undermining the very reproduction of the working class.

31 In retrospect this was the most important social and political aspect not only of colonialism but also of post-colonial counterinsurgency campaigns – such as the US efforts to pacify the populations of the South – and anti-nationalist, nation building efforts to limit obstacles to international trade and investment. Although the anti-war movement may have limited the butchery of US efforts in Indochina, it failed to prevent the subsequent induction, after the wars ended, of the war-weary populations into the global labor market and their use by capital against higher waged workers elsewhere. Something similar can be said of how covert, then overt struggles in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe ended Communist Party rule, but, unable to implement comprehensive alternative projects, delivered those populations into the hands of Western capitalists to be used against their workers.

32 The recent decision of the US National Aeronautic and Space Administration to hand off the development of the next generation of orbital shuttle craft to the private sector is one depressing step in this direction.

33 A somewhat more detailed discussion of the various forms of mediation can be found in Chapter Five of my book Reading Capital Politically.

34 In the US in the 1960s, students repeatedly bypassed mediation of professors and administrators to directly confront Boards of Trustees – whose role in overseeing universities is roughly equivalent to that of Boards of Directors in overtly for-profit corporations. In the 1999 strike at UNAM, the Autonomous National University of Mexico (the largest in Latin America) that lasted almost a year, students and parents bypassed professors and university administrators and aimed their struggle directly at the state. As so often happens, they developed new organizational methods – loosely based on those used within the indigenous Zapatista rebellion. In the Arab Spring and Occupy movements of the current period we see this same bypassing, and thus rupture, of virtually all the traditional forms of capitalist mediation.

35 Money was not always the sole equivalent of the value of labor power. Peter Linebaugh, in his London Hanged (2006) has traced how the money form was progressively imposed on workers during the 18th Century, replacing a wide variety of payments in kind. Such payments still exist in some rural areas where, for example, agricultural laborers are paid with part of the harvest. Not only is the wage but one particular form of the price of labor power – other examples include salaries, commissions, and tips – but the wage itself takes many forms. In Volume I of Capital Marx analyzes two of these forms: time wages and piece wages where he shows not only how these forms of a form hide exploitation but how capital seeks to manipulate them to impose more work.

36 Obviously, even the notion of “biological subsistence” is fuzzy because between full health and immediate death lies a whole range of degrees of wellness and illness, strength and weakness, and consequently of life expectancy.

37 Please note: worker success in forcing a diversion of value from surplus value to the value of labor power, or, in money terms, from profits to wages, while it may reduce the rate at which capital can expand, nevertheless increases the amount of work that can be imposed producing the things workers are able to buy with their increased wages. Thus higher wage workers are more “valuable” to capital, not just in the sense that it must spend more money on them, but because those higher wages, expended on consumption goods, provide expanded opportunities to impose work. In mainstream macroeconomics consumption expenditure is recognized as the largest source of “effective demand” and thus the major source of employment.

38 The rationale for such expenditures was provided by studies that demonstrated how much of the early post-WWII growth in the US economy was due to improvements in the quality of both capital and labor.

39 Although, as I have mentioned, capital was able to shape public education throughout the 20th Century, the student movement of the 1960s seriously reduced the legitimacy of business influence in schools – a situation corporations have been trying hard to reverse ever since.

40 While the economists discussed, of course, other parts of the government were sending in police and military troops to quell the uprisings.

41 The expenditure of money on hiring workers, of course, is only part of the expenditure by business of money as capital. Other monies are spent on the means of production – factories, tools, machines, raw materials. In Part I of Volume III of Capital the circuit of capital M-C-M’ is expanded in a way that makes this explicit: M-C(LP,MP) . . . P . . .C’-M’.

42 This circuit of the reproduction of labor power was first spelled out in the appendix to H. Cleaver, "Malaria, The Politics of Public Health, and the International Crisis" in the Review of Radical Political Economics, Spring 1977.

43 Some of this happened in the United States during the central city insurgencies of the mid-1960s. It also happened when the Zapatista communities of Chiapas in Southern Mexico sold cattle and pooled their money to buy guns for their army that came out of the jungle and took over six towns in the early hours of January 1, 1994.

44 On such efforts to “unionize the ghettos” see Paolo Carpignano, “US Class Composition in the Sixties,” Zerowork #1, 1975. See also the classic work by Frances Fox Piven and Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why they Succeed and How they Fail, New York: Pantheon, 1977.

45 Despite being stripped of explicit Keynesian elements before passage, the Full Employment Act of 1946 formalized the federal mandate to maintain full employment and avoid future depressions. The seminal article recognizing how Keynesianism constituted a capitalist adaptation to a new level of working class power was Antonio Negri, “John M. Keynes e la teoria capitalistica dello stato nel ’29”, Contropiano, No. 1, 1968, subsequently published in the collection S. Bologna et al., Operai e stato: Lotte operaie e riforma dello stato capitalistico tra rivoluzione d’Ottobre e New Deal, Feltrinelli, 1972 and in English in Toni Negri, Revolution Retrieved: Selected Writings on Marx, Keynes, Capitalist Crisis and New Social Subjects, 1967-83, London: Red Notes, 1988.

46 This was a key element in Baran and Sweezy’s arguments about the rise of “monopoly capital” and was juxtaposed to the early 20th Century phenomenon that Hilferding observed and analyzed of industrial capital being financed and overseen by financial capital, i.e., an early period of what is now called “financialization.” See: Rudolf Hilferding, Finance Capital: A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development (1910).

47 Despite the reliance of this system on Keynesian methods to bring about adjustments in international accounts, this was not the system recommended by Keynes himself. At Bretton Woods Keynes had argued for the creation of a world central bank that would issue a world money and a set of rules where deficit and surplus countries would be under equal obligation to engineer adjustments. Unlike the Americans who constantly pushed for free capital mobility, Keynes also expected and accepted strict national regulation of international capital flows.

48 In reality, of course, the actual amount of free time and energy available on weekends has been limited by two things: first, the still great amount of time dominated by work during the other five days has meant that part of every weekend is taken up doing those things necessary for the reproduction of labor power that could not be done during the waged week, second, capital moved to colonize the weekend just as it had previously moved to colonize other hours liberated from waged work, e.g., by providing plenty of entertainment to divert workers’ time and energy away from struggle. Access to much of that entertainment, of course, has to be purchased (movies, concerts, races, etc.) – a process facilitated by financial institutions providing credit cards whose high rates of interest all too often have led to new forms of “debt peonage”.

49 Neoclassical microeconomists eventually recognized that many consumer goods and leisure time are “complementary” goods, such the increasing acquisition of the former, bought with rising wages, can lead to demands for less work and more leisure time in which to employ or enjoy what they can buy. Such demands contradict the macroeconomic goal of “full employment” premised on fixed working hours.

50 See: H. Cleaver, "Close the IMF, Abolish Debt and End Development: a Class Analysis of the International Debt Crisis," 1989 Capital & Class No. 39, Winter 1989.

51 In the United States austerity is being imposed both at the federal and state level. At the federal level while Republican Party members have been the most vociferous and extreme in their demands for cutting expenditures to reduce federal debt, most Democratic Party members, including the President, have largely accepted their logic and the only debates have been over how much to cut and where. At the state level, varying degrees of austerity are also being imposed – largely on the basis of local constitutional requirements to balance state budgets. In a situation of falling tax revenue brought on by the financial crisis and the consequent economic slump the existing requirements mandate the reduction of expenditures. At both levels, the voices of dissident economists arguing against austerity, for more government action to stimulate growth and for revoking such constitutional requirements have been largely ignored.

52 Frankly, I would think all of this should be clear here in Poland because much the same strategies of austerity and repression were used in the wake of the overthrow of communist governments. Jeff Sachs, after all, brought his “shock therapy” from Latin American to Poland (before moving on to Russia) advising the new Polish government on how to implement neoliberal, pro-market policies that would impose discipline on a population that had just freed itself from a totalitarian government.




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