Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Help Wanted: Fragments of a Theory of the Missing Worker

The figure of the worker has disappeared from politics. It has disappeared from the left, which has replaced it with an increasingly fragmented and fractious series of identities, and from the right, which has proclaimed everyone an entrepreneur, even if it is only of their own human capital. Moreover, as politics gravitates towards “the center,” towards consensus, the only class that dares to speak its name is the middle-class, which is absolutely ubiquitous because everyone claims to be it.

What interest me is less this fact, than a resurgence of sorts of theoretical perspectives from which to address it. Perhaps the most overt can be found in the work of Alain Badiou, who states quite directly what happens when the worker is excluded from the count. As Badiou writes, "what is counted is the level of the stock market, the Euro, financial investment, competition, and so on: the figure of the worker, on the other hand, counts for nothing.” (For more on this see "The Factory as Event Site" in the journal Prelom, thanks to Infinite Thought for pointing this out.)

There is more to this post, just follow the "Read More" link below.

For Badiou the worker is emblematic of the political process of the "count." The worker is included in society, but not counted. Included in the economic functioning of society without belonging to the official representation of society, the state. The same could be said of immigrants, etc. Thus, for Badiou what is living in Marx is the paradoxical status of the proletariat as “a class that is in civil society but not of civil society.” While what is dead is the entire theoretical edifice that Marx constructed to explain this fact, the theory of the mode of production, class struggle, etc. In short, the critique of political economy. As Badiou writes, “There can be no economic battle against the economy.” This is because political economy, Marxist or otherwise, if based on the fundamental principle of interest. Badiou radically distinguishes this subject, the subject that maintains itself in fidelity to the egalitarian axiom against the subject defined by interest. Behind every “Thermidor,” every attempt to put an end to the political process “there is the idea that an interest lies at the heart of every subjective demand.”

In Les Revolutions du Capitalisme Maurizio Lazzarato has also written about the disappearance of the working class, but in a very different vein. Lazzarato begins from Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between major and minor. It is important to point out that when Deleuze and Guattari first articulated this distinction in Mille Plateaux they did so by referencing at leas polemically a critique of the working class, from the perspectives of the "margins." Lazzarato, however, uses the distinction between major and minor to not so much dispense with the working class as a political subject, but to make a distinction between competing productions of subjectivity within the working class. As Lazzarato argues, worker’s are exploited insofar as they sell their labor to capital, but they are also investors, investors, through pension plans and stock options. As Lazzarato states, following Deleuze and Guattari, the 'working class,’ or those that sell their wage labor, have been incorporated in the capitalist ‘majority’. The majority is not defined numerically but by the way in which a particular form of existence becomes the norm. ‘Majority implies a constant, of expression or content, of expression or content, serving as a standard measure by which to evaluate it.' In the case of capitalism investing becomes the norm of economic participation; for example, the stock market, and not wages, becomes the standard through which the economy is evaluated, regardless of the fact that it does not benefit everyone. Thus, in capitalism ‘Desire of the most disadvantaged creature will invest with all its strength, irrespective of any economic understanding or lack of it, the capitalist social field as a whole.’

More names and concepts could be added to this survey, such as Hardt and Negri's argument that with real subsumption "the working class" becomes coextensive with society, which is a kind of a positive theory of this disappearance. However, I am less interested in charting out all of the responses to this than juxtaposing these different perspectives as the starting point for reflection.

1 comment:

Nate said...

You've probly seen it, but the Ranciere interview from Historical Materialism a while back is quite good, and at least tangentially related. Email me if you haven't seen it and can't find the citation.