If the term “communisation” is absent from Endnotes 4 this is due partly to the topics we covered, and partly to our frustration with the way this word has become associated with a new theoretical brand and/or radical identity. We will return to the theme of communism in the present tense in Endnotes 5, but as a preview of that issue we here publish a critical take on “communisation” by some friends of ours and the classless society (Freundinnen und Freunden der klassenlosen Gesellschaft). We don’t agree with it all, and we will include a response in the forthcoming issue, but in the meantime we hope it will provide food for thought.
This text was originally published in the Friends' journal Kosmoprolet as a response to Théorie Communiste’s critique of the Friends' 28 Theses on Class Society. A translation of TC's original critique can be found here.
In the 1970s, somebody in France invented the word communisation in order to express a fairly simple, but important idea: the proletarian revolution is not the self-realization of the proletariat, but its self-abolition. This idea is nothing new, for it can already be found in a polemical work from 1845.1 However, it never played a strong role in the labour movement, signifying at best the horizon of a distant future. Rather, the conquest of political power by the proletariat topped the agenda. In the subsequent transitional socialist society, which was still to be dominated by commodity production and the strict measurement of the individual share of social wealth, the proletariat would lay the foundations for communism as a classless society in which there would be no more wage system and, indeed, no more proletariat. The term communisation expresses the obsolescence of this notion. According to the proponents of communisation, communism is not a distant goal, but the movement itself which eliminates all exchange relations as well as the state. As is apparent from our 28 Theses on Class Society, we share this perspective, although we do so, according to a French theory circle, in a fashion that is half-hearted, and ultimately bound to the “affirmation of the proletariat.”2 It is this we seek to examine below.
What is characteristic for the journal Théorie Communiste (TC) — which emerged in the 1970s from the council communist milieu and for some time has been the subject of heated debate among circles scattered across the globe — is that they seek to historicize the perspective of communisation. For TC, it was not only the hegemonic currents of the old labour movement — Western Reformism and Bolshevism — but also the radical left dissidents up to the 1970s that relied on the notion of a positive workers’ identity. What unites these currents and their understanding of communism, according to TC, is that they posited labour as the defining principle of the new society. Importantly, TC also includes self-organization and workers’ autonomy as propagated by radicals in the past within this perspective, labeling it all “programmatism”. This is how the Situationist International comes to be seen as a phenomenon of historical transition: while going beyond the constraints of “programmatism” by promoting the self-abolition of the proletariat, the S.I. was at the same time bound to an epoch in decline by seeking to accomplish this self-abolition by means of workers’ councils. It was only with the restructuring of the 1970s – roughly everything that is today described as precarity, Post-Fordism, neoliberalism, globalization, and which TC designates as the “second phase of the real subsumption” – that this phase of the class contradiction comes to an end. Only with the disappearance of any positive worker identity, the real abolition of the capital relation becomes conceivable. TC does not claim that earlier revolutionaries made “mistakes”; rather they argue that earlier ideas of revolution and communism were adequate for the shape of the contradiction between capital and the proletariat at the time, but are no longer adequate today. Today, the accumulation of capital and the reproduction of the working class are growing apart; the proletarian class no longer finds confirmation in capitalist development; from its struggles it becomes evident that it is nothing outside of the capital relation; its very being as a class is no longer anything but an external constraint. For the first time, this opens up the possibility of the self-abolition of the proletariat.
Friends of communisation have been fighting over this historicisation for years. The most obvious counter-position comes from Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic: “Of course the realisation of communism depends on the historical moment, but its deep content remains invariant in 1796 and in 2002. If the ‘nature’ of the proletariat is to be taken as Marx summarized it theoretically, then the subversive moment in proletarian existence does not depend on the successive forms which the course of capitalist development assumes.”3 Dauvé and Nesic accuse TC of determinism; TC accuses Dauvé and Nesic of lacking historical perspective.4
And we too are criticized for such a lack. It is true that in one passage of the Theses, we speak about the revolution and the miserable conditions it encountered in Russia in 1917, and it is true that we write, “that class struggles could have had different outcomes”. However, instead of speculating about this outcome, we continue: “But the view of history is inevitably conditioned by its further progression, in which the dialectic of repression and emancipation has not ceased.” The whole text is a plea against nostalgia, which should already be evident from the fact that we characterize the most advanced communist blueprint of the time, namely that of the council communists, as the “self-management of commodity production”; the abolition of commodity production only came into view around 1968, simply due to the “higher level of capitalist socialization, which can directly” — without a socialist transitional phase of blood, sweat, and tears — “turn over into communism”. In the same unambiguous vein, we comment on Marx’s program of state power conquest: “That’s all history now.” When TC mocks our linking of the very Canne-Meijer whose labour vouchers we object to with communisation, they overlook the fact that we emphasize only a certain quite modern thought of Canne-Meijer’s, namely that in the struggles themselves — and not after a successful conquest of power — new social relations emerge. In short, if TC reads into a text about the historical change of class society and the attempts to overcome it, a “consistent essence of the revolution”; if they discover a romanticisation of workers’ autonomy of the 1960s and 1970s, despite the fact that we term it the “real movement of the wage-labourers,” which wanted “if not everything, then at least more wages and less work” and that their “autonomy (…) meant wildcat strikes – or striking with the union, but without regard for losses”; if they represent our leitmotif as the “contradiction between self-organization and substitutionism” although we ourselves criticize such an opposition as “a certain mythology of the radical left” — then they completely miss our point.
The real differences lie elsewhere. They concern the concept of production, the character of today’s class struggles, and the relationship between theory and struggles. We will try to clarify our thoughts on this and to show why, for us, the positions of TC seem closely built on obscurantism.
Hardly a thought in Marx’s theory is considered more objectionable today than that of labour as an “eternal natural necessity.” Against the historical background of state socialism and the communist parties in the West, in which the working class was driven to increased drudgery, this idea is read as an apology for the status quo: one cannot rebel against natural necessity. Over the last few decades, therefore, the “critique of labour” in its different and sometimes conflicting versions gained substantial ground. For the most part, however, this critique goes in circles, leading one to conclude that Marx’s critique of political economy itself contains the most reasonable critique of labour, or in other words, that the existing form of labour itself is its most radical critic. Marx’s supposedly objectionable formula is not a naturalization of social relations, but, on the contrary, first makes such relations intelligible. Marx criticizes labour in the sense that he makes distinctive the dual character of commodity-producing labour which posits use-value as well as exchange-value. He took this as the “pivot”5 of the critique of political economy because therein all the contradictions of the existing mode of production originate in embryonic form.
The socialist labour movement did not target the dual character of labour, but campaigned against the “contradiction between social production and private appropriation.” The scandal from which it emerged was the glaring opposition between the working poor and non-working rich. If the bourgeois had scandalized the parasitic feudal gentry by demanding that wealth ought to be the fruit of labour, it was now the socialist labour movement that mobilized this very maxim against bourgeois society itself. Its criticism was directed against the capitalists who lived off the work of others and its socialism was to realize the bourgeois principle of merit: “From each according to his abilities – to each according to his performance.” Despite the misery that the factory system bestowed upon the workers, large-scale industry appeared to be a tremendous advance over pre-modern forms of production. It was merely in the wrong hands and had to be wrested away from the self-serving capitalists in order to be applied for the common good under the auspices of the state. While the labour movement objected to the concrete shape of the labour process, it never targeted the social form of commodity-producing labour as such; rather it was to be managed consciously by the state. In this respect, state socialism in the East was the legitimate child of the labour movement, and consequently their critique was - as particularly evident within Trotskyism - aimed almost exclusively at its political despotism and its fall behind democratic civil liberties, but almost never at the nature of its economy.
The labour movement did not advocate a world of labour out of enthusiasm for the drudgery, but out of simple necessity. Technical progress and the extension of the obligation to work to all members of society were supposed to shorten the working day. Left social historians have rightly insisted that class struggle and the workers’ movement – the conduct of the workers and the official programs of their organizations – were two very different animals. The gap between labour leaders who call for increasing production and workers who want to escape work wherever possible can be seen from the nineteenth century through the Spanish Civil War up to socialist Chile under Salvador Allende. But society as a whole could not escape work, and if the workers were for a different society, labour would necessarily still be at its core.
This was true even for the dissidents. In its 1920 program, the ultra-left KAPD called for the “ruthless enforcement of the obligation to work,”6 and while state socialism praised its own “conscious application of the law of value,” the council communists tried to prove in an extensive written account that the socially-necessary labour time which the law of value is based upon could also be calculated by the associated producers themselves in order to overcome market relations. “In its essence, therefore, the social revolution is nothing more than the introduction of the labour-hour as the unit measure regulating and controlling the whole of economic life. It serves as the measure in production and, simultaneously, the right of the producers to their share in the social product is measured through its instrumentality.”76 This last point was particularly important to the authors. Even after May 68, French ultra-leftists presented such techniques of measurement as a principle of the future.87
It is significant that Paul Mattick, former member of the KAPD, referred to this idea as “weak” forty years later in an introduction to the publication. The council communists of the 1930s outlined “a phase of socialist development within which the principle of the exchange of equivalents still prevails.” Mattick counters this raw socialist egalitarianism with Marx: “The abolition of calculation based on labour time for distribution,” results in “the realization of the communist principle: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ In the advanced capitalist countries…the social forces of production are sufficiently developed to produce means of consumption in overabundance. More than half of all capitalist production as well as the unproductive activities associated with it (totally disregarding the productive forces which are not exploited) surely have nothing to do with real human consumption, but only make sense in the irrational economy of capitalist society. It is clear, then, that under the conditions of a communist economy, so many consumption goods could be produced that any calculation of their individual shares of average socially necessary labour time would be superfluous.”9
As with every attempt at historical periodisation, in this case no precise date can be given for when that point had been reached. However, looking back at over two hundred years of communist theory, it can be stated that what Marx, starting from the historical tendencies of the capitalist mode of production “in its ideal average,” described as a distant future, appeared to be a tangible possibility sometime after the Second World War: the abolition of commodity production and a complete transformation of the material life process of society. Loren Goldner described this period as the “Grundrisse phase of capitalism,” in which scientific work that brings with it automation, among other things, is directly appropriated by capital.10 Against this background, Herbert Marcuse in 1967 speculated about whether Marx’s distinction between the realm of freedom and the realm of necessity was anachronistic, if the opportunity was not given to “let the realm of freedom appear within the realm of necessity – in labour and not only beyond necessary labour.” The tendency anticipated in the Grundrisse to reduce physical labour to the minimum enabled a free society in which “play, with the potentialities of human and nonhuman nature, would become the content of social labour.” By contemplating “the convergence of technology and art and the convergence of work and play,” Marcuse pointed to a tradition of the critique of labour that goes back to German Idealism and to Charles Fourier and Paul Lafargue. Given the state of the development of the productive forces at that time, however, it comes as no surprise that this critique fell largely on deaf ears among the labour movement and was confined to the role of its utopian, idealistic accompanying music well into the twentieth century. As a materialist, Marcuse rejected “a romantic regression behind technology.” Rather, he argues that “the potential liberating blessings of technology and industrialization will not even begin to be real and visible until capitalist industrialization and capitalist technology have been done away with.”11
The limit of freedom, of play, is demarcated by external nature, which cannot be transformed at will, because purposeful human activity must adapt to nature as an objective, external given. By calling labour “productive activity,” one has only changed the name, not altered the thing itself. Marcuse’s ideas are materialist insofar as the possibility of reconciliation between work and play, between purposeful and free activity, is derived from nothing other than the results of the domination of nature as it evolved under the whip of capital. He does this with great caution when he maintains, “that labour as such cannot be abolished”, although it can be very different from its present form, so that “the convergence of labour and play does not divulge too far from the possibilities.”12 When we write in the Theses that revolution would not dissolve the realm of necessity “in nothing other than play and pleasure,” it is a reminder of the limits that the attempt at such dissolution will repeatedly encounter. It is a recognition of nature and the necessity for mediation with it. Thus caution is warranted with respect to a critique of labour that scandalizes the fact that labour is not a purpose in itself but rather relates to an external one.
In contrast to the speculation about the reconcilability or irreconcilability between work and play in the future, the critique of the social form of labour is a matter of the here and now. The historical distance to the socialist labour movement can also be characterized in such a way that it not the “contradiction between social production and private appropriation,” but the contradiction in commodity-producing labour itself — between wealth creation and valorization that needs to be resolved. TC apparently has no concept of this contradiction, because they do not comprehend the existing form of labour and thus the category of value. Our characterization of this form as one which is socially-unsocial is misunderstood and dismissed as a reprise of the “philosophical communism of the 1840s”: “One must make clear that labour as a producer of value, more precisely, as valorization of capital, as well as a division of labour as a commodity production is social. This socialization need not correspond to any ‘real sociality’ in order to appear as contradictory, rather the contradiction lies between the classes.” To play out the contradiction between classes against the one inherent within commodity-producing labour misses the decisive point.
Classes, surplus labour, and exploitation are ancient. What lends the modern class relation its dynamic and explosive power is the fact that proletarians produce wealth in a form that is contradictory and crisis-ridden and thus bears the potential to transcend contemporary social relations: increasing material wealth is not the same as increasing value.13 What differentiates the modern wage labourer from slaves or serfs is that she consistently risks making herself superfluous through her labour. These contradictions are present in the commodity in embryonic form and so commodity-producing labour is only social in the banal sense, in which all work, apart from the Robinsonades of the political economists, is social. What is specific about it is this: “Articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum-total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society…the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.”14 Given this, TC turns the matter on its head when they reject the socialization of labour and of the means of production as the “Alpha and Omega of the affirmation of the proletariat.” If the proletariat is the class that is separated from the means of production, reduced to the bare subjectivity of a labour reservoir, only able to survive by selling its living-time to capital, then its self-abolition consists of nothing other than taking possession of this means of production.
It seems to us that TC has abandoned every materialist conception of production, a move which results in a strange juxtaposition of nihilism and romanticism: nihilism vis-à-vis today’s world and romanticism vis-à-vis communism. Communism is no longer the determinate negation of society, but a total miracle. TC paraphrases our position “that ‘necessity’ produces class society, and not the other way around,” but finds this incomprehensible, as if it is a somewhat aberrant idea that the historical origin of the class division was the impulse to shift the natural necessity of labour onto others. This is because nature has no place in TC’s thinking. Labor is not taken as a mediator between man and nature, which always takes a particular social form, but only as a social relation: “Production is presented [in the 28 Theses] as a bothersome necessity, but still neutral and objective, performed by an equally neutral and objective activity — labour. It is only necessary to reduce this curse. Yet labour presents a social relationship, much like the forces of production. The aim is not its reduction, but its abolition.” That this abolition, which amounts to a renaming of labour as “productive activity” and its “becoming passionate,” is perhaps not immediately possible, is acknowledged in a brief moment of sobriety and then immediately withdrawn: “Maybe the productive activities as a whole will not become passionate ‘overnight,’ but certainly communism is not conceivable as a juxtaposition of two different spheres. It is impossible that in communism some activities continue to be dispassionate, while others will have shed this character.” These two sentences contradict each other in such a blatant way that they result in a squaring of the circle. The result is wishful thinking and arbitrary decrees. The irony – the aforementioned circle in which today’s ‘critique of labour’ moves – is that to speak of a “becoming passionate” of all “productive activities” describes nothing other than a condition in which “labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want,”15 a phrase that terrifies friends of communisation. Language games of this type, the core of today’s “critique of labour,” lead straight into a hopeless terminological confusion.
As far as the spheres are concerned, the end of their separation follows from that of wage labour. The boundary between the economy, a sphere subjected to blind laws, and all other spheres of life coincides with the boundary between wage labour and leisure. If the proletarians abolish wage labour and hence themselves as a class, by taking possession of the means of production of their lives, the economy as a distinct sphere would disappear; similar to the reabsorption of the state by society, of which Marx speaks somewhere, one could also speak of a reabsorption of the economy by society. That is what we meant by the phrase that the realm of necessity would not “persist in its current abstract opposition to a realm of freedom emptied of any possibility for shaping the world.” If Marx in a classic passage envisions a “shortening of the working-day”, this is misleading insofar as it implies the persistence of two clearly distinct areas, thus almost giving the impression that in communism there will still be punch clocks. The weakness of TC and many others, it seems to us, is that they can take the opposite position (for the abolition of punch clocks) only based on the false promise of a “becoming passionate” of all productive activities and thus paint communism in a rather naive or infantile manner as pure pleasure and fun, which it will certainly not be. This position is merely the mirror image of the notoriously bourgeois ideology which, out of the inevitable inconveniences of life, derives the inevitability of domination and coercion. Freely associated individuals will have to deal with bothersome necessities; how they will do so we do not know, but we are confident that the commune will not fail over the question of who’s going to clean the loo tomorrow. And as long as there are bothersome necessities to deal with, the “economy of time” (Marx) will of course remain relevant; it is hard to see why for example the production of coffee cups has to be “passionate,” instead of completing it with a minimum expenditure of time. The point would be to have the freedom to organize these things according to discretion and corresponding to the needs and abilities of all, though the magnitude of the task should not be underestimated and certainly requires planning (a word which arouses suspicion of Stalinism among most communisers, though they of course cannot specify how several billions of interdependent individuals should be able to organize their lives without planning).
On the other hand, TC bans from theory what is not mere wishful thinking, but a real contradiction of the present — the contradiction between wealth creation and valorization. The inability to grasp the capitalist mode of production as a specific social form of appropriation of nature leads to the fantasy of a communism unburdened by materiality: “If there is renewed hope in the recognition of ‘idleness,’ then it is based on the development of ‘productivity’ (Thesis 21). Is this to be understood in that the latter must be maintained to allow for the former?” Yes, it is. How could it be otherwise? The mystery of how idleness is possible without productivity dissolves to the effect that the vile “having” in communism is not a concern here, because it has to do with something higher: “It is important to clearly emphasize, that the possibility of surplus does not enable communism, but that the production of communism determines the surplus — not quantitatively, but socially, in that it transforms the production of the relations between individuals as individuals into the center and purpose of all activities. By transcending the category of having, communism gives wealth, which can no longer be measured, a completely different meaning.” “The surplus created through the communist revolution is not of the order of having, but of being together, of community.” In order to be together in bare communities, however, one does not have to assume the wager of communist revolution; this fortune already exists today.
We quote these passages in such detail, because they do not concern any secondary aspect, but rather the central question of the relationship between the free society and the existing one. If something is important in the debate over “communisation,” then it is to raise again the question of the possible outcome of class struggles, instead of merely describing them in indiscriminate strike reports. And if there is something right in it, then it is the insistence that this outcome can only be the end of the proletariat, not its triumph. The cited passages reveal, however, a failure that characterizes current radicals far beyond TC. If the socialism of the workers’ movement was little more than the perpetuation of the existing order under state control, then today’s radicalism is often mere pseudo-radicalism, because it can no longer decipher the potentials for another society in the existing one.16 The result is a kind of inverted fetishism: What the political economists do as intentional apology is here done as apparent denunciation. Just as from the narrow-minded perspective of political economy any means of production is by nature capital and labour can only take the form of wage-labour, so also do most communisers conflate the specific social form of the production process with its material shape. Burning down factories and other buildings is hence seen as the highest expression of revolutionary subjectivity, as was most beautifully shown by Greek TC followers who declared the recent London riots to be a “historical milestone” and presented the burning of factories by striking workers in Bangladesh as a way of “attacking their own existence as proletarians.”17 Even the simple counting of the items that proletarians loot and freely distribute in the course of an uprising is seen by some communisers as an original sin since the point is to realize “the absolute anti-planning.”18 As much as TC insists that the revolutionary rupture can only arise from class struggle, the content of this rupture remains mystical: “The abolition of classes also means the abolition of activity as subjectivity as well as of its product as objectivity facing it [...] The de-objectification of the world unfolds in the movement of the revolution itself.” Instead of criticizing the social forms of activity and product (wage-labour and the commodity), activity and product as such are condemned; instead of criticizing the bare subjectivity of the wage labourer and the objectivity of capital confronting him as an alien power, war is declared on subjectivity and objectivity as such, as if the history of humanity stepping out of nature could be revoked short of the extinction of humankind itself. The critical content of formulas such as “de-objectification of the world” and “abolition of activity as subjectivity” equals nothing; they merely evoke an undivided whole, a pure immediacy, which is why elsewhere nothing less than the “abolition of society” and the “end of all mediation”19 is announced. Thus the journey leads from the critique of false mediation to pure immediacy, from society to community, from having to being, from Marx to Buddha.
What TC is usually credited for in the international discussion is the attempt to work out what is new about the current situation and to consider the past history of class struggle to be an irrevocably closed chapter. Almost all radicals have their historical benchmark where the workers did what they should also do now — though something always went wrong, which is why “lessons from history” must be learned for it to work better next time: For left-communists, this is the period after the First World War, in which there was a (not always happy) interplay of workers’ councils and communist organizations from Western Europe to Russia; for anarcho-syndicalists, this was the Spanish Civil War; for fans of the Situationist International, this was May 68; for workerists, this was the factory struggles of the “mass workers” in the 1960s and 1970s;20 for those more intellectually flexible, this was a little of everything. TC insists that all this is equally history, the workers’ autonomy of the 1970s no less than the left communist and syndicalist unions of the 1920s, since the restructuring of recent decades has put an end to workers’ power and workers’ identity. This restructuring is not limited to the production process, but affects the class relationship as a whole: “The reproduction of capital, which was pinned to a more or less limited national or regional area, loses this framework of coherence and references. The state protected the cohesion of this reproduction, in that it stems from the dominant pole (that which subsumes the other) of the reciprocal involvement of the proletariat and capital. It was the guarantor of this involvement, what was used to called maintaining the ‘social compromise.’ The principle of this loss of coherence is based on the division between the valorization process of capital and the reproduction of labour power. The valorization of capital escapes ‘upwards’ in fragments or segments of the global cycle of capital, on the level of investment, the production process, credit, financial capital, the market, the circulation of surplus value, the equalization of profit, and the framework of competition.
The reproduction of labour power escapes ‘downwards.’ In the ‘best’ case scenario a decoupling of wage and productivity occurs. Welfare is transformed into a total, standardized preliminary purchase of labour power at the minimum level that suppresses its value at the time of its individual sale. In the worse case scenario: Self-subsistence, local solidarity, and parallel economies. (...) Where the interests of industry, finance, and the labour force were spatially connected, a separation between the valorization of capital and the reproduction the labour force can be established. The space of the restructured capitalist world is subdivided at all levels in its ‘fractal’ zones: world, continents, countries, regions, cities, and neighborhoods. At each level, a constellation of different zones is articulated: an ‘overdeveloped’ core; zones that group themselves around more or less dense capitalist cores; crisis-ridden zones characterized by direct violence against the ‘social garbage,’ margins, ghettos, and a subterranean economy controlled by various mafia groups.”21
TC summarizes this situation as double decoupling between valorization and reproduction of labour power: as a geographic divergence and as a decoupling of workers’ income from the wage by means of an expansion of consumer credit. The outcome is a crisis in the wage relation, reflected in a new “illegitimacy of the wage demand.” The existence of the worker has lost its luster and no longer finds confirmation in the movement of capital; it is no longer anything but an external constraint. Against this backdrop, TC sees a “new cycle of struggles,” in which – according to the endlessly repeated formula – to act as a class is the very limit of the class struggle. References are made to riots without demands like in the French banlieues in 2005 and in Greece in 2008; to workers at plant closings, who do not demand to keep their jobs, but rather severance pay; to workplace occupations, in which there is no self-managed resumption of production, but rather the destruction of goods and machines; to experiences like in Argentina, in which the self-organization of workers as workers only prolonged the separations between different sectors; to the movement in France in 2006, that called for the withdrawal of the CPE law without hoping for much from this demand, let alone believing that the demand for stable jobs could create a connection to the youths in the banlieues.22
As outlined in the 28 Theses, we also see the defining features of the last decades in such terms: as the crumbling of the great worker’s bastions in the old centers, production relocations, casualization extending well into “regular” work relations, increased global competition among the wage earners, and the revocation of the social democratic promise of upward social mobility.23 And in contrast to what is alleged in TC’s reply, for us it is neither about a rescue of the workers’ autonomy of the 1960s and 1970s (whose demise in the course of restructuring we explicitly state), nor do we expect “with respect to the precarious and ‘superfluous’ (...) the re-birth of a essentially similar actor,” especially since we do not know how to imagine this: How should the precarious and superfluous bring about the rebirth of a movement whose basis was large-scale industry? Our claim that the “future of the class as a whole depends decisively upon the ability of the superfluous to make their situation the point of departure for a generalized social movement” is precisely not aimed at the “rebirth” of a faded movement, but at our historically novel situation. What distinguishes the global constellation today not only from the period around 1917, but also the years around 1968, is not least of all the “gigantic surplus population” mentioned in the 28 Theses which results from dramatic rationalization waves in industry as well as from the “green revolution” in the south, i.e. the still continuing proletarianization of the rural population (and thus in both cases from the development of the productive forces). This “informal proletariat” (Mike Davis) makes the “centrality of the factory” invoked by the workerists seem quite antiquated, without being itself the new “central subject.” We do not want to participate in such games of the theorists of revolution – one fraction takes the productive working class as already integrated and eagerly looks to the excluded and their bread riots, the other fraction takes the bread riots as powerless and relies on the productive working class and its strong arms – and the excessive exaggeration of the riots in the banlieues into an uprising against “everything that produces and defines them [the rebels]”24 is not ours, but TC’s.
Though largely correct, TC’s picture of the current era goes askew when it serves to invoke a situation in which almost nothing is left to the workers than to rebel against their own existence as a class. What makes others depressed and gives rise to nostalgia — the endless chain of defeats in recent workers’ struggles — provides a good reason to be optimistic in this perspective. And if we are not mistaken, it is especially this good news of the self-abolition of the class already being on the agenda in this new cycle of struggles that accounts for the fascination of TC.
Already the image of the previous era, which largely resembles the “Fordism” of regulation theorists, is strongly stylized, so that the present stands out as an even stronger contrast. “Fordism” was not a cohesive national formation: The industries that supported it — manufacturers of durable consumer goods — produced for the world market and already for this reason did not consider the local working class as consumers, but, as was always the case, a cost factor. The increasing real wages of the golden decades after the Second World War were not “ideal”25 for valorization (this assumption is a left Keynesian legend), but had to be fought for by the workers and could be gained because accumulation ran like clockwork and ensured full employment for quite a while.
This has long been passé. With the creeping crisis of overaccumulation over the last decades, revolutions in communications and transportation allowing for a new global division of labour, the giant productivity increases of digital technologies, and the proletarianization of the southern hemisphere, this constellation has been broken. As a result, the position of wage earners in the old centers has becomes more precarious, albeit with significant differences from country to country — Germany for example is far less “post-Fordist” than Britain or the United States, with the core workforce of the strong export industries being able to largely defend its position. But the image of a global downward spiral of wages and working conditions is wrong. As much as workers feel the new global wage pressure, those in the new boom zones are occasionally in a position to wrest something from the class enemy. It seems quite bold to assume a general “illegitimacy of the wage demand” when even the Economist wishes the Chinese working class all the best in the wage struggle in order to balance the inequalities in the global economy, and when more recently the demand for free trade unions has been circulating through struggles there.26 It is of course true that the large concentrations of workers in India or in China present “no return of what disappeared in the ‘West’ – a social system that (...) defined the worker’s identity and expressed itself in the labour movement,” if only because historical formations never take their leave in one place in order to emerge again as faithful replicas in another. But a simple catastrophism, which is already contradicted by wage developments in the regions that are still trying to catch up, is hardly helpful for understanding the current class reality. For many proletarians in China, India, and Brazil, for example, capitalism still, or for the first time, carries the promise of a better life, or at least one not as bleak and monotonous as that in the countryside from which, not surprisingly, they are moving away to the new metropolitan areas. These people seem to prefer wealth of the order of having rather than of the being together in the village community.
TC’s attempt to bring the various struggles around the world to the denominator of a “new cycle” heralding the self-abolition of the class is characterized by wishful thinking and results in a forced construction, a fixed system into which reality is squeezed; what does not fit into the picture is ignored. It is, for example, simply not the case that wage struggles are nowhere successful any longer or that the demand for compensation today has generally replaced the demand to save jobs. Instead of attributing to the disparate struggles a common historical tendency, they should be understood precisely in their diversity as an expression of a certain moment.
The thesis that we find ourselves currently in a crisis of the wage relation and that the contradiction between capital and proletariat is now situated at the level of the reproduction of the classes themselves overstates the case. Through the normal course of business, the daily performance of wage labour, the class relationship is constantly reproduced. By reproducing their own lives, proletarians reproduce capital and their dependence on it. If the life of workers becomes more precarious and the surplus population increases, that is bad for people, but irrelevant for capital, whose continued existence does not depend on general human happiness. A crisis of the wage relationship, understood not as a permanent crisis of the proletarian existence, but as a historical crossroads, would be given only if the proletarianized attempted to overcome this relation. Strictly speaking, the magic formula that “to act as a class is the limit of the class struggle,” or that class existence today is only an external coercion, states nothing more than that workers do not feel comfortable in their own skins and are less and less in a position to defend the status quo. The difference from earlier times, when there was a self-confident workers’ milieu, worker’s pride, and the socialist vision of a future workers’ civilization freed from the idlers and bosses, should not be underestimated. However, the disappearance of all this means in itself nothing more than that the only horizon remaining is the old world, as rotten and ailing as it may be. Compared to the current calls for “real democracy,” for regulating financial markets, redistribution, and so forth, with which the wage earners in the old centers protest against their proceeding precarization, even the worn-out socialism of the old days can look almost subversive.
TC evades this bleak reality with an operation that stems from the arsenal of exactly the old ultra-leftism to whose supersession they have committed themselves: the theorists project their desire for revolution onto contemporary struggles. Just as some council communists saw the dawn of the councilist revolution whenever workers’ actions had escaped union control, today’s struggles are seen by TC also in a triumphalist light: “Communism belongs to the present, because it is the content of the current practices of class struggle.” Relegated to the realm of myths as a historical constant, the revolutionary nature of the proletariat suddenly emerges in the present: “The proletariat as a class of the capitalist mode of production and the revolutionary class are identical.” Already the notion of a goal and the sober observation that this goal currently has few friends is considered reprehensible. And the same communist theorists who showed no inhibition to define in great detail what communism is and isn’t suddenly show great humility and claim to be nothing more than note takers of the proletarian world spirit, whose activity takes place before their eyes: “It’s not about asking the question of the end point of the class struggle in the future, but the definition itself of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, which now represents the class struggle.” Such humility amounts to a considerable hubris, in so far as the theorists’ communism is no longer merely an idea of the theorists — and maybe a fairly eccentric one at that — but is awarded the higher consecration of expressing the historical movement itself. Our reflections on the relation between theory and practice may be unsatisfactory. But it is even more unsatisfactory to resolve the problem by denying the difference out of hand and declaring one’s own theory as nothing more than the condensed and generalized expression of the struggles themselves.
This proclaimed self-limitation of theory cannot be maintained by the advocates of communisation. To take this self-limitation seriously would be to eliminate precisely what is relevant in the debate on communisation, namely the attempt to redefine the revolution after the end of socialism in all its different facets. By playing through the idea of what revolution can mean at a historical point in which the conquest of political power as well as workers’ self-management have been exhausted as a perspective, in which there can be no unity of the class before its self-abolition and the class maybe does not even have to recognize itself as such in order to take action, by stressing for example that in a situation of revolutionary crisis the seizure and free distribution of goods would be the most powerful weapon of the proletariat in the process of abolishing itself, such contributions to the debate are nothing less than communist social fiction, a conscious projection, and that is what makes them interesting.27
What makes them flawed is a steady drift towards mysticism, ultimately driven by fear of the concept of production, though the picture is not always so clear in this respect. Precisely at this decisive point the theorists of communisation entangle themselves in nothing but contradictions and end up in complete confusion. Having said that “the capitalist mode of production already allows us to see — albeit contradictorily and not as a ‘good side’ — human activity as a continuous global social flux, and the ‘general intellect’ or ‘collective worker’ as the dominant force of production”, they assert in the very next sentence that the “social character of production does not prefigure anything”28; the product abolished as such a moment ago reemerges in shamefaced quotation marks in the scenario of revolution, where it is freely distributed; socialization of labour and the means of production are deemed sometimes as the “Alpha and Omega of the affirmation of the proletariat,” and at other times as the only revolutionary way out. At times it seems that the theorists of communisation do not really understand themselves. It remains to their credit that they ruthlessly note the end of an era, showing what from today’s perspective is insufficient about earlier attempts at revolution, and at least pose the question of how the escalation of class struggles into communism could occur today.