Original title: När allting svartnar, det är då du bleknar. Angående Dissident nummer 3, inledningen

When everything goes black, that’s when you turn pale. Re: Dissident 3, the introduction

Peter Åström
We ask ourselves: What is the possibility of a communist movement in the times we are now living, in the epoch of real subsumption?1)

It seems that both Dissident 3 and this issue of riff-raff represent a common effort to answer this question. But as we will soon see, a common effort does not necessarily lead to the production of similar conclusions; because as soon as the attendant questions are to be answered – of where we are today and how we “ended up here” – the two journals can only move apart in very different directions.

Un-worldly experiences and acts

The editors of the latest issue of Dissident (for the sake of simplicity we call them “Dissident”), take as their point of departure the understanding that the “subjectivities” that emerge in the struggle between capital and labour belong logically to this mode of production. From this, they then draw the conclusion that these subjectivities must, by necessity, be incapable of the non-capitalist and non-dialectical praxis which communisation, as “leaving this world”, would imply. The theoretical apparatus has been taken from Marcel2) with only slight modifications. Communisation (the abolishing of capital) is here not understood as class struggle. The latter is only seen as the dynamic of the capitalist relation, as its force of life and never as its Golgotha walk. This could be summed up as: the forces that belong to this world can never put an end to it.

The capitalist dialectic weighs heavily upon the dominated subjects, but is, according to Dissident, “not as rigid as that it does not let in experiences and acts that are not abiding to this reality” because “capital’s hegemony is not complete” (p. 8). And to see examples of such acts it is said to be enough “to spend an average day in an average workplace”.

It is thus suggested that it is in the workplaces, i.e. the sphere where capitalist domination is the most manifest, where these examples can be seen, examples of “experiences and acts that are not abiding to this reality”. Moreover, we are told that these acts are “attempts to escape”. But what exactly is one escaping from, from the reality by which one is not dominated? Already one needs to scratch one’s head hard, but the oddities don’t stop here; it is soon added that these attempts to escape signify no “lack or weakness of the system – on the contrary”, since “in the worst case [they involve] a strengthening of the capital logic”. So these “experiences and acts that are not abiding to this reality” are apparently affecting this very reality and are (“in the worst case”) strengthening the logic which is, again, said not to be governing them. If we have followed the argument carefully there would thus be a feedback, a dialectical connection of some sort, between the “non-dialectic” and the capital–labour dialectic. This can only be taken to mean that un-worldly acts intervene in the world, which, in its turn, is plugging up some of the holes through which this un-worldly had once somehow leaked out. How this is to avoid “giving oneself up to idealism” (p. 13) now seems even more peculiar. Nota bene: Here it isn't capital which is likened to an un-wordly force which is obliged to descend to the material world and transform it, in order to make it adequate to the needs of valorisation.3) With Dissident it is on the contrary real people, proletarians, who, despite the fact that they are standing in the middle of capitalist society here and now, somehow manage to come in contact with The Other Side.

Presumably, this theoretical development into entanglement cannot be interpreted as anything but the consequence of having been forced to retreat on a few previous points (that is compared to what Marcel wrote in 2005), while attempting to hold the old system intact. In this text they have, for instance, retreated from the worst alternativist speculations regarding the possibilities of “creating communist enclaves” (p. 12). Now they say that “one has to avoid a far too spatial interpretation of the outside (to consider capital and communism as physical rooms with a wall between them which has to be torn down)…” “Communist relations are simply not possible within the totality of capitalism, why their becoming possible is rendering capital impossible.” (p. 14)4) However, despite the fact that the outside can no longer perform the role of an actuality and, by capital, unpolluted outside, they are still clinging to a theoretical apparatus which, to borrow an expression from Dissident, “is leaking in all directions”.

A one-sided focus on the “liberation” of the working class (or: of the class struggle’s putative capacity of producing communism) impedes an effective analysis of the possibilities for leaving the world in which we are living. Therefore, instead of constructing the communist potential of class struggle we need to be conscious of its limitations and, in a wider sense, its counter-revolutionary functions. (p. 7)
We have seen that the methods that have been explored by generations of revolutionaries … have had as a common feature to be impasses, or worse: ways to increase domination. … On the contrary, the world is more capitalist than ever. All the spheres in society are now more or less integrated within the logic of value. (p. 6)

These assertions could have been taken from “Communism of attack and communism of withdrawal” and it was this very scepticism towards the communist potential of class struggle that induced its author to take refuge outside. In 2005 the outside was regarded as the rescue since it stood free from and didn’t reproduce the capital relation. Three years later, as we just saw, even this outside has fallen back into the capitalist cogs and become a part of its dynamic, “a strengthening of the capital logic”, if only “in the worst case”. They still place their hopes in the outside because it is seen as just as reactionary as class struggle only sometimes, when this concerns “sporadic attempts and isolated events”, that is when the outside doesn’t become generalised.

How has the world become more capitalist?

Let’s put the outside aside and dwell a while upon the question of why the world has indeed become more capitalist. Here Dissident is right concerning one thing: that class struggle has all along been at the centre of this development. This insight goes beyond the vulgar objectivist Marxism which conceives of capital as something separate from class struggle, as an external force that, like a gang of bandits on the rampage, tries to lay its grubby hands upon the products of the workers. As this happens, the workers need to hold their own and to defend themselves by means of a class struggle that mitigates the ravages of the capitalists and restrains their desperate strive for profits. According to this view the relation between capital and labour is a tug-of-war where one of the sides can be strengthened at expense of the other’s and where the possible outcome becomes a question of relative strengths. On this point, Dissident has drawn the same conclusion as riff-raff, that the pole of labour can never be anything without its opposite pole capital, i.e. that both of them form a unity, from which follows the understanding that an affirmation of labour does not mean the suppression of capital.

This was something we saw an example of in Russia, after the proletariat's seizure of power in 1917. Even though the structure of property was shaken at its very foundations, the proletarian dictatorship never led to the destruction of capital because as soon as the private capitalists were gone, it fell upon the party of the workers, i.e. the Bolsheviks, to resume production, which became reorganised under state control. Henceforth, the main task of the party was to make sure that an increased surplus product was exacted from the workers and that the peasants became proletarianisied into this working class. We could also take Swedish social democracy as an example: gradually, the great organisational gains and their growing importance to the whole of society made it into a force which came to influence social progress. Over time, the social democratic leadership became aware of the fact that labour can’t be strengthened at the expense of capital; with great power there must come great responsibility and thus the workers’ movement should make sure that business prospered, the profits of which would indirectly also benefit the workers. In this spirit great social projects such as the construction of a public system of child care, which facilitated the entrance of women into wage labour, were to be worked out in the interests of the workers as well as the industry. In this way, sphere after sphere became “integrated within the logic of value”, with the help from the workers’ movement.

Dissident, who wish to see a radical break with capitalism, are of course not happy with this, which is reasonable. But why get annoyed at “wrong methods” or class struggle as such? In my view it is perfectly natural that class struggle in all its forms to this day has contributed to labour's increased subsumption under capital. Still, to give an explanation why, it seems necessary to paraphrase some central parts of the first book of Capital. Only later can we return to Dissident’s problematic.

Some opening points:

  • We are living in a society subjected to the capitalist mode of production.
  • The driving principle of the capitalist mode of production is continuous valorisation, money that begets more money.
  • Valorisation is possible only through the extraction of surplus-value by the squeezing out of surplus labour from the workers.
  • This surplus-value production does not “lead to” but is in itself exploitation and class contradiction.

Thus we arrived at exploitation as the central concept.

The capitalist wouldn’t be a capitalist if he didn’t have to continually turn his sum of money into a larger sum of money, as this is the very concept of capital. The worker, in his turn, would no longer be a worker if he and his offspring could not be reproduced and continually return to be exploited. Marx calls this process, in which capital and labour are incessantly thrown to face one another, simple reproduction. When the produced surplus-value grows, that is, turned into additional capital, it is extended reproduction.

We also know from Capital that there is a limited number of ways of extracting surplus-value. You can make a labourer work more by working longer days or to toil harder by working more intensively under otherwise unaltered conditions of work. This is called absolute surplus-value production. The other way, which is a bit more mystical, is the relative surplus-value production. In this case the capitalist increases the productivity of labour and does with the same amount of hired labour produce more commodities. In this way an equally large sum of produced value is embodied in a greater amount of use-values. But to produce surplus-value is not about manufacturing more products; the secret lies elsewhere: The only way in which the capitalist can appropriate surplus-labour from the proletariat through an increased productivity of labour is by cheapening the reproduction of the workers. Thus, when the increased productivity of labour leads to cheaper consumer goods, living, electricity etc., it becomes possible for the capitalist to pay a wage that matches this lower cost.

The living standard of the worker may remain at the same level, but since the length of the working day is exactly the same, the worker is now producing for the capitalist (i.e. without compensation) during a greater part of the working day than previously and is in a shorter period of time producing a value that corresponds to the sum of money he needs to buy the necessary means of existence, which he receives in the form of a wage. This is also exploitation, if exploitation is being defined as equal to surplus-value production, since the capitalist is appropriating a larger amount of surplus-labour, something which the single worker doesn’t necessarily have to experience as being exploited harder.5) Finally, a capitalist can accumulate surplus-value faster if he manages to shorten the necessary interruption which is the process of circulation: the realisation of the produced surplus-value through the sale of the produced values as well as the purchase of new means of production and new labour power. Marx calls this process of renewal the turnover of capital. However, in the sphere of circulation no new value is produced; a shorter turnover-time only makes it possible to more quickly restart a new process of exploitation.

Surplus-value production, that is exploitation, always means the increase of the surplus-labour (that is surplus-value creating time) in relation to necessary labour, either the working day is being increased in an absolute sense or that the necessary labour gets diminished, to give room for surplus-labour during this for capital freed-up time. The table below contains examples of three working days: first a working day that we take as a starting point and then two variants of how exploitation can be conceived to be increased. The numbers represent labour time in hours.

Working day I IIa IIb
Total working day 8 10 8
Necessary labour time 4 4 2
Surplus labour time 4 6 6

In example IIa as well as in IIb the capitalist has won two hours of surplus-labour generating labour time by two different means. In the first case by absolute surplus-value production and in the other case by relative surplus-value production. (In example IIb it is implied that the workers’ means of existence have grown cheaper.)

Without the continuous use of either of these methods, capital would not be reproduced in an extended scale, that is to say, no surplus-value would be transformed into additional capital and under such conditions the mode of production would not survive. The capitalist would cease to be a capitalist and the demand for labour power would disappear. However, it should be kept in mind that the mode of production never breaks down automatically at the first crisis of valorisation. In the ever-recurring financial crises accumulated wealth becomes devalorised, destroyed completely at a massive scale and a strong suspicion spreads everywhere among the capitalists as to the possibilities of to continue making money from capitalist production. But while some capitals go under, others manage to survive and are able to expand further. Thus, in every crisis the centralisation of capital increases, something which can lay the basis for a new cycle of accumulation. But a recovery from the slump and a new upswing is entirely dependent upon that capital's ability to feel the smell of new profits, i.e. to discover new methods to increase the exploitation of labour-power. These failing to appear, the destruction of capital continues and the mode of production enters into a chronic state of crisis. Thus, the mode of production insists that exploitation must deepen, either one way or the other, otherwise it means the end of capitalism.

Also the proletariat, which capital constantly faces, has to be reproduced within capitalist society, but this is nothing that happens automatically. True, the capitalist “gives” the worker a wage, i.e. he pays for a fraction of the value which the latter actually produces, but it is far from certain that this wage – everywhere and every time – is sufficient for the purchase of the means of existence. Likewise, it is not infrequently the case that the work becomes so taxing, both for the body and the mind, that the workers begin to break down too rapidly, ultimately becoming unsuitable for exploitation. The proletarian struggle to establish a minimum means of existence as well as securing “decent” working conditions consequently safeguards the reproduction of the capitalist relation in that the workers are trying to keep their heads above the surface.

Through this exploitation and class struggle the capitalist mode of production advances day after day, year after year, century after century. Could class struggle have taken us somewhere else? Yes, maybe! But only if it has actually put an end to capital altogether. Since the capital relation has, after all, survived the continuously present, everyday class struggle as well as a number of important proletarian insurrections and revolutionary attempts, in short since it is apparently present here today, then it has to be said that subsumption (more on this below) is by necessity more deepened today and this can’t be blamed on wrong “methods” in the class struggle, not even social democracy. Why then is this so by necessity? Well, this can be derived directly from what was just said about the methods of producing surplus-value.

Let us imagine the capitalist relation as a car having a front and a back-wheel drive, that is, with a driving pair of wheels in the front and one in back. The car drives along an uphill slope that is the whole time getting steeper. Both pairs of wheels don’t need to propel the vehicle all the time, but if the propelling force of one of them would be discontinued then the other pair of wheels immediately has to compensate for this, in order for the car not to stop. (Capital accumulation can't afford to stop very long.)

In the tenth chapter of Capital I Marx portrays how the working day in 19th century Britain got increasingly longer and how horrible the conditions became for the workers working in mines, bleach-works, bakeries and so on. Men and women, youth and small children of an age as little as seven or eight worked day and night under horrible conditions for 12, 13, 14, 15 hours. This development ran into its natural limits. The average length of life plunged sharply and whole regions became depopulated. What took place was a ruthless exploitation of workers and the capitalist State would have never survived unless this hadn’t been restricted, which in the end happened through a gradual tightening up of the factory laws governing the labour time and limiting child labour. At every enlargement of rules and regulations the factory owners protested forcefully and maintained that this would mean the end of their profits, but apparently this didn’t happen; the working day became limited but there was another way of making profits: relative surplus-value.

As said above, relative surplus-value production is dependent on the reproduction of labour power being made cheaper. This takes place through the process of real subsumption, which means that capital, with science in its service, revolutionises the labour process and adapts it so as to make it more adequate to the process of valorisation, to the concept of capital. Furthermore, this generates a series of revolutions in capitalist society as a whole.

Every method which puts a drag on any one of capitalism’s wheels pushes capital into revolutionising the mode of production, in order to produce surplus-value in another way irrespective of who is the one doing it. It may be factory inspectors, a well-organised trade-union’s movement, or struggling local workers’ collectives. The mode of production has an objective law of motion: the production of absolute and relative surplus-value through the appropriation of surplus-labour. That is why subsumption is something which has to be deepened in course of time, as long as capitalism subsists. If we want to be engaged in theory we ought to bear this in mind.

Of course, the situation of the workers in Europe at the end of the 1960s differed sharply compared to what was just said of the 19th century, though it is still possible to draw a parallel between the two. Post war Europe experienced a tremendous capitalist accumulation, and even in spite of, or rather thanks to, an ever-stronger workers’ movement. Regardless of whether this movement arrived to power through elections and massive unionisation from below, as was the case in Sweden, or if it took the form of smaller but more significant trade-unions, such as the CGT in France, class struggle took place according to a very predictable pattern: the workers’ organisations obtained annual wage-increases but accepted, in general, capital’s despotism in the workplaces. As labour power was expensive, the firms were spurred on to make large, new investments in modern means of production in order to make the best use of their workers. The high wages also benefited national capital as purchasing power and the workers could now buy their “own” products such as household appliances, cars and so on. The years of prosperity rested primarily on two things:

  1. The consumption of mass-produced commodities by the workers, which greatly lowered their cost of reproduction, i.e. a decrease in necessary labour. This decrease occurred because less effective proto-capitalist production could be replaced, even in spite of the fact that more products came to be consumed by the workers.
  2. The resolution of all industrial disputes in the form of wage increases. In this way, the field was left open for the capitalists to carry through transformations which reduced workers’ control of the labour process, increased the pace of work, and among other things, also opened up overtime and night-work. It was of great importance that these capitalists could count on the loyalty of the trade-unions, using them to help persuade the workers into submitting to such drastic transformations.

This order or regime of regulation functioned well for a few decades but towards the end of the sixties a wave of struggles suddenly broke out and this whole relation would be turned over. Everywhere workers revolted against the monotonous and heavy pace of work in the workplaces. This time it was a revolt directed just as much against the trades unions and the workers’ parties that defended the development which had led to this. Here in Sweden this revolt expressed itself in the form of a wave of wildcat strikes which started in harbour of Gothenburg and then in the state owned mines in the north in late 1969.6) At the same time in Northern Italy, militant workers started to, one could say deliberately, demand wage increases that far exceeded the productivity gains in the firms, and so they came to wage a struggle directed right against the firms’ profits.7) The revolt broke out, not because the proletarians had finally managed to see through the “betrayals” of the unions and of the workers’ parties (the fact that they had accepted an increased productivity in exchange for reasonable compensation, the “plan” as the operaist theorists called it), it was because of the material fact that the conditions at the assembly lines had become intolerable. That is why, this time, the obedience of the workers couldn’t be bought in exchange for a bit more money in the pay envelope. In this situation, capital did what it had to do: It chased out the vermin and replaced the workers with industrial robots. The unemployment that followed increased competition between workers over the jobs that were left. Everywhere, not just in Italy, capital cracked the red strongholds, broke the workers’ collectives and started its search for cheap obedient labour power on other continents. The old relationship had become antiquated; it was founded principally on a national accumulation and a capital co-existing with a workers’ identity, a framework which had become a prison, for the workers as well as for accumulation.

Wrong methods?

What is Dissident’s view on these matters? Did the proletarians use “wrong methods” in 19681973 as they rebelled against the capitalism of their time, against their own concrete living conditions, when the result meant the end of twenty golden years of prosperity and a global restructuring of the mode of production as well as a deepened subsumption. Do perhaps the editors of Dissident intend to suggest that Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri and others were reactionary as they rejoiced over the fact that their struggle had bore fruit?

It is completely true that we to this day have not witnessed the dissolution of the capital relation due to its internal contradiction. What we have seen, however, and several times even, is the real destruction of a whole series of distinct forms of capitalist production / exploitation. Every time the capital relation has been seriously challenged the alternative has been between destruction or restructuring, and every time the latter has become reality, the internal contradictions could never be suppressed, which therefore every time leads it towards a new future crisis for the mode of production.

Marcel and Dissident have apparently grown tired of the repeated promises by class struggle and now they don't want to give it any more chances. They choose, instead, to bet their money on something new and untried, but they avoid the question as to why no previous movement has thus far ever discovered this method and put it to use.

The “revolutionaries”, that is, those who wish to “leave the world”, do, according to Dissident, have to wage a dual struggle: on the one hand against capital and on the other hand against labour. Once again we’ve arrived at the split personality of the workers,8) in which they are torn between wanting to belong (“to demand their own submission”, p. 9) and wanting to leave this world. With the right method in use, the “projectial”, the one where all representatives have been pushed aside, they should hopefully choose the latter alternative, instead of not abiding to any class struggle where one would have to fight as a worker and thus might risk to – God forbid! – deepen the subsumption.

For my own part there is no contradiction between saying that the proletariat, at a certain point in time, is driven to apply communist measures in its struggle against capital and that this may be a class struggle which puts an end to class struggle. On the contrary, we believe this to be the only materialist comprehension of communisation, that it isn’t despite the proletariat and capital – determined by the capitalist mode of production – but exactly because of the situation within capitalism that, during the current period, communisation may become real.9) That it tries to fulfil its needs within capitalist society is no “voluntary submission” (p. 9) and every communist perspective is based upon the assumption that society at one point can’t manage to reproduce itself, that is, that it cannot fulfil the needs of the suppressed and at the same time uphold the economic system. Contrary to what Dissident says with the struggles for bread and butter as a starting point, the proletariat (and indeed no one else, not the “people” or the “revolutionaries”), in defending its own reproduction as persons with physical and mental needs, can be led to challenge its own miserable conditions of living. The weapon which is then directed at the class enemy, capital, which is defining its situation, becomes the abolition of oneself as a class. This event is no act of leaving, withdrawal or suicide but nothing other than a frontal assault on the capitalist relations of production and their State; it is communism as a movement which along a path of ashes abolishes the existing conditions.

The idea that communism would “arrive from the future”, beyond the contradiction between classes, instead of being produced by class struggles bursting forth from within the present, is a thought that sits ill with the perspective of communisation, which, of course, is about the production of communism. Such an idea was perhaps tempting to have in a time which didn’t show any signs of immediate communisation10) but only of class affirmation, a time in which – in sharp contrast with ours – socialism was visible on the horizon.11) This idea could also work as ideology in the hands of the counter-revolution: the glorious goal for which the workers, during the period of transition, had to sacrifice themselves, a Garden of Eden looming in a distant future. One day, it would open up its gates, but only after heavy industry would stand finished and a new man had been born, a pure and innocent being that would know of no class struggles and hence would be worthy of entering passively into this paradise… Communisation, on the other hand, won’t be enslaved by the future. As a perspective of communism where the present is the point of departure, we are instead speaking of an active conflictual process with concrete characteristics. By the way, communism is not at all alien to this world, since it is the negation of all the conditions that maintain this mode of production. In fact, it is essentially bound to this world, as this world’s critique, because we can only speak of communism in negative terms, that it is not property, division of labour, commodity production etc. From this point of view, one could also say that even communism itself – or what we know of communism – comes to an end, as soon as it, through its communisation, has broken down the State and all the classes in society. For what can our theory really say about something which lies beyond capital as this theory is founded on the contradictory existence of the capitalist mode of production, that it is something materially apparent which we can experience, as opposed to a mythological transhistorical philosophy?

In the seventies, parts of the left dusted off the young Marx and made Feuerbachian models over a lost human species being, its wandering throughout the epochs, and the final homecoming in the arms of the communist community. Dissident is, in its turn, leaning on more modern philosophers and turning inside out and back to front most of the arguments that they find. One could ask oneself, though, if they have really advanced beyond these predecessors, if progress here means to no longer see the originally true but the un-worldly true, the immaculate, as the solution to the worldly sufferings. And where will the next step take us, as the layout of the most recent issue bears in fact a close resemblance to the Watchtower?

April 2010
1) Dissident number 3, 2008, p. 6. Henceforth all page references stand within parenthesis in the text.
2) Marcel, “Angreppets och undandragandets kommunism” ('Communism of attack and communism of withdrawal'), riff-raff No. 7, 2005.
3) Cf. Magnus Florén Sandberg, “Marx subsumtionsbegrepp. En idéhistorisk begreppsanalys”, unpublished Master thesis, University of Gothenburg, 2009; and Christopher J. Arthur, “The Possessive Spirit of Capital: Subsumption”, in Re-reading Marx. New Perspectives after the Critical Edition, Basingstoke / New York 2009, pp. 148162.
4) This latter we can fully agree with.
5) The fact that increased productivity in practice is often also accompanied by demands for a greater job performance is a different matter which doesn't change the what has been written above.
6) Cf. Ragnar Järhult, Nu eller aldrig. En bok om “den nya strejkrörelsen”, Stockholm 1982.
7) Cf. Steve Wright, Storming Heaven, London 2002.
8) See Bernard Lyon, Roland Simon, “Commentaires sur le texte de Marcel”, published in this issue of riff-raff.
9) With Marcel/Dissident class struggle is always a necessary precondition or preparation before the revolution, but it is at the same time its limitation whose nature threatens to undermine a revolution which is alien to this world.
10) Because of the way in which the contradiction was put.
11) See Théorie communiste, “Much ado about nothing”, Endnotes No. 1, 2008.