As long as imperialist capitalism outlives itself, the contradiction between the potential of the productive forces and the destitution imposed on the masses by the rule of the capitalist relationships of production becomes more and more flagrant. One of Marx’s tenets was to point out that this contradictions could not be worked out unless the working class seized power first, smashing the bourgeois state and building a transitory form of rule, the workers state or “the commune-style state”, whose aim was its own extinction insofar it advanced towards building socialism.
What is common to the most diverse theories the bourgeoisie has fabricated to justify its rule is the pretence that capital is able to overcome its fundamental contradiction one way or the other. In the late nineteenth century both Marxist “revisionists” and positivists made common cause arguing that capitalism had evolved in such a way so as to ameliorate its contradictions, and the world was progressing in an evolutionary and peaceful manner. The world war, the break out of the Russian Revolution and the upheavals that followed in its wake all showed how superficial was this approach, giving the reason to those pointing that the unfolding of the imperialist phase did not ameliorate, but rather sharpened the contradictions enshrined in the rule of capital, posing anew the perspective of the socialist revolution. Such was the enormous superiority of the analysis hammered out by the revolutionary Marxists that would go on to found the Third International (Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, etc). This was also shown not only on a theoretical level, but at the level of the facts as well with the victory of the October Revolution, an event that neither Max Weber, the greatest thinker of bourgeois sociology nor the Russian Mensheviks deemed likely just the day before it took place.1 Then, in the wake of the Second World War, at the shade of the world of Yalta and the new lease of life gained by capital during the boom, those theories heralding an unlimited and sustained capitalist development underpinned by the “Keynesian welfare state” mushroomed accordingly, making an impact even on Marxist thinkers who adopted in their own way the view that a “neocapitalism” had been born to life.2 Once again, those theories came up against a reality that combined the worldwide revolutionary upheaval started in 1968 and the economic downturn that brought the boom to an end. But the revolutionary challenge was contained and again the bourgeoisie went on the offensive in the early 80s. The “neoliberal” ideology that went hand in hand with that onslaught against the workers and people’s conquests, in clear contrast with other bourgeois ideologies, has the peculiar feature of preaching resignation to a reality for which there is no alternative, rather than aspirations of progress of the masses. The fundamental ideological operation at work here is to portray the hardships endured by the masses, such as unemployment, the increasing destitution or else the degradation of working conditions as unavoidable consequences of technological progress, thus hoodwinking people into believing that technique and science are to blame for these, rather than their use under the terms dictated by a handful of capitalist monopolies presiding over the world economy. The view claiming that capitalism has gone through a new “scientific and technical revolution” on a big scale ever since the 70s that has brought about fundamental changes in the works of society and the mode of production altogether is raised both by bourgeois academics and authors claiming to be Marxists and left wing alike. As mass unemployment came to stay in several countries in the 90s, the old view that we were entering into the “postindustrial” society gained a renewed impetus, and in its latest versions it holds that we are witnessing the emergence of a new form of capitalism, “cognitive capitalism”. The “end of labour” and the emergence of a “new subject” in line with this new phase have been recurrent topics among the advocates of such views. Although on other occasions we have written on this topic, we shall summarise and widen the critique of such views and the political stands they lead to, focusing on Toni Negri’s arguments, since he speaks from a more radicalized political stand and a more sophisticated theoretical jargon.
Myths and reality on “the end of labour”
The fundamentals of the “end of labour” thesis
In his analysis of modern society, Negri holds a refined and well-learned view (“savant”, according to Michel Husson) of the thesis proclaiming the “end of labour” that has been popularized, with different shades by J. Rifkin, Dominique Méda, Vivianne Forrester, André Gorz and the Italian school of the “mass intelligentsia” strand of thinkers, among others. This view, which found a fresh echo in the last decade, attempted to explain away that labour has lost its key role (mass unemployment being one of its major manifestations) as an inevitable consequence of the transition from an “industrial society” to a “postindustrial society”. In the latter, technological break-throughs might have brought a quantum leap in the production of material goods, that the piecemeal superseding of “living labour” by “dead labour”, wage-earners by machinery (robots and big screen computers) would turn out to be an inexorable, massively growing tendency. The implementation if “Toyota-styled” methods in the organization of labour would in turn be the by-product of the technological break-throughs and the incorporation of aspirations of the proletariat expressed in the “1968 revolt against labour” by capital, which resulted in the growth of the functions of control and management of the worker in detriment of production. A “postindustrial society” would be akin to the all-round alteration of the general conditions of capitalism in the direction of the hegemony of “immaterial labour” and “cognitive capitalism”. According to these postulates, this new situation for capitalism (which they sometimes brand as “postcapitalist”) is characterised by the fact that the cognitive activity becomes an essential factor in the creation of value, which is theretofore calculated by and large from outside the labour time and the workplace alike. Knowledge might have become “a factor of production as necessary as labour and capital, and the valorization of this intermediary factor follows very peculiar rules, to the extent that cognitive capitalism works in a different manner than traditional capitalism”3. Thus, the theory of value would no longer account for the transformation of knowledge into value. The worker would no longer need of “the instruments of labour (i.e., fixed capital) that capital puts at his disposition. The most important type of fixed capital, the one that determines the differentials in productivity, is to be found within the brain of the being participating in the labour process: that is the useful machine each one of us carries within itself. That is the absolutely essential novelty of the productive life nowadays”.4 These views contain a number of unilateral arguments that obscure the comprehension of the present-day conditions in which both capitalism and the class struggle unfold today.5
Technological change, increased productivity and unemployment
Let us start with the first aspect contained in the always blurred assertion of the “end of labour”. Obviously, it does not refer to labour from an anthropological point of view -as an specific attribute of man’s action aimed at reassuring and creating the conditions for its own life in an unique way- but to its manifestation within capitalist society, waged labour. According to the advocates of this view, mass unemployment would be the result of the increased tempo of technological change and the increases in productivity. But is this the case? Although the technological changes in many branches of production have been very important, and account for the decrease of wage-earners in some branches that had previously been powerhouse of the postwar capitalist boom, they do not explain in themselves mass unemployment. The total amount of labour has increased in almost one fourth if we take into account the six main capitalist countries. According to Husson, from 431 billion of available working hours in 1960 in those countries we have gone to 530 billion in 19966, an increase especially remarkable in the American economy that reverses the tendency observed since 1982 to the reduction of the amount of labour that could be observed between 1960 and 1973. Such increase in the amount of labour goes hand in hand with a reduced growth of productivity per hour vis-à-vis the years of the boom, going from 4,7% between 1960 and 1973 to 1,8% between 1983 and 1996. Although the figures corresponding to the growth have got better in the last five years of the twentieth century, they are not enough to outdo this general tendency. We cannot, therefore, find here the reason for unemployment. What indeed is new, instead, is the fact that the massive capitalist onslaught of the last 25 years against the working class has provoked a decrease of real wages and a reversal of the tendency to the reduction of the labour time in the main capitalist countries. This has meant that the increase in productivity, albeit lower than at the time of the boom, have widened the gap between the productivity and wages, for the benefit of the capitalists. In turn, capital has found fewer profitable outlets to reinvest the surplus value in a “productive” manner- mainly due to the “crisis of accumulation” that has affected it ever since the 70s. It is a kind of capitalism “that, in a certain way, has grown obsolete and cannot reproduce itself any longer other than refusing to meeting social needs and organizing widespread social regression”7 . It is one where the inability of capital to reproduce itself with an average turn over is fuelling an unheard-of situation where the growth in the rate of profit has failed so far to bring about an increase in the rate of accumulation, but has rather nourished a speculative businesses (what some authors brand “financierisation”).
We are thus confronted with a “vicious circle”, in which capital has just managed to “shun away from trouble”, i.e. a solution that has just deepened its contradictions. Furthermore, the lack of direct relationship between technological break-throughs, growth in productivity and increased unemployment is shown in what is a conundrum for the “end of labour” advocates, i.e., the fact that the economy with the biggest technological development and increased productivity the world over, the American economy during the 90s had 4% unemployment, record-low for a whole century, and this in a decade with the strongest growth ever since the boom. So, if both technology and increased productivity were to blame for unemployment, the US should on top of the rank in jobless. In the US, it was a combination of a favourable balance of forces vis-à-vis the proletariat inherited from the Reagan era that brought about worsened conditions for labour, with “junk jobs” mushrooming in the Clinton era, along with a preeminent position in the world arena in the 90s the factors that are to explain such American “particularity”. We are possibly seeing a reversal of this tendency now.
A new situation for wage-earners
However, regardless of its cause, cannot we observe a widespread reduction in wage labour in contemporary capitalism? Although mass unemployment has become a structural phenomenon in a number of countries, it is wrong to get from it a picture of increasing reduction in the number of wage-earners. If we take into account the whole of wage-earners worldwide, its global number has gone up, without falling, in the last decades, the proletarianisation of new social layers (women in the workforce, the middle classes become wage-earners, a spread of wage relationships to the capitalist periphery, etc), and a decrease within this whole of the amount of workers with a stable job. The Brazilian sociologist Ricardo Antunes has noted five tendencies at work in this reshaping of working class in the last few years: a) a reduction of the stable, factory-based manual proletariat, the one that was typical of the Taylorist and Fordist phase, although with different tempos in each country, depending on its internal peculiarities and insertion with the international division of labour; b) as opposed to the former we can note the massive increase worldwide of the wage-earners and the proletariat with poor working conditions, along with a boom of temporary workers that runs parallel to a decrease of stable jobs; c) a remarkable increase in women’s labour (in some countries, women make up 40 or 50% of the workforce), both in industry and especially the service sector, giving place to a new sexual division of labour, with women predominating in areas with more intensive labour and exploitation of manual labour, and men in those sectors with more presence of intensive capital, of more advanced machinery; d) an expansion of the amount of wage-earners in the banking and tourism sectors and supermarkets, i.e. the service sectors in general; e)the exclusion of the elderly and the young from the labour market. Antunes notes, against the “end of labour” advocates that “it seems evident that capital has managed to extend the spheres of wage labour and the exploitation of labour worldwide along the lines of casualisation, underemployment, part-time jobs, etc.”8 Such tendency to increasing amounts of wage-earners and people in cities is far from being homogeneous or even. While some countries and regions (Africa!) are “deindustrialising” themselves compared with the 60s, other ones, such as Mexico, Chine, South Africa, South Korea right up to 1997 slump) have all undergone a massive increase in the number of wage-earners, mostly industrial workers. The decrease of workers in some branches of production (the different branches in heavy industry or the railway workers) has run parallel to an increase in others. The workers on stable jobs have gone down whereas those on temporary positions have increased altogether. We then are witnessing a reshaping of the position of the proletariat, rather than the “end of wage labour”.9
Let us take a look now to the “novelty” embedded in “cognitive capitalism”, sometimes portrayed as the emergence of a “postcapitalism”. That view starts from considering capital’s ability to take over the break-throughs in science and knowledge as a “novelty”. Far from being “novel”, such ability is a fundamental part of the Marxist analysis of capitalism. In the Grundrisse Marx points out, in reference to science, that “the accumulation of knowledge, of the know-how as well as the general productive forces of the social intelligentsia are now absorbed by capital that stands opposed to labour: they appear to be a property of capital or, more exactly, fixed capital”. As Michel Husson notes correctly: “Cannot the same be said of knowledge itself, which the advocates of cognitive capitalism rise up to third factor of production, as if it substituted capital or labour as a source of wealth?”10 And he continues: “One of capitalism’s intrinsic characteristics, the essential source of its efficacy, lies once again in the incorporation of the abilities of the workers to its social machinery. It is in this sense that capital is not an arsenal of machinery or else a network of computers, but a social relationship of domination. The analysis of industrial labour has developed this view to great lengths. The analysis of the oppression of women sheds light (or should have done it) on capital’s take over of the domestic labour as a factor of reproduction of the workforce. The public school is nothing but this form of social investment. The very idea of distinguishing between labour and labour force boils down ultimately to this question (…) In underlying, whatever may come, capitalism’s new ways of functioning, the views on cognitive capitalism overlook that such changes do not do away with capitalism’s contradictions, but rather make more and more apparent.”11 Mesmerised by their object, the new technologies, the advocates of cognitive capitalism forget all about the main contradiction enshrined within them, i.e., the increasing difficulty to transform their corresponding output into commodities: “Capital churns out commodities and operates according to the law of value, that is its law. Far from getting away from such economic logic, it strives to reproduce it constantly, and one of the dimensions of the new economy is precisely that this becomes more and more difficult”12 This is due to the peculiar characteristics that the products coming from this sector of economy have. A new technology always needs a first sizeable layout of capital, in a similar amount to that of fixed capital. In this aspect, it happens likewise in the production of all commodities. The question arises with the ways of valorization of such capital, particularly due to the fact the innovation or else the final product can be appropriated by the competence almost for free in the wake of its first sales on the market. The use by the competitors of the former leads to an immediate loss of value of the product (since its costs do not necessary include the start-up capital), thus giving room to a rather contradictory logic, at odds with the capitalist market. Capital gets around this drawback by reducing the time span of the circulation of those products that could be appropriated or else by restricting access to it, as we have recently seen in the case of Napster. It is just in the sense that it is correct to state that the value of the know-how does not hinges upon its originality but on the constraint imposed on the access to knowledge, “to the practical ability of limiting its free circulation”13, by holding back “through judicial means (copyrights, licenses, contracts) or else monopolistic ones the ability to copy, imitate, reinvent, appropriate of the someone else’s knowledge”14 Even conceding that such new brand of potentially free products should enjoy widespread circulation (when matter-of-fact is just a very limited amount of products, taking into account the global market), what we have in the end is not a new mode of production but “the deepening of a completely classic contradiction between the form of the development of the productive forces (the potentially free distribution) and the capitalist relationships of production striving to reproduce the status of the market in detriment of the potential of the new technologies”15 We see here the manifestation of that contradiction of capital anticipated by Marx in the Grundrisse: “on one hand, it awakens all the forces of science and nature as well as those of social cooperation and circulation with the aim of creating wealth in a (relatively) independent fashion of the labour time contained within them. On the other hand, it strives to measure up the gigantic social forces thus created in line with the pattern of the labour time, and to enclose it within the narrow and necessary limits of the already produced value-as value as such. The productive forces and the social relationships -mere phases of development different from the social individual- appear to capital just like means to produce starting from its narrow base. But as a matter of fact, material conditions are capable of blowing up such basis.” The mystification made by Negri, Rullani and company consists in presenting the increasing difficulties capital has in “measuring up the gigantic social productive forces…in line with the pattern of labour time”, to carry on production within the narrow framework of the capitalist relationships of production, as some sort of quantum leap, turn-about in the general conditions of capitalist production, as if capital had been able to overcome its own limits. Likewise, the postulate made by the “end of labour” advocates that we would be witnessing a loss of substance of law of value due to the need of employing less and less labour to produce commodities, fails to see how profound the present crisis capitalist crisis: i.e., the inability of the system to get rid of such law is leading it to work in an increasingly regressive manner. The twenty-year long “neoliberal” imperialist onslaught is proof positive that those limits on capital exist, since to achieve valorization it has been pushed to expand the speculative sphere of the economy and to massively increase the rate of exploitation on the working class. The superseding of the “narrow capitalist basis” through the seizure of power by the working class is the basic condition to unleashed the potential of social productive forces, thus turning them from “capital’s productive forces” (weapons to increase the exaction of surplus value out of the workers) into levers to pave the way leading from the “realm of need” to the “realm of freedom”.
A newly independent and autonomous subject?
The mystification shared by Negri and the advocates of the “mass intelligentsia” alike shows up again when pondering the implication of such views with regards to the becoming of capital’s antagonistic subject. According to Negri and Lazzarato, “twenty years of restructuring in big industries have brought about a strange paradox. In fact, it is one and the same time the defeat of the Fordist worker and the recognition of the key role played by a more and more intellectualized living labour in production, the lines along which the post-Fordist model has been shaped. In the restructured big company, the worker’s labour is one involving, in different levels, more and more the ability to choose from different alternatives and, therefore, the responsibility for decision taking. The concept of “interface” used by the sociologist of communication renders quite accurately such activity performed by the worker. Interface between the different functions, between the different teams, between the hierarchical levels, etc. In line with the prescriptions of the new management, today “is the soul of the worker that has to descend upon the workshop”. It is his personality, his subjectivity the one to be organized and directed. The quality and the amount of labour are reorganized around its immateriality. Such transformation of the worker’s labour into a work of control, of management of information, of decision taking that require calling forth the subjectivity, involves workers in different ways depending on their functions in the hierarchies of the factory, but it is presented henceforth as an irreversible process (…) We can advance the following view: the cycle of immaterial labour is pre-constituted by an autonomous and social workforce, one that is able to organize its own work and its own relationship with the enterprise. No “scientific organization of labour” can pre-determine that know-how and such social productive creativity that are at the base of any ability of enterprising.”16 According to this view, capital was obliged to take heed of the 1968 worker’s revolt “against labour”, henceforth bringing in a change in the “Fordist” organization of labour in the direction of involving the subjectivity of the worker into the production process, therefore bringing about a development of the workers’ autonomous faculties. But the transformation does not stop here. The factory could have lost the lead as a social productive unit, and, as a byproduct of the IT revolution and the quantum leap in the development of the productive forces, every subject would be now in a position to appropriate himself of the scientific and technical know-how in an autonomous way, which heretofore have thus ceased to be the exclusive patrimony of the capitalist. We would be living in an epoch where the “mass intelligentsia” reigns supreme. Every member of society is a producer of surplus value, regardless of his condition of wage earner, and we find in his brain the main productive force nowadays. In this sense, in contrast to what the “end of labour” advocates claim, i.e., the impossibility of the existence of any emancipating subject at all, for Negri a new antagonistic force would have been brought to life, a more autonomous and powerful proletariat, mightier than the “old” waged working class: the multitude, which would encompass the whole oppressed classes. 17 From this strength of the multitude would stem the might to go for a “non dialectical”, but rather “alternative” antagonism, one that could skip over the transition and achieving “communism here and now”: “If labour becomes immaterial, if its social hegemony is manifested in the constitution of a “general intellect”, if such transformation shapes independent and autonomous social subjects, the contradiction opposing this new subjectivity to the capitalist rule (whatever one might call it in post-industrial society) would no longer be dialectic but alternative. This means that such a kind of labour that appears to be both autonomous and hegemonic does no longer need of capital and capital’s social order to exist, but it rather appears immediately to us as a free and constructive one. When we say that this new labour force cannot be defined within a dialectical relation, we mean that the relationship she weaves with capital is not only antagonical, but goes beyond such antagonism, is an alternative one, constitutes a distinct social reality. The antagonism now appears to us in the shape of a constituent power that reveals itself to the existing forms of power. The alternative is the work of independent subjects, this means that is built as a potential, and not only at the level of power. The antagonism cannot be worked out on the realm of the contradiction; we need it to lead to an autonomous and independent constitution. The old antagonism running through the industrial societies unfolded in a continuous, albeit opposed, relationship between the antagonistic subjects and, therefore, pictured a passage from a given situation of power to that of the triumph of the antagonistic forces as a ‘transition’. In the post-industrial society, where the ‘general intellect’ reigns supreme, there is no room for the concept of a ‘transition’, but only for the concept of ‘constituent power’, as radical expression of all that is new. The antagonistic constitution is no longer determined, therefore, by starting from the fact of the capitalist relationship, but right from the start by breaking away with it; no longer from waged labour, but right from the start from its dissolution; no longer on the basis of labour, but rather on that of non-labour”18 Some might regard such recognition of the supposedly widened might of the proletariat with sympathy, especially at a time when most intellectual and left circles have been laden with a deep defeatism for the past decade. But the truth remains that it is a linear view as fallacious as that of those claiming we are living in a post-industrial society, since they are unable to account for the actual contradictions that working class has to face in its fight for its emancipation. The premises Negri starts from to justify such “new antagonism” are utterly wrong: a) The “immaterial” labour is just a tiny portion of social labour taken as a whole and so are the whole workers in the IT and telecommunications industries (among which many perform pure and simple manual labour). Furthermore, only a small portion of the proletariat works combining manual labour with those tasks concerning “management” and “control”; b) we are not in front of “autonomous and independent social subjects”; c) it is not true that there is tendency to fewer wage-earners. Demolishing such premises, the conclusion -that labour has turned today into something immediately free and constructive- comes out as nonsensical in itself. One might, however, argue that, although it is true that not all workers are subject to the same conditions, those involved in “immaterial production” might, due to their position, be able to express best the rebellion of the whole exploited, of which they are part and parcel. At times, Negri seems to be heading in that direction when he underlines the role played by the students and the new role of the intellectual19, reformulating the view postulated by Serge Mallet and others in the 60s claiming that those workers in more automated plants, since they disposed of more autonomy in their workplaces, would be the first to arrive at an anti-capitalist stand. But if none of this came true during the 1968 upsurge in France, let alone in the rest the world during the 70s, where the big mass actions gathered together the different strata of the working class along with the rest of the exploited and the oppressed and the students’ movement, none of this has come true in the present-day resistance mounted by the exploited, either. The most heterogeneous layers have come to the fore in the major developments of the class struggle in the last few years: the Latin American peasantry (predominantly, the aboriginals), the European public service workers, the Palestine youth, the Argentine unemployed and workers, the auto workers in the Korean chaebols, the Mexican students. To present the living conditions of a few as if they embodied those of the whole, putting a plus where the others put a minus sign, pointing out to a pure potential where others only see limits may look alluring and inspiring at first sight, but is a short-sighted view that fails to grasp the actual limits and potential of the working class
The exploited masses at a crossroad
We have already pointed to the contradictory tendencies uncovered by the structural analysis of the transformations that have occurred within the working class. Amid a twenty year-long imperialist onslaught against the working class conquests, we are far from seeing a “mass intelligentsia” and a decrease in the number of wage-earners. The general tendency, which varies from country to country and between regions, is one to increasing numbers of wage-earners, in which a tiny minority of the proletariat becomes more qualified while the overwhelming majority works in increasingly worse conditions, amid mass unemployment that push down the price of the labour force, with the ensuing stultification and even degradation of wide layers of the working class, where even those sectors with higher qualification are affected by wage cuts.20 Such tendency to increasing numbers of wage-earners in the working masses does not, however, imply that the disappearance of other classes or quasi-classes also oppressed (and indirectly exploited) by capital producing in pre-capitalist relationships, such as the peasantry or the urban petty-bourgeoisie. Running parallel to it, we can also see a tendency to the creation of a lumpenproletariat encompassing wide layers of the proletariat in those countries with high structural unemployment. None of these inequalities can be encompassed by the amorphous concept of a “multitude” 21 in which Negri dissolves the specific position of the working class and other oppressed classes, thus failing to appraise concretely both the potential and the limits of the struggles today. These limits are partly structural ones (there are some sectors of the working class that because of their position in production can hinder to bigger or a lesser extent the rule of capital; the peasantry as a rule raises demands such as the agrarian reform, that hardly ever go hand in hand by proletarian struggles, being reabsorbed in one way or other by the bourgeois power) but have also a political nature. Let us take a look at some examples. The movement of the unemployed in Argentina has been fighting for five years now, with increasing levels of organization and fighting disposition, giving the lie to those claiming that the unemployed worker was nothing more than a “pariah”, inherently inhibited for waging any collective struggle whatsoever. Quite otherwise, they have shown their “potential”. Still more, the general strikes in Argentina in 2000 and 2001 showed that is possible to get over the atomization of the proletariat, on condition that the limits of corporative action superseded, going over to a political struggle, building a united front of employed and unemployed workers, and of them with the impoverished middle classes -a life or death issue since unemployment stands at 14% there, with similar levels of underemployment. But this very fact speaks not only of “potential”, but speaks volumes of the drawbacks that are to be overcome. Unless the fight against the unemployment is taken up also by the core of the industrial proletariat and the transport workers, the heroic struggle of the unemployed will not get beyond the demand for “workfare schemes” or else unemployment benefit. In turn, unless the workers (which, again, have shown their ability to oust ministers and entire cabinets) do not surpass the reformist strategy of their union leaderships, achieving political independence, the ruling classes will always find alternative ways out. Another case in point is the upsurge of the Latin American peasant movement, especially the aboriginal sectors, which have displayed a massive strengthening and fighting disposition in Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico and Brazil in the last few years. Their struggle has been a highly destabilizing factor of the pro-imperialist governments and their plans throughout the region. But, in turn, they have shown the limits of the reformist strategies of the peasant leaderships and posed the burning need for the proletariat to raise a revolutionary programme, to be up to the fight being waged by its allies, giving the lead to all of the oppressed.22 The refusal to ponder such actual crossroads cannot but lead to misguide their actions ahead.
The superseding of alienation?
The description of the new antagonistic subject in terms of “independent and autonomous social subjects” betrays the false assumption that capitalism would somehow be able to nurture non-alienated subjects (otherwise, it would make no sense to talk about autonomous and independent subjects if alienation should linger on). Even if we narrow the Marxist theory of alienation to mean a mere alienation of labour (or else economic alienation) we could in no way conclude that this has been done away with. The first factor of the alienation of labour is the restriction of the people’s free access to the means of production and the means of subsistence. Historically, this was the necessary element for the main feature of alienated labour to become generalised, i.e., the coercion exerted on the people so that they should sell their labour force in exchange for a wage in order to survive. This situation not only remains the same, but has also increased ten-fold since Marx ever pointed at it with the development of the capitalist concentration and centralization and the take over by monopolistic capital. This is also reflected by the increasing numbers of wage-earners mentioned above. During the period that the wage-earner sells his labour force to the boss, it is him the one dictating the rules on how to use it. This does not change due to the fact that the new forms of organization of labour, especially in the top layers of the proletariat, involve the worker more directly in tasks of control on his own labour process, or else the fact that the capitalist resorts to the workers’ “know-how” to increase productivity and profits altogether. The fact that the capitalist has resorted in some sectors of the productive process to exploiting one and at the same time the workers’ force and intellect (the disposal of energy coming from his muscles and brain) is mistakenly regarded as the existence of “free and autonomous” individuals. Obviously, the third form in which the alienation of labour is manifested, the fact that the worker cannot dispose of the fruits coming from his own labour, has neither changed ever since Marx formulated his theory. Lastly, is again fallacious to claim that labour has become a means of human self-expression, in a “free and constructive” entity. In modern society, labour remains essentially waged labour, and as such it prevents humans from performing any creative work. Although it may look otherwise for the minority of the working class that may have some control of their labour force and may also perform some creative tasks, the fact remains that this is, no matter how contradictory it sounds, “alienated creative labour”, because for the capitalist enterprise it is just a matter of increasing returns, i.e., an aim not sought for by the workers themselves. It is not just a matter of the impossibility to explain to maquila or a sweatshop worker bearing 12-14 hour-long working days that he or she is a free and autonomous subject. The capitalist alienation is also present even amongst the most qualified workers performing activities geared to control, management or else design. Although some steps of the labour process might be subject to control his content will be always determined by the needs of capital. Let us think that the graphic designers (to take a job that has boomed in the last few years), albeit they may have a saying on the shapes of the graphic piece or the website they are designing, they just do not have a saying on the thematic content of them, which are decided by the sales manager or, in the case of an independent designer, by the client that hired him. In the case of the “.com” enterprises, yesterday’s pride and joy and today bearing mass sackings because of the deep fall of their returns, with long working days, no social benefits and no union rights. Furthermore, the workers are many times obliged to work as self-employed so that the bosses avoid paying social contributions. As a rule, both Negri, Gorz and the likes overlook the fact that as long as the capitalist mode of production outlives itself there is no possibility for the working class to become an “autonomous independent and creative productive subject”, i.e., non-alienated. Under capitalism, the autonomy of the working class cannot be other than a political one, going from “class in itself” (object of the exploitation) to “class for itself” (subject of its own emancipation). It is as part of the struggle for the independent organization of the working class that a 10-12 hour-long permanence in the premises of the plant might turn out to be other than an stultifying activity everybody is yearning to finish to “do truly human things”. The first and main autonomous activity by the working class within capitalist society boils down to freeing itself from the political influence of the bourgeoisie, building its own independent revolutionary organization and going over to smash the armed power of capital, replacing it by the self-organised power of the working class. This the necessary condition to achieve the “expropriation of the expropriators”, without which the alienation of labor will never be eliminated. Negri skips over the need for this transition at the time when workers achieve their own emancipation when he postulates a directly “autonomous and constructive” subject. Negri and Gorz’s views are reactionary because, in the most utopian way, they pretend the present-day misery can be superseded before the seizure of power by the workers and the overthrowing of the bourgeoisie- not because they point to the ever increasing contradiction between the potential of scientific and technical break-throughs that may usher in a more plentiful existence and the current widespread destitution.23
Free time and the struggle for the shortening of the working day
One might argue this: given that in the wage relationship, labour is inevitably alienated, would not be paradoxically beneficial for social emancipation the fact that thousands are thrown out of the labour market, since this would enable the subjects to go for productive alternatives others than the capitalist ones and thus dispose of their free time? This is just what Gorz and Rifkin postulate, seeing all the retreats of the wage-earners as steps in the road towards the liberation of labour. Let us take a look at it. Such view flows from a wrong appraisal that casts aside “the totalizing and all-embracing dimension of capital that encompasses the sphere of production up to consumption, from the sphere of the material world, to the world of ideas”24. Such view wrongly assumes that under capitalism we might be able to dispose of “free time” in an autonomous way, as if entertainment and leisure were today free from the rule of capital. For all their radical phraseology, what they eventually postulate are a series of measures that might be greatly useful for “neoliberal” or else the “third way” governments (such as the “solidarity economy” and the “third sector” of Rifkin and Gorz) when it comes to ameliorating the costs of their anti-working class policies. While they leave the control of the main economic levers of production in the hand of capitalist monopolies, they portray the care of the elderly or the production of bread by the neighbours themselves as “creative and solidarity labour” -a move that is instrumental to the cuts in public health and social security. Although Negri’s view is more sophisticated, it shares the tenets of that postulates that sees the “non wage-earners” as a “new antagonistic subject”. The negative political implications of such train of thought is evident. The signs of social decomposition brought about by capitalism (a sign of their historical decline) are portrayed as a byproduct of the progressive evolution of the productive forces. This means that instead of the inability of capitalism to work out its “crisis of accumulation” that has been dragging on since the 70s, we are confronted with its ability to move on towards “post-capitalist” forms. In this way, since the new productive conditions are leading to a loss of importance of wage labour in general, and industrial labour in particular, fighting against mass unemployment would no longer make sense by demanding the sharing of the working hours among all the workers available (“sliding scale of working hours”) since the “new productive paradigm” would write off such possibility. This view not only absolves the capitalist governments of their policies that lead to mass unemployment (since it would be the result of “structural conditions” beyond reach), but also naturalises the atomization brought on the working class by capital (employed and unemployed, stable and casualised ones, etc), leaving aside a fundamental weapon, the struggle for the reduction of the working day with wages worth the cost of the shopping basket25, to fight back the current bourgeois onslaught. Negri, instead of upholding such demand along with that of public works under workers’ control26 , raises the need for “citizenship income”, a minimum wage to be given to all the inhabitants of a given country just for the fact of being its citizens, no matter the labour they perform. This “citizenship income” is a sort of ideological “Trojan horse” in a policy aimed at implementing “minimum survival pay” that some advisors to different governments are proposing in order to lower the floor of the salaries, thus perpetuating mass unemployment on one hand -with the jobless getting a mere pittance relief- and workers employed in casual jobs or sweatshops with long working days like the ones we have today. Such views are thus a gratuitous beautifying of the sequels brought about by the deep-going anti-working class onslaught of the last few decades, better known as “neoliberalism”. They thus legitimate, from the “left”, those moves that have brought a diminished power of the workers as an antagonistic force of the capitalists. We can only brand them as reactionary. This does not mean, in turn, that we praise the “virtues” of the “society of labour”, extolling the so-called “socializing virtues of labour”, or else leave aside the fact that they are waged (i.e., inevitably alienated) labour, like Social democratic thinkers do, longing for the “welfare state”, or the Stalinist with their “cult of work”. Quite otherwise, as Marx points out in Das Kapital, “the realm of freedom only begins there where the labour imposed out of need and the coercion of external aims ceases; it stands, given the nature of things, beyond the sphere of the truly material production (…) Insofar [the civilized man] develops himself, developing his needs with him, the realm of natural need is also widened but at the same the productive forces meeting such needs expand likewise. Freedom, in this terrain, can consist only in that the socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulate their exchange of products with nature, put it under their common control instead of letting it rule over them as a blind power, and achieve so in the least costly way and in the most accurate and dignifying conditions of their human nature. But, for all that, this will always be the realm of need. Beyond its frontiers starts the unfolding of the human forces that are considered an aim in themselves, the true realm of freedom, that can however flourish only by starting from such real of need. The fundamental condition for this is the reduction of the working day.”
Classical marxism vs autonomist “marxism”: two strategies in the struggle for communism
The struggle for political power
In the late 1920s the controversy between the theory-programme of the permanent revolution and the Stalinist defence of the reactionary utopy of “socialism in one country” would inaugurate a schism that would run along the whole twentieth century. The theory of permanent revolution codified the culmination of the strategy of proletarian revolution incorporating the conclusions drawn from the revolutions in the first two decades of the twentieth century.27 The Stalinist postulates we, quite otherwise, the rejection of such lessons. In the wake of the second world war, Stalinism went far beyond in its counterrevolutionary role, much farther than Trotsky had ever seen in the 30s, by clinching a deal with US imperialism to uphold the world order, thus turning itself into a mainstay of the “Order of Yalta”. Dozens of revolutions were held back by the action of Stalinism and those revolutions that “went beyond” the Stalinist agenda (Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, Vietnam…) were blocked half-way when Stalinist-styled bureaucratic regimes were consolidated in those states, embracing the soviet strategy of “socialism in one country”. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes between 1989 and 1991, when the ruling bureaucracies went over to push ahead with capitalist restoration through and through, highlighted the complete bankruptcy of this policy, proving negatively that Trotsky was right in assuming that unless a political revolution gave the power back to the workers, the permanence of the bureaucratic rule would lead to capitalist restoration. Much in the way Stalinism did, although from a different angle, Negri’s postulates about a “communism without transition” codify a strategy running against the revolutionary dynamics of the permanent revolution. In the first place, the struggle for the seizure of power is out of the picture. For Negri, the supposed transformations of the conditions of capitalist production go hand in hand with the transition from a “disciplinary society” postulated by Foucault to the “society of control” that Foucault could hardly glimpse, and that Deleuze and Guattari went on to postulate explicitly. En the “society of control” the power is exerted everywhere, internalized in the subjectivity of the individual, reproducing power in each action: an authentic “biopower”. The same spread of power through all aspects of production and life is seen in the transition from “imperialism” to the “Empire”, whose ungraspable rule is seen in the fact that is unable to attain full judicial codification. It would no longer be a matter of a fight for political power as a leverage to move to the liberation of the exploited, but the struggle to transform the meaning of the production of life itself. Is there any point of support for such assumption in the actual class struggle? We do not see any empirical backing for it. The control of political power by the different national states remains a key weapon used by capital to preside over society, both in the imperialist countries and in the “semicolonial” periphery. On one hand, this is due to the fact that the different states resort to repression against the local exploited classes. The functions of a “world policeman” bestowed onto the interventions of the “multinational corps”28 do not substitute that task performed by the states locally, but are rather complementary of them. The big capital remains closely entangled with the most powerful imperialist states, and it is through them that they impose more and more exploitative chains on the weaker and more exploited states. Proof positive of this is the fact that most embassies, be the French, the American, the British, the Japanese, the Spanish ones, act as “lobby groups” whenever a privatization scheme is announced in a semicolonial country, or else concessions to foreign capital are announced there. This is particularly the case with the US, the main beneficiary of the control they have on the IMF or the World Bank to push ahead with their plans the world over. This clearly speaks of a “political mediation”, a leverage that is far from having faded away. That is why the strategy of the working class is to seek to smash such apparatus for domination, replacing it by one that should be a vehicle for taking their own steps towards building socialism. Each great intervention by the mass movement puts the issue of political power on the agenda. It was precisely due to the absence of revolutionary undertakings in the 80s and the first half of the 90s that those strategies oblivious to the key question of state power could flourish. These went along with the bourgeois frenzy cheering the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, portraying it as the failure of the attempts made by the workers at seizing power. We mean the climax of the so-called “social movements” and the “local strategy” that peaked in the wake of the defeat of the revolutionary upsurge sparked off in 1968. Such utterly reformist policy was theoretically justified by the existence of “micropowers” that should be fought against locally, basing themselves on Foucault’s postulates on a “microphysics of power”. Negri divorces himself from such view in critising all “local-oriented” strategies of resistance to globalisation, arguing that every struggle is actually unified by the “desire for communism” of the multitude and their challenge of the “Empire”, but that commonness of aims has not yet become conscious and liable of being communicated. However, he shares the view of a non-territorial power and the refusal to put the fight for political power on top of the agend.29 The truth is that ever since the great strike by the French state workers back in 1995 marked a watershed for the international working class, we have witnessed many mass actions that have thwarted the bourgeois regimes: these are the 1997 Ecuadorian general strike that ousted Bucaram, and later the peasant upsurge that overthrew Mahuad and installed a “National Salvation Junta” in the early 2000, before the bourgeois power could pull itself together thanks to the action to the “nationalist militaries”. Last but not least, the developments in Albania in 1997 and, to a lesser extent, in Serbia in 2000 posed the same question. The fact that the working class was not at the head of these events, along with the absence (or else the embryonic state) of the organs of direct democracy of the exploited, prevented these from growing into a revolutionary alternative for the workers to seize power. In none of these cases was there a revolutionary and internationalist workers party up to the moment. Therefore, although the masses accumulated fighting experience, the power was handed over to their class enemies. The great lesson to be drawn from these, then, is that unless the workers and the exploited masses get ready to fight for their own power in situations of crisis, someone else will take charge of the helm.
The transitional society
Once we state the impossibility of skipping over the struggle for political power, if the working class were to conquer power, would it be able to proceed directly to build communism without any need of a transition at all? This is not a trifle, but rather touches a key aspect of the Marxist strategy.30 Does the bureaucratization of the workers states stand against such postulates? Was not in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat that the bureaucrats have justified their despotism in the workplaces of the former USSR, which included piecework as Stakhanovism? “Was all this unavoidable?” (wonders Negri thinking about the bureaucratization of the USSR). The advocates of Stalinism, and also those of the theory of capitalist development respond affirmatively to such question claim that only a ‘revolution from above’ might have determined the solution for underdevelopment, furthermore, the formation of a modern mode of production in Russia”. 31 Quite otherwise, “the same question should be answered negatively by those who, in a constituent power that reassumes the rule of the enterprise, they do not see a closing, but rather a new higher opening of the potential. On the realm of the rule of the enterprise, on which Marx had forced to the constituent power, on that same terrain on the which the Leninist compromise had been set up, what mattered was the contradiction, its continuous reopening, the vitality of both the negative and progressive function of the constituent power. The rule of the enterprise was not a fetish, but rather a new terrain on which the constitutive praxis could and should be reopened continuously. And this finds a definite proof in the fact that, whatever the way things turned out in Russia, such necessary and contradictory relationship between the constituent power and the rule of the enterprise cannot be avoided. Nowadays, we cannot imagine any exertion of constituent power other than if released from the need for a link with the enterprise. This terrain uncovered by Marx is the terrain of communism.” 32. Although the autonomist thinker is right in denying the inevitability of the bureaucracy’s rule, he misses the point when claiming that “the Leninist compromise”, in Negri’s words the synthesis between “the democratic spontaneity and the instrumental rationality” (i.e., making the soviets responsible for the running of production) could be avoided.
Such “compromise” was not only unavoidable in its time due to the Russian backwardness 33, but we would not be able to get around it today, either. We should take into account, of course, the different levels of technological achievement and the tempo of the international socialist revolution. A victorious revolution in the most developed capitalist states should furnish the working class with immensely superior opportunities to advance towards socialism. A victorious revolution in a “backward” country or else one of “intermediate” development would have to make, inevitably, more concessions and compromises and the danger of bureaucratic degeneration will be stronger- still more if it has to face political and economic isolation. It will confront bigger domestic contradictions, like the USSR, but without this meaning that history will inexorably repeat itself. It all will depend on the previous soviet experience of the masses, their fighting disposition and, most important, their relationship with the international class struggle. Even though the working class in power should implement measures that right from the beginning would transform the organization of labour and social life as a whole, the reproduction at some stages of certain features inherited from the ancient regime would be inevitable. Even in the more developed economies dominating the world economy, the phase of the transitional society cannot be skipped over, since, as Marx states, “what is at stake here is not a communist society that has developed itself on its own basis, but one that has just come out of capitalist society and, therefore, bears still the mark of the old society from which it has been engendered in all its features, the economic, the moral and intellectual ones.”34 The current hypermaturity of the productive forces, which according to Negri would enable us to rid of “the need for a bound with the enterprise”, is an unilateral view that does not respond to the challenges facing the development of a socialist society, in which the liberation of leisure time would be a process whose evolution will depend on the productive forces the workers have taken over.35
The international dimension of the “Leninist stake”
When drawing the balance sheet of the greatness and the crisis of the “Leninist stake”36 the commitment to the “rule of the enterprise” is given an exaggerated weight, taken out of its context within the whole set of historical determinations. Negri overlooks the relationship between the consolidation of the grip of the bureaucracy and the developments within the class struggle worldwide. The inevitability of the transitional period is not just the byproduct of the internal contradictions of every social formation, but it also stems from the fact that the world revolution is not a simultaneous act, therefore establishing a peculiar dialectic between the “onset” of the process of the socialist revolution with the seizure of power in a given country or series of countries, and its culmination with the victory of the new society worldwide. In the specific case of the Russian revolution -no matter it may sound a cliché- let us remember that the Bolsheviks’ stake was that the victorious Russian revolution would spark off the German revolution. Such perspective, however, failed to materialize. The defeats inflicted upon the world working class in the wake of the war (Germany 1919, 1921 and 1923; Hungary 1919; Bulgaria 1923; the British general strike of 1926; the Second Chinese Revolution of 1925-27) led to the political and economic isolation of the USSR nourishing the triumph of the nationalist policy of “socialism in one country” advocated by Stalin. The bureaucracy, in turn, was from neutral in those defeats, but rather contributed to them with its wavering pragmatic policies (from dissolution within the Kuomintang to the “Third Period” ultraleftism; and then from this to the brazen opportunism of the “People’s Fronts”), misleading the proletariat into a series of serious defeats (the victory of Nazims in Germany, the defeat of the Spanish revolution). How are we to cast aside the difference between claiming the Russian proletariat was mature to seize power and insisting that Russia would achieve communism on its own, as Stalin did?
Therefore, Negri, by overlooking the issue of the dialectic between “building socialism” nationwide and the unfolding of the international revolution, ends up paradoxically agreeing with the Stalinists in explaining the Russian revolution from a strictly national angle.37
The soviet democracy
The very fact that there is no “communism without transition”, does not mean in any way that the policies raised during the transitional period are irrelevant. If we argue that the struggle for conquering political power should at the core of any revolutionary strategy and also the inevitability of the transitional period, this not because we identify ourselves with any power whatsoever alternative to that of the bourgeoisie, such as the Stalinist regimes with their cults of work and the almighty leader, the archetype of both the degeneration of the soviet-type workers states, as well as of those revolutions that expropriated the bourgeoisie, giving place to “deformed” workers states. There is no need to repeat the tragedy of the postwar revolutions led by guerrilla armies (Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, Vietnam) at the head of essentially peasant and semiproletarian mass upheavals that built regimes similar to the one dominant in the Stalin’s Soviet Union, blocking their evolution to socialism. Such regimes38 modeled the state apparatus after the vertical structure of “party-army”, thus the preventing the mass from actually exercising direct democracy and espousing the pseudo-theory of “socialism in one country”, with which each local bureaucracy justified the defence of their privileges high and above the interests of the world working class. This reason d’état allowed for infamous pacts with US imperialism, such as in the case of China and Yugoslavia.
They turned communism in a byword for bureaucratic oppression, thus giving a priceless help to the imperialist propaganda. The permanent dynamic of revolution was not only blocked in the tracks on the national terrain, but the grip of the bureaucracy reproduced many of the worst oppressive vices of bourgeois society, such as nationalism, male chauvinism, homophobia and the cult of the patriarchal family. Since the soviets failed to operate at all, the planning of economy was not performed in a democratic fashion either, i.e., in line with the opinion and the decision of the whole toiling masses, but was rather orchestrated from above along the dictates of an ad hoc bureaucratic department. This just led to irresponsible squandering of the social labour, but also imposed all kinds of heavy sacrifices on the workers themselves, without these having a saying on these matters in the least.39 The full operation of the soviets in the transitional society is the only means to achieve a balance between the needs of social production, conditioned by the level of the social productive forces, and the piecemeal reduction of working day (and thus, the increase of “leisure time”). Without soviet democracy there is no democratic planning of the economy. As Trotsky noted, pointing his finger at the drawback of the bureaucratic rule when it came to passing from and a “extensive” kind of production to an “intensive” one: “the progressive role played the soviet bureaucracy coincides with the period of assimilation. The great work of imitation, of grafting, of transference, of acclimation, has been done of the soil ploughed by the revolution. So far, it has not been a matter of innovation in the realm of science, of technology or art. One can build huge factories along the lines of models imported from abroad following bureaucratic dictates, and paying for them as much as three times higher than their value. But the farther we go, the more shall we come up against the question of quality, that escapes the bureaucracy as it were a shadow. It seems that production bears the grey mark of indifference. In the nationalized economy, the quality presupposes the democracy of the producers and the consumers, the freedom of criticism and initiative, things that are incompatible with the totalitarian regime made up of fear, lies and adulation. Beside the question of quality stand other ones, greater and more complex, that could be assorted under the category of technical and cultural creative action. An ancient philosopher held that discussion was the mother of all things. There where the clash of ideas is not possible, no values can be created. The revolutionary dictatorship, we are ready to admit, constitutes in itself a severe restriction of freedom. Just for that reason, the revolutionary epochs have never been propitious for the cultural creation for which they pave the way. The dictatorship of the proletariat opens a vast horizon in front of the human genius, a much vaster one the more it ceases to be a dictatorship. The socialist civilization will not develop other than with the withering away of the state. Such simple and inflexible law means a fulminating condemnation of the current political regime of the USSR. Soviet democracy is not a moral or abstract political demand. It has turned out to be a life or death issue for the country.”40 The socialist plan is a far cry, then, from the Stalinist-styled “command economy”, but rather the outcome of society’s self-conscious activity, where its initial formulation by the state agencies created for that purpose should be continually revised in line with the opinion of the masses and, for some time, the corrective signs sent by some market mechanisms, such as the price creation. Such democratic planning of the economic resources, which can be only be brought about through the seizure of power by the workers and the expropriation, is the only alternative to the “anarchy of capitalist production”. Therefore, even though there is no infallible antidote against the likelihood of degeneration of future revolutions, there are political orientations that might favour or else stave off this process. Negri is right when he claims that communism can be no other thing than full liberation of “living labour” and, although is wrong to say that communism can be inaugurated here and now, the truth remains that it starts to develop within the transitional society itself. The role of the soviets as agencies of a form of state “that is an state any longer” (as Lenin claims in his State and Revolution41 and Trotsky remarks in his Betrayed Revolution), should be right on top of the revolutionary agenda. Their development, and the familiarization of the masses with soviet democracy are the only possible antidotes at a domestic level to fight against the tendencies to bureaucratization at work in the post-revolutionary state- along with the action of the revolutionary party. But, as we have pointed out, the bureaucratization of a workers state is not the outcome of an internal process alone, but rather is ultimately hinged upon the ebbs and tides of socialist revolution worldwide. And in this terrain, Negri’s caricature of nation states superseded by history and homogeneously hypermature productive forces as the main features of the age of “Empire” can only lead to an abstract internationalism (once imperialism has been superseded by history, would Negri’s scheme of anti-imperialism make any sense at all?) unable to respond to the complex and labyrinthine expressions of the class struggle through which the masses strive for “constituent power”. Once again, the internationalist perspective, rightly understood as a theory-programme of permanent revolution remains much more valid than any of the schemes churned out by the Italian philosopher. If we regard the real challenges facing the revolutionary tactic and strategy today as something already worked out, we cannot but obscure the perspective for human emancipation heralded by the author of the Communist Manifesto: “…In the superior phase of communist society, when the enslaving subordination of the individuals to the division of labour has faded away, and the opposition between intellectual and manual labour with it; when labour is not only a means of life, but the first vital necessity; when, with the all-round development of individuals, the productive forces grow as well and the collective wealth flows as one unstoppable torrent, only then shall we be able to go beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right, and the society shall be able to write in her banner: ‘¡From each according to their ability; to each one according to their needs!'”.