Written for HACU-0284: Kant, Hegel, Marx taught by Christoph Cox at Hampshire College, 30 November 2018
THE EXPLOSION AND LIQUIDATION OF THE WORKPLACE:
TRANSLATING MARX TO THE CONDITIONS OF POST-FORDIST CAPITALISM
The era of capitalism Karl Marx lived under was categorized by an incredibly rigid division of labor, both within the workplace, and between the workplace and the home. Given his theses that the ideas of a time period emerge out of its material conditions, it only follows that Marx’s ideas are specific to that particular morph of capitalism. I argue that the rigid segmentation of Marx’s day is not characteristic of modern post-Fordist capitalism, rather we are now dominated by more decentralized power structures. In order to show this I will summarize Marx’s argument surrounding alienation, specifically regarding the division of work and home. Then I will explore the different material conditions we exist in now as opposed to in Marx’s era, with the division of labor being “exploded and liquified.” I will pose the question of whether or not we can still utilize all of his ideas, or if some are just too outdated, and then explore the theory of the Human Strike, as opposed to the general strike, as a means of liberation.
In exploring the alienation of labor, Marx begins with the alienation from the product. His argument is as follows. The worker can create nothing without raw material, which ultimately comes from nature,(1) though is often “worked up” and processed before actually being accessed by the worker. In this sense, nature is the means of life to the act of labor in addition to being the means of life to the worker themselves (via food, water, air, etc.).(2) As the worker puts life into and transforms these objects through work they deprive themselves the means of life both because they lose raw material in order to maintain the life of their labor and because they lose the raw material necessary to maintain their own physical life.(3) In order to continue working, and therefore living, the worker must constantly acquire new raw material to work into a product, specifically a product for someone else. The product being not theirs means it confronts them as an alien object, one which they usually only played one small part in producing, at least under industrial capitalism, and one which they often can’t afford themselves. Therefore, the worker becomes subservient to the products of their labor because it is only through the products that the worker is able to continue being a worker, and continue living at all. In fact, “the extremity of this bondage is that it is only as a worker that [they continue(4)] to maintain [themselves] as a physical subject, and that it is only as a physical subject that [they are] a worker.”(5) This subservience to the product of labor is just one facet of alienation.
From there Marx continues that alienation is not just alienation from the product of labor, but also from the act of labor itself. In fact, Marx writes, “[h]ow would the worker come to face the product of [their] activity as a stranger, were it not that in the very act of production [they] were estranging [themselves] from [themselves]?”(6) This estrangement begins from the fact that “labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to [their] essential being.”(7) As described above, the process of labor is alienating to the worker in that it turns the worker into a worker before they are a human; it makes it such that they must be a worker in order to live. In this sense the labor is not essential to the worker immediately, but is simply a means to an end external to them. This manifests in the worker “only feel[ing themselves] outside [their] work, and in [their] work feel[ing] outside [themselves]. [They are] at home when [they are] not working, and when [they are] working [they are] not at home.”(8) Here we can most plainly see the binary division between home and work.
But this strong dividing line doesn’t seem so easy to draw in 2018, after the dramatic shift from Fordism to post-Fordism. Writing in 2009, the late Mark Fisher describes this shift:
"According to Marxist economist Christian Marazzi, the switch from Fordism to post- Fordism can be given a very specific date: October 6, 1979. It was on that date that the Federal Reserve increased interest rates by 20 points, preparing the way for the ‘supply- side economics’ that would constitute the ‘economic reality’ in which we are now enmeshed. The rise in interest rates not only contained inflation, it made possible a new organization of the means of production and distribution. The ‘rigidity of the Fordist production line gave way to a new ‘flexibility’, a word that will send chills of recognition down the spine of every worker today. This flexibility was defined by a deregulating of Capital and labor, with the workforce being casualized (with an increasing number of workers employed on a temporary basis), and outsourced."(9)
This transition ushered in a change in how workers interact with work, and a change in the conditions of alienation. Gilles Deleuze describes this transformation in the Postscript on Societies of Control as the change from discipline to control societies.(10) He references the shift from factory-based production to the corporation, wherein the factory maintains the homeostasis of the highest production for the lowest wages, as opposed to the corporation which modulates each salary, and functions under a perpetual metastability that operates through contests.(11) In addition, he describes the factory as a space of enclosure, but the corporation as dispersive.(12) Both these and the shift in the division of labor are symptomatic of post-Fordism and the control society.
To speak from personal experience, growing up I heard my mom complain about countless jobs that all claimed to “be a family.” My mother hated this type of workplace, particularly within the medical field, because it allowed for the overt manipulation of her time. “We’re a family, and family doesn’t unionize!” “we’re a family, and you wouldn’t cancel on family,” “we’re a family, and taking time from your personal life to help us out is what family is all about.”(13) To additionally quote a question posted on Quora: “I have two employees that usually leave work at 6 pm. They are good, but I don’t like that their commitment lasts for work hours only. What should I do as a CEO?”(14) In this sense, capitalism extended its slimy fingers outwards into the workers personal life in order to extend their labor-time and keep them in conditions of precarity.
The flip side of this motion is the home being turned into a place of work. This of course, has historically been true for women, with most labor being limited to the confines of housework. But to quote Claire Fontaine, a French artist collective founded in 2004, “[t]he situation of not being able to draw the line between life and work, that used only to concern housewives, is now becoming generalized.”(15) Now we see many jobs characterized by working from home, long distance phone meetings, and assignments to be completed outside of the workplace.(16)
The general tendency of capitalists to try to squeeze out every second of labor-time possible from the worker is in no way new. Marx describes this phenomena in Capital Volume I:
"These “small thefts” of capital from the labourer’s meal and recreation time, the factory inspectors also designate as “petty pilfering of minutes,” “snatching a few minutes,” or, as the labourers technically called them, “nibbling and cribbling at meal-times.” It is evident that in this atmosphere the formation of surplus-value by surplus-labour, is no secret."(17)
This theft of time is even an inevitable effect of the structure of capitalism itself. The distinction, though, is the normalization of the explosion of this effect into every facet of life, even the home.
This nauseating expansion of labor is a direct result of the turn to post-Fordism Fisher wrote about. The “post-capitalist” duo Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek write in the “#ACCELERATE MANIFESTO” about how post-war economist John Keynes believed that capitalism necessarily progressed towards a decline in working hours. “Keynes forecast a capitalist future where individuals would have their work reduced to three hours a day. What has instead occurred is the progressive elimination of the work-life distinction, with work coming to permeate every aspect of the emerging social factory.”(18) If anything labor-time has actually rapidly increased and permeated every aspect of life.
So where does this post-Fordist explosion of labor leave us with regard to anti-capitalist politics? Here I turn to some proposals of alternatives to the general strike.
First of all, we cannot conceivably return to Fordism— this would just be reactionary. The “#ACCELERATE MANIFESTO” continues,
"We do not want to return to Fordism. There can be no return to Fordism. The capitalist “golden era” was premised on the production paradigm of the orderly factory environment, where (male) workers received security and a basic standard of living in return for a lifetime of stultifying boredom and social repression. Such a system relied upon an international hierarchy of colonies, empires, and an underdeveloped periphery; a national hierarchy of racism and sexism; and a rigid family hierarchy of female subjugation. For all the nostalgia many may feel, this regime is both undesirable and practically impossible to return to."(19)
Rather, when capital extends its tendrils out into every facet of our life, so too must we extend our resistance. Claire Fontaine proposes the model of the Human Strike. They write:
"Human strike designates the most generic movement of revolt. The adjective ‘human’ in this case doesn’t have any moral connotation, it is just more inclusive than ‘general’ [...] our new working conditions see us being exploited as much in the workplace as outside of it, as the workplace has both exploded and liquefied and so gained our whole lives."(20)
It is no longer sufficient to just organize the workplace, rather it’s necessary to live a life of resistance, in the home, in the workplace, in the school, in the city.
When imagining a world that is different from our own, and therefore imagining ourselves as different subjects of that world, it’s difficult to remove ourselves from what and who we are and project anything but what we are now. This struggle emerges from the distance between who we are now and what tools we have in our reach, and what we hope to become.
"The same subject, in short, cannot see himself in a given situation and find a theoretical way to get practically out of it, because he thinks from the position in which he finds himself, with what is available to him in that condition. If other tools were available to him, immediately his condition would be a different one."(21)
Claire Fontaine suggests that the Human Strike “provides an answer to the question ‘how do we become something other than what we are?’”(22)
In order to imagine ourselves as something else, we must become something else. For this reason, the Human Strike is a movement of desubjectivization, a movement of losing touch with the parts of your identity used to subjugate you, in order to become a subject of the other world we strive for. The desubjectivization of our here and now can provide us a resubjectivization, “an entrance into a new state, less defined, more uncertain, but freed of the weights that burdened the previous identity and allowed the perpetuation of the status quo.”(23)
Approaching from another angle, Claire Fontaine describes the movement of abstraction which leads to the fetishization of commodities as analogous to that of our social relations:
"This abstraction-distraction, in fact, prevents us from applying to our behaviour, in order to transform it, the very thought that made that behaviour possible. If we believe in exchange value and enter into the behaviour of exchange – in which we are already constantly immersed – we cannot understand, at the same time, the way in which this behaviour constitutes an absurdity."(24)
Marx describes this movement as the fetishization of commodities, fetishization referring to a thing which we, humans, create and then forget we have created and grant power over us as an other. By abstracting forms of capitalist exchange we seem to forget that we created this system, and thus forget that any other forms are possible, just as we forget that other social relations, which emerge out of material conditions, than what we have now are possible. So how can we know that there’s something other that we want; how can we know that we are unfree when the freedom we lack is imperceptible?
"Agamben comments on this same passage from De Anima in ‘On Potentiality’, writing that when Aristotle asks ‘why is it that in the absence of external objects the senses do not give any sensation?’ the answer is: because in that case the sensation is a potentiality, but not yet realised."(25)
Claire Fontaine argues that we must stimulate our apperception(26) in order to realize that which we do not experience. And this, we must do via the human strike.
While Marx claims that the worker is at home when they are not working, and when they are working they are not at home,(27) Claire Fontaine inverts this expression and translates it into our current material condition, one in which we are working at home and at home in the workplace, arguing for “life as a revolutionary activity or revolutionary activity as a life.”(28) They propose that “adopting a different behaviour materially deregulates the social machine and causes the appearance of the disturbing truth of freedom and an image of a possible life.”(29) In order to break the relentless flows of production and reproduction we must desubjectivize in the hopes of transforming our lives into something other than what it is now.(30)
To conclude, the economic and philosophic theories of Karl Marx are invaluable to any economic analysis we could make of the world since his time. But, not all of his ideas necessarily hold steadfast under a rapidly changing and developing capitalism. If we wish to resist capitalism in any meaningful way it is pertinent to adapt Marx’s ideas as capitalism itself adapts, mutates, and reproduces itself in ever new forms.
(1) Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader: Second Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 72.
(2) Ibid., 72.
(3) Ibid., 72-73.
(4) The singular “they” will be used to replace “he” in Marx’s quotes
(5) Ibid., 73.
(6) Ibid., 73.
(7) Ibid., 74.
(8) Ibid., 74.
(9) Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, (Winchester: O Books, 2009), 33.
(10) Gilles Deleuze, "Postscript on the Societies of Control," October 59 (1992): 3-4, http://links.jstor.org/sici? sici=0162-2870%28199224%2959%3C3%3APOTSOC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-T
(11) Ibid., 4-5.
(12) Ibid., 6.
(13) This is hyperbolic.
(14) “I have two employees that usually leave work at 6 pm. They are good, but I don’t like that their commitment lasts for work hours only. What should I do as a CEO?,” Quora, Accessed December 8, 2018. https://www.quora.com/I-have-two-employees-that-usually-leave-work-at-6- pm-They-are-good-but-I-don-t-like-that-their-commitment-lasts-for-work-hours-only-What- should-I-do-as-a-CEO.
(15) Claire Fontaine, “Human Strike Within the Field of the Libidinal Economy”, in The Human Strike Has Already Begun & Other Writings, (Mute & the Post-Media Lab, 2013), 45.
(16) Ironically, I write this essay from my bed.
(17) Karl Marx, “Capital Volume One,” in The Marx-Engels Reader: Second Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 344.
(18) Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, “#ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics,” Critical Legal Thinking, May 14, 2013. http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/ accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/
(20) Claire Fontaine, “Existential Metonymy and Imperceptible Abstractions”, in Human Strike Has Already Begun & Other Writings, (Mute & the Post-Media Lab, 2013), 55.
(21) Ibid., 59.
(22) Claire Fontaine, “Human Strike has Already Begun”, in Human Strike Has Already Begun &
Other Writings, (Mute & the Post-Media Lab, 2013), 29.
(23) Claire Fontaine, “Existential,” 56.
(24) Ibid., 60.
(25) Ibid., 62.
(26) Ibid., 62.
(27) Marx, “Economic,” 74.
(28) Claire Fontaine, “Existential Metonymy,” 64.
(29) Ibid., 64
(30) One critique I got on this paper is the lack of concreteness in what “the human strike” consists of. To this I’ll provide a quote from “Human Strike has Already Begun”: “Explaining what human strike is, how to map it, how to articulate it, is like giving a technical lesson of sexual education to the person we wish to seduce. It is like describing to ourselves the overwhelming ocean of our possible madness whilst sitting safely on the shore” (30). Not only this, but articulating all that the human strike entails in this essay would be distracting. I recommend Human Strike Has Already Begun & Other Writings as well as Bernadette Corporation’s film Get Rid of Yourself for further information.
Get Rid of Yourself. Directed by Bernadette Corporation. 2003. New York, New York: Electronic Arts Intermix, Vimeo Stream.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59 (1992): 1-7. http:// links.jstor.org/sici?
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Winchester, O Books, 2009.
Fontaine, Claire, ed. Human Strike Has Already Begun & Other Writings. Mute & Post-Media
“I have two employees that usually leave work at 6 pm. They are good, but I don’t like that their
commitment lasts for work hours only. What should I do as a CEO?” Quora. Last modified November 27, 2018. https://www.quora.com/I-have-two-employees-that- usually-leave-work-at-6-pm-They-are-good-but-I-don-t-like-that-their-commitment-lasts- for-work-hours-only-What-should-I-do-as-a-CEO
Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.
Williams, Alex and Nick Srnicek. “#ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics.” Critical Legal Thinking. Last modified May 14, 2013. http:// criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/