This text was originally published on Jan. 22nd 2019 on Carbure Blog, written by AC & LG in France. A translation was sent to us from Carel Wexler, we merely edited a few things. What follows is the translation.
This contribution can be read as a set of preliminary reflections, which we think are necessary to understand the movement in progress. In the heat of the moment, one cannot immediately settle the important questions that arise. However, to take the situation seriously, it seemed to us necessary to lay the groundwork by first qualifying these questions and the theoretical place in which they arise. This contribution will be followed by a second part, tackling certain limits of the theory of communization, which prevent us from dealing with this movement in its uniqueness and, more generally, which limit the understanding of the unfolding episode in which we find ourselves. It is therefore an introductory effort and we hope to be able to answer, as soon as possible, the questions we are trying to ask here.
- Necessity of interclassism
It was in the course of the struggles that immediately followed the crisis of 2008, especially in the sequence of struggles that began in Greece in 2009 and with the Arab insurrections of 2011, that the question of interclassism began to arise as a central condition of the current struggles. If these struggles were defeated, it was through interclassism, the renewal of the necessity of capital as the common link between all classes of capitalist society, and the demand for the autonomy of civil society, which could have no other horizon than the state. Despite powerful labour struggles, this was the case in Egypt, as in Greece, with the fallout we have all seen. Logically therefore, it has been from the very form of this defeat that populism, as an interclassist form crystallizing around the relationship between the people and the state, has become the form of the limits of current struggles.
The struggles of this period are interclassist not only because all classes are affected by the crisis, and because of the generalization of the capitalist class relation, but also because the segmentation of the proletariat has only increased and deepened throughout the current period. This segmentation separates within the class the socially marginalized from the more integrated proletariat. The upper segments of the proletariat and the lower fringes of the middle class tend to become mixed: workers and employees, production and services, and so on. In other words, from a sociological point of view at least, it seems that the boundaries of class-belonging have become porous. But this porosity does not mean unification but segmentation: the “lower” part of the proletariat is moving away from the “upper” part, as much as it is moving away from the middle class.
But the end of the old labour movement is not simply related to the number of workers or the number of factories: the marginalization of the proletariat is not quantitative, it is due to the transformation of the class relation itself: restructuring.
Segmentation of the class has always existed. But today it can only be understood as part of the more general movement of the restructuring of capital. In this movement, the proletariat lost the place it had occupied within the overall reproduction of capital, which had made its own struggles a condition of capital accumulation. By struggling for its own class interests within capital, the proletariat was at that time a positive variable in the extraction of surplus value. Workers’ consumption was central, wages and consumption were integrated as a system: it was the not-so-rosy period of the Fordist compromise. That time is over. What is called globalization, financialization, the opening of customs barriers, the removal of all constraints on hiring and investment, and the liberal offensive, were the elements of the restructuring of capital that determined the class relationship as it exists today, in which the proletariat appears more and more as a secondary element, even a rate-limiting factor for the production of value. Work, though always necessary for the extraction of surplus value, appears as a cost, and the reproduction of the labor force is externalized, no longer accommodated by the wage alone. This restructuring is now complete, and its result is capitalist society as we see it today.
This situation makes it more than unlikely that the proletariat would constitute the sole actor of mass struggles. Even in certain cases, such as in Egypt, where the workers’ presence was very strong, and even at times the driving force of the struggle, the political formulation of the movement has been resolved in the terms of interclassism and politics, and even, as in Egypt again, of dictatorship.
To understand the necessity of interclassism in the current struggles, one must see how restructuring has transformed above all the class relation itself, and thus affected all classes of society, and the manner in which their segments confront one another.
- Restructuring of the class relation
If restructuring made the old workers’ program obsolete, it is because it consisted in a radical transformation of the class relation, and therefore of the social substance of the proletariat itself, including in the sociological sense. The “working class” today is no longer a strict synonym for “proletariat”. Even if all workers are proletarians, the opposite is no longer true.
This does not mean, however, that all classes who live by the wage are now proletarian. A self-employed worker, for example, although living off income and not from a wage, is a proletarian like any other, since they work on subcontracts and exchange their labour power for a fraction of capital. And the HR manager of a company, although salaried, is obviously not a proletarian. Moreover, these examples should not make us forget that a class is not constituted by the sum of many individuals’ situations: the proletariat exists as a social labour force on the labor market, even if the purchase of each labour capacity by the capitalist is individual.
Restructuring has generalized the class relation not through the massive socialization of the labour force (in which Marx saw capital’s truly fatal contradiction, that “between the productive forces and production”, of which the tendential decline in the rate of profit was only the agent), but rather by a direct return to the face-to-face between proletarian and capitalist: the self-employed worker who owns his means of production looks not so much like a one-man “start-up” as like a proletarian of the 19th century, who still had one foot in craft industry, and brought his tools to his workplace. In this movement, the old mediations (trade unions, communist parties, the fabric of local associations, militant intellectuals, etc.) that made the proletariat a full-fledged class of capitalist society, and gave it its distinct identity, have crumbled to the point of disappearance, or now only concern a minority of the class.
This transformation of the class relation is now complete. It has transformed the proletariat itself, not by unifying the proletarian condition, but by accentuating all its segmentations (status, hierarchical, generational, gender, national and racial, differences in income and even in lifestyle, etc.) It has consequently transformed the form of struggles, blocking the way to any unitary expression of the class, and making interclassist forms of struggle more and more necessary, the proletariat no longer finding in its own existence the possibility of affirming itself as social generality. While the generality of class membership in the previous cycle of struggle was the substrate of a real proletarian unity, today everything that makes a proletarian a proletarian (their place in the division of labour, exploited status, income level, level of qualification, profession, etc.) is no more than an element of the atomization of the class and of isolation. Reduced to their individual situation, the proletarian becomes simply “poor”.
Today, a particular struggle can no longer express any generality on the basis of its specific situation: to transform their situation through mass struggles, proletarians must struggle among all the other classes of society. Out of these necessarily interclassist mass struggles, the struggle expresses only the daily relation of the worker subject to exploitation, and in the current balance of forces they most often come out the loser. Moreover, the proletariat can no longer fight as a class simply by struggling as individual workers, because employment situations (wages, type of contracts, working conditions, etc.) have themselves been divided sector by sector and company by company. It is also for this reason, putting aside the question of the unions’ bad reputation, that all particular struggles appear as corporatist and incapable of improving the general situation.
The site of struggles is no longer the great factory and the working-class community which it supported and which was defeated, the perspective is no longer the socialization of the means of production of capital, which has now constituted and completed its own society 1If capital has always been the social domination of the bourgeoisie, this domination has a history. For a large part of this history, the industrial bourgeoisie, which promoted the wage relation as the general social relation, was socially dominant without being hegemonic: the landowning bourgeoisie contributed to the continuation of social relations other than wages. Marx described the transition from formal subsumption to real subsumption, and the latter also has its own history. To put it too briefly, by removing the centrality of the proletariat and by undoing the old labour movement, the capitalism of the old centers has remade society in its own image, it has become a truly capitalist society. It is in this sense that we say that capital is society itself, and to abolish capital is to abolish society. All this must obviously be developed much more precisely. but the relation that is common to all classes in the current mode of exploitation: the relation to the state, as both agent of distribution, and therefore also as agent of the “inequalities” that it must socially legitimize, as agent of capitalist circulation on the scale of the world market, but also as the only brake on the free flow of the capitalist relations that interclassism spontaneously presupposes. It is because of these specificities, which gave it the role that we all know in the management of the 2008 crisis on the global scale (bailout of banks, etc.) as well as the national scale (austerity policies, etc.) that the state is at once the object of all expectations and all criticisms.
The working class, the proletariat organized as the class of labour, is no longer likely to unify the social whole.
The end of the working-class identity and the restructuring have created a situation in which there is no longer either a working-class community that is perceived as autonomous or, on the other hand, a world of production that should be wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie and restored to the working-class community to which it legitimately belongs, to allow the “free” development of production. If the proletariat makes the revolution, it does so only by abolishing itself as a class: the revolution can no longer be “proletarian”. Beyond the revolution such as it might be rationally postulated, there is nothing other than the existence of the proletariat within capital, and the contradiction that it bears. This is where we are.
Contemporary societies are the univocal objects of capital, and within these societies the proletariat is in fact merely a class among others. Since to refer to the “social” is to refer to this univocal object, the only “progress” is on the terms of capital. What is called the left, which may once have carried the revolutionary content of a particular era, can mean nothing more than a mode of capital management, which is why it has nothing distinct to oppose to overtly reactionary movements.
However, we persist in saying that it is the proletariat that makes the revolution, even if the revolution cannot be “proletarian”, and even if the class is only one class among others. This is not a dogmatic statement or an acquiescence to the old programmatism. What allows us to maintain theoretically that the proletariat makes the revolution is the persistence of exploitation as a contradiction, of which the proletariat is one pole.
Restructuring has indeed transformed many things, but it has not removed the necessity for capital to maintain the proletariat in its class situation. Indeed, it is the reconfiguration of modalities that maintain this situation, not as gratuitous domination, but as a means of continuing the extraction of surplus value.
The relative porosity between the proletariat and the middle class, which manifests itself in the ongoing cycle, and in interclassism, paradoxically contributes to the maintenance of the proletariat as a whole in its exploited position, and even to the reinforcement of this situation.
Maintenance, because the stable segments of the proletariat become allied with the middle class on the basis of demands that are precisely adjusted to the requirements of the latter. Reinforcement, because this alliance is made on the backs of the lower fringes of the proletariat, stigmatized as “profiteers” and “parasites”.
- Permanence of the contradiction
In this situation, interclassism prevails in the struggles, but this does not mean that the contradiction which constitutes the social existence of the proletariat has been reabsorbed, and that it is now necessary to look elsewhere for a “subject of history”, whether in the middle class, “the human” or other phantasms of “the common”.
There is no subject of history, no social class is anything but a class of capital: there is no revolutionary class.
However, there is a contradiction at work, which is situated in exploitation, and in the tendency of capital to be unable to reproduce its society in the terms posed by each instance of its accumulation. If the principal result of the dynamic of capital is the reproduction of capital itself, this reproduction is capitalist society. Society itself therefore is the site of contradiction and the limit to be overcome.
The contradiction of exploitation is not a magical power that would make the proletariat a revolutionary class and turn individual proletarians into rebels, it is only the tendency to eject living labour from the productive process, as a condition of accumulation, and the dynamics that this entails, nothing more. This tendency does not eject people from society (there is no outside) but pushes the mass of people further from the average conditions of reproduction, and constitutes masses of supernumeraries as a condition of accumulation, in an unending movement. One of the concrete forms of existence of this contradiction is none other than what we call “inequality”. It carries with it no finality, no tendency to transcend, other than the continuous social transformations it causes and the conflicts they entail. “Taken out of all historical determinism, the fall in the rate of profit expresses only the permanence of conflict in capitalist society through the relation between classes, a conflict which is identical to the general movement of capital and its society, but does not gives us any formula for its overcoming. The downward trend of the profit rate as a material contradiction has no narrative, and describes nothing but the continually renewed content of the class struggle proper to the capitalist world.” (See here )
It should be pointed out that the fundamental difference between our approach and the “social” point of view is that we postulate, along with Marx, that all inequalities are reduced to the extortion of surplus labour for the purpose of producing surplus value, and therefore that it is exploitation in the singular that is the source of all “inequalities” in the plural.
Capitalist exploitation, that which creates class and capitalist society, is not limited to the level of wages or working conditions: the maid of a bourgeois family, for example, may be underprivileged, underpaid, and obliged to demeaning work by her bosses, but she is not subject to exploitation (except according to currently popular language). This by no means prevents her from rebelling. She is not exploited in the theoretical sense of the term, as is the class that exchanges its labour power against capital, and produces surplus value: it is this relation that produces the social dynamics of capital, defines the classes that compose it, and in the course of accumulation transforms its conditions and produces its history. But it is also important to note that although we have defined the proletariat in a restrictive manner, it is only due to the proletariat’s existence and exploitation that we have bourgeois families, with maids, and their poverty wages.
We quote at length Théorie Communiste:
“Although the proletariat is not limited to the class of workers producing surplus value, the contradiction of productive labour constructs the proletariat. Productive labor (productive of surplus value, that is of capital) is the living and objective contradiction of this mode of production. It is not a nature pertaining to people […]. But the relationship of the whole proletariat to capital is constructed by the contradictory situation of productive labor within the capitalist mode of production. The question is to know, always historically and cyclically, how this essential (constitutive) contradiction constructs, at a given moment, the class struggle, knowing that it is in the very nature of the capitalist mode of production that this contradiction does not appear immediately as what it is; surplus value appears a priori as profit, and capital as value in process. (The Riots in Greece , Theo Cosme, Ed Senonevero, 2009, 42)
- Struggle for unity – the struggle within the struggle
Interclassism poses the class contradiction in terms that are specific to a moment in history when the proletariat’s existence is no longer affirmed in the instantiations of capital and is thus socially and politically denied.
What is at stake in interclassism is the relationship of the proletariat to itself as a class of capital, the question of its unity in the struggle against the segmentation it constantly undergoes, the question of its “alliances” when it can no longer refer to itself as an autonomous power, and of its social belonging.
The problem of interclassism lies in the attempt to build unity, which is necessary in the course of any struggle, and must be constantly redefined and produced ideologically and practically. This unity can be questioned, claimed, denied or affirmed, by discourses as well as practices within the movements. In the interclassist movements, it is a matter of situating oneself socially, of saying who one is, and where one derives one’s legitimacy from: there are “those who pay the others’ way”, “those who are broke by the second week of the month” “those who work” and “those who slave”, and these are not necessarily all the same. There is still a gap between the reproduction of the proletariat’s labour capacity, and the wage as the income of the middle class.
The internal struggle, which is a struggle for unification and which takes place between classes and segments of classes, is as important as the struggle against the common enemy, in the sense that this internecine struggle defines the common enemy, its characteristics, and the very content of the struggle. The struggle for unification aims to determine which class will dominate the fight. In this internecine struggle, we must first identify the absence or the presence of the proletariat (because we have also seen interclassism “from above”, in which the middle class expresses itself in the name of society), and the nature of its internal action on the direction of struggle, the way in which it integrates or is integrated into it. We must also try to understand which segments of the proletariat are involved, and how they are articulated – “upwards” or “downwards” – with the other social strata. Attention must be focused on modes of action and practices, as well as on ideological discourses and positions, to try to identify the crystallization of the class compromises at play, and where they may possibly fracture.
Sometimes – for example in the very particular case of the crisis around the independence referendum in Catalonia – the state is not only the arbiter of the struggles but immediately structures them: parties, unions, corporations and the whole of civil society then enters the battle according to the social order of capitalist society, and maintains it to the end: the self-presupposition of capitalist society issues from itself, it is not the site of conflict, and cannot be destabilized. In other cases, the middle class gathers to it and beneath it the other classes and class segments that resonate with its own interests: a more or less intense struggle then takes place between these class segments to determine the legitimate content of the class alliance.
In France for example, for the most integrated class segments, the mythical Golden Age of the “postwar boom” is a paradise lost: a white France, where immigrants knew their place, women worked marginally but devoted themselves above all to their family and their master, and a slow but steady social ascendance rewarded the honest worker and his honest boss, who together built the wealth of “our country”. But though this relationship to the state and to society is idealized, the real existing relation between the classes that contribute to the production of value is put at stake in the painful difference between this ideal and lived reality. The proletariat enters with its specific characteristic, that of being the class that produces surplus value, and also with its history, which is that of defeat. All segments of the proletariat do not relate to this ideological content in the same way. The racialized proletariat, for example, is almost completely excluded. All these elements must be taken into account in our reading of the situation.
Interclassism in its populist variant “from below” is a necessary mode of existence of the class struggle after the end of the old workers’ movement. It opens a political field that is no longer demarcated by official institutions. In France, this manifests itself in, among other things, the end of the “social movements” that were the comet’s tail of the labour movement in its last possible integration with the dynamics of capital. Since the crisis of 2008, the ideology and practices that rallied together political parties, organizations of the left and far-left, and trade unionism, in defense of public services, is more and more noticeably absent. This is not due to any “betrayal” by trade unions or the left, but to a radical transformation of the balance of power, which means that capital has unilaterally tidied away that “social dialogue” with the bric-a-brac, alongside the Fordist compromise and Keynesianism. These social movements were for a long time considered as the very example of what class struggle should be (we remember the slogan “I Class Struggle” from 2010). The incessant calls for the “convergence of struggles” resonates only in the void of the lack of unity of the class. But the class struggle does not stop at the demonstrations and demands of the trade union left – it never stops, and it exists no less in a populist movement, reactionary as it may be, than in those famous “social movements”. The question is how it exists.
“The proletariat belongs neither to the left nor to the radical left: the proletariat is not a political subject, but a class of the capitalist mode of production. As such, it participates in all the contradictions of capital. Along with the other classes, it is embedded in the current cycle of capitalism, which no longer has any revolutionary positivity, that could have had the revolution stem simply from what the proletariat already is within capital. The time is over when the proletariat could think that it was only one step away from seizing power and becoming the dominant class: what the current cycle contains is the abolition of classes and of society. The proletariat, in its contradictory relationship to capital, is the class for whom this abolition is its own. Revolution is neither its choice, nor inscribed in its nature, and it is driven by no historical necessity that transcends history. However, the proletariat lacks nothing to make the revolution: whether we like it or not, the proletariat is revolutionary just as it is.” (See here )
- Self-definition of struggles, conflictual integration of the proletariat
Politics, in the classical sense of the term; as conflict resolution, the form of the restoration of order; is only a secondary outcome of these struggles which must at once produce their own unity as both the means and the definition of the struggle, that is to say, must constantly define themselves. The interclassist struggles are in reality a field of confrontation between classes and class segments with the state as arbitrator, and that is why their outcome is politics, but their object is still, in the last instance, the struggle itself. What is at stake is the relationship between these classes and class segments which in the current period are being permanently redefined, precisely because of the crisis. The central question of distribution inevitably raises that of redistribution, of the supposed “grab” of resources by some, and the question of who does and does not have the right to access them. It is not so much that the question of distribution masks that of production, more that it ultimately leads only to politics.
To the middle class, from the outset its own reproduction stands in for the reproduction of the whole of society: its class struggle therefore takes place within politics (in that it considers its discourse and action as regarding “society”, as opposed to “the economy”, which represents a more or less hostile natural state-of-things), and this is the justification for its monopoly on political expression. Through politics, the middle class tries to formulate its own interest as the general interest, and this without fail; that is politics. When it does so in a populist-type movement, that is to say a movement involving the lower fringes of the middle class, this movement necessarily includes a large section of the proletariat: it is this intersection that is called “the people”.
“The people”, we should not forget, does not exist prior to this political constitution, it does not designate any kind of substantial social reality, nor any really existing community other than the set of capitalist social relations considered as the link between individuals. This is why the question of defining “the people” is central and a source of constant conflict.
However, unlike the middle class, the proletariat in the present period can no longer conceive its own reproduction as the reproduction of society in general. It can no longer, from its present situation, promote labour and its own place within labour as an organizing principle for the whole of society. It alone can no longer constitute a “people”. The proletariat can now only grasp itself as a class within the social whole against the social whole, or against itself, that is to say through the exclusion of supernumerary proletarians to the benefit of the most stable segments. The “people” then refers to the part considered to be productive of the capitalist social whole, those who “work and pay their taxes”. Nationalism and racism have a particular function within the class: to ensure that the proletariat can constitute a “people” within the capitalist social whole which is its condition of existence. This is the route out of the crisis in political terms. The resolution of the class tension posed by interclassism in the current period is populism.
When the segmented proletariat enters the struggle, not all of its segments enter all the struggles at the same time and in the same way, and indeed the segments that are absent from the struggle tell us as much about it as those who are present. In the case of the Yellow Vests, although racialized proletarians are actually present in the movement in general, with a particular collective appearance during the beginning of the high school students movement, and punctual riotous interventions in Paris or even more visibly in the provinces (e.g. Toulouse December 8), the relative absence of issues specific to racialized proletarians at the level of public discourse is significant and must raise questions. We might put this into perspective, noting that people who are already marginalized as racialized may be reluctant to assert themselves as such in a movement that claims to be “popular”. We might see in this an echo of an older refusal, that of the immigrant workers of the 1970’s who preferred to refer to the workers’ generality rather than the specificity of their own condition as immigrants, for strategic reasons: there is little point in qualifying oneself as a sub-category of workers and then make demands on this basis. Currently it is more specifically the “banlieue youth” who are absent in the discourse of the Yellow Vests, perhaps due to the centering of the movement on the situation of the working poor and precarious, which is not directly theirs. One could also question the leftist tendency to regularly invoke “the banlieue”, and then to ignore them when they demonstrate, such as in 2005.
Similarly, it should be noted that even though women are at the forefront of this movement (a fact which affirms its nature as a movement of precarious and poor workers), they act in a way that continues to assert their role as women. They do it as female social individuals, who bear all the problems and contradictions of this condition. They intervene both as poor workers, and also as guarantors of their families, which are also under attack by the state (and the police), they recognize their role in the reproduction of the labor force at the same time as their role as workers. “We take on all the responsibilities, and are supposed to keep our mouths shut … That’s why we will fight for our children to be well and happy,” said a woman protester in Paris. “Every day we face problems; shopping, cooking, managing the budget, we are always juggling, and never complaining.” Remarkably, this defense of the family and women never appeared in the model of the movement against gay marriage, or as “mainstream feminism”: it was neither a question of promoting the housewife nor of denouncing sexist harassment.
The presence of women in this movement has a curiously double character. On the one hand, the questions of wage inequality, sexual harassment at work, etc. are not raised. We could add many more issues which seem to be “missing”. On the other hand, the question of precarity, which weighs harder on women and which is at the heart of the movement, is often placed front-centre. This precarity is also understood as a “double punishment” that weighs on women: their “family duty” becomes impossible to fulfill in their precarious conditions. There is no rejection of the assignment of family duties as such, but a denunciation by women of the impossibility of maintaining all their social roles at the same time. Also, there were “women’s demonstrations” on Sundays, following the big demonstrations on Saturdays. While these gatherings were certainly not women-only, they were initiated by women and target women. On the other hand, these have been represented (at least publicly) as demonstrations against violence.
Even if women do not attack the condition of women as such (which would necessarily imply a conflictuality and their constitution as a specific section within the struggle), they are still present and integrated as full participants in this movement. The absence of a conflicting manifestation of their specific problems could represent their invisibilisation. But it must be stressed, however, that women are really involved in this movement and that this incorporation has not been made conditional on a complete erasure of what characterizes them. They are incorporated into “the people” as women, whatever one may say. (On the other hand, could we imagine a Sunday demonstration exclusively for the racialized?) In clearly populist movements tending towards the far-right, we find on the contrary the violent reassignation of women to their specific conditions. This manifests around issues relating to the family, sexual control of women (abortion, etc.), even the outright dismissal of women “back to the home”. All we can say is that the current situation is ambiguous.
All the classes and class segments present in an interclassist movement do not simply mix; they act together and upon one another, practically and politically, whether to exclude, to ally, to deny their own existence or that of the other, to confront one another or simply to define themselves. Thus, the movements have a dynamic and a temporality, which it is necessary to grasp in its specificity. Especially in the Yellow Vests movement, everyone has been forced to take a stand – even if the constitutive tension of constructing “the people” is ultimately the dominant form taken by the movement, its political form, and the locus of the resolution of conflict. If for example the Citizens Referendum Initiative (RIC) manages to impose public referenda on policy decisions as a central demand of the movement, this must be understood as a class victory of the fraction which finds its interest in politics, although it would be overly simplistic to describe this as just the “middle class”. This period and the nature of the forces at play could lean towards this outcome, but it is not yet given, and remains up for grabs.
But a largely spontaneous populist-type movement like the Yellow Vests could not completely avoid the incursion of class segments that were not present at the beginning. They say “speak of the devil…” Well, when we speak of “the people”, it might just appear, and everything can change very quickly.
- Populism and state
The co-presence of antagonistic class segments in a struggle cannot be resolved harmoniously and cleanly through the demand for a fair redistribution of income by the state, because this claim cannot be satisfied, exactly because of these class antagonisms. Even the most minor TV news anchors stressed a hundred times during the Yellow Vests movement: we cannot satisfy everyone, and especially, we should add, not the proletariat. It would be correct to argue that populism consists precisely in containing these antagonisms within a provisional political whole; but this whole must be produced. Populism does not fall from the sky as a gift from the crisis period to capital, but is always the fragile outcome of constant internal tensions.
Populism is the site of class struggle. The proletariat being engaged in it, or even becoming dominant in it, in no way guarantees the revolutionary outcome of these struggles. Populism can very well exist with the political integration of large fractions of the proletariat; indeed such integration is its function. However, the proletariat, which is the class that bears the contradiction of this mode of production, introduces into it an element of permanent instability, because the proletariat is the location of the permanent conflict that opposes us against capital: exploitation. No section of the proletariat that achieves stability or integration is guaranteed to retain it for very long. This conflict is not resolved, as the left would like, by posing “social issues” as central and leaving their resolution to its “social partners”. The proletariat, whether we like it or not, is not absorbed peacefully into the social body.
However, the contradiction of exploitation is not a “force of nature” of capital, a kind of gravity that applies uniformly everywhere. It is above all the history of class relations, and its counter-tendencies are precisely what gives capital its dynamics. Although the contradiction is at the heart of the capitalist class relationship, it does not exercise the same way everywhere, or capitalism would be a stillborn system. When we speak of the state and of populism, we are speaking about particular states, with their own economies which, each in their own way, fit into the capitalist economic whole, and have to realize some measure of class integration within themselves and under their own conditions.
When we consider populist movements on a global scale, they all occur in nationally delimited spaces, according to issues specific to these spaces. The populist policies of the current period can only be understood in terms of the areas of capitalist space in which they are implemented. Populism has common themes that make it a coherent ideological continuum, including, first and foremost, nationalism and the rejection of foreigners which underlies “the people” within its national space, but nevertheless, exchange and competition do not constitute a smooth terrain upon which a populist politics could be applied everywhere in the same way.
Populism needs an economics, and cannot live on discourse alone. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ideological troublemaking in the 1980-90’s has transformed over the years (painfully, and with significant internal tensions, such as the possibility of Frexit, the bracketing of anti-Semitism, etc.) into a possible government discourse: populists must now consider the possibility of governing within capital. It is not the 1930’s anymore, and populist economics cannot be limited to overtly nationalist and protectionist policies (not every state can be Trump’s America), modes of integration into the global market must be found as well as specific techniques of management of the labour force.
In Eastern European countries like Poland or Hungary, the low cost of labour and the outdated industrial apparatus mean that modernization is in itself a source of surplus value, which make them attractive to investors post-crisis. In these areas net GDP is growing, also supported (paradoxically) by the EU Structural and Development Funds introduced after the crisis. These areas prop up European growth generally, and populism can allow itself a measure of redistribution, according to certain criteria, which seems to validate its “social model”.
Within the capitalist class, populism can also be site of inter-bourgeois competition for strategic access to some of the resources offered by state power (transport, communications, public works, etc.) Economic and political powers then merge, with access to state power also allowing certain sectors of the bourgeoisie to influence global trade. This class struggle, internal to the bourgeoisie, is also to be observed in detail.
It is because populist economic policies belong to this particular period, which at once makes them possible and sets their limits, that we can speak of a “populist moment”. It is not only the eternal decline in profit rates that is at stake, but a particular economic and political situation, which in the case of the Eastern European countries, sees populism surfing on the counter-tendencies against the global downward trend in profit rates, which enables them to implement conditional redistributive policies, while at the same time compelling them to fit into the European liberal economic bloc. These redistributive policies will also be characterized by their selectivity, by the affirmation of gender and race discrimination, and by an authoritarianism that, when the winds of growth turn, will allow them to repress remaining resistance all the more fiercely, as this repression will now be in the name of “the people”, with a popular base among a clientelized section of the proletariat.
Populism does not annul class tensions, it steers them in a particular direction.
Dealing with these internal tensions, which are nothing other than the class structuring of capitalist societies, is obviously the role of the state, and its function in times of crisis as in times of prosperity. That is why the privileged interlocutor, the other, the favourite enemy, and the future of populist movements is always the state.
But in the end, a state cannot be “populist” in the full sense of the term. A leader can be, some political options can be described as populist, but a state cannot focus only on politics, because it must organize “the relation between men as relations between things,” it must ensure the smooth functioning of capitalist society.
It is this “remainder” that cannot be fully absorbed through the integration of the proletariat that means Chavez and Maduro have no choice in the end but to arm one section of the proletariat against the other.
The “social question” is more often resolved through repression than by sharing the wealth. Between one and the other lies every shade of charity and clientelism, the breeding grounds for every kind of opportunism and corrupt practice. Populism as competition between bourgeoisies only produces new elites, who themselves fall under the criticisms that brought them to power.
The state as such deals with society as a coherent and a priori hierarchical whole: self-presupposition of class relations is built into the very function of the state, which strictly exists only under capitalist class relations, only once value is produced. This social whole only secondarily becomes “the nation”. The nation is only the ideological formulation of what must primarily be a capitalist state among others on the capitalist market. “Economic patriotism” is obviously a joke, and that is why everyone intuitively understands that a populist state, a state in which social tensions are at the heart of the state, can lead only to dictatorship, civil war, or war. The populist state is necessarily a class compromise, favorable to the capitalist class.
For these reasons, the populist restoration of order in the terms of politics cannot be a real way out of the crisis, but rather a political shaping of the crisis.
This populist form is perhaps the adequate political object at a time when capital does not really need to exit the crisis, in the sense of a possible restructuring. Populism is perhaps the form sufficient to deepen exploitation, or a sort of transition phase in which the conditions for a future restructuring are being set. In the same way that the police are considered to play an economic role as authoritarian management of the labour force through criminalization and assignation of people to work, it must be taken seriously that the political activity of the state, the unity in separation that it achieves, also has an economic role, in the sense of a mode of integration of class conflicts. As a result, populism may not be a restructuring through politics. Restructuring is only possible on the condition that the proletarians should first be brought into line, and indeed that is all restructuring means, plus the rise in profit rates. Therefore, although nothing is yet resolved, populism may be a very interesting proposition for the capitalist class. All of these avenues must be explored, but it may be too early to know which in which direction they will lead.
In whichever case, what we maintain here is that the limit of these struggles is segmentation itself, and the division of society into classes. The contradictory nature of the particular interests that enter into conflict is resolved either in chaos or through politics, but either one only under the domination of the capitalist class and its clients. The amalgam of specific demands does not make sense on its own, the people without the state does not constitute its own system, it does not exist prior to or outside the state, and has no autonomy. What appears as the limit for the proletariat is its own incapability, peculiar to this cycle of struggles, of gaining an autonomous political existence, of becoming a “people” by itself. Its existence is no longer affirmed within the dynamics of capital, and therefore to exist politically it is forced to blend into the middle class on the latter’s terms, and to unite and integrate with “the people” thus constituted. But this unity would then be against itself, benefiting only the integrated segments (proletarians with stable resources, union members, voters, homeowners, etc.), which in no way solves the existing social tensions. No part of the labor force that produces surplus value is “integrated” to the point of its existence being guaranteed within this mode of production. This impossibility is what makes the proletariat an internal tension and a destabilizing factor in interclassist struggles.
- Destabilization and return to order
Unlike the middle class, whose necessity and functions enlarge along with the development of capital itself, the proletariat is ejected from the productive process by this very development. The particularity of productive labour weighs like a curse on all attempts at political integration of the proletariat. For this reason, once a truly interclassist movement (that is to say, one not solely initiated “from above” by the middle class and marginally including a part of the proletariat) reaches a certain size, the insertion of the proletariat within it is always problematic. The proletariat, because of its segmentation and the inclusion within it of vulnerable and socially “excluded” strata, constantly threatens the cohesion of these movements. It becomes a factor of disorder. There are certainly plenty of means of integration, but it is the very existence of the proletariat within capital that produces both the conditions of these means (segmentation, national proletariat, competition, etc.), and the contradiction.
This impossibility of integration of the proletariat leads to the designation of good and bad proletarians; the distinction between those who might still belong to capitalist society and those who are and must be excluded: one the one hand the still stable segments of the working class, those who “play the game”, and on the other hand the feigners, the profiteers, and naturally “foreigners” of all kinds. This movement of “othering” is itself the object of an internal struggle of which the losers are those who have no voice. Ultimately, even with national integration at a maximum, there are still always migrants, and the enforcement of national borders. But the contradiction persists, and no political integration can stabilize the proletariat: “Playing the game” never guarantees that we win; which is precisely what the Yellow Vests movement denounces. As one self-employed participant in the movement said: “In France, you can own a business and use a food bank.”
As we have seen, if this contradiction ends up achieving a positive political existence, it is most often as a political catastrophe, and as a simple continuation or aggravation of the austerity policies led by the liberals, now under a populist banner. In areas where class conflicts are most intense, national-populism comes out of this contradiction on top because of the very impossibility of political existence of the proletariat; it is in this respect that we can speak of counter-revolution, or more precisely of bringing into line. This form of counter-revolution does not consist in expelling the proletariat out of politics, but on the contrary in trying to integrate it, with the contradiction that it bears, which is not only a contradiction to capital but a contradiction internal to its own class existence. It revolves around a national consciousness that for the state implies measures more symbolic than concrete: populist political economy is for the moment mostly an economy of sentiments.
The impossibility of effective integration of the proletariat and the persistent need to define it in a way that makes it integrable, produces in interclassist movements “from below” like the Yellow Vests, an internal tendency that breaks with the integrative dynamics of populism. If this dynamic is fundamentally and strictly speaking reactionary, as it aims to re-institute the social order “as it should be”, or “used to be”, it is limited in its very dynamic to integrating only one section of the proletariat, and thus tending to reignite the contradictions which are constitutive of the existence of the proletarian class. This tension can harden the existing populist tendency by giving it a more radical form, provoking the “bourgeois” wing of the movement to withdraw, and isolating the movement politically, or causing it to continue the struggle in other ways and by other means, in search of another unification.
However, this general conjuncture, with the major tendencies that it entails, exists only through specific situations. For example, in the Yellow Vests movement, we must take into account the general hatred for President Macron, which is due to many factors that cannot all be reduced to the forced march of ultraliberal policies he has enforced. One of the internal destabilizing factors of this movement, namely the inability to get behind unified demands and thus to politically fix its populist nature, is due not only to its class composition, but just as much to the impossibility of reconciling demand-making with the desire to sack the government. The demand that “Macron Resign”, taken as the prerequisite for any negotiation to take place, is indeed what makes negotiation impossible. But these three elements (1. ultraliberal politics 2. class composition 3. the incommensurability of wanting to negotiate with wanting to dismiss the government) signal a blockage which can only persist because of the de-legitimation of the wage demand, a major feature of this period, as this de-legitimation in turn gives rise to a particular hatred for the individuals who govern. Unlike the “President of the Rich” Macron, when President Pompidou went on a shopping spree to redecorate the Elysées Palace, nobody seemed to have a problem. Everything which appears at the order of the Event is over-determined, but neither the conjuncture nor its major tendencies allow us to prophesy the outcome of the movement with precision, at least not before the restoration of order.
In each instance, and each time in a particular way, the proletariat confronts its own class existence as a limit. The proletariat cannot locate and abolish these limits by surpassing them, only by colliding with them and breaking through. The Yellow Vests did not perform any “critique of everyday life”, they did not speculate about any way of life other than their immediate circumstances, they started from what is. Unlike utopians and radicals, who remake the world in their heads, they have spoken of existence from the perspective of what exists. On the roundabouts, it was starting from their own situations that they changed their way of life, and made their “critique of separation” by finding one another and building their struggle together. The will to continue the struggle was formulated as “never again eat dinner alone” and by refusing to “only meet other people in the Supermarket”. We do not make the revolution by building cabins, but when the boss of a small business and his employee set up together at the roundabout, they do not do it as boss and employee: that division is reestablished elsewhere. Indeed that “elsewhere” is right here, in society as it exists. But from that point on a distance is established between the struggle and society; a rift, a destabilization.
“The people” then is that which, against the super-technocrat Macron, affirms the legitimacy of a being-together against a technocracy that bases its strength on recognition of the validity of the division of labor. This legitimacy is also what allows the movement to affirm itself as democratic, even within democracy. Yet democracy is Macron, and its technical nature is not only validated by the result of an election, but confirmed everywhere, in what can be summed up as “the economy”. Macron holds the technocratic know-how which revalidates the whole division of labor. Macron is not a Wizard of Oz and “there is no magic money tree”, as he once told a Yellow Vest protestor. When one affirms the non-technic and the fact of being-together as popular legitimacy, one butts head first into “the technical”, that is to say, the economy, the division of labor, and democracy; everything that produces the Macrons and makes them indispensable. Within democracy, popular legitimacy consists in the people transferring its power to the state. One is therefore obliged either to accept an unbearable norm, or to take the disorder even further, without knowing where one is going, at each turn hearing “but what more do you want?” and watching the jaws of the trap of “proposals in the great national debate” closing, because in reality, being what one is, one cannot want anything but that which exists. The contradictory dynamic between destabilization and the restoration of order must be grasped in its particularity.
- How does the question of revolution arise, if it arises?
The question of a communist overcoming can only be posed in terms specific to the current period. In this period, neither the working class nor the site of production appear at the center of the dynamic, in which the battlefield is society itself, as the site of production the social whole and the reproduction of capital. Although the root of the contradiction is productive labour and the extraction of surplus-value, since this contradiction is tied to the dynamic of reproduction, the whole of society becomes the terrain of struggle. The state in particular becomes central, as well as all the determinations that underlie social subjects’ identities. These are also the immediate conditions of the existence of the individuals living within capital, now called into question; the unbearableness of the existence we lead, entirely subjected to capital and its instantiations: welfare disappears, the price of gasoline increases, social security payments are delayed, an illness, an accident at work or a dismissal, and the precarious social scaffolding on which we live catastrophically crumbles, becoming as hostile and alien to us as the machine is to the worker.
Under certain conditions, populism can be constituted as the site of generalized social conflict, and even, if this stage is not somehow overcome, as civil war. In the long run, because the proletariat finds itself confronted in its struggle by all other classes and indeed by its own class existence, perhaps communism, the overcoming of the class struggle by the abolition of classes, may eventually be at play. But as has been said many times before, what is now emerging is as much to be feared as hoped, the abolition of classes opens the prospect of latent or open civil war, which is no more pleasant than the seizing of the state by a harsh national-populist form, bringing into line, repression, etc. The civil war is neither a favorable situation nor a transition phase, it is nothing but the action of all social classes in their process of unraveling, as they vie to maintain themselves at all costs. In such a situation, the class relation may be manifest very concretely in the form of the state and its weapons.
The civil war is the class struggle at its height, not the abolition of classes. Within it, the state can endure, or even sow chaos to better restore order; an even worse form of order is imaginable. And even if the central state were defeated, the militarization of the revolutionary movement may give rise to proto-state forms of appropriation. That the state may one day outlive capitalism is one of the bad news of the present moment. What is to come is not pleasant. Yet this is what constitutes the horizon of current struggles. To speak of communism in the present under such conditions, as we do, is to demonstrate a very particular “optimism”.
In this context, there is obviously no question of crying revolution as soon as there is a riot or looting, or as soon as people begin to organize themselves horizontally, taking into account only the immediate interests of their own struggles, but rather to identify and eventually promote (as did the late journal Meeting), what might be closer to what Théorie Communiste called, in another context, “the practices of rift” in the movements that are likely to give rise to it. “Rifts”, or the “undoing” of existing social relationships, those moments when a divergence emerges between what a class is supposed to be and what it does, will not arise ready-made and clearly identifiable, in practices of gratuity or horizontality that have been codified in advance in activist circles or defined theoretically beforehand. We must stop thinking in terms of 1936 or 1968, general strike, occupation of productive sites by the workers, self-management of production or worker self-organization, even as “first acts”. It is only in practices of struggle that respond to the actual current structuring of the labour force, which is no longer centered on productive sites, and implicates highly diverse class segments at once, and even more so in the immediate relation of subjects to their own struggles, and the internal struggles that these give rise to, that these divergences may occur. Expecting them to manifest immediately as moments of revolutionary rupture is not only illusory but irrelevant. It is first of all about understanding the struggles in themselves and accounting for their internal tensions once they reach a level of critical intensity. This is why we prefer to speak of “destabilization” internal to the struggles, rather than a “rift” that would require prior knowledge of the two previously continuous sides that now diverge, because obviously we do not know what “the other side” looks like.
In the Yellow Vests movement, the anti-hierarchical relationship to struggle, the tendency towards hyper-localism, which nonetheless constitutes a sort of conjoined network over the territory, and the collective appropriation by individuals of their own practices of struggle have been manifest. Similarly, it is clear that this movement of motorists and angry taxpayers has in many places turned into a movement of precarious and poor workers. The riotous explosions, looting, and attacks on public buildings have repeatedly come to provide a rather strange counterpoint to the “citizen” discourse of the movement. This movement has also shown how a movement can seek and find its own coherence and efficacy, aiming essentially and stubbornly, even blindly, to continue. It has not questioned society as such, or asked the “social question”, but rather has designated society as the place of questioning, and this from the starting point of society itself. The proletarians have certainly not “turned against their own class belonging as a limit”, but the incursion of the lower layers of the proletariat has blocked the emergence of demands that could have signaled a veritable populist interclassism, i.e. demands designating an alliance between the lower fringes of the middle classes and the still stable segments of the proletariat, under the aegis of the small business owners. In this sense, the proletariat did not do what was expected of it in this struggle, it did not participate in the populist resolution of the “social question”. If this destabilization has not succeeded in breaking cleanly with the populist foundations of the movement, which remain the overall framework of the struggle, perhaps because they respond to the struggles internal requirements, the destabilization has been very real at several points. This is why the Yellow Vest movement was neither a French Pegida nor another “Forconi” movement, and, although clearly predisposed to populism, has by and large avoided its most obvious flaws.
Instead something else has happened, which certainly has not broken with the obligations of the capitalist mode of production (while we might still wonder how class struggles could be anything other than the expression of relations between classes, which is to say, expressions of the capitalist mode of production itself) but which, on the other hand, has clearly exceeded the movement’s own presuppositions. It has been constantly subject to an internal thrust pushing it to reformulate itself, and that is what must hold our attention, because that is what constitutes the movement. It would be crazy to think that this is the beginning of the revolution, but equally so to think that it has absolutely nothing to do with communism as we envisage it. To claim that there is no link whatsoever between the current struggles and the revolution would be to deny that the overcoming must be produced. To call for a “rupture” without any real relation to struggles as they exist, would be to conceive of revolution as a miracle. And to deny this connection in the name of a theoretical representation that we have of revolution, deciding on the revolutionary or non-revolutionary character of a movement by ticking the “pros” and “cons” off a list drawn up in advance would be pure normativity.
Of course, there will be no communism as long as production, labor, etc., continue. Of course, to continue the struggle (if the struggle continues), the proletarians will have to seize what they need, and to consciously put an end to market production, exchange, etc. The revolution will not be made by sleepwalkers. It will also be necessary for proletarians to stop working, but that does not amount to what is called a “general strike”, which carries content specific to the era of programmatism. In the meantime, trucks have been robbed at roundabouts in the night. This is a long way from the golden age of the working class, but it is a means like any other of making do with what we have, since there is no more program and no more workers’ direction, for better and for worse. We must stop straining our eyes looking in the direction from which nothing is coming. There is no “glass floor (or ceiling) of production”, the struggles are simply not going in that direction. “Rift practices” have not taken place either in sabotage of productive tools, or in the self-organization of workers, the de-legitimation of the wage demand has not crystallized struggles around the wage itself, and the riots in Greece led only to the election of Syriza. This does not invalidate the major foundations of the theory of communization. But in theory, too, we make do with what we have, and for the moment it is less a question of revolution than of destabilization that is likely to occur in the coming struggles; less a question of rupture than of disorder. A question only arises where it really exists.
This question, as we have seen, opens onto very divergent paths, which include chaos sown voluntarily by the state, bloody civil war, and so on. But at the origin of all this, and producing its conditions, is the permanent destabilization of class relations, and thus of the whole of society, which is produced by capital and its contradictions. And another destabilization, corresponding symmetrically to it, introduces the particular class struggles that result.
A teleological view of history has long believed that we were moving along a path upon which capitalism progressed, adapted and perfected itself until the ultimate perfection which was socialism, which would produce, in some indefinite time, communism. We see today that capitalism leads rather towards blind destruction, including the destruction of its own conditions of existence, which are also our own.
Within capital, all classes, including the proletariat, enter into struggle initially to save themselves. But the only prospect of salvation for all classes is to maintain the exploitation of one particular class, the proletariat, and it is in this contradiction, manifest in open struggles, that the uniqueness of this class is found; this is the source of all disorder.
In this chaotic movement, where the action specific to the proletariat is that of preventing the restoration of order, nothing guarantees the emergence of communism. If it is possible, it will indeed be through communization, that is to say, through struggles that begin to take for themselves what they need to self-perpetuate, in a moment when the crisis is not only the cause but now also an effect of the struggle, which has become the crisis of capital. It is then a question of seizing directly all that the struggle needs, that is to say all that the people who struggle need, and thereby to clash with everything that makes up our class existence: democracy, property, wages, gender, all segmentation and all identities, and thus create a break with no return, to extend these practices everywhere. As this does not correspond to any known pattern, nor to any pre-established outcome, it will proceed at first perhaps confusedly. Only the effectiveness of its action will give the movement a true understanding of itself: communization must be a practical movement, which does not know where it is going, but seeks its way, not for the sake of freedom, but to ensure its survival. We can hardly say more on this subject.
LG & AC