"Proletarian" must be understood to mean, economically speaking, nothing other than "wage-laborer,” the man [sic] who produces and valorizes "capital,” and is thrown onto the street as soon as he becomes superfluous to the need for valorization.
Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1
This is the only explicit definition of the proletarian that Marx gives in Capital. What is important for our purposes is that this definition precludes the reductive identification of the proletarian exclusively with the wage-laborer who is presently, actively employed by the capitalist in the production of surplus-value, which was all too common in the classical workers’ movement from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.
Implicit in Marx’s definition is the underlying condition of proletarianization — that is, separation from the means of one’s own reproduction. If one possesses enough means of production to reproduce oneself and one’s offspring independently (as a peasant with a small plot of land can), then one is not compelled to appear on the labor market attempting to sell one’s labor-power for a wage. Appearing as a seller of labor-power is, of course, no guarantee that one will find a buyer. Marx well understood this, and noted that every proletarian is inherently a potential or “virtual pauper:” “if the capitalist has no use for his surplus labor, then the worker may not perform his necessary labor; not produce his necessaries. Then he cannot obtain them through exchange” (Grundrisse).
This may seem like an entirely banal point (unemployment is a possibility), but it is highly significant for any class theory given the following secular tendency inherent in capital’s drive to appropriate surplus value. Capitalist firms are driven to introduce technological and organizational innovations to enhance the productivity of labor and thereby capture more surplus value than their competitors, resulting in ever-greater quantities of fixed capital (i.e. high-tech labor-saving machines, etc.) which require the living labor of ever-fewer proletarians in the valorization process: “capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labor time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form” (Grundrisse). This does not just mean an increase of surplus labor time in the direct production process, but an increase of masses of proletarians whose time in its entirety becomes “superfluous to the need for valorization.” They are thus “thrown onto the street.” Hence with the growth of the productivity of labor, there also grows what Marx called a “relative surplus population,” whose desperate demand for work puts downward pressure on the wages of those still employed. He considered this tendency so important that he dubbed it “the general law of capitalist accumulation” (Capital Vol. 1). After being temporarily counteracted by the absorption of surplus populations into new lines that were initially both capital- and labor-intensive (auto, white goods) in the early 20th century, this “general law” has struck back with a vengeance since these lines were increasingly automated in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and new, less labor-intensive lines have not been able to profitably absorb as much surplus labor as has been thrown off.
What is the implication for class theory? Not all of these “virtual paupers” unnessecary for the valorization of capital immediately become “actual paupers” begging for change on the street (though the globe is now dotted with slum cities filled with just such proletarians). Because the growth of relative surplus populations is a consequence of the increasing productivity of labor, it is accompanied by the plummeting cost of consumer goods, lowering the total wage bill. An increasing amount of material wealth is produced by a shrinking amount of value-productive labor. That means that those proletarians tossed out of value-productive labor, if they cannot be absorbed into new lines (many of which are now in the low-wage, relatively technologically stagnant “service” sector), may find work in the various un(value-)productive sectors supported out of the total social capital (state jobs, the sphere of circulation, personal services exchanged against revenue not capital, etc.), in the informal economy, or in various semi-legal or outright illegal occupations and still eke out a living. All of these people are proletarianized, in that they cannot reproduce themselves independently, and must buy their necessaries on the market. But all live that condition in widely divergent ways and thus tend to perceive themselves as having widely divergent interests. This obviously presents a serious problem for those of us interested in the conditions of possibility of a revolutionary overcoming of capital, and thus in the production of something akin to what was traditionally called “class consciousness.”
Georg Lukács, despite all his brilliant theoretical work on reification and the commodity form, presented a notion of proletarian class consciousness that is wholly inadequate: “class consciousness consists in fact of the appropriate and rational reactions ‘imputed’ [zugerechnet] to a particular typical position in the process of production” (History and Class Consciousness). Now this may always have been inadequate, but it perhaps seemed plausible at an historical moment when an increasing number of proletarians were being concentrated in the above-mentioned capital- and labor-intensive lines of large-scale industry: this is the “typical position” of which Lukács speaks. Indeed, many theorists from Marx on counted upon the cooperative, socializing aspect of the industrial labor process itself to mold the proletariat into a discrete class-in-itself and sow the seeds of potential class consciousness. As Raya Dunayevskaya put it, when she was working with Detroit auto-workers in the 1950s: “the factory workers had discovered a new power — that of being together at a place forced upon them by the industrial capitalist. Thus, they were united and disciplined by the very instrument of production which coerced them” (Marxism and Freedom).
Today, by contrast, capital is demonstrating its secular tendency to make more and more of the class unnecessary to valorization. Globally, the absolute numbers of proletarianized people who are dependent on the market for their survival keeps increasing, but in every country, the relative number employed in value-productive labor is decreasing. This is clearly a crisis for the reproduction of capital and the class relation immanent to it. But it also means that we cannot rely on any “typical position” in a valorization process that employs less and less of the class to lay the material foundations for class consciousness. Any project for the revolutionary overcoming of capital must begin from the dispersed, atomized, and conflictual scattering of proletarians as we appear today. This is the importance of the problematic of “class composition,” formulated by Romano Alquati and the Italian operaisti (whatever their thought’s other flaws, and there are many). It is able to recognize that class consciousness is not just waking up to the “appropriate and rational reactions” that you should have given your objective place in total social reproduction: that in the long run, capital does not automatically produce the unity and discipline of the class, but its separation. The composition of the class as a revolutionary force is a process and a project that necessarily entails overcoming the separation of people whose immediate interests and experiences often put them at one another’s throats.
There is an essentially modern tragic symbol: it is a sort of large wheel spinning, which is no longer being steered by a hand.
Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant
The past ten years of long, turbulent fallout from the 2008 financial crisis have seen a resurgence of interest in neo-Keynesian reform schemes and social-democratic politicians promising some version of a return to the mid-20th century welfare society with its social wage, powerful and integrated unions, quasi-corporatist state, etc. This sudden and surprisingly widespread popularity of “socialist” rhetoric has, perhaps understandably, sent a flutter of optimism to tempt even some of the most jaded old revolutionaries to repeat “the insidious bourgeois superstition that one should not talk of the devil but look on the bright side” (Adorno, Minima Moralia). Unfortunately, there is no material basis for what Walter Benjamin called this “unprincipled, dilettantish optimism” (Surrealism). As Paul Mattick put it, “reform presupposes a reformable capitalism” (Workers’ Control) — social democracy, the left wing of capital, has only ever been able to lift workers’ boats when capital’s tide is rising, as it was in the mid-century boom, after World War II had destroyed massive amounts of surplus capital and labor-power, enabling the temporary resumption of an adequate rate of accumulation.
But since 1973, capital has entered into a permanent crisis, a kind of whirling death-spiral. Labor-productivity-increasing technological innovation may enable an individual firm to temporarily capture extra surplus value, because it can sell its products at a lower cost and undercut competitors, but these innovations are soon generalized across entire lines. As ever less living labor (variable capital) — which alone can produce new value — is employed in the production process relative to dead labor (constant capital), from the perspective of the total social capital, the mass of surplus value relative to capital applied, and hence the aggregate rate of profit, tendentially falls: “Since the mass of living labour applied continuously declines in relation to the mass of objectified labour that it sets in motion, i.e. the productively consumed means of production, the part of this living labour that is unpaid and objectified in surplus-value must also stand in an ever decreasing ratio to the value of the total capital applied. But this ratio between the mass of surplus-value and the total capital applied in fact constitutes the rate of profit, which must therefore steadily fall” (Capital Vol. 3).
This contradiction has been pushed near to breaking point over the past forty-five years, as the production of material wealth and the production of value spin in opposite directions from one another, shrinking the value-productive workforce, swelling the ranks of the relative surplus population, making everyone’s employment precarious and wages stagnant, and flooding the world with commodities that most proletarians can only afford on credit, i.e. a mortgaged mass of future labor. As the productive forces are now too productive (in a material sense) to be measured against labor-time, throwing the moribund value-form into crisis, capital’s blind, autonomized drive for self-expansion struggles to “maintain the already created value as value” (Grundrisse) by devalorizing surplus capital and surplus labor-power alike, and reflating gigantic fictitious bubbles of capitalized revenue streams with no underlying value in the total social capital: all social actors now, as Robert Kurz put it, “present the image of a lunatic pack of wolves that tear themselves apart over an ever-smaller scrap of value” (The Crisis of Exchange Value). There is certainly none left over for a neo-welfare state’s social wage! It isn’t the greedy schemes of malevolent politicians that are the cause of the so-called “neoliberal” onslaught of fiscal austerity since the 1970s; such policies are but a symptom. You can’t vote out of office the falling rate of profit.
What is the implication for class theory? If in the early 20th century, so many proletarians could justly feel that they had built the world they saw around them, and thus it was rightly theirs — Buenaventura Durruti boasted that, “it is we the workers who built these palaces and cities,” and could “build better ones” — in the early 21st century, the majority of global proletarians must have the creeping feeling that we are but the offal sloughed off from a world that has more or less abjected us and confronts us as an entirely alien force. So-called “downward social mobility” is a given: no one can reasonably expect to “live better than their parents,” as many workers in the 1950s could, and impending ecological catastrophe makes us doubt whether our children can expect to live at all. Even when we are able to pull a precarious or pitiful paycheck, it’s typically for doing obviously socially useless or socially noxious shit. If we can’t manage to do so, the police make it perfectly clear that we are simply excess bodies to be managed or exterminated. The sale of labor-power as a commodity already reifies social relations, makes them appear relations between things, but when that commodity then becomes superfluous to capital’s valorization process, when we appear to ourselves as a useless thing, an obvious result is the psychological crisis that has littered the globe with addicts, suicides, neurotics, depressives, shut-ins, and mass shooters; another is the highly reactionary, though understandable, desire to cling to any remaining “identity” not yet melted into air that we can affirm, be it race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or gender. This is the terrain that any present-day consideration of class composition will have to traverse.
In the dire situation that was Germany in 1929, Walter Benjamin counseled a watchword borrowed from the surrealist Pierre Naville, “the organization of pessimism,” which appears particularly apposite today. Pessimism is what we share. This is not an argument that the old Marxian proletariat should be replaced by some amorphous mass that happens to all feel ennui. We continue to refer to the proletarianized class in the Marxian terms indicated above, and the pessimism of which we speak is a strictly objective condition. When an autonomous economy (“self-valorizing value”) increasingly makes redundant its living aspects, they will be forced into a defensive desperation that no false promises of a warmed-over welfare capitalism can assuage. This pessimism can be left to fester amongst isolated, suspicious, bigoted, in-fighting proletarians, coopted by statist political projects left and right to maintain the present system on life-support, or it can be organized as an engine of self-abolition. This means the realization that capital will never be able to lift our boats again, and that no amount of nativist protectionism, revanchist and exclusionary politics, or pleas for corporatist state paternalism will change that. It will mean struggling in practice to overcome the separations between employed and unemployed, productive and unproductive, formal and informal, legal and illegal proletarians, with the understanding that even the most seemingly secure are all virtual paupers waiting for the other shoe to drop. The organization of pessimism as a strategy of class composition will need to look present conditions in the face, and see, through a panoply of material wealth hitched to a dying valorization process, the face of another redundant proletarianized person. Surplus labor-time increasingly thrown off means, for us, that time is running out — no longer even “time’s carcass” (Poverty of Philosophy) in value-production, we must expropriate the time of life, or end up simply carcasses. “The revolutionary is with the desperate people for whom everything is on the line, not with those who have time” (Horkheimer, Authoritarian State). The ranks of those desperate people who have no time because they have too much time are fast growing.
In this enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, capital’s death-spiral makes us appear superfluous. But capital was only ever our own alienated power, and what has in fact been revealed is the superfluity of the value-form of social wealth. Conditions are now not just ripe, but rotten. The choice that stands before us is communism or suicide.
Other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where others have succumbed.
Arthur Rimbaud, Lettre du Voyant
A comrade has reached out to us with a critique of a remark we made in the above article. The resulting discussion can be read here.