Sunday, May 17, 2009

To work or not to work? Is that the question?

Recently read Gilles Dauve's 'To work or not to work?' over at the great library. Like most of his writing I found parts of it difficult, but clarity always seems to come at some stage, or at the end of the text. I'd recommend reading it in full as what I'm going to post is parts of the tail section only, parts which captured my attention with regard to the current low state of class struggle and determinist theories around Capitalism (ie eventually it will destroy itself). Reading the whole text sets the historical and theoretical background for what Dauve puts forward, but his main points can still be gathered from the parts below.

Also, a note on the term 'communism' used in the text. Dauve writes from a viewpoint blending council communism, libertarian marxism and ultra-left currents not dissimilar to anarchist thought. For Dauve, communism doesn't imply the authoritarianism history has often proved in some forms of marxist thought, but rather a stateless, classless society. Enjoy!

From the section titled 'REVOLUTION IS NO EXACT SCIENCE':

"Some comrades postulate the coming of an ultimate stage when the inner working of the system won't just upset it, but destroy it. They believe that whatever has happened before that final stage has been necessary, because up to now the workers have only been able to reform capitalism. Now there comes a threshold when reform becomes utterly pointless, a threshold that leaves no other option except revolution. Past radical proletarian activity has only contributed to bring about the historical moment that makes revolution possible -- or necessary, rather. Until then, the class struggle has provided the required sequence of phases preparing the final phase...

...The methological flaw is to believe in a privileged vantage point that enables the observer to grasp the totality (and the whole meaning) of past, present and near future human history.

We would prefer to say that there is no other limit to the life-span of capital than the conscious activity of the proletarians. Otherwise, no crisis, however deep it might be, will be enough to produce such a result. And any deep crisis (a crisis of the system, not just in it) could be the last if the proletarians took advantage of it. But there'll never be a day of reckoning, a final un-mediated showdown, as if at long last the proletarians were directly facing capital and therefore attacking it.

"The self-emancipation of the proletariat is the breakdown of capitalism", as Pannekoek wrote in the last sentence of his essay on The Theory of the Breakdown of Capitalism (1934). It's significant this should come as the conclusion of a discussion on capital's cycles and reproduction models (Marx's, Luxemburg's and H.Grossmann's). ..

...Who could argue that communism is bound to happen? The communist revolution is not the ultimate stage of capitalism... Determinism would gain credibility if it gave us useful forecasts.


Revolution is not a problem, and no theory is the solution of that problem. (Two centuries of modern revolutionary movement demonstrate that communist theory does not anticipate the doings of the proletarians.)...

...When the proletariat seems absent from the scene, it is quite logical to wonder about its reality and its ability to change the world. Each counter-revolutionary period has the dual singularity of dragging along while never looking like the previous ones. That causes either a renunciation of critical activity, or the rejection of a revolutionary subject, or its replacement by other solutions, or a theoretical elaboration supposed to account for past defeats in order to guarantee future success. This is asking for unobtainable certainties, which only serve to reassure. On the basis of historical experience, it seems more to the point to state that the proletariat remains the only subject of a revolution (otherwise there won't be any), that communist revolution is a possibility but not a certainty, and that nothing ensures its coming and success but proletarian activity.

The fundamental contradiction of our society (proletariat-capital) is only potentially deadly to capitalism if the worker confronts his work, and therefore takes on not just the capitalist, but what capital makes of him i.e. if he takes on what he does and is. It's no use hoping for a time when capital, like a worn out mechanism, would find it impossible to function, because of declining profits, market saturation, exclusion of too many proletarians from work, or the inability of the class structure to reproduce itself.

A current subtext runs through much of revolutionary thinking: The more capitalism we have, the nearer we get to communism. To which people like J.Camatte retort: No, the more capitalism we have, the more capitalist we become. At the risk of shocking some readers, we'd say that the evolution of capital does not take us closer to or farther from communism. From a communist point of view, nothing is positive in itself in the march of capital, as is shown by the fate of classism.


In practice, classism was the forward drive of the working class as a class within capitalist society, where its organisations came to occupy as much social space as possible. Labour set up collective bodies that rivalled with those of the bourgeoisie, and conquered positions inside the State. That took — and still takes — many forms (social-democracy, CPs, the AFL-CIO...), and also existed in South America, in Asia and parts of Africa.

In theory, classism is the vindication of class difference (and opposition) as an end in itself, as if class war was the same as the emancipation of the workers and of mankind. So it's based exactly on what has to be criticised, as classes are basic constituents of capitalist society. Whether it's peaceful or violent, the mere opposition of one class to the other leaves both facing each other. Naturally any ruling class denies the existence of class antagonisms... What is revolutionary is not to uphold class struggle, but to affirm that such a struggle can end through a communist revolution.

Nowadays, the decay of classism and of the labour movement is visible and documented enough for us not to dwell upon it. Some revolutionaries have rejoiced over the demise of the worker's identity and of the glorification of the working class as the class of labour, and they've interpreted that demise as the elimination of a major obstacle to revolution — which the labour institutions and that ideology no doubt were. But what has the critique of the world really gained by their withering away? We'd be tempted to say: Not much, because of the rise of even softer practices and ideas.

Being freed of their workers' role and hopes just didn't turn wage-earners into radical proletarians. So far, the crisis of the working class and of classism has not favoured subversion. The past twenty years have brought about neo-liberal, neo-social-democratic, neo-reactionary, neo-everything ideologies, the emergence of which has coincided with the symbolic annihilation of the working class. This wiping out is a product of capital class recomposition (unemployment, dis-industrialisation, proletarianisation of office work, casualisation, etc.). It also results from the rejection by the wage-earners themselves of the most rigid forms of worker identity. But this rejection remains mainly negative. The proletarians have shattered the control of parties and unions over labour. (In 1960, anyone handing out an anti-union leaflet at a French factory gate risked being beaten up by the Stalinists.) But they haven't gone much further. Proletarian autonomy has not taken advantage of bureaucratic decline.

We are experiencing a dislocation of class struggle. In the 60s-70s, the unskilled workers stood at the centre of the reproduction of the whole system, and other categories recognised themselves in the "mass worker." No social symbolical figure plays such a pivotal role — yet....

...If a working class entangled in its identification with work did not make a revolution, nothing yet proves that the proletarians now liberated from it will act in a revolutionary way....

"WE ARE NOT OF THIS WORLD" (Babeuf, 1795)

We find it hard to share the optimism of those who see the present period as entirely dissimilar from the 60s-70s or from any previous period, with a capitalism that would systematically downgrade the living conditions of wage-earners, thereby creating a situation that would soon enough be intolerable and lead to a revolutionary crisis. The limits of proletarian upsurges from Algeria to Argentina, and the rise of radical reformism in Europe and the US, rather suggest that it's reform - not revolution - that is becoming topical again...

...The eagerness to celebrate the twilight of worker identity has led some comrades to forget that this identity also expressed an understanding of the irreconcilable antagonism between labour and capital. The proletarians had at least grasped that they lived in a world that was not theirs and could never be. We're not calling for a return to a Golden Age. We're saying that the disappearance of this identification owes as much to counter-revolution as to radical critique. Revolution will only be possible when the proletarians act as if they were strangers to this world, its outsiders, and will relate to a universal dimension, that of a classless society, of a human community."

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