Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Beyond Class and Identity Politics


In their Commonwealth, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri address the increasing importance of the common both to capitalism and our futures beyond it. In this vein they discuss the barriers to the realisation of its potenza, or potential power, presented by capital and the contradictory relations that form the common themselves and discuss in particular identity politics and its simultaneous expression and frustration. Before we go there, we need to wind the discussion back a touch.

In a number of posts looking at the emergent mass appeal of Jeremy Corbyn and Corbynism, their Empire trilogy of books were drawn on to make sense of what is happening to British politics. It is an interpretation that accounts for how old certainties were stirred up, and why it puts the Tories at an inescapable disadvantage. In sum, it's the economy, stupid. To be more precise, it's the class politics underpinning the economy.

To recap, for mature, industrial capitalism the secret of capital accumulation and profit lies in the value creation process, of surplus labour and surplus value. That doesn't mean other opportunities for profit didn't exist. Marx, for example, was particularly interested in rent. The model beloved of establishment economics ultimately roots profits in buying cheap and selling dear. The point, however, is that neither were sufficient to explain the dynamics and tendencies of capitalism as Marx wrote about it. Hardt and Negri suggest there has been a movement away from the production of material commodities as the primary means by which capital grows, and increasingly finds itself in invested in a new relationship of exploitation. The tradition of Italian autonomism, of which Negri is part, argued that increasing numbers of people need to be employed to attend to the social fabric that makes the possible exploitation and capital accumulation. Western Europe in the post-war period with its expanded welfare states clearly demonstrates this. It meant public sector workers were also productive, but productive of relationships. The autonomists extended this argument beyond workplace into wider social relationships. Women stuck at home were as productive as the assembly line worker because of the affective and socialising labour they performed in the context of the family, which led some feminists to agitate for wages for housework in recognition of the benefits the reproduction of living labour provides capital.

Hardt and Negri take this a step further with their argument about the spread of immaterial labour. Welfare states may have fallen back, but socially productive work has spread. In the advanced countries, workers increasingly perform a service, generate knowledge, and create social relations as the object of their work. Immaterial commodities and commodified relationships is the emerging way of the world. This doesn't mean material production isn't important, but is gradually being displaced as the primary arena of accumulation and hegemonic way of working. Yann Moulier-Boutang in his Cognitive Capitalism suggests the Silicon Valley worker shows us our future in the same way the industrial waged labourer in Marx's day was the coming wave against an ocean of agricultural work. Nevertheless, this presents capitalism with three challenges. The first is the move to intangible goods, and in the case of capital intensive information commodities, their infinite capacity to be copied poses the circuit of capital a severe difficulty. Secondly, whereas "classical" capitalism pulled workers into places of work and furnished them with the tools and knowledge needed for production, workers now bring their own skills, knowledge and aptitudes to the table that were acquired outside of the employer/employee relations. Capital therefore is dependent on the store of living social knowledge, sometimes referred to as the general intellect, and in Commonwealth referred to as the common, to keep on keeping on. This represents a major tilt in the class balance between capital and increasingly socialised workers. Thirdly, and in a nice twist of irony, as the materiality of commodities evaporate the class relationship underpinning capital condenses and becomes visible.

If these weren't bad enough, engaging socialised workers produces a surplus of information that cannot be consumed by the commodity in the production process. The programmer retains the knowledge of their contribution to a video game. The Uber driver has their car at the end of the journey. The sales assistant takes their personality home with them. Their knowledge and experience adds to the social store, the common, enhancing its capacity to produce relationships, experiment, and generate new identities and new ways of being. Capital is always exceeded, its attempts at capturing and monetising the social value of aspects of the common can never be total. The more it tries to take a scoop out of the common, the more that is left behind.

Lastly, socialised workers are simultaneously networked workers. Under capitalism work has always required cooperation in the workplace, and over the course of its development has arranged a highly complex division of labour mediated at all levels by bureaucracy and machinery. Immaterial labour is cooperative too, but with a difference. "Classical" capitalism enforced cooperation in the workplace, the performance of service provision or knowledge production draws on cooperative relations outside of work, of competencies forged by communication and interaction. When I teach dozens of scholars are effectively co-present on my side of the lecture hall, for instance. The development of the internet and the coming of social media has multiplied this cooperative sociality. As we move through life now many millions of us are embedded in dense networks. There is no longer an online and an offline, the digital and the real are fused in an immediately accessible common.

For Hardt and Negri, the socialised and networked worker is the hegemonic worker of the 21st century. As the processes driving its numbers roll on, something else interesting happens: all workers are transformed into socialised workers. The machinist, the assembly line worker, the brickie, new technologies and immaterial labour might inform the production process without meaningfully changing how they do their work (assuming the jobs aren't automated out of existence), but out of work they are plugged into and networked up with the common as much as any socialised worker. Additionally, while access to the most rewarding, both financially and personally, immaterial occupations is restrictive generations of young people are being socialised in the expectation of getting a career that ticks those boxes. That they don't is piling up frustration, and is helping drive radical politics. It is also alienating them from work and encouraging them to find themselves in the common. That suits capitalism as it leeches off collective social knowledge, but doesn't as capital starts appearing increasingly superfluous and unnecessary to the constitution of social life.

Hardt and Negri refer to the social collective as the multitude. This is, effectively, their shorthand for the classes and categorisations who, throughout history, are not the ruling classes. The popular classes in the 20th century were proletarians, the peasantry, and small business people. You might add to that fractions of classes and transitory locations, such as the unemployed (temporary and long-term), students, professions, the retired, and what have you. They were multitudinous, but they were discrete classes and fractions with their own interests, propensities, and potential for friction with other popular classes. These still exist, but the coming of the socialised worker has inserted a new quality into the multitude: the more socialised and networked all become, the more their common interests are brought out. It's not a case of a borg-like proletarian mass bearing down on capital as per mechanical renderings of Marx's approach to revolution, but more like a swarm in which the differentiated nature of the multitude nevertheless swarms in a particular direction: and that is against the homogenising exploitative character of capital.

What has any of this got to do with identity politics? In Hardt and Negri, the multitude and the common are blurred. Both are irreducible and interdependent properties of each other. When you add to the general intellect, when you engage in social production you modify too the composition of the multitude. As the multitude comprises of more socialised workers, the spread and potenza of the common increases. They argue the coming of the networked, socialised worker has an equalising effect. No one class position is "better" or more politically "potent" than another, as per the industrial worker in old imaginings of proletarian revolution, instead the spread of social production via the reach of the common, and capital's attempt to exploit the common via the immaterial labour of others multiplies the points of antagonism across the body of the multitude. It's not the case of finding the weak links in capital's chain anymore because all points are brittle, all points offer opportunities to condense the constituent order-making power of the common and all can act as moments of rupture for swift, exhilarating change.

The multitude then is comprised of the mass of humanity. It is the living, breathing medium and constituent of the common, and it is increasingly capable of collective thought and collective action because all points of it are engaged in social, or  'biopolitical' production. However, the multitude also comprises of what Hardt and Negri term singularities. These are the locus of the identity politics/new social movements that emerged toward the end of the 1960s, and they typically comprise of gender, race/ethnicity, sexual, disabled and culturally-based identities. These are axes along which oppression has been exercised and continues to be exercised, as well as offering rallying locations against social injustice and points at which the social world can be challenged. The term 'singularity' for identity does not mean essentialism for all identity locations are socially constituted and determined, all are internally variegated, and all derive meaning from relationships with other singularities and a history of oppression. They nevertheless have a tangibly irreducible character to them, a refusal to read them off as the epiphenomenon of some other relationship of exploitation. Hardt and Negri also suggest that singularities are not fixed, they're always in a process of becoming or tendency, of being on the road from somewhere to a future destination.

Singularities are necessarily the immediate subjectivities because this is the way we are addressed by the state and its institutions. Its recognition of identity categories and efforts made to at least manage structural oppression are a consequence of past struggles, but are have also been recuperated into the structures of management. Therefore the first task, which is repeated over and over again by identity politics is to make visible the hierarchies of violence that underpin them. The danger lies in losing sight of this violence, of treating identity as less a matter of inequality and more a problem of difference. Which leads into the second potential difficulty. The state recognises us as individuals with certain rights and responsibilities, but most crucially as individual owners of property. Liberal democracies only recognise the sovereignty of individuals, and therefore take the identity locations to be individual properties. Here lies the first problem that can arise out of identity politics. Because sovereign powers treat identities as a property, some themselves might also so treat it. Rather than a political location, or a possible route to freedom it is deployed, sometimes cynically, to make the individual. It becomes a resource for career advancement. Unsurprisingly those sections of identity movements that are closest to and seek accommodation with established power are the ones most likely to treat identity this way, and also possess a stake in maintaining it as such. The third issue is identity politics in the revolutionary mode go beyond accommodation and seek to abolish themselves. This has nothing to do with sameness and everything to do with obliterating structural violence - proletarians are interested in the abolition of class, women the abolition of gender, non-white ethnicities the abolition of race, sexual minorities the abolition of sexuality, and so on. A revolutionary approach pushes each of these along because any can cause a rupture with the increasing order and throw capital on to the defensive. Despite the gains made, capital still requires gender and sexual systems, it needs racial hierarchies just as much as it requires the common and the people it provides to generate surplus value in the first place. Therefore, a biopolitical identity politics recognises the violence done and the oppression and disadvantage suffered, it affirms, contests, and repositions identities away from victimhood, and these are then resources for strengthening the constituent power of the common and throwing capital onto the defensive. In effect, working with identity politics means going beyond identity politics because it is intersectional. It is simultaneously a singular politics that mobilises a multiple (or multitude) of singularities.

Hardt and Negri therefore offer a novel way of going beyond the dull, reductive and unproductive debates/theory wars that have taken place when it comes to intersectional politics. By situating social (biopolitical) production of the common as the increasingly important pole of accumulation, the multiplication of the reproductive circuits of capitalism, the diffusion of the socialised worker and the spread of antagonisms establish a fundamental equality between singularities, of placing class and gender and race and sexuality on equal footing while placing them in the context of a crisis-ridden political economy. Pitting them against one another when they all mutually constitute the social and capital stymies the potential of the multitude to make and remake the world. It winds down the possibility of building alternatives, of producing the modes of living and the human beings for whom sharing life with capital is unbearable. To emphasise the point and use the trusted rhetoric of class conscious politics, sexism, racism, homophobia and so on are little more than scabbing. Multitudinous politics are necessarily co-present at each possibility of rupture, which means we should always be alive to deepening solidarity amongst ourselves in the face of exploitation and oppression wherever it is taken on.

2 comments:

jim mclean said...

My main concern about the "mass" appeal is it is transient, still think the long term for Labour should be the FE Colleges,Training Centres and Job Clubs as the only areas where our youth cann be organised as a group. Apologies, but to many there is a lack of political substance in the current situation.

Dialectician1 said...

"Therefore the first task, which is repeated over and over again by identity politics is to make visible the hierarchies of violence that underpin them. The danger lies in losing sight of this violence, of treating identity as less a matter of inequality and more a problem of difference."

Yes, and here lies the rub. Since the late 1960s identity politics has become 'individualised' and "a resource for career advancement". Today, postmodern organisations like the terms 'diversity', 'networking' and 'community' and these terms are used to offer tangible proof to the 'multitude' that vulgar capitalism has transformed itself. Those involved in identity politics have no interest in a revolutionary model that goes beyond accommodation; they show no interest in abolishing themselves. The (white/male) working class are simply viewed as a 'different' identity (and often as bad, see https://meanjin.com.au/essays/in-defence-of-the-bad-white-working-class/) from themselves. This makes it difficult to move beyond the sterile debates about intersectionality. And hence it debases class-based politics a passé.