Some notes on Marx, class consciousness and Occupy

For Marx, universality is never a trans-historical given but rather always the outcome of a political struggle: one particular class acquires the power to set itself up as the general class, as the representative of society as a whole. At the political level, struggle is always struggle for universality, for representativeness (the feudal aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, etc., all being particular classes that have seized their universality).

For example, from The German Ideology:

For each new class that puts itself in the place of one ruling before it is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality…The class making a revolution appears from the very start…not as a class but as the representative of the whole society…

The significance of capitalism, according to Marx, is that it creates for the first time the conditions for the formation of a genuinely universal class: the proletariat. This class stands opposed to the phony universality of the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, which is constantly becoming ever more concentrated into its particularity, its exclusivity. Capitalism therefore creates a situation where genuine universality and generality confront the most extreme and radical particularity masquerading as universality itself. Genuine universality, in other words, is confronted with a parody of itself in the figure of the bourgeois.

What universalizes the proletariat is its suffering – or more precisely, since Marx does not romanticize or idealize suffering, the state of raw humanity to which the working population is reduced under capitalism.

For example, the famous passage from the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843-44):

A class must be formed which has radical chains, a class in civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere of society which has a universal character because its sufferings are universal, and which does not claim a particular redress because the wrong which is done to it is not a particular wrong but wrong in general. There must be formed a sphere of society which claims no traditional status but only a human status…a sphere which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all the other spheres of society, without, therefore, emancipating all the other spheres…This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat…

The proletariat is thus a synthesis of the universal and the particular: it is the genuine universal in and as a particular class. This is precisely why the victory of the proletariat entails not a reversal or an inversion of existing class relations but rather the disappearance of class division as such. It is, for Marx, the ultimate realization of the universal and not merely the forceful appropriation of the mantle of universality by yet another particular class.

Today we have every right to ask whether and to what extent this old category of the ‘proletariat’ is still a useful one. The late Ernest Mandel argued that it was in fact still highly useful, not only because of Third World industrialization but simply because the concept itself is a sufficiently abstract one; the criterion for inclusion in the proletariat is simply ‘the socio-economic compulsion to sell one’s labour-power’ – and this includes every human being who is a non-owner of means of production, who lacks direct access to means of livelihood and who has insufficient money-reserves to purchase these means of livelihood at will.

All the same, the rise of neoliberalism or ‘anarcho-capitalism’ has effected a significant transformation of the proletariat itself – namely, from a worker to an entrepreneur. How do we understand this new entrepreneurial worker?

Here let us recall how things appear to the capitalist himself in his own warped consciousness. When the capitalist separates individuals from their means of production and subsistence, he only does this for their own sake, insofar as it ‘frees’ these individuals from that which prevented them from selling themselves in the marketplace as a commodity – namely, the work they carried out for themselves in order to meet their own needs. When commodity production is the dominant mode of social production, self-sufficiency is unfreedom; one is only free to the extent that one has a commodity to sell, and even if one has nothing else to sell but one’s power to work for someone else, still this must be considered a great advancement over the bondage of self-sufficiency.

Now the metamorphosis of the worker into an entrepreneur can be seen as an even more generous emancipation of humanity by capital – this time, from the security that workers formerly acquired in exchange for their absolute and unquestioned obedience in the workplace. Just as workers had formerly to be freed from the shackles of self-sufficiency, so too they must now be freed from the chains of an oppressive and constraining security (this is what’s known doctrinally as ‘labour market flexibility’).

As an example, consider the statement given by former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve and patron saint of the holy Free Market Alan Greenspan to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, 26 February 1997. Boasting about the unusually healthy state of the US economy, Greenspan says:

[An] acceleration in nominal labour compensation, especially its wage component, became evident over the past year. But the rate of pay increase still was markedly less than historical relationships with labour market conditions would have predicted. Atypical restraint on compensation increases has been evident for a few years now and appears to be mainly the consequence of greater worker insecurity.

Translation: workers are willing to accept smaller wage increases if that means a modicum of job security. However, this trade-off comes at the further cost of an accompanying spike in productivity:

[Faster] productivity growth last year meant that rising compensation gains did not cause labour costs per unit of output to increase any more rapidly.

Translation: increased production of surplus-value more than offset the modest rise in wages; indeed ‘profits and rates of return on capital have risen to high levels’. In short, people are working harder than ever for less pay.

Moreover, says Greenspan, since consumption ‘should rise roughly in line with the projected moderate expansion of disposable income’, the consequence is that ‘consumer debt burdens are near historic highs, while credit card delinquencies and personal bankruptcies have risen sharply’.

Here, then, we have a nice picture of the modern ‘free labourer’ in a nutshell: living from job to job, paycheck to paycheck, trading meagre wages and an increased workload for minimum job security, afraid to speak out, challenge authority or quit – all in order to pay off the mountain of debt that is necessarily incurred simply in order to live.

The name for this new kind of proletariat, liberated from the horrors of its own production, subsistence and security, is the precariat, the precarious proletariat. The precariat is the enterprising proletariat, the class of workers that are socio-economically compelled to invest in, brand and market themselves in order to survive and whose economic success or failure is entirely contingent upon their own ‘choices’ and ‘personal responsibility’ (essentially a permanently temporary workforce – flexible, infinitely adaptable, unstable, mobile, etc.).

To return to Marx: if the precariat is the universal class – ‘a sphere of society which has a universal character because its sufferings are universal’, as Marx says – than how is this universal class formed, i.e., how is universality realized concretely?

For Marx the emergence of the universal class is simply the natural corollary of the capitalist mode of production itself; it is nothing accidental but merely its other face. There are universalizing tendencies internal to capitalism, and these are fundamentally opposed to the particularity of the capitalist class. In other words, the bourgeoisie is able to maintain its particularity as a class only through a system of production that by its very nature tends toward universalization, a system that operates according to a universalizing logic. In a strange way, then, the capitalist class must always fight against the general movement of the very system that creates and supports it. Unlike the proletariat, who has a clearly defined antagonist, the capitalist class is in the unfortunate position whereby the progress toward its own realization is at the same time the decline toward its own eventual and inevitable demise.

This internal (logical) movement toward the universal proceeds as follows:

On the one hand, the capitalist extorts, in a completely legal and legitimate way, more value from the workers in the course of the working day than these workers require in order to purchase their means of subsistence – that is, the capitalist gets a surplus-value over and above the value that he invests in the form of wages. This surplus-value is then recapitalized, i.e., used to purchase more materials, machines and labour-power with the aim of generating an even greater surplus at the end of the next business cycle, which surplus is itself then re-invested, etc., and so on ad infinitum (what Marx calls accumulation for accumulation’s sake). In other words, and simply, it’s in the very essence of capitalist production to expand by swelling the ranks of the working class – the class of ‘free’ labourers, all of those who have been ‘liberated’ from their means of production and livelihood. How this occurs historically – whether through so-called ‘primitive accumulation’ (land grabs, imperial conquest, any kind of forced dispossession or appropriation) or through processes of ‘centralization’ (competition between smaller and larger capitals, monopolization) – is important but irrelevant here; what we must understand is simply that proletarianization is concomitant with capital accumulation; the one is inseparable from the other.

At the very same time, however, and on the other hand, technological advances – which allow individual capitalists to satisfy their lust for short-term gain by selling commodities below their value – render ever-greater quantities of these free workers redundant and therefore socially useless. Hence the rise of a great ‘reserve army of labour’, a wandering, disorganized mass of workers who have no fixed position in society, no chances for upward mobility and who can in fact be mobilized by capital as a threat to existing labour, i.e., a means of extorting still more surplus-value while ensuring strict discipline and obedience. Again, what we see today is that this lack of a fixed and stable existence, this default precariousness, has undergone a revaluation and has been transformed into a virtue, a higher-order freedom – the liberation of the worker’s entrepreneurial spirit, sense of personal responsibility, etc. The logic of neoliberalism doesn’t recognize any ‘reserve army of labour’; rather there is only and everywhere a multiplicity of entrepreneurs who achieve, thanks to hard work and a certain amount of serendipity, varying degrees of success or failure.

This process of expansion does not stop at the borders of nations but extends, obviously enough, to the furthest reaches of the globe – and in fact the only reason it stops there is simply the natural finitude of the terrestrial space itself, since the logic of expansion has no internal principle of limitation. Now this necessary and essential globalization has an all-important twofold consequence at the level of social consciousness, namely this: it concentrates and intensifies the class struggle by forcing both classes to overcome the natural barriers to class cohesion imposed by the logic of competition itself (whether it’s different capitals competing for profit and market share or workers competing for a shrinking number of jobs). The more capitalism expands, the larger swells the class of free workers, of universal humanity, and hence the more likely it is that this class will come to a conscious awareness of its universality – its universal human essence – vis-à-vis the stark particularity of the capitalist class. Indeed this is precisely why Marx himself supported the expansion of so-called ‘free trade’ – i.e., because the total globalization of the capitalist system was the very precondition for the formation of a revolutionary subjectivity, that is to say, a universal subjectivity aware of its own universality. For example, Marx supported the adherence of some workers’ groups to the Anti-Corn-Law League, since the protectionism of the Corn Laws prevented the universalization of capitalism that would provoke the self- or class-recognition of the proletariat as a revolutionary force. As Marx put it in an address to the Democratic Association in Brussels in 1848: ‘Free Trade dissolves the hitherto existing nationalities and pushes to its climax the tension between proletariat and bourgeoisie. In one word, the system of free trade precipitates the social revolution.’ It’s also why Marx, during the economic crises of the mid-1850s, refused to join a revolutionary movement and instead immersed himself ever more deeply into the writing of his political economy, a text that, he hoped, would act as the glue that held that universal consciousness together, at least through the period of revolutionary turmoil and transition.

Simply, Marx places a much higher value of the formation of self-consciousness than on revolutionary struggle as such – and not least because self-consciousness tempers the violence of revolution. A violent and terroristic revolution is a confused revolution. As Marx writes in the Manifesto:

National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.

Let’s turn to the Occupy movement. I don’t think it would be amiss to interpret ‘the 99%’ along these broadly Marxian lines – namely, as the first glimmer of a new, global, universal precariat consciousness, an entirely new mode of subjectivity that perceives the faint silhouette its own universality piercing through the flimsy and tattered veil of the pseudo-universal and historically arbitrary social categories of neoliberal capitalism: entrepreneur, human capital, consumer, etc. This is simply to suggest that the 99% might perhaps constitute the proper name, or the first of many proper names, of a future revolutionary consciousness – although here, of course, there is still a long way to go.

Meanwhile, on the side of capital we see the same process of class consolidation, the universalization of bourgeois particularity. In fact the capitalist class has always been more aware of its internal unity than the working classes, a unity that expresses its fundamental self-division and thus constitutes a structural limit to its self-realization. For this class has always understood that it has to stick together in order to maintain its radical separation-in-competition, to unite in order to be divided – but this is an irreconcilable tension. Strangely, capital is joined in solidarity in its pursuit of the mutual hostility and antagonism of free, anarchic competition, and yet it is just this tendency toward ever-purer forms of capitalism that unites the proletariat as the self-consciously universal and therefore revolutionary class. As Marx writes in The Holy Family:

Private property, as private property, as wealth, is compelled to maintain itself and thereby its opposite, the proletariat, in existence. That is the positive side of the contradiction, self-satisfied private property…
The proletariat, on the other hand, is compelled as proletariat to abolish itself and thereby its opposite, the condition for its existence, what makes it the proletariat, i.e., private property. That is the negative side of the contradiction, its restlessness within its very self, dissolved and self-dissolving private property.

This is what lies at the root of that paradox whereby, on the one hand, we are presently moving toward, not away from, the state of raw, abstract capitalism described by Marx in Capital, Vol. 1, and on the other hand, capitalism as such has never yet existed (with the possible exception of those places where it was imposed by force as an economic ‘experiment’, i.e., Chile, Argentina, Brazil, etc.). Capitalism is always on the way toward its own fulfilment, and yet it is precisely its approximation to this fulfilment that creates the agency of its own destruction.

Today the consciousness of the capitalist class is stronger, more lucid and more focused than ever before. Some of the most illuminating evidence for this comes to us in the form of two leaked internal memos from Citigroup, dated 16 October 2005 and 5 march 2006, in which the authors describe, with barely concealed glee, the emergence of a new global ‘plutonomy’ and the attendant rise of ‘global imbalances’ in wealth and purchasing power (these are now getting hard to find, since Citigroup has launched a massive campaign to scrub any trace of them from the internet).

Incidentally, it’s interesting to consider the titles of these memos: ‘Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer’, ‘Earnings – Don’t Worry, Capitalists Still On Top’, ‘What A Wonderful World’, etc. (gets you into the mindset).

Here, then, is how the capitalist class talks amongst itself when it thinks no one else is listening:

The World is dividing into two blocs – the Plutonomy and the rest. The U.S., UK, and Canada are the key Plutonomies – economies powered by the wealthy. Continental Europe (ex-Italy) and Japan are in the egalitarian bloc (1:1). [The authors make the same point later on in a section titled, ‘Riding the Gravy Train’.]

In a plutonomy there is no such animal as ‘the U.S. consumer’ or ‘the UK consumer’, or indeed the ‘Russian consumer’. There are rich consumers, few in number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take. There are the rest, the ‘non-rich’, the multitudinous many, but only accounting for surprisingly small bites of the national pie (1:2).

(Confirmation from Al Jazeera, 5 December 2011:

It turns out that, overall, retail profits [during Black Friday in the US] were buoyed not by the shopping of bargain hunters among the 99 per cent, but the acquisition of luxury items by the 1 per cent whose incomes have been rising.

Celebrity Paris Hilton is a poster girl for this excess. She bought herself a new Ferrari for a few thousand dollars and boasted to friends and media supplicants. One columnist invoked the memory of Marie Antoinette with a disgusted, ‘off with her head’.)

[Over the last three decades in particular, i.e., during the neoliberal period, the plutcrats have done remarkably well, having gone] from coupon-clipping, dividend-receiving rentiers to a Managerial Aristocracy indulged by their shareholders (1:5).

Despite being in great shape, we think that global capitalists are going to be getting an even greater share of the wealth pie over the next few years, as capitalists benefit disproportionately from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor (2:2).

[That is,] the rich are going to keep getting richer in coming years, as capitalists (the rich) get an even bigger share of GDP as a result, principally, of globalization. We expect the global pool of labor in developing economies to keep wage inflation in check, and profit margins rising – good for the wealth of capitalists, relatively bad for developed market unskilled/outsource-able labor (2:11).

The authors point out that plutonomies ‘have occurred before in sixteenth century Spain, in seventeenth century Holland, the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties in the U.S.’, and then go on to ask, ‘What are the common drivers of Plutonomy?’ The answer:

Disruptive technology-driven productivity gains, creative financial innovation, capitalist-friendly cooperative governments, an international dimension of immigrants and overseas conquests invigorating wealth creation, the rule of law, and patenting inventions. Often these wealth waves involve great complexity, exploited best by the rich and educated of the time (1:1-2).

However, and thankfully, according to the authors, there is no need to fret about the real and potential effects of any of this, i.e., the so-called ‘global imbalances’ that ‘continue to (unprofitably) preoccupy the world’s intelligentsia’, since the earth – just as Ayn Rand described – ‘is being held up by the muscular arms of its entrepreneur-plutocrats, like it, or not’ (1:2).

Finally the authors indulge in a bit of scientific speculation as to why some nations are more ‘muscular’ than others. They suggest that plutocratic nations are distinguished by the fact that they ‘have high dopamine-intensity populations’ (1:9). ‘Dopamine’, they write, ‘a pleasure-inducing brain chemical, is linked with curiosity, adventure, entrepreneurship, and helps drive results in uncertain environments’ (1:9). (So it’s all just a matter of the random sloshing-around of brain chemicals – a theory which, in fact, undermines the ethics of personal responsibility.)

Now there should be no doubts as to where the authors stand on the value and the desirability of this situation:

Society and governments need to be amenable to disproportionately allow/encourage the few to retain that fatter profit share. The Managerial Aristocracy, like in the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties and the thriving nineties, needs to commandeer a vast chunk of that rising profit share, either through capital income, or simply paying itself a lot (1:10).

Indeed, class-consciousness is on full display:

[The] rising wealth gap between the rich and poor will probably at some point lead to a political backlash. Whilst the rich are getting a greater share of the wealth, and the poor a lesser share, political enfranchisement remains as [it] was – one person, one vote (in the plutonomies). At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich…We don’t see this happening yet…[but] we are keeping a close eye on developments (2:10).

So here’s where we stand: no longer the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie, but rather the global precariat, the 99%, on one side, the rising plutocracy, the 1%, on the other. Or more precisely, let’s say that these two categories – the plutocracy and the 99% – constitute the subjective categories that correspond to the modern bourgeoisie and the modern proletariat; they are the autonomous emergent modes of subjectivity of the two great classes that define capitalist society. To be sure, there have been forms of class subjectivity that have preceded these categories – no doubt; but what is new and potentially transformative is their universality, their global character: the phony universality or universal particularity of capital on the one hand, the genuine universality of the whole of humanity on the other – i.e., a class that abolishes its own particularity as a class the closer it comes to realizing its true being. And it is precisely the stunning success of capitalism that has engendered this growing self-awareness or self-consciousness of these universalities as the universalities that they are – or as the Citigroup memo puts it: ‘Just as misery loves company, we posit that the “plutos” like to hang out together’ (1:21). Moreover, each universality only attains self-consciousness vis-à-vis the universality that stands opposed to it as its Other; the process by which capital and labour come to self-awareness – i.e., as the plutocracy and the 99% – is the very same process by which they become aware of each other: for capital, labour as the universality of the poor and the suffering; for labour, capital as the phony universality of the 1%. The ‘plutos’ are hanging out together precisely because they recognize the growing threat posed by the company of the miserable (which is also and precisely why Occupy was listed among terrorist groups in a recent advisory notice issued by the City of London police and sent to the local business community).

To wind down: it therefore follows that the Occupy movement, as the very body of this emerging subjectivity of the 99%, is an inherently radical movement. Inherently – that is to say, essentially or constitutionally. And it is precisely for this reason that the greatest threat to the movement doesn’t come in the form of external violence – and in fact the police brutality has so far been nothing but a boon to Occupies everywhere – but rather has a much more insidious origin: namely, the spirit of reformism, every well-meaning but ultimately conservative liberalism, which is ultimately grounded in self-forgetting and self-denial. For if this new creature, Occupy, is born out of the global expansion of capitalism as the universality of humanity standing over and against the pseudo-universality of the plutocracy – then what is ‘reform’ if not the total annihilation of the very conditions of its historical emergence, a way of keeping capitalism constrained and contained in such a way that the whole idea of ‘the 99%’ is rendered utterly meaningless, as indeed it has been for so long? What is ‘reform’ if not the re-introduction of the spirit of competition into the 99% itself – for if capitalism is ‘fixed’, ‘repaired’, ‘regulated’, ‘managed’, ‘monitored’, etc., that is to say, kept firmly within limits that allow for a moderately crisis-free functioning, if it is allowed to fabricate a certain semblance of human happiness in the form of a mindless consumerist intoxication, then there seems to be no reason why the 99% should not throw itself with furious abandon into a bellum omni contra omnes for the sake of private accumulation. Moreover, and more fundamentally, the very notion of such an equilibrium is itself pure fiction; the ‘happiness’ of some is always and necessarily won at the cost of the immiseration of untold numbers of others (i.e., of the 99%). The prosperity in the West during the postwar years was achieved only through the violent expropriation of much of the Third World.

To end, then, with a word of caution: the spirit of reform is omnipresent; it is everywhere we turn. For whatever reason – pusillanimity, apathy, exhaustion, frustration, nihilism – reformism is an ineradicable temptation for the left. One can discern this deep-seated nostalgia for the status quo in certain formulations whose apparent innocuousness and intuitiveness often cause their fundamental incongruity to go entirely unnoticed. One hears it, for example, in the way in which we say out of one side of our mouth that the financial crisis wasn’t the fault of ‘a few bad apples’, ‘a few greedy bankers’, while out of the other side we lament the fact that hardly a single one of those greedy bankers has gone to prison. Or in the way in which we decry the utter humiliation, degradation and dehumanization of wage labour while simultaneously demanding that the state intervene to create more jobs. Or again, in the way in which we fret about the trashing of the environment while toying with the idea that a robust green jobs initiative would stimulate economic growth.

Example – a recent OECD report shows:

‘Income inequality among working-age people has risen faster in Britain than in any other rich nation since the mid-1970s…due to the rise of a financial services elite who…have concentrated wealth in the hands of a tiny minority.’

In 2008 the top 10% of earners made 12 times the income of the bottom 10%; in developing nations such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, the income gap ‘is an alarming 50 to one’.

In Britain, the ‘share of the top 1% of income earners increased from 7.1% in 1970 to 14.3% in 2005’, while the top 0.1% ‘accounted for a remarkable 5% of total pre-tax income, a level of wealth hoarding not seen since the second world war’.

Now given this severity of this situation, the sort of situation not seen since the last Gilded Age, what do the authors of the report recommend?

To rebalance society ‘for the 99%’, the authors call for a series of measures focusing on job creation, ‘increased redistributive effects’ and ‘freely accessibly and high-quality public services in education, health and family care’.

Now these are all great things, to be sure – but that’s not the point. The difficulty lies in the implication that we can carry on with business as usual as long as it’s mediated by a little more ‘redistributive justice’.

It’s precisely this sort of subtle doublethink that we must root out – precisely and only insofar as we have the survival and future development of the movement in view. I’m suggesting that the very lifeblood of Occupy, its essence as a movement, depends on this rooting-out. The moment that Occupy becomes a campaign for reform it has already ceased to be what it is.

One strategy we can adopt right away is to refuse to shy away from the word and the concept of capitalism. Arundhati Roy points out quite aptly that we often prefer to use terms like ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘crony capitalism’ to avoid having to criticize the still semi-magical and sacred idea of capitalism itself. And herein, quite obviously, lies the virtue of a critical reappropriation of Marx…

– Andrew Tyler (Philosophy Department)

Vin Hammersley, president of the Warwick branch of the University and College Union (UCU) addressed the closing of the occupation.

Firstly, I want to thank you all on behalf of the Warwick branch of UCU for your support and goodwill during the strike on November 30th. Your presence added a great deal of impact to our demonstration at the entrance to the site last week.

The action we are taking is being grossly misrepresented in the press and media – and by Jeremy Clarkson. We are not greedy public servants leeching off the hard earned taxes of the rest of the state – we pay a considerable contribution to our pension scheme – in my case over £3500 a year and the average pension of a public sector worker is only in the region of £5000 a year.

These pensions should not be considered to be a gift of a munificent state in a civilised democratic society, decent conditions in retirement should be the right of us all. Over the last century, we have fought for and earned our pensions, our education and our social services and – sadly, I seee each and every one of these rights now being attacked, eroded and privatised.

And by who? By a government made up of millionaires, an emerging political class who can know nothing of the way most of us live. Dictated to by a small but greedy band of despots who have awarded themselves increases of over 30% to their already sinfully bloated salaries this year alone – whilst urging the rest of us for restraint.

It has been a long time since I have seen such honest concern coupled with the balls to take action from young people like yourselves – it is one of the few things which gives me hope for the future.

Thank you all.