Friday, March 17, 2023

Between Micro-Politics and Mute Compulsion: Reflections on a Problem


Detail of Rapture by Jon Read

Since it was published I have taught Kathi Weeks' book The Problem with Work in my Politics and Philosophy of work class. When I introduce the book, stressing that it is written by a political theorist and not, as in the case of many of our readings, by a philosopher, sociologist or historian, I ask the two questions that Weeks asks: namely, why should a political theory consider work? why does work seem to be outside of politics? What I am trying to provoke with these questions is a particular aporia in which work is for many people the central experience of power, authority, control and subjection, but because it is seen as private and natural it is seen as outside of politics, as apolitical. I remember very well a student responding to the second part of the question by saying that work was not political because "no one made you do it." At first I found this formulation strange given all of the ramifications and consequences of not working from homelessness to starvation, but the more I thought about his response the more it made its own particular sense. The compulsion to work, to sell one's labor power, was in some sense mute, unspoken, there was no particular agency or institution in society demanding it, and there was no particular institution or agency in society enforcing it--in part because it is diffuse spread throughout society. 

Since that day I have tried to think together two intersecting ideas. First, Marx's particular contribution to political thought is to think a new kind of compulsion, one that exceeds force or consent and ultimately the political institutions of society all together. The compulsions that define capitalism, not just in demanding that people go to work, to sell labor power, but the compulsions that dictate the rate and intensity of how that labor power will be put to work, are the structural conditions of capitalist accumulation. These compulsions go on behind the producers backs as Marx put it, are not decided on by anyone in particular. Moreover, while the state, law, and police are necessary conditions of capitalist accumulation, making possible the status of labor power as a commodity, these conditions exceed the state to be disseminated throughout political life. Which brings up the second point, this particular kind of compulsion is, for the most part, not experienced as compulsion but often as freedom, and to the extent that it appears as constraint, as necessity, it does so as a necessity that is not historical or instituted, but a fact of existence. Work, private property, competition, the market, etc. appear to not be institutions but, as Marx puts it, self-evident natural laws. Lastly, or to add a third idea, it is against this background of mute compulsion that the more overt compulsions or constraints of politics stand out. 

To give a contemporary example, one that I have been thinking about a lot, the short lived and inadequate measure of pandemic lockdown in the US, the few weeks of shutdowns, the few months of mask mandates, the sporadic vaccine requirements, etc., appear to be so intolerable because they were dictated and decided by specific people, but the far more pressing, and often deadly demand, to return to work, to discard unpopular mandates, and to go back to normal is all the more tolerable because it appears to come from no one and to be everywhere. 

It is for this reason that I was very excited to read Søren Mau's Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital. Mau takes up a position that is against the tendency in much of twentieth century Marxism which sought the basis for the reproduction of the relations of production in ideology or the state. As Mau says with respect to Althusser, there is a tendency to look for relations of power outside of economic relations, in the school or other various state apparatus. (I should say parenthetically that I am not convinced of this criticism of Althusser. It might describe his most famous essay, but Althusser also examined the way in which ideology was immanent to the relations of production, as for example in the wage relation and the labor contract). In place of this search for the reproduction of the relations of production in some external aspect, in the ideological state apparatuses, capitalist hegemony, or the culture industry, Mau examines the extent to which the capitalist social relations constitute their own conditions of reproduction. This means examining the extent to which the particular social relation of capital contains the conditions of its own reproduction. This reproduction stems in part from the unity in separation, to use Endnotes term, or as Mau puts it "In this mode of production, proletarians are temporarily connected to the conditions of their life through the very same social relations that ensure their permanent separation from them." Mau insists that he is not dispensing with ideology altogether. As he writes, "Since my aim is to say something about the economic power of capital, I will largely ignore the role played by ideology as well as violence in the reproduction of the capitalist relations of production. I prevent any misunderstanding here, I want to emphasize that this does not mean that I consider these forms of power to be secondary or unimportant."

Reading Mau's examination of this mute compulsion made me think of not only the central problem of Marx and capital that I outline above, but how long I had been trying to think about this problem. When one thinks about such a problem long enough one hopefully makes some progress, but that may or may not take place, but what does take place is that the world of thinking around you changes, the problems shift as does the world of references and texts. One of the thing that occurred to me is how, twenty years ago, I would have rejected the very turn to think the reproduction of capital from the relations of capital, with no reference to ideology as economism. To cite a long passage from The Micro-Politics of Capital:

In Capital Marx argues that the reproduction of the labor force is a necessary aspect of the perpetuation of the capitalist mode of production. “The maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a necessary condition for the reproduction of capital” (CI 718/597). Althusser’s own investigation into the connection between reproduction and ideology takes its bearings from this point. While both Marx and Althusser argue that any mode of production necessarily must reproduce its subjective and objective conditions, in Capital Marx primarily stresses the physical and biological dimension of the reproduction of subjectivity, the physical reproduction of the working class, and only marginally addresses the political and social dimension of reproduction. Before immediately rushing to conclude that Althusser’s analysis is superior, since it includes in the “reproduction of the relations of production” the obedience and subjectification of the worker, it is necessary to pause over Marx’s examination of the biological dimension of reproduction. Necessary, because as Althusser claims reproduction is always overdetermined, it encompasses the reproduction of the worker as a biological being, as a skilled and trained worker, and as a docile and obedient subject. The combination of these diverse practices, from the biological demand to consume sufficient food to the reproduction of ideological environments, under the same term would make the term seem hopelessly confused and monolithic, prompting many to reject it. Rather than reject the term “reproduction” almost in advance, it would seem to make more sense to construct its specific problematic from the diverse senses of the term, biological, technical, and political. From this reconstruction it is possible to expose the limits of the term, as well as its specific historicity. 

Marx argues that for the most part capital can leave reproduction to the “worker’s drives for self-preservation and propagation.” (CI 718/597) For Marx the reproduction of the biological existence of the worker is not examined as a process, but posited as a fact. It explains, poorly one might add, why the worker shows up for work. It does not answer the question as to why these same drives for self-preservation do not lead to revolt or insurrection. Moreover, Marx’s treatment of reproduction, leaves the entire relation between reproductive labor, the work of care and housework, and productive labor, labor performed indirectly for capital, for the most part completely outside of Marx’s analysis. Furthermore, by framing the biological reproduction of the working class as the brute confrontation of the worker’s drive for self preservation and the capitalists drive for profits, it would appear that class struggle is an almost biological and a-historical struggle for survival. Thus, in considering the dynamic of capitalist reproduction, Marx lapses behind his critique of the supposed natural ground of need underlying classical political economy in the Grundrisse, and the recognition of the need and desire as a conflictual terrain, framed by the simultaneous demand of the capitalist mode of production to produce new needs and to reduce the cost of labor power in Capital. In these later points (covered in the previous chapters) Marx does not reduce history to the interaction of natural laws but recognizes that “nature” is thoroughly historical and “history” is thoroughly natural.This interrelation of nature and history as it relates to the reproduction of life is expounded in The German Ideology

The production of life, both of one’s own in labor and of fresh life in procreation, now appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as natural, on the other as a social relationship. By social we understand the co-operation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner and to what end…. Thus it is quite obvious from the start that there exists a materialistic connection of men with one another, which is determined by their needs and their mode of production, and which is old as men themselves. This connection is ever taking on new forms, and thus presents a “history” independently of the existence of any political or religious nonsense which in addition may hold men together.

 In light of this assertion it becomes necessary to read against this biological ground of reproduction. Not in order to purge from Marx any reference to the biological dimension of reproduction, but to locate in this biological dimension not the simple and a-historical conflict of the needs of the working class versus the desires of the capitalist, but the historical transformation of biological existence—what we could call the “biopolitics of capitalism.” 

Marx argues that one of the fundamental differences between the capitalist mode of production and pre-capitalist production is that in the former the conditions of reproduction are mediated by the commodity form and wage rather than directly provided. The capitalist does not feed or care for the worker, at least directly, as in the case of slavery, but provides the abstract conditions for reproduction in the form of a wage. Under formal subsumption, or generalized commodity production, one of the presuppositions of capitalist production is that the conditions for living can and ultimately must be bought in the form of commodities. Which is not to argue that there may not be some forms of pre-capitalist practices of reproduction (small gardens, homecooked meals, children cared for at home, etc.) but that the time constraints imposed by commodity production (the working day) as well as the availability of commodified substitutes work to diminish the role of these practices of reproduction in capital. The process of primitive accumulation “frees” the worker from any communal or hierarchical system that would provide for the conditions of existence, exposing him or her as “naked life” on the market. Of course this “freedom” is at best partial, if not wholly illusory. Since the wage makes possible a new hierarchy between wage work, male work, and the non-waged work of reproduction, female work. The wage and with it the commodity form become the general condition for life and existence. This means that the conditions of the reproduction of existence are subject to the economic constraints and demands imposed by the commodity form. Specifically, one of the ways to increase relative surplus is to make the costs of reproduction of labor, the basic necessities of life, cheaper, increasing the ratio of surplus labor to necessary labor. To be exposed to commodity production for the basic conditions of one’s existence is to be ruthlessly exposed to the demand for cheaper commodities.

That is a long citation, but like I said, I have been thinking about that book that I wrote twenty-years ago. Mau discusses the book briefly but mainly to criticize it for using the phrase "real subsumption of subjectivity by capital." I am not really interested in getting into that now. It was the early 2000s, Empire had just come out, subsumption was all the craze. It was a different time. I also used to listen to Radiohead and frequently wore a sweater vest over a t-shirt: the past is a foreign country. I am less attached to the idea of real subsumption as having explanatory power as a marker of periodization. It is a term that needs to be explained more than it explains. What I am more interested in is the way in which Marx presented his understanding of capitalism in terms of strict conceptual oppositions from what had come before it, contrasting personal and impersonal domination, unity versus separation, and the way that these conceptual distinctions are maintained and extended into the present in terms of inside and outside, ideology versus economy, and so on. It seems to me that those divisions, the divisions that Marx used to distinguish capital from pre-capitalism, and the divisions internal to Marxist theory increasingly fail us now in the current stage of "absolute capitalism" to use Balibar's phrase. Economic relations, such as selling labor power, are at once material, part of the capitalist relations of production, and ideological, part of its justification. Or, to perhaps repeat what I said above, mute compulsion is both a fact of existence and an ideological justification. 

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