Doing our Labour

I would like to thank Mike Rooke for his review of my book, Change the World without taking Power, in an earlier number of What Next. The book is explicitly an invitation to discuss, and any genuine discussion of the issues is very welcome. The purpose of the present note is not to defend my position or to attack Mike's, but to see if we can develop the discussion fruitfully.

I wish to focus on what I take to be the principal point of criticism made by Mike.[1] Mike argues that I am wrong to take doing as my starting point rather than alienated labour, value-producing labour. He says " If we do not start from labour, as Marx did, then we lose sight of the specific character of the exploitation of human labour under capitalism, and the property relation that dominates all others. If this is lost sight of, then we fail to ask the very question that Marx criticised the classical political economists for not asking: what sort of labour is it that produces value?"

There is no difference between us on the centrality of value-producing labour. If value is not produced, if surplus value is produced, then capital ceases to exist. The existence of capital depends on the exploitation of alienated value-producing labour. Exploitation is the axis of the class relation.

Exploitation does not happen automatically. It is a struggle by capital. This struggle takes place within the factory, as capital seeks to impose greater discipline, faster rhythms, longer hours and so on. But the struggle is not just restricted to the factory. In order to exploit successfully, capital must also impose a discipline upon society, construct an educational system designed to produce workers with the right qualities, separate people from the means of survival: in short, create conditions which force people to convert their activity (their daily practice, their doing) into alienated labour. Exploitation is not just the exploitation of alienated labour but necessarily presupposes a prior conversion of doing into labour. We are not born as labourers.

Similarly, the struggle against capital takes place both within the factory (union organisation to maintain wages and improve working conditions) and in every pore of society. This struggle takes place not only within capital (struggles for better wages, for example), but also against-and-beyond capital. It is a struggle, therefore, that goes against-and-beyond alienated labour, wage labour, value-producing labour.

That is why labour cannot be our starting point. We cannot take a fetishised category as our starting point. Or rather: if we start from a fetishised category, such as labour, or commodity, or money, then it is not in order to accept that category as marking the framework of our thought, but as the starting point for criticism. And the criticism necessarily points beyond the categories criticised to the making of that which is criticised, that is, to human making, human doing. We can call this "work", but work is an ambiguous term, since it is used also to cover alienated labour: that is why I prefer the more general "doing".

What Marx thought on this matter is of secondary importance, since it is we who must think for ourselves. Nevertheless, I find it hard to read Capital as a book which starts from labour. On the contrary, almost every sentence of the book is a critique of the forms in which, under capitalism, the relations between people (as subjects, as doers) exist. Central to this critique is the explicit critique of alienated labour from the perspective of non-alienated doing (or work). Just think of the discussion of the labour process in the glorious chapter 7 of vol. 1, with its contrast between the (non-alienated) work-process as that which distinguishes humans from animals, on the one hand, and the terrible, dehumanising transformation of work into value production, on the other. This is a theme that runs through almost every sentence of the book.

I assume, in writing this short note, that there is a lot of common ground between Mike (and indeed the editors and readers of What Next) and myself, that we are all part of a world of people looking for a way forward in our struggles against capitalism, a world bereft of the certainties of the old Leninist positions. In this, a central issue is how we understand the relation between proletarian (factory-working-class) struggle and other forms of struggle. Mike's position, if I understand it correctly, is that the proletarian struggle has priority over other forms of struggle (thus, he speaks of the way in which "Marx privileged the proletarian struggle above others"). This suggests a hierarchy of struggles (which is sometimes conceptualised by speaking of class and non-class struggles). This position has the great danger of limiting our notion of class struggle and also of leading us to attribute a lesser importance to many of those forms of struggle which are explicitly anti-capitalist. There is a danger that, by focussing on a closed notion of the working class, we cut ourselves off from the real movement of class struggle.

My argument is that we should not limit class struggle in this way. Capitalist exploitation involves not just a struggle within the factory but a struggle that penetrates every aspect of human existence. Our struggle, therefore, also penetrates every aspect of human existence, not just in the place of work but in every moment of our lives. I see no reason for restricting our view of this struggle or of imposing hierarchies. If we limit ourselves to alienated labour, we entrap ourselves within a world in which revolution becomes theoretically and practically impossible.

[1]There are many other points of the review that I could take up, but I feel that this is probably the central point of disagreement and that is this which colours Mike's reading of many other parts of the argument.

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