Wage Labor, Capitalism and Communism
Okay, so this is not going to be the usual examination on the topic of wage labor, capitalism or communism. Sometimes when you run into a conceptual brick wall it helps to completely change perspectives. I am trying to find a new way to describe why and how capitalism itself anticipates communism without producing a predictable 20th century Marxism argument.
CAVEAT: Of course, this just might fall completely flat, but thems are the breaks. So you can be skeptical of the result, since I am just attempting a thought exercise.
The association of labor versus the subordination of labor
In any union negotiation it could be argued wage labor organized as the company, as capital, faces wage labor organized in association, as communism. That is all union negotiations are: In effect, the workers in one guise confront themselves in another guise. Which is to say, there really are only the workers themselves on both sides of the table and the personification, capital, is, while perhaps historically necessary, just a personification — no matter this form this personification may take (individual capitalist, corporation, the state) its essential characteristic is a definite organization of wage labor.
This, of course, is a simplification of the actual situation, but bear with me on this for a moment. I think, this simplification can throw light on the relation between capitalism and communism.
So what makes these two forms of organization of wage labor irreconcilable, antagonistic forms? At the negotiating table, the workers are in effect only negotiating with themselves in two different forms: In the first, direct, form they are the union (or association) of the workers; in the second form, they “are” the company (or capital). On one side they are an association of labor confronting capital, on the other side they are subordinated to capital. The antagonism between the two sides of the table stems from the fact that on one side the workers are represented by their own association, while they are “represented” by capital on the other side, who speaks for them and in their place. The antagonism is between the association of labor over against the subordination of labor.
The negotiations appear as a struggle over terms and conditions of labor between wage labor and capital, but this is an appearance only. Capital itself is actually the absolute subordination of wage labor to the needs of capital — to capital’s self-valorization or self-expansion — in which the needs of the workers as individuals do not figure at all. The negotiations are between material requirements of the workers as individuals and their actual existence as a subjectless process of self-expansion in which individual needs do not enter the picture. The workers assume that through negotiations they can impose their needs on a subjectless process where their needs do not matter but this is impossible for reasons I will explain.
The wage relationship itself — the exchange of labor power for wages — is not just the sale of labor power as a commodity for a sum of cash, this exchange also strips the needs of the workers out of the equation, i.e., the exchange strips their needs as individuals out of their activity as a constituent of the capitalist employer. With the wage relationship, the workers exchange their labor power for a sum of wages. They acquire ownership of the wages — some quantity of money — while their labor power becomes the property of the capital, which puts it to work not to satisfy the needs of the workers, but to the task of creating surplus value. The workers lose all ownership in the labor power and its activity. When it is actually consumed as labor, it is consumed for the needs of capital, not the needs of the workers. It would seem this labor is fundamentally incompatible with the needs of the workers — these are two irreconcilable and antagonistic factors — since, by definition, the consumption of the labor power takes place under conditions that exclude their needs at the outset. The act of the exchange of wages for labor power is simultaneously the act whereby the material needs of the worker are stripped out of her activity.
The needs of the worker versus the activity of the worker
In the negotiations, the worker now sits across the table from her activity (capital) and proposes this labor must take her needs into account. By definition capital (which is only her activity) cannot exist unless her needs as an individual form no part of this activity. On the other hand, the association of the workers proceeds solely from their needs, not from their activity (capital). Since their needs form no part of their activity (capital), these needs must confront their activity as an external subject (association). At the same time the activity of the workers appears subjectless, an autonomous process antagonistic to the actors themselves.
On one side of the table is the “subject”, the worker, who thinks she can negotiate with the “subjectless” process sitting across from her, capital. She thinks, in other words, she can negotiate with her own labor (capital). But this is only one side of the equation — the association of wage labor — this is the external manifestation or expression. Everybody focuses on this side because this is the visible, obvious, side of the relation. On the other side, sits the capital. The needs of the workers plays no role in its activity; it is solely concerned with the subjectless activity of self-expansion. When the needs of the workers confront the capital, through their association, these needs appear external to it — because they really are. The needs of the workers can only appear as external — as wages, as a cost of production — while the activity of the workers appears as the activity of the capital.
Some writers will admit there is no “necessary” relation between the needs of the workers and their activity — but this is ambiguous and misleading. It makes it appear as if there can be a relation between the association of the workers and capital or that this relation is established through the struggle between the two classes. There is, in fact, no relation at all between the needs of the workers (association) and their activity (capital) — none whatsoever. It is important to emphasize the point that in capitalism the needs of the workers play no role whatsoever in the activity of the capital.
This is true not because the capitalist is greedy — which he may very well be — but because capital is, from its very inception, a communist movement of society. Most communists do not realize the higher stage of communism is exactly the point where there is no longer any connection at all between the activity of the worker and her needs. This bizarre outcome can be restated in a more familiar fashion. Communism is that point where society operates according to the principle:
“From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.
In other words, society operates according to the principle that the needs of the individual have no connection to their contribution to the social labor of the community. This communist form of society would be impossible unless capitalism already contained the germ of this mode of existence. For this reason, labor theory assumes that with the emergence of capitalism, the material premise of communism already exists. It exists in the form of the wage labor relation itself, which severs the needs of the worker (association) from her activity (capital).
Can the needs of the worker determine her activity?
The question is this: Since at the negotiating table needs (the union, association) sits on one side and activity (capital) sits on the other side, why can’t these two be joined? This would seem to be the ideal solution: the association takes control of the capital and manages it on its own behalf. (Leaving aside all the complicating factors: the division of capital, nations states, etc.) Assume for a moment there is just one big capital and one big union: why can’t one absorb the other?
The answer is obvious with regards to the capital absorbing the union: capital is the activity of the workers standing in absolute antagonism to their needs and over against those needs as an independent subjectless force. The needs of the workers plays no role whatsoever in their activity (capital). For capital to absorb the association would essentially erase those needs. But what of the union (association) absorbing the capital and managing it for its own needs? Again the problem is the same: the needs of the workers (association) form no part of their activity (capital). The workers cannot simply absorb the capital, they must put an end to their activity — wage labor. This is not simply wage labor in the form of capital, or wage labor insofar as it becomes capital, wage labor itself must be abolished.
The question raised by this is how will the needs of the workers be met without labor? I think this is the question the early communists grappled with. Some argued work must become play, or like play — Fourier, for one, introduced the notion that labor must become play. In any case wage labor cannot simply be subordinated to needs, it must be abolished. Wage labor, by definition, is completely antithetical to association; the two concepts cannot share the same space without conflict. It is not possible to simply replace capital with association; wage labor, which forms the essence of capital, must be done away with also.
Marx argued labor had to become life’s prime want. I take that to mean the desire simply to be productive had to exceed any and all need for productive activity. Oddly enough this is already given in capitalist relations of production themselves. Capital presupposes that the activity of the mass of society, its labor, always must exceed its needs. Communism, in this case, does not add anything to this at all — not a single material thing. Since capital rests on the unpaid or uncompensated labor of the workers, it materially prepares society for communism by insisting the labor time of society always exceeds the material needs of the workers.
If we begin with the notion the needs of the workers (association) plays no role in their activity (capital), how then are these needs met? At the negotiating table the workers think they can get capital to take their needs into account, but they soon learn this is not possible. No matter how hard they fight, capital operates as before and on the same premise: the workers sell their labor power for wages and thereby sever their needs from their activity. Thus their activity always begins from the premise there is no connection to their needs, no matter the level of labor conflict. We tend to focus on this conflict as if it somehow determines the outcome, but it absolutely does not determine it in any way.
The needs of capital and crisis
Even in times where labor conflict has been at unprecedented historical lows — as in 2007 — capitalism suffers crisis. This crisis is nothing more than the needs of the workers imposing themselves on capital, despite the workers actual submission to capital. It does not matter whether the workers fight or submit, their material needs must impose themselves on capital through a crisis because the material needs of the workers appears as a constituent of the needs of capital itself. The level of labor conflict has nothing to do with this crisis and will assert itself no matter the level of conflict. The needs of the workers are a material precondition for accumulation and cannot be settled at the negotiating table.
What Marxists call the “law of value” is nothing more than the needs of the workers making themselves manifest in capital’s operation as the requirements of capital itself. But here is the twist: The needs in this case are not the needs of the individual workers as individuals, but the needs of the workers as a single social laborer. We can, therefore, assume there are no unions, no rights, no freedoms, no democracy — and this law will still make itself felt. By the same token, unions, right, freedoms, and democracy are one after another abolished in a vain attempt to suppress this law. The law of value cannot be suppressed because the starting point accumulation is that the worker’s activity has nothing to do with her needs — it has nothing to do with forms and level of class conflict.
Since these needs do not manifest themselves in production, they must manifest themselves in exchange. For this reason, state intervention always appears at the expense of exchange, and as an attempt to suppress “market forces”. Capital runs into the barrier posed by the needs of the workers — exchange — and the state is enlisted to wage war on exchange. The “socialism” so hated by Austrians is a “socialism” of the conditions of exchange — the attempt to suppress the law of value. Historically, the attempt to “socialize” exchange took the form of the replacement of commodity money with inconvertible fiat currency.
Meanwhile back at the negotiating table, labor in the form of association faces this same labor organized as capital and they negotiate over wages denominated in this fiat currency. But there is now a hidden third party to the negotiations — the state — who determines the “purchasing power” of the wages agreed upon by labor and capital. The union gets the company to agree to a 10% increase in wages, and the company gets the state to agree to increase inflation (depreciate the purchasing power of the wages) by 15%.
Now why would the state go along with this blatant fraud proposed by Keynes to deliberately depreciate wages? Why would it side with capital against the union? Some hold that this is because the state is corrupted, tainted by political donations and bribes, “liberals” who hate the market, or “conservatives” who hate unions. This is not true at all — which is to say, all of these assertions may be true but they play no role whatsoever in explaining the state’s motives. Some politicians may be “liberals” who hate the market, and they see markets as a source of “instability” or some other shit. And some politicians may be “conservatives” who hate unions and see “creeping socialism” behind every labor negotiation. And both the “liberal” politician and the “conservative” politician may be on the payroll of GE or Wal-Mart, or both. Finally, both may or may not be receiving massive campaign donations from Wall Street or the oil industry, or whatever. Really, they are politicians, which means their corruption is not a defect — it is why people vote for them: they are pliable. Who the fuck is going to vote for someone who is not pliable? Corruptible? You vote for (or donate to) someone because you know that your vote (or donation) buys their corrupt, pliable ass. The last thing any voter wants is a politician who will put principles above bringing jobs and federal money to the home district.
But this still does not explain why the state sides with capital at the negotiating table — the union can match every company dollar with a union vote. And the company dollars only goes to airtime to convince workers to vote for the politician.
The state, capital and wage labor
The reason the state sides with the capitalist against the workers is simple: the surplus value produced by the workers creates not only profits for the company but revenues for the state. The state itself is just another division of the surplus value produced by the workers, along with rent, interest and capitalist consumption. After the worker receives her wages, she is immediately set upon by the creditor, the landlord and the tax collector. The capital, landlord, banker and politician constantly fight among themselves over who will get the largest piece of the poor worker’s ass. The capitalist goes first, because he owns the labor power, but then he must share in his loot with the other three. The state has exactly the same interest in the worker’s labor as the other three — she is a surplus value cow to be milked.
Some people only focus on the $1200 a month they will get at the end of their lives in social security payments, and ignore this. For these people, the state is a source of welfare expenditures — they ignore the source of these expenditures. They argue the state can tax “the rich” and provide cash to “the poor and middle class” citizens. So where do these taxes on “the rich” come from? Is this not the surplus value squeezed from “the poor and middle class”? Even if the state only taxed capital and only spent the revenue on labor, this would not change things one iota. Everything that can be said of the basic relation between capital and wage labor would still be true in this case. The taxes imposed on capital would be derived from the exploitation of the worker.
Moreover, the essential condition of the worker’s activity is that this activity has no relation whatsoever to her needs: and taxing “the rich” to feed “the poor” would violate that assumption. If the worker’s activity can be employed in this fashion, communism would be impossible. The capitalist mode of production would be self-regulating, and the necessity for its collapse could not be demonstrated. In fact, even crises could not be explained except as one or another error in state management of capitalism. Employing the state to tax capital and spend the revenues on wage labor brings us to exactly the same place as the union absorbing the capital. For the same reason that association is incompatible with capital, it is also incompatible with the state. The state can never be a neutral party at the negotiating table, and it can never be a neutral party generally.
Even if we were to assume the state expropriated the whole of capital, it would still be antagonistic to wage labor. The expropriation would not put an end to this antagonism, it would simply put an end to democracy. We could assume the opposite: capitals together expropriate the state, since this would be the same effect. In either case, the state would now directly represent the interest of the total capital — it would be the capitalist. Some believe the state functions on premises that are different than capital, but this is not true — the state is derivative of capital. Both revenue of the state and the profits of capital are forms of surplus value.
There is no reason why these two cannot be combined (as in the soviet style economy) into one pot. This, however, does not in the least mean the antagonism between labor and capital is overcome. Nor does it mean that the needs of the workers do not get imposed on the state-as-capitalist through crises. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the collapse of capitalism played out on a liimited scale exactly as it will be on the universal scale of the world market as a whole. The difference is context: there will be no global capitals standing by to pick up the pieces in the latter case. In the SU all the unions were company unions, there was no democracy, and there were no rights the state respected: it still collapsed. No country was more effective at reducing the consumption of its working class than the SU. The wages of the worker were meaningless since the plan decided in advance how much of any item would be produced. There was a reason the shelves were empty, the state planned for the shelves to be empty. Rather than being an example of the inefficiency of the state plan, the state was highly efficient at squeezing every drop of surplus value.
I think this means the problem cannot be overcome either through some sort of cooperative or state ownership of property. If the problem is not over who owns, controls, or manages capital, it has to rest on the nature of the odd separation of activity and needs found in the wage relation itself. This division emerges with capital and the wages contract, and its is perfected with communism, when the social product is divided among the members of society under the principle, “to each according to his needs” — which is to say, the social product is divided up without reference to the labor of individuals.
The antagonism between the needs of the worker and her activity cannot be overcome
The whole capitalist epoch, therefore, is the development of the antagonism between the activity of the worker and satisfaction of her needs. The unexpected conclusion is that once the antagonism emerges it can never be resolved in any other way than communism. Listening to socialists of all types, you would think it can be fixed by some means short of communism. Every socialist swears socialism will create a system of production based on satisfaction of the needs of the individual producer — but this is total bullshit. In the end the needs of the worker are as separated from her activity as they are in the wages contract. Once the connection between the needs of the worker and her activity is broken by wage labor, it can never be repaired — it can only be superseded.
Our entire conception of communism, to the extent it is expressed in this idea of fixing the break between individual needs and individual activity, is wrong. This may seem like a strange idea, I think, but directly social labor is not tied to individual needs in any way. The wages relationship under capitalism (where the needs of the worker has no relation to her activity) is not a defect: it is the new normal, it is the way communism will function. The defect of capitalism is that although the worker’s activity is no longer tied to her needs, satisfaction of her needs is tied to the sale of her labor power.
We keep on thinking about going the other way: to restore the connection between the needs of the individual and her labor, but this is completely wrong. And it is not just wrong simply because the starting point of capital is its self-expansion, not the needs of the worker; it is wrong, because, in any case, social labor does not work that way. Directly social labor functions as if the combined activity of all the workers is the activity of a single social producer. On the surface, the activity appears as if it is the activity of millions of individual workers, but it really is not — it is the act of a single social laborer. And the needs of this single social laborer must be met as if all the workers are one and the same laborer.
Part of the problem here is that communists describe the capitalist mode of production in completely negative terms, but this is not entirely accurate. Holloway, for instance, describes capital as a relation that breaks the “sociality of doing”. He has it entirely backward, capital does not ‘break the sociality of doing’, it actually creates the material basis for a truly social doing — and communism completes this creation. Capital is actually a revolutionary mode of production, but the revolution takes place at the expense of the worker. Against all previous modes of production it is revolutionary; against the social worker produced by this activity, however, it is an insufficient, historically limited mode of production. In any case, however, capitalism lays the material basis for its own supercession.
Putting this idea to work
What does this all mean practically in terms of the future of society? Well, someone asked me this very interesting question:
“I am going to ask my usual awkwardof all male left theorists – where does this leave child raising?”
It is an important question of the relationship between paid and unpaid labor — on that goes to the heart of a lot of the social contribution made by individuals, mostly women, whose effort is not compensated through wages. Which is to say, it falls under that portion of social labor that has not, as yet, been commodified by capitalism. In labor theory the historical trajectory is that there is no individual producer in this process. Marx put it this way:
“on the basis of capitalist production, after the labourer enters the production process he himself constitutes an ingredient of operating productive capital, which belongs to the capitalist. Therefore, the capitalist is the actual producer of the commodity.”
Under capitalist relations of production, the producer no longer appears to be the individual laborer but a social laborer, i.e., capital. Marxists spend a lot of time arguing this is not the case at all — the laborer and laborer alone is the producer. This argument is true insofar as we are speaking of the conflict between labor and capital, but it is not true in terms of the historical trajectory of labor.
Insofar as we are speaking of the historical trajectory of labor, it is society as a whole, not the individual, who is the producer. The entirely bourgeois conception that makes a distinction between paid and unpaid labor is dissolved with the progress of social production. Within capitalist relations of production this means formerly unpaid labor is progressively commodified — childcare, etc. But this commodification is only a prelude to the abolition of individual compensation entirely: to the end of individual wages.
The trajectory of social production is to treat all activity as directly social and without concern for the mode of this activity. Which is to say, its trajectory is to treat all individuals as part of a single social producer and therefore entitled to share in its product. This brings an end to the idea of “paid” versus “unpaid” labor, to home activity and economic activity generally, to “women’s work” and work generally. All human activity is treated together as the activity of a single producer and the product of this activity as a directly social product.
For instance, all the tasks of childrearing are understood to be a social act and as “socially important” as producing iPhones. Which is to say exactly the opposite: there is, in fact, nothing socially important about iPhones at all, except that their production is profitable, while child-rearing is not. Form the standpoint of the completed historical transition, there is no reason why a woman should be entitled to the social product for producing iPhones, but left to starve rearing her children — both are simply different modes of activity of one and the same social producer.