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Fuel for the living fire: Labour-power!

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The Labour Debate:
An Investigation into the Theory
and Reality of Capitalist Work
University of Bath
University of Warwick
© Ana C. Dinerstein and Michael Neary 2002
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic,
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the publisher.
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List of Contributors vii
Acknowledgements ix
From Here to Utopia: Finding Inspiration for the Labour Debate
Ana C. Dinerstein and Michael Neary 1
1 What Labour Debate?
1.1 Class and Classification: Against, In and Beyond Labour
John Holloway 27
1.2 Class Struggle and the Working Class: The Problem of Commodity
Simon Clarke 41
1.3 The Narrowing of Marxism: A Comment on Simon Clarke’s Comments
John Holloway 61
2 Capital, Labour and Primitive Accumulation: On Class and Constitution
Werner Bonefeld 65
3 Labour and Subjectivity: Rethinking the Limits of Working Class
Graham Taylor 89
4 Hayek, Bentham and the Global Work Machine: The Emergence of the
Massimo De Angelis 108
5 Work is Still the Central Issue! New Words for New Worlds
Harry Cleaver 135
6 Labour Moves: A Critique of the Concept of Social Movement Unionism
Michael Neary 149
7 Fuel for the Living Fire: Labour-Power!
Glenn Rikowski 179
8 Regaining Materiality: Unemployment and the Invisible Subjectivity of
Ana C. Dinerstein 203
9 Anti-Value-in-Motion: Labour, Real Subsumption and the Struggles against
Ana C. Dinerstein and Michael Neary 226
Index 241
List of Contributors
Werner Bonefeld teaches at the Department of Politics at the Universi-
ty of York. He is a co-editor of the Open Marxism series and his recent
publications include The Politics of Change. Globalisation, Ideology and
Critique (co-edited with K. Psychopedis (2000), and The Politics of Europe
Simon Clarke is a Professor of Sociology at the University of War-
wick. He is the editor of The State Debate (1991), and the author of Marx,
Marginalism and Modern Sociology (1982), Keynesianism, Monetarism
and the Crisis of the State (1988). Since 1989 he has been involved in a
major research project and published widely on the Russian transition.
Harry Cleaver is a Professor of Economics at the University of Texas
at Austin. He has been the editor of Zerowork and the author of books
including Reading Capital Politically (1979). He has written extensively
about social conflicts within contemporary capitalism.
Ana C. Dinerstein teaches Sociology at the Department of Social and
Policy Sciences at the University of Bath. Her publications include ‘Marx-
ism and Subjectivity. Searching for the Marvellous’ (Common Sense, no
22, 1997), ‘The Violence of Stability: Argentina in the 1990s’, in M. Neary
(ed. 1999) and ‘Roadblocks in Argentina’ (Capital & Class, no 74, 2001).
Massimo De Angelis is a lecturer in Political Economy at the Universi-
ty of East London. He is the author of Keynesianism, Social Conflict and
Political Economy (2001) and of a variety of other papers on global capital
and social transformation.
John Holloway is a Professor of Sociology at the Universidad
Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico. His latest books are How to Change the
World without Taking Power, (2001) and Zapatista! Reinventing Revolu-
tion in Mexico (edited with Eloína Peláez, 1998).
Michael Neary is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of War-
wick. His recent publications include Youth, Training and the Training
State (1997), Money and the Human Condition (co-authored with Graham
Taylor, 1998) and the editor of Global Humanisation, Studies in the Manu-
facture of Labour (1999).
Glenn Rikowski is a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Educa-
tion at the University of Central England in Birmingham. His publications
include The Battle in Seattle: Its significance for Education (2001) and,
with Dave Hill, Mike Cole and Peter McLaren, Red Chalk: on Schooling,
Capitalism and Politics (2001).
Graham Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Economics and
Social Science at the University of the West of England, Bristol. His publi-
cations include Money and the Human Condition (co-authored with
Michael Neary, 1998) and State Regulation and the Politics of Public
Service (1999).
This book would not have been possible without the longstanding encour-
agement and support of friends and colleagues within the Centre for
Comparative Labour Studies at Warwick University, in particular Simon
Clarke and Tony Elger; and the administrative support of Frances Jones.
We would also like to recognise the intellectual stimulation derived from
discussing the central issues in this book with postgraduate students associ-
ated with the Centre, including Chang Dae Oup, Patrick Von Brandt,
Kevon Perry, and Greg Schwartz. And, maybe we should acknowledge
each other, writing together is a much more straightforward and enjoyable
experience when jugamos de memoria(you know without saying what is
in each other’s minds).
Ana C. Dinerstein
Michael Neary
10 The Labour Debate
From Here to Utopia:
Finding Inspiration for the Labour
The Problem of Capitalist Work
The dependence of global society on capitalist work is the unavoidable
reality of the modern world. By capitalist work we mean a particular form
of labour that is given social and institutional recognition by the reward of
the money-wage. This form of labour is based on a peculiar social interde-
pendence in which workers do not consume what they produce, but work to
consume what is produced by others in a process enforced and facilitated
by the abstract and generalised power of world money (Bonefeld and
Holloway, 1996; Clarke, 1988; Marazzi, 1996). It is this basic arrangement
that makes the modern world ‘modern’ or constitutes what is social about
modern social relations. In the modern world, capitalist work is not sanc-
tioned by society, but society is sanctioned by capitalist work (Postone,
1993). In other words, capitalist work is the organising principle of all
aspects of social life. What we ‘do for a living’ defines and gives meaning,
purpose and direction to individual everyday life and the institutions where
people spend their lives, forming the bases for social and cultural integra-
tion and interdependence. Questions of identity, consumption, and political
affiliation, although important, are secondary issues compared to the im-
portance of capitalist work.
For writers working in the post-modern and post-structuralist intellec-
tual tradition, capitalist work appears to have become less central to human
existence. However, the plain and incontrovertible fact is that without
capitalist work not only would human life in its current form be unsustain-
able, but what we refer to as society would not exist in a form that we
recognise as being social. And yet, in a world in which human life is de-
fined by capitalist work and in which this peculiar form of human
sociability has brought unbounded progress, it also brings social disaster
beyond the human imagination. At the collective level this deeply contra-
From Here to Utopia 11
dictory social environment takes the form of economic and political up-
heaval; and at the individual level, as various forms of human misery that
include the lack of a job (unemployment), the lack of a place to live (home-
lessness) and a lack of human integration (loneliness).
What all of this generates is a very real sense in which the organising
principle of human activity: capitalist work, is beyond collective human
control in a situation within which human life must be subordinated to
inhuman capitalist logic. As the British Chancellor of the Exchequer,
Norman Lamont, expressed in a famous remark to the House of Commons
in 1991, made all the more chilling because of the way in which it connects
to the logic of social reality: ‘unemployment is a price worth paying’ for
economic and political stability (The Observer, 19.5.91).
Living Death
To be without a job in the contemporary world is a kind of living death, and
yet the argument of this book is not that the problem of capitalist work can
be alleviated by making more jobs or defending workers’ rights to em-
ployment. Indeed, to be in work is itself a form of living death. Work is
acknowledged as the major cause of stress, boredom, injury, detrimental
effects on social and sex-life and in some cases premature death. The real
issue is more fundamental: the problem of capitalist work is not the lack of
work but the nature or character of capitalist work and the type of society
that it produces. The bizarre feature of capitalist work is that human activi-
ty is recognised or given real status only in so far as it attracts a wage:
money. Money is attributed to social activity not because of any intrinsic
aspect of that activity, but only in so far as it contributes to the expansion of
value that is represented by quantities of money. Money itself has no intrin-
sic value, but exists as the representation of a real process of social
validation (Neary and Taylor, 1998). As a result there are many important
types of work based on real need and of obvious social benefit that do not
get done, but also the kind of work that is recognised as work always and
everywhere destroys the sociality and environment that attracted it in the
first place. In this book, rather than simply accept this situation as ‘a price
worth paying’ for economic and political stability, we want to challenge the
politics and economics on which that notion of stability is based. Our point
is that the kind of stability generated by capitalist work is, in fact, the
12 The Labour Debate
reason for the intensification of a more destructive instability (Dinerstein,
Where Do We Start?
The overwhelming and unavoidable nature of capitalist work means that
there is no Archemedian point or detached perspective from which to
generate a sustained critique. There is no outside to the world of capitalist
work. Capitalist work has become so generalised indeed capitalist work
is defined precisely by the fact that it is general, i.e. that what is, in fact, a
social and formal convention, appears as if it the basis of the natural world
(Marx, Grundrisse). And yet what appears to be a problem for critical
reflection has not prevented the articulation of antagonism and struggle
against capitalist work. The history of the modern world is that critique has
been generated internally from within the logic of capitalist work itself.
These critiques have sought to either alleviate its brutal logic (reformism)
or transform the impossibility of its arrangement (revolution). However,
despite the power of this critique to generate progressive social transfor-
mation, we appear to have reached a moment when the possibility of
critique has itself been overwhelmed.
The most populist among these uncritical interventions include, for ex-
ample, the concept of the ‘Third Way’ (Giddens, 1998), the notion of ‘the
end of history’ (Fukayama, 1993) and the ‘end of the society of work’
(Gorz, 1982, 1999; Offe, 1985; Rifkin, 1995). These examples of anti-
critiques have not emerged in a political and economic vacuum, but are part
of a process of restructuring that emerged in the most recent world capital-
ist crisis beginning in the 1970s. This restructuring has involved not only
the deregulation or restructuring of the juridic and economic framework
that supports capitalist work: money, labour and the state, but also the
deconstruction of the intellectual setting in which we used to think about
these matters. The results have been further capitalist expansion leading to
increasing instability and an intellectual crisis. Indeed, the more capitalist
work expands, the more uncritical languages of sociological or economic
enquiry become incapable of grasping the nature of such transformations.
There seems to be a link between the way in which capital expands at this
time and the crisis of social theory, i.e. there is a ‘relationship between the
politics of contemporary global change and the theoretical uncertainty
concerning the meaning and significance of this change’ (Bonefeld and
Psychopedis, 2000: 1).
From Here to Utopia 13
Bill Clinton and the Razor’s Edge
The nature and extent of this crisis is unavoidable even for those who seek
to defend it. Some of the problems generated by the boundless expansion of
capitalist work (De Angelis, 1995) are now recognised not only by the
critics of capitalist work but by the institutional representatives of capital-
ism. In the last days of his Presidency, Bill Clinton made his final public
speech at Warwick University. Bill said:
And we begin the new century and a new millennium with half the world’s
people struggling to survive on less than $2 a day, nearly 1 billion living in
chronic hunger. Almost a billion of the world’s adults cannot read. Half the
children in the poorest countries still are not in school. So, while some of us
walk on the cutting edge of the new global economy, still, amazing numbers
of people live on the bare razor’s edge of survival. And these trends and other
troubling ones are likely to be exacerbated by a rapidly-growing population,
expected to increase by 50 percent by the middle of this century, with the in-
crease concentrated almost entirely in nations that today, at least, are the least
capable of coping with it. So the great question before us is not whether glob-
alization will proceed, but how (Clinton, 14.12.00).
Bill recognises the problem but attributes it to factors beyond human
control. For him, this paradoxical global situation, i.e. the triumphs of the
new information era and the simultaneous disaster for global society, is a
suprasocial process explained by reference to the new grand-narrative of
globalisation. It is a very curious intellectual phenomenon that in a deregu-
lated and deconstructed world, in which deterministic meta-narratives have
been declared anachronistic, such a meta-discourse, i.e. ‘globalisation’, has
emerged as an inevitable fact of life. In this account ‘globalisation’ is seen
as being as natural as we used to think the climate was, before the climate
was shown to be susceptible to human interference. ‘Globalisation’ is
presented as the new omnipotent force of nature. The problem is then how
to contain this powerful force and make it work. For Bill, political indiffer-
ence is no longer an option:
In a global information age we can no longer have the excuse of ignorance.
We can choose not to act, of course, but we can no longer choose not to
know…We have seen how abject poverty accelerates turmoil and conflict;
how it creates recruits for terrorists and those who incite ethnic and religious
hatred; how it fuels a violent rejection of the open economic and social order
upon which our future depends. Global poverty is a powder keg, ignitable by
our indifference (Clinton, 14.12.00).
14 The Labour Debate
In his speech Bill also referred to new forms of politics that have emerged
in response to indifference: the ‘anti-globalisation protestors’ in Seattle,
without granting them real significance. However, the struggles that have
emerged as new form of political action, exemplified all over the world by
the Zapatistas (Mexico), Roadblocks (Argentina), anti-capitalist struggles
(Seattle, Prague, London, Quebec, Gothenburg), and against the European
Monetary Union (Euromarch) are not just a reaction to the limits of globali-
sation but they are significant in that they call into question the basis of
indifference itself (Cleaver, in this book; De Angelis, 1998; Dinerstein,
2001, 1999, in this book; Holloway, 1996; Holloway and Peláez, 1998;
Mathers 1999; Mathers and Taylor, 1999; Rikowski 2001).
These struggles call into question the foundations of what we want to
call Disutopia. Disutopia is the most significant project of our time. It is
not the temporary absence of Utopia but the celebration of the end of social
dreams. Social dreams have become a nightmare in which it is impossible
to materialise our desires into a collective thought. Disutopia should not be
confused with the form in which it appears: indifference. Disutopia entails
an active process involving simultaneously the struggle to control diversity
and the acclamation of diversity; the repression of the struggles against
Disutopia and the celebration of individual self-determination. The result of
this is social schizophrenia. In so far as diversity, struggle and contradiction
cannot be eliminated by political or philosophical voluntarism, Disutopia
has to be imposed. The advocates of Disutopia spend a huge amount of
time in de-construction, repentance, denial, forgetfulness, anti-critique,
coupled with academic justifications and the scientific classification of the
horrors of our time. Whilst the reality of capitalism is destroying planet
earth, Disutopia pictures Utopia as a romantic, naïve and old-fashioned
imaginary that is accused of not dealing with the real world. However, our
point is that Disutopia can only be sustained by denying the real content of
life, i.e. the foundations of the real world. The result of all this together is
The historical difficulty for these struggles then is how to construct an
articulate critique against the post-modern form of capitalist work, when
capitalist work is still the defining principle of the organisation of social
life. This question has extended outside the factory to include other aspects
of human sociability that are expressed as new social movements, social
movement unionism and has now taken the new form of anti-globalisation
From Here to Utopia 15
struggles (Neary, in this book). In order to support the new intensified and
coherent form of resistance it is necessary to understand the dynamic
behind these processes of struggle. Our starting point will be that while all
of the struggles have their own specificities what they all have in common,
in different degrees, is the questions they pose about the problem of the
increasing centrality of capitalist work in the globalised world.
The recovering of the essential content by means of a critique is an in-
trinsic aspect of the struggle itself. In order to recover a critique, the
purpose of this chapter is to engage in a theoretical and historical analysis
of the genesis and development of capitalist work. In this analysis we will
enhance, draw out and underline the significance of labour through a read-
ing of some of the most important accounts of contemporary critical
political economy (Clarke, Kay and Mott, Meek, Rubin, Wood and Wood).
We begin with Thomas More’s Utopia as this is where the critique of
capitalist work begins.
Labour: the Most Important Theoretical and Practical Discovery
The Utopian project, which forms the motivation for The Labour Debate, is
inspired by Thomas More’s anti-absolutist dialogue (More, 1965). Our
reading of Utopia is not as a territorial concept, the word itself means no
place; but, rather, as a principle of negation or critique. For that reason we
have chosen to concentrate on the first section of the book, part one, in
which More is engaged in a critique of Tudor society. More’s work is in
response to a period that is marked by poverty and exploitation leading to
generalised social disorder: rent strikes, anti-enclosure riots and industrial
disturbances in ‘a series of revolts that looked something like class warfare’
(Wood and Wood, 1997: 27).
More’s work gives expression to the structural transformations of this
period, exemplified by the enclosure movement, engrossment, and how the
problems associated with these might be resolved. Thomas More is, in fact,
writing at the very beginning of the development of capitalist work during
the construction of an agrarian capitalist society. But, if the world was new,
so too was the way in which he was examining it. In More’s writings we
find the first attempt to provide an analytical and systematic analysis of the
processes of social change in what amounts to the beginning of modern
16 The Labour Debate
political theory and political economy (Wood and Wood, 1997: 30). The
basis of this systematic account was fundamental changes in the social
relations of production (Wood and Wood, 1997: 35). The starting point for
More’s critique was then a society in the process of radical change as a
result of major transformations that were occurring in the nature of produc-
tive human activity. The point and purpose for More, as exemplified by his
island-society, is the possibility of constructing an alternative future.
The debate as to whether More’s Utopia is a revolutionary manifesto, a
meaningless fiction, or a conservative attempt to maintain the authoritarian
and undemocratic Tudor status quo, is not of concern to us here. What is
important is that, for the first time, labour and labour productivity has
become the object of critical enquiry, and that, through this understanding,
Thomas More anticipated the debates that were to become central within
political economy. Firstly, he acknowledged the significance of labour as
the producer of value and as part of a triangular relationship between work-
er, landlord and tenant:
…there are a lots of noblemen who live like drones on the labour of other
people, in other words, of their tenants, and keep bleeding white by constantly
raising their rents (More, 1965: 44).
Secondly, he provided a materialist account for the problems within
Tudor society, as well as a range of social policy options. For More, social
disruption was a result of unregulated wool production:sheep devour men’
(idem, ant.: 47) which can only be alleviated by the regulation of agricul-
ture and a restraint on engrossment. Thirdly, he set out the terms of what
was to become the most significant debate about the basis of property rights
that led, not only to the development of political economy, but was also a
central contentious issue in the English Civil War. On the one hand,
it was evidently quite obvious to a powerful intellect…that the one essential
condition for a healthy society was equal distribution of goods which…is
impossible under capitalism. In other words you’ll never get a fair distribution
of goods, or satisfactory organisation of human life, until you abolish private
property altogether (idem, ant.: 66).
On the other hand,
I don’t believe you’d ever have a reasonable standard of living under a com-
munist system. There always tend to be shortages, because nobody will work
hard enough. In the absence of a proper motive, everyone would become lazy
and rely on everyone else to do the work for him. Then, when things really
From Here to Utopia 17
got short, the inevitable result would be a series of murders and riots since
nobody would have any legal method of protecting the product of his own la-
bour especially as there wouldn’t be any respect for authority, or I don’t see
there could be, in a classless society (idem, ant.: 67).
Property was now the battle-ground. Thomas More opened up, but did
not develop, the problem of property to a materialist critique of society. In
what follows we examine the way in which the problem of labour devel-
oped during and after the English Civil War and the process through which
the concept of labour became the most important theoretical and practical
innovation of the modern, post-feudal world.
Absolute and Relative
The advances made in political economy (…Petty, Smith, Ricardo…) over
political philosophy (…Hobbes, Hegel…) were derived out of the realisa-
tion that labour was now the basis not only of social order and social
regulation, but also, and at the same time, was the justification on which
claims for democracy, equality and freedom were made. In the battles over
the new society, culminating in England with the Revolutionary War 1642
1647, political theory had sought to take refuge from sedition in the sover-
eignty of the absolute. This is exemplified in Hobbes’ Leviathan where the
absolute state is legitimised by the need of security; and, in Continental
Europe, following the French Revolution (1789), through Hegel’s discov-
ery of the Absolute Idea materialised as the state and its separation from
civil society. However, political economy was driven by real struggles to
reconstruct and resist a world in which the absolute was being relativised
through the preponderance of generalised commodity exchange. In ‘the
world turned upside down’ (Hill, 1991) property was now king: the abso-
lute was disembodied and dehumanised, transferred from personal
authority and its institutions to reside in property itself, i.e. the commodity.
The two most important questions of the time became, firstly, what is
the measure of assessment (value) in a non-absolute world, where the
medieval concept of ‘just price’ had been replaced by the impersonal role
of the market (Meek, 1979: 14; Rubin 1989: 65); and, secondly, what is the
basis on which the rightful ownership and control of property (the com-
modity), now the substance of political power, is derived. This debate on
the relationship between property and labour, progressed through the con-
tinuing social upheavals of the period that led eventually into social
revolution and the English Civil War.
18 The Labour Debate
Critical Political Economy and the Labour Debate
During the English Revolutionary War, it is widely acknowledged that the
Levellers, so-called because of their opposition to enclosure and their
ambition to level or democratise rather than abolish private property, were
among the most radical groups of the period. The Levellers argued that
property rights were based on the concept of self-propriety: property rights
inhere in man by virtue of his ‘living and breathing’. This notion was
supported by their own self-interested belief that artisans and craftsmen
were entitled to the fruits of their own labour (Wood and Wood, 1997: 82).
The logical problem implicit in this position was outlined by less radical
voices who demanded a more limited form of parliamentary government.
This less radical position argued that property was based on constitutional
and civil rights developed through historical precedent rather than natural
law. In a standpoint that echoed Thomas More in Utopia, the less radical
critique argued that the Levellers’ view provided no logical limit to what
one man could claim off another and, therefore, would lead to a situation
that could threaten the very basis of the people’s democracy that the Level-
lers claimed to be constructing (Wood and Wood, 1997: 8587).
This revolutionary Leveller logic was taken on by the Diggers, so
called because of their ambitions to dig up the legal and physical re-
strictions imposed by the new enclosures. The Diggers’ radicality was
driven by its different constituency: not small artisans but the working
people. The Digger position was that there could be no liberty without the
destruction of property: liberty and property were incompatible as labour
was based on exploitation and domination of one man by another. Labour
and its oppositions were, therefore, the basis of conflict, crime and even sin
itself. The Diggers argued that as it was the labour of the working people
that constituted property, it should be the working people who would
abolish it (Wood and Wood, 1997: 8790). The Diggers’ proposal was
undermined by the collapse of the revolution into Cromwell’s Common-
wealth and the reactionary Restoration project.
The first systematic account of the significance of labour was present-
ed by John Locke at the end of the seventeenth century. Locke’s work was
an attempt to justify a political system beyond absolute authority that was
based on the nascent social relations of productive improvement and profit-
ability. Locke’s system was grounded in the radical formulations of the
Levellers and Diggers, but he put them to very different uses. For Locke
and the developing new science of political economy, the purpose was not
From Here to Utopia 19
to overthrow the new society based on the rule of parliament rather than
the king but to legitimise it, regularise it and to make it work (Wood and
Wood, 1997: 115119). For Locke the rights of labour were not based on
common ownership by virtue of self-propriety, i.e. ‘living and breathing’;
but, rather, that labour had an inalienable right to the objects that it pro-
Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men yet every
man has property in his own person. This no Body has any Right to but him-
self. The Labour of his Body and the Work of his Hands, we may say are
properly his (Locke II.27, quoted by Wood and Wood 1997: 124).
The importance of this formulation is that labour now becomes the ba-
sis of private property, however, this did not resolve the obvious
inequalities and social distress caused by this justification. While Locke
argued that property must be put to productive use in such a way that no
man must accumulate more than he consumes, nor must he consume so
much that he damages the interests of others, he managed to provide a
justification for growing social inequality through the way in which he
formulated his theory of money and value (Wood and Wood, 1997: 124).
Money, he argued, allowed for vast accumulation without spoilage or
wastage as gold money keeps indefinitely. Money provides a motivation
for productive improvement which also means that less land can support
more people. As a result of the existence of money, people can live without
any property at all because they exchange their labour for a wage. Money,
in the form of the wage, also gives man the right to property which may be
produced by the labour of others (Wood and Wood, 1997: 125). And, what
is more, by taking part in this process, men agree to the social consequenc-
es which this arrangement of work generated: ‘the disproportionate and
unequal Possession of the Earth’ (Locke II.50, quoted by Wood and Wood,
1997: 125).
If money provided the rationalisation for the existence of private prop-
erty, value provided its justification. For Locke labour was not only the
source of property, it was also the basis of value: ‘’tis labour indeed that
puts the difference of value on everything’ (II.40 idem, ant.: 131). His
theory of value is no side issue, indeed, his previous argument depends on
it. The main reason to justify private possession over common ownership is
that private ownership leads to the rapid improvement of land through the
productive employment of labour. The way in which Locke connected
labour with improvement and productivity made him the first thinker to
20 The Labour Debate
construct a methodical analysis of the basis of emergent capitalist social
relations. And, what is more, that value is a product not simply of market
exchange relations but a measure created in the process of production
(Wood and Wood, 1997: 132).
Although Locke’s position was well suited to the developing condi-
tions of agrarian capitalism, his theory of value remained undeveloped. Part
of this undevelopment is that, while Locke recognised the significance of
the production process in establishing value, he still wanted to maintain the
importance of exchange relations in the production of value. However, the
importance of exchange in producing value diminished for political econ-
omy as the real material conditions deepened. This became recognised in
the work of William Petty’s (16231687) who is widely recognised as ‘the
father of the labour theory of value’ (Kay and Mott, 1982: 87).
For Petty, ‘natural priceor value was not the result of the process of
circulation, but the result of intrinsic factors within the process of produc-
tion itself. Petty argued that the magnitude of a products’ value depends on
the quantity of labour expended in this process (Rubin, 1989: 70). He found
the source of value, including the value of money, in the quantity of labour
expended on its production. And what is more, value was not the result of
individual labour, but labour in general: as a relatively homogenous and
undifferentiated commodity. This was not just a technical exposition, but
according to Petty, a society effect based on the social division of labour
(Meek, 1979: 39).
The point and purpose of political economy at this time was not simply
to formulate an economic theory of value, but also, in order to ensure a
ready supply of cheap labour, a political justification to maintain a popula-
tion in poverty and the socio-political institutions to discipline it. The
conclusion to be drawn from this is that labouring society, i.e. population,
was itself a form of wealth: ‘People are…the chiefest, most fundamental
and precious commodity’ (Petty, quoted by Kay and Mott, 1982: 87). This
formulation was epitomised in the work of Bernard Mandeville, who pro-
vided the first systematic account of this idea:
In a Free Nation where slaves are not allow’d of…the surest wealth consists
in a multitude of Laborious Poor…without them there could be no enjoyment,
and no Product of any Country could be valuable (Mandeville, quoted in Kay
and Mott, 1982: 87).
The way to maintain that wealth was to keep the population in a condition
of poverty:
From Here to Utopia 21
By Society I understand a Body Politic, in which Man is become a Disci-
plined Creature, that can find his own Ends in Labouring for others, and
where under one Head or other Form of Government each Member is ren-
dered Subservient to the Whole (Mandeville, quoted in Meek, 1979: 3940).
What is important about the above is that, for the first time, value is
presented as a mass of congealed or crystallised social effort (Meek, 1979:
41). The significance of this is the link that is being made between the
production of commodities and the particular form of interdependence that
this is based on, and the social relations which are derived out of it (Meek,
1979: 42). Value is contributed through the medium of the expenditure of
labour itself and the organisation of society in that direction; or, value
becomes that which is recognised from the point of view of society as a
whole. Value is indeed the construction of society in its totality or a par-
ticular form of society. But to give an account of the source of value is not
to explain how to determine its quantity or measure (Meek, 1979: 44).
The problem of how to measure value-forms the central problematic
for Adam Smith’s materialist theory of society, which was based on an
analysis of labouring activity or ‘modes of subsistence’: ‘the understand-
ings of the greater part of men are formed by their ordinary employment’
(Smith, quoted by Clarke, 1991a: 22). For Smith each mode corresponded
to a particular division of labour that determined a particular type of socie-
ty: hunting, pasturage, agricultural and commercial. Each mode represented
a progressive process of social differentiation facilitated through the free
exchange of the market by which self-interest flourished in an increasingly
expansive division of labour (Clarke, 1991a: 25). This virtuous circle was
made possible by the proper organisation of that division which not only
made for a process of political, intellectual, and moral social progress, but
also for increasing prosperity by distributing the revenues among the social
classes (Clarke, 1991a: 24).
Smith’s great intellectual achievement was the way in which his analy-
sis of distribution allowed him to differentiate between the various interests
of society. He did this, not by reference to any natural law or personal
status, but in terms of the contribution made by the various interests to the
effective operation of the new commercial society (Clarke, 1991a: 31). For
Smith there were three classes: Landowners, Wage-Labourers and Capital-
ists, each of which was defined by a particular factor of production
corresponding to particular revenues: rent, wage and profit. The important
point for Smith was that it was the sum of these revenues that made up the
value of a commodity.
22 The Labour Debate
Smith argued that in early forms of society value was the amount of
labour embodied in a commodity; but in capitalist society this was no
longer the case as the full share of the value did not go to the direct produc-
er. For Smith, in the new society, new rules applied: the value of a
commodity was a function of production costs. Each interest contributed to
the production of value and was entitled to its share in a collaborative,
collective and mutually enforcing process within which the value of labour
was not embodied value, but the amount of labour that the price of a com-
modity could command. The general consensus among critical
commentators is that Smith’s labour theory of value was confused (Clarke,
1991a: 31; Kay and Mott, 1982: 47; Meek, 1979: 78; Rubin, 1989: 208
216) and that his attempt to measure value ended in failure. For example,
his production cost theory is tautological because the relative nature of his
equation is not grounded in any determining social matrix. And thus Smith
does not overcome the problematic: the basis of just price in a non-absolute
world, identified at the beginning of this section .
And yet Smith’s work is still of very significant importance. Although
his conceptualisation of labour and its relationship to value is confused, his
work provides the first basis for a materialist political sociology. The
importance of Smith’s work is that it concentrates on the social relations of
man as part of a society of mankind and not merely as an individual: in the
nature of the development of civil society (Meek, 1979: 43): ‘It is through
his theory of class that Smith opened up the possibility of a systematic
social science’ (Clarke, 1991a: 33). However, Smith’s system ran into
problems when his ‘classes’ began to engage in political activity that could
not be resolved by reference to the kind of society (ideal) to which his
model alluded (Clarke, 1991a: 39).
Smith’s work pointed to a mutually beneficial social system, however,
it was undermined by the development of social conflict, which revealed its
theoretical weaknesses. The significance of labour, although recognised
and then denied through his theory of production costs, was undermined
when the power of labour began to reassert itself in struggles for democrat-
ic reform and against the Corn Laws, during a period of recession
following the end of the French wars and the fear of revolution. What was
needed by capitalist self-interest was a theory to ensure continuing accumu-
lation and an equitable and justifiable system of distribution in a process of
expanding capitalist production (Clarke, 1991a: 31). Thus the question
becomes what was ‘the proper organisation of society, the relationship
From Here to Utopia 23
between classes and its constitutional, political and economic consequenc-
es’ (Clarke, 1991a: 40; Meek ,1979: 8485).
A Theory of Social Form
An attempt to provide a more grounded theory of value is found in the
work of David Ricardo. Where Ricardo differed from Smith was that the
former argued that value was the result of the amount of labour embodied
in a commodity, thus rejecting Smith’s theory of production costs. Ricardo
argued that, rather than value being the accumulation of the costs of the
various factors of production, the situation was reversed, i.e. costs, wages
and profit (rent was an independent factor based on differential fertility
rates of land) were aspects of value itself (Clarke, 1991a: 4144; Meek,
1979: 97105; Rubin, 1989: 249266). Whilst Smith argued against an
embodied labour theory of value in favour of a theory of production costs,
Ricardo then provides a different solution. For him revenues were not the
source of value as they were for Smith, but were component parts of the
totality of value that was produced by accumulated labour (machines), and
embodied labour. Profit was what was left after the deduction of rent and
wages, whereby wages were determined by the amount of value needed to
maintain subsistence of the workers (Clarke, 1991a:42). Value was, there-
fore, both absolute and relative at the same time (Meek, 1979: 110120).
This formulation began to get to the problem of the relationship be-
tween the absolute and the relative measure of value. This connection
between the relative and the absolute introduced a very different methodo-
logical way of thinking about the social world. Whereas Smith works from
observable empirical phenomena, Ricardo was looking behind the obvious
processes of social reality to what lay underneath. In this way, Ricardo was
concerned with the social content out of which revenues were accrued as
apparently independent phenomena. Or in other words, Ricardo was invent-
ing a theory of social form. As we shall see, this caused him some serious
problems later on when observable empirical phenomena did not complete-
ly match with his theoretical formulations (Meek, 1979: 118; Rubin, 1989:
244). For Ricardo, the fact that there was a discrepancy between the
amount paid to labour and the embodied theory of value did not mean that
there was a conflict of interest. As a land-owning bourgeois, it was the
natural condition of the working class to be subordinated to the capitalist
whose profit is reward for the risks they take (Clarke, 1991a: 4445; Rubin,
1989: 244).
24 The Labour Debate
The critique of capitalism based on the moral entitlement of labour had
yet to be written. What is obvious. of course, about Ricardo’s theory is that
it can be used as a basis to show that labour did not get its full entitlement.
In a period in which labour was developing a particular movement to claim
its just reward, Ricardo’s labour theory of value was abandoned by those
who aimed to deny labour the fruit of its effort (Clarke 1991a: 48). This
retreat from the labour theory of value was enabled by other weaknesses
within the work. While Ricardo pointed to the underlying reality of capital-
ist society, it did not completely accord with empirical reality. For example,
it was obvious that value was not produced simply by embodied labour. If
this was the situation then the capitalist who employed the most workers
and the least machinery would make the most profit (Clarke, 1991a: 47;
Rubin, 1989: 255266). However, this was not the case as profit was based
on the amount of capital employed. This forced Ricardo to introduce a
number of exceptions to his rule based on amounts of fixed capital used
and turnover times (Clarke 1991a: 478). While Ricardo did not think these
exceptions modified his rule in any significant way, in fact, they created the
space for political economy to focus once again on the contribution made to
the production of value by fixed capital and other subjective aspects. Thus
once again political economy moved back in the relativist direction of a
production theory of costs to overcome the contradictions in Ricardo’s
theory (Clarke, 1991a: 48; Meek, 1979: 121129; Rubin, 1989: 266).
The Great Evasion
And thus began the great retreat from labour and the advance of bourgeois
economics in which the power of labour was denied by an attempt to petri-
fy it into economic categories. This intellectual retreat was a result of the
political and economic threat of labour implied by Ricardo’s formulations,
and not any inherent strength in the new economistic theory:
If economics is indeed merely a new name for political economy, and if the
subject matter which was once covered under the heading of political econo-
my is now covered by economics then economics has replaced political
economy. However, if the subject matter of political economy is not the same
as that of economics, then the ‘replacement’ of political economy is actually
an omission of a field of knowledge. If economics answers different questions
from those raised by political economy, and if the omitted questions refer to
the form and the quality of human life within the dominant socio-economic
system, then this omission can be called a ‘great evasion’ (F. Perlman’s Intro-
duction 1968 in Rubin, 1990: ix).
From Here to Utopia 25
But the problem of labour would not go away.
The Avoidance of Labour
The intellectual history of the 20th century is the history of avoidance of
labour as a political category and its recreation as a sociological device
which denies its critical capacity. As a sociological category, labour has
been overwhelmed by the complexities of diverse social movements
(Moody, 1997; Touraine, 1974) and sophisticated systems of class stratifi-
cation (Wright, 1994), shamed by the disgraceful avoidance of gender and
disadvantaged minorities (Miles and Phizacklea, 1984); subsumed by the
multiple subjectivity and identities of post-modernism and post-
structuralism (Bauman 2000; Deleuze and Guattari, 1984; Gorz, 1982,
1999; Laclau and Moffe, 1984; Touraine, 1998); denied its global preten-
sions by the success of globalisation (Cohen and Kennedy, 2000);
recomposed through new forms of state regulation (Jessop, 1990) and
abandoned in the search for accountability through the extension of demo-
cratic conventions in more civil societies (Held, 1998; Walzer, 1995). Even
in the discipline for which labour is the main object of enquiry, i.e. labour
studies, labour has ‘become nothing other than an intellectually pretentious
way of saying work’ (Nichols, 1992: 10).
The subject of labour is also problematic within Marxism. While la-
bour is supposed to be the central issue, the problem of what constitutes
labour and what labour constitutes is far from being resolved. For the
purpose of this exposition we want to argue that contemporary Marxist
analyses of labour can be characterised in two particular ways. On the one
hand, traditional Marxism regards labour as the unmediated victim of
exploitation and, as such, the unproblematic concrete subject of revolution,
rhetorically defined as ‘Workers of the world unite!’ On the other hand,
post-modernist Marxism discards the concrete quality of labour in favour of
its more abstract potentialities, rhetorically defined as ‘labour as de-
sire…the form giving fire’ (Grundrisse), with neither position giving any
ground to the other. For post-modernist Marxism, traditional Marxism is
productivist and labourist, and with its narrow focus on workplace relations
is unable to comprehend dramatic new forms of social antagonism that
occur outside the workplace. The problem with this approach is that it takes
Marx too literally, it is too empirical, too real. For traditional Marxism,
post-modernist Marxism is more science fiction than social science. The
26 The Labour Debate
notion of human emancipation avoids the significance of the concrete
forms of exploitation as the central site of class struggle. The problem for
the traditionalists is that post-modernist Marxism is too abstract, it is not
empirical enough, it is an avoidance of reality (Neary, 1999).
The Labour Debate
The purpose of this book is not to deny either the concrete or abstract
quality of labour that characterises the Marxist debate, nor is it an attempt
to resolve this dispute. Instead, we want to contravene the concreteabstract
dichotomy by focusing on labour as the expansive relation between its
concrete and abstract nature. In other words, to examine labour as a real
The inspiration for the Labour Debate is derived from four main
sources. Firstly, the historical attempt by the working class to gain recogni-
tion in and against and beyond its capitalist form of existence. Secondly,
the intellectual effort, since Thomas More’s Utopia, to understand labour as
a significant process that produces individuals and society. Thirdly, the
attempt by contemporary critical political economy to provide a Marxist
critique of political economy. Finally, the debate about labour that emerged
since the 1970s out of a materialist critique of capitalist categories (labour,
value, money, capital and the state). This debate was encapsulated within
the Conference of the Socialist Economists (CSE), the journal Capital and
Class in England, the journal Common Sense in Scotland, and exemplified
in the publication of The State Debate (Clarke, 1991b), and reflected
through the work of, among others, Tronti, Negri and the Autonomist
movement in Italy. These inspirations provide the real bases on which to
formulate our critical recovery of the Utopian project.
More particularly, our Labour Debate began in 1996 as a series of in-
formal discussions and seminars with colleagues and students within the
Centre for Comparative Labour Studies (CCLS) and the Centre for Social
Theory, at Warwick University. These informal discussions culminated in
the Conference ‘The Labour Debate: the Theory and Reality of Labour in a
World of Increasing Unemployment and Poverty’, which took place at
Warwick in February 1999. The purpose of the conference was to open our
debates to a deeper and wider participation. The CCLS embraced the con-
ference as being part of its historical interest in broadening ‘the agenda of
debate beyond narrow institutionalist understandings of “industrial rela-
From Here to Utopia 27
tions” and “labour movements” whether they be represented by the dilem-
mas and challenges facing workers and their organisations beyond the
workplace’ (Elger, 24.2.99, welcoming remarks to the conference). What
follows in this book are chapters which were either given as papers to this
conference or have formed part of the ongoing discussions ever since.
In the opening chapter John Holloway and Simon Clarke set the pa-
rameters of the debate. Holloway asks the profound question that is central
to the labour debate: Who are we? In asking this question he denies the
possibility that human sociability is an established fact. The struggle over
who and what we are forms the basis for his theory of revolution. Surpris-
ingly, and against all the tenets of orthodox Marxism, he approaches the
problem not by affirming the subject of the debate, i.e. the working class,
but rather by arguing for its abolition. And, what is more, he claims justifi-
cation for this apparent heresy in the work of Marx himself. By utilising
Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism Holloway argues that through
fetishisation, the process by which the subject is separated from the object
of its productive capacity, humanity is transformed from the condition of
creativity into the classification of labour as the working class. This process
produces a violent and unresolved tension through which humanity is
constituted into competing classes, i.e. labour and capital, who participate
in the separation of subject and object and struggle against this imposition.
Holloway argues that it is through the struggle against what capital makes
us (classification) that a new form of identity, or non-identity against the
process of fetishisation, is possible. By identifying the link between the
constitution of humanity and the specific form of its existence, Holloway
claims to provide both the material basis out of which all forms of social
antagonism are derived, and the logic for capitalism’s continuing instabil-
ity. By deconstructing the category of labour to reveal ‘doing’ as the source
of human inspiration, Holloway attempts to reveal the motive power which
lies behind all progressive social movements.
Clarke agrees with Holloway that labour is an active subject of the re-
production of capitalist social relations and the actual or potential agent of
the transformation of those social relations and even of the transformation
of society itself. Clarke also agrees that any democratic socialist politics
that does not take the actually existing subjectivity of the working class as
its starting point is bound to be self-defeating. Therefore, for Clarke as for
Holloway, the working class is not simply a passive object of capitalist
exploitation. However, unlike Holloway, for Clarke, the starting point of
Marx’s work on labour is not creativity but social labour, that is the produc-
28 The Labour Debate
tive activity through which society is reproduced. Class conflict emerges
from the separation of the labourer from the means of production and her
subsistence. This is the presupposition and a constantly repeated result of
the reproduction of generalised commodity capitalist production. Class
conflict takes on concrete forms depending on the specific nature of the
capital labour relation. Clarke argues for a concrete account of labour
developed out of a close textual reading of Marx’s theories of a specific
and more general commodity fetishism. Through the theory of commodity
fetishism labour is reduced to the state of an object and forced to exist
through a world of things. From this interpretation, the only real movement
that can progressively transform society is the self-organisation of the
direct producers based on the concrete experience of the working class. At
that point for Clarke, the most secure form of conflict is based on trade
union organisation around the struggles over the terms and conditions of
wage-labour. The role of intellectuals in this process is to supplement the
resources of labour through developing a critique of political economy.
In chapter 2, Werner Bonefeld argues that the concept of class is the
most important and contested idea in the Marxist tradition. Bonefeld first
assesses and then draws out the political implications of existing Marxist
approaches to class through the lenses of the Frankfurt School, and, in
particular, through the analytical perspective of Adorno’s and Horkheim-
er’s work. This assessment shows that orthodox conceptions of class fail
theoretically and that their political implications are flawed. The second
part of the chapter focuses on the original texts of Marx and shows that
Marx’s concept of class was a critical and not, as orthodox accounts claim,
an affirmative concept. The chapter thus provides a critique of the category
‘working class’ as a fetishism. This critique is developed through a close
reading of Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, which for Bonefeld
is permanently reproduced and is, therefore, the defining moment of capi-
talist class relations. The chapter aims to emphasise human practice, with
no hidden attempt to introduce a Marxist ontology. Instead, Bonefeld aims
to disavow the bourgeois concepts of humanity and rationality by establish-
ing a critique of fetishism which reveals that the constituted forms of
capital relations, e.g. the working class, are, in fact, the forms in and
through which human practice exists.
In chapter 3, Graham Taylor explores the material determinants of
consciousness and the way that the mediation of social reality through the
contradictory form of labour in capitalism has emerged. He argues that this
has resulted in the partial and mystificatory forms of consciousness associ-
From Here to Utopia 29
ated with both Marxist and bourgeois philosophy and everyday ‘common
sense’ conceptualisations of reality. The chapter thus sets out to rethink the
relationship between labour and subjectivity and the contradictory nature of
consciousness in capitalist society. It begins by elaborating a critique of
materialist analyses of the subjectivity and consciousness of labour; high-
lighting the limitations of both structuralist and orthodox Marxism and the
labour process approach. Taylor argues that these approaches are inherently
idealist and based on an essentialist ontology of labour and are thus incon-
sistent with Marx’s own approach which stressed the historically
contingent nature of abstract consciousness and the social origins of the gap
between perception and reality. The work of Marx and later critical Marx-
ists on subjectivity and consciousness is explored further in the following
section which elaborates the linkages between labour and subjectivity
through an analysis of the way the contradictory and dual determination of
labour in capitalism necessarily results in a contradictory and dual natured
reality. The final section applies this understanding of labour and subjectiv-
ity to an analysis of how we might analyse recent changes in the nature of
subjectivity and consciousness that have emerged as part of the neo-liberal
restructuring of the capital relation over the past two decades. Taylor ar-
gues that effective anti-capitalist social movement politics needs to
recognise the material dynamics underpinning the fragmentation of con-
sciousness and action, and build a totality of difference in order to
overcome both the post-modern celebration of fragmentation and the spuri-
ous universalism of modernism.
In chapter 4, Massimo De Angelis argues that the realm of capitalist
work has increased rather than declined. He explains this increase through
the notion of abstract labour which he takes from Marx’s formulation in
Capital, vol. 1: ‘human labour-power expended without regard to the form
of its expenditure’. For De Angelis, abstract labour is not just work in
factories but includes both wage and unwaged forms. What is distinctive
about De Angelis’s formulation is that both of these situations are sites of
class struggle and that the imposition of capitalist work in the form of
abstract labour must take place within a strategic framework. De Angelis
develops this notion of a strategic framework through an elaboration of two
apparently opposed systems: Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, i.e. ‘a closed
system clearly limited in space’, and the market order conceptualised by
Friedrich Hayek defined as that which ‘spans over the social field without
inherent limit’. De Angelis finds striking similarities between these two
systems, which he uses to provide a ‘fusion’ within which to construct a
30 The Labour Debate
framework for the analysis of capitalist work. By means of exploring the
complementarities between Hayek’s and Bentham’s systems, De Angelis
constructs a ‘fractal panopticon’, i.e. a mechanism to extract labour from
the entirety of the social field. De Angelis shows how recent trends in the
global economy can be thought of in terms of the ‘fractal panopticon’ and
how the ‘fractal panopticon’ is itself rooted in class struggle. De Angelis
concludes with an exploration of the possible subjectivity beyond the
confines of the strategic framework that generates abstract labour.
In chapter 5, Harry Cleaver claims that work is still the organising
principle in people’s lives and the central issue in social conflict. However,
he is worried about the category of labour in an era of high rates of unem-
ployment and the intensification of work. Cleaver argues against the
orthodox Marxist generic and trans-historical interpretations of labour
which attempt to construct a theory of revolution by projecting labour
retrospectively back into the past and forward into the future. This categor-
ical affirmation of labour is, according to Cleaver, a violation of Marx’s
own method as set out clearly in the introduction to the Grundrisse. Fol-
lowing Marx’s theory of determinate abstraction, labour is not a principle
of emancipation; but is, rather, a capitalist category. Labour is the organis-
ing principle that capitalists use to impose their command over society.
Labour emerges only in capitalism and is, therefore, no basis on which to
propose progressive social practices. While Marx’s categories are appropri-
ate as a way of understanding the forces ranged against us, they are not
adequate in terms of thinking about the future. In order to do that, Cleaver
argues that we should recognise exteriority, to develop new languages for
new worlds. As an example of thinking exteriority, Cleaver refers to the
ecology movements, the Zapatistas and the ‘Global People’s Action’
against the World Trade Organisation. In this, Cleaver recognises a move
away from new social movement and identity politics of post-modernism
into a grassroots power to confront the global power of capital. This mov-
ing forward to a direct confrontation with capital leads back to an interest
in Marx’s work, the only body of theory providing a critique that clearly
spells out the nature of capitalist exploitation.
In chapter 6, Michael Neary presents an overview of recent theoretical
developments in writing about progressive activities within the labour
movement. He does this through an examination of some of the main
literature that supports the possibility of an alignment between the labour
movement and new social movements, referred to in the literature as social
movement unionism (Kelly, 1999; Moody, 1997; Waterman, 1999). Neary
From Here to Utopia 31
argues that advocates of new social movement unionism, who claim a
synthetic appreciation of the possible progressive connections between
labour and other social movements, and its more orthodox Marxist critics
such as Ellen Meiksins Woods (1998) who are opposed to such a connec-
tion, are both disabled by their attachment to a concrete understanding of
labour. On the one hand, for advocates of social movement unionism not
only is the connection between the labour movement and other social
movements under-theorised, but the centrality of labour as a progressive
social subject becomes untenable. On the other hand, the orthodox Marx-
ists' dogmatic insistence on the concrete significance of labour undermines
the importance of other forms of social antagonism, and is increasingly
unconvincing in a world of mass poverty and unemployment. Working
from Marx’s formulations on the labour theory of value and, in particular,
through a recognition of Marx’s important, although much ignored formu-
lations about the dual character of labour, Neary argues that labour is not
simply a concrete phenomenon, but, rather, exists as a social form derived
from the relation between concrete and abstract social processes. Labour,
for Neary, is a problem to be addressed rather than the solution to the
problems of capitalist society on its own or in connection with other social
movements. In this way, Neary is able to maintain the centrality of the
concept and reality of labour for Marxist studies while, at the same time,
recognise and theorise the significance of other forms of progressive social
antagonism that are not detached phenomena to which labour must ally
itself, but which are themselves derived out of the imposition of capitalist
work. He illustrates this argument by reference to his recent research in
South Korea.
In chapter 7, Glenn Rikowski attempts to recover a revolutionary ped-
agogic practice by revealing the importance of capitalist education and
training for recreating the value-form of capital. Based on a critical inter-
pretation of the work of Postone (1993) and utilising in particular
Postone’s concept of ‘the social universe of capital’ Rikowski provides a
theoretical exposition of the significance of the reproduction of labour in
the process of capitalist production. Rikowski argues that an essential
aspect of this process are the overwhelming educational and training proce-
dures by which labour-power, or, as he calls it, ‘human capital in the form
of personhood’, is constituted. ‘Personhood’ involves much more than the
construction of job-skills: it is, rather, a much wider aggregation of mental
and physical capabilities, existing as a unified dehumanising life-force or
alienated vitality within the capitalist worker. Rikowski attempts to estab-
32 The Labour Debate
lish the theoretical bases for a politics of human resistance that does not
foreclose the meaning and substance of what it means to be human. All of
this is based on his transformative pedagogy that forms part of a wider
project of socialist transformation. This chapter builds on other writing
done by Rikowski, including a critical review of recent global anti-
capitalist protests (Rikowski, 2001) and work done in conjunction with
other radical educators including Paula Allman (2001) and Peter McLaren
In chapter 8, Ana C. Dinerstein explores Marx’s method of determi-
nate abstraction and its ability to grasp the transformation of the
subjectivity of labour, by looking at the particular case of unemployment.
Her main critical position is to examine unemployment as a form of labour
within which human life is apparently overwhelmed by the capitalist pro-
cess of real subsumption. Going beyond the formulation that the state,
money and the law are real illusions (forms) which mediate the capital
relation (Clarke. 1991b; Holloway and Picciotto, [1977] 1991), Dinerstein
argues that subjectivity of labour is a transient and contradictory form of
being, constituted in and through class struggle. Subjectivity does not
emerge alongside, against, or as an effect of state action or the imposition
of money, but it constitutes the site of conjunction of the concrete and
abstract aspects of the capital relation within the subject. By contesting the
dominant assumption that unemployment means the lack of work and
exclusion from the labour market, Dinerstein argues that unemployment is,
rather, a form of labour produced by the intensification and expansion of
capitalist work. Whilst the form ‘unemployed labour’ is defined by the non-
participation of the unemployed in the productive process, i.e. the unem-
ployed cannot sell their labour-power, the condition of labour under capital
implies also that the unemployed cannot free themselves from their com-
modified form of existence. This is not an economic fact, defined by a lack
of money or job, but a form of political repression experienced as a particu-
lar form of life. However, while labour is really subsumed and becomes
‘invisible’ through its non-participation in the labour process, Dinerstein
means to show how the subjectivity of unemployment (the unrealised) is
still a barrier for the expansion of capital. In order to make the subjectivity
of the unemployed visible Dinerstein extends Marx’s formula for the repro-
duction of capital C – M C/M C M! and its crisis and recomposition in
its money form, i.e. M M!, with her own equation that highlights the
critical subjectivity of labour: M α; β; γ; δ M!, where α, β, γ and δ
portray the contradictory forms of existence (subjectivity) produced within
From Here to Utopia 33
the process of valorisation of capital. This argument is illustrated with the
exposition of the struggles organised by the unemployed, workers and
entire communities in Argentina since the 1990s, struggles which take the
dramatic and novel form of blocking the roads. She argues that the road-
block is produced by the neo-liberal policies of stability and constitutes a
new form of resistance in and against the virtual disappearance of labour
entailed in unemployment and poverty.
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tionary Critical Education, Bergin & Garvey, Westport, Conneticut and London.
Bauman, Z. (2000), Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge.
Bonefeld, W. and J. Holloway (eds) (1996), Global Capital, National State and the Politics
of Money, Macmillan, London.
Bonefeld, W. and K. Psychopedis (eds) (2000), The Politics of Change. Globalisation,
Ideology and Critique, Palgrave, Basingstoke and New York.
Callinicos, A. (1999) ‘Social Theory. Put the Test of Politics. Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony
Giddens’, New Left Review, no. 236, London.
Clarke, S. (1988), Keynesianism, Monetarism and the Crisis of the State, Edward Elgar,
Clarke, S. (1991a), Marx, Marginalism & Modern Sociology. From Adam Smith to Max
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1 What Labour Debate?
1.1 Class and Classification:
Against, In and Beyond
This paper explores a simple question: if fetishism is understood as a
process of fetishisation, what are the implications for the concept of class?
Fetishism and Fetishisation
The distinction between fetishism and fetishisation is crucial for a discus-
sion of Marxist theory. It is the difference between seeing the world in
terms of domination and seeing it in terms of struggle.
Marx’s discussion of fetishism is at the centre of his whole theory. It is
at once a criticism of what is wrong with capitalism, a critique of bourgeois
thought and a theory of how capitalism reproduces itself. It points at once
to the dehumanisation of people, to our own complicity in the reproduction
of power, and to the difficulty (or apparent impossibility) of revolution.
The theme of dehumanisation is constantly present in Marx’s discus-
sion of fetishism in Capital and elsewhere. In capitalism there is an
inversion of the relation between people and things, between subject and
object. There is an objectification of the subject and a subjectification of
the object: things (money, capital, machines) become the subjects of socie-
ty, people (workers) become the objects. Social relations are not just
apparently but really relations between things (between money and the
state, between your money and mine), while humans are deprived of their
sociality, transformed into ‘individuals’, the necessary complement of
commodity exchange: ‘In order that this alienation be reciprocal, it is only
necessary for men, by a tacit understanding, to treat each other as private
owners, and by implication as independent individuals’ (Marx, 1965: 87).
What Labour Debate? 37
In the long and detailed discussion of conditions in the factory and the
process of exploitation, the emphasis is constantly on the inversion of
subject and object:
Every kind of capitalist production, in so far as it is not only a labour-process,
but also a process of creating surplus-value, has this in common, that it is not
the workman who employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of
labour that employ the workman. But it is only in the factory system that this
inversion for the first time acquires technical and palpable reality’ (Marx,
1965: 423).
It is not only for the physical misery that it brings, but above all for the
inversion of things and people that Marx condemns capitalism: for the
fetishisation of social relations in other words.
Inextricably linked with the condemnation of the inversion of subject
and object in bourgeois society is the critique of bourgeois theory which
takes this inversion for granted, which bases its categories on the fetishised
forms of social relations: the state, money, capital, the individual, profit,
wages, rent and so on. These categories are derived from the surface of
society, the sphere of circulation, in which the subjectivity of the subject as
producer is completely out of sight and all that can be seen is the interac-
tion of things and of the individuals who are the bearers of these things. It
is here, where social subjectivity is hidden from view, that liberal theory
blooms. This sphere of circulation is ‘a very Eden of the innate rights of
man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham’ (Marx,
1965: 176). The whole three volumes of Capital are devoted to a critique of
political economy, that is, to showing how the conceptions of political
economy arise from the fetishised appearances of social relations. Political
economy (and bourgeois theory in general) takes for granted the forms in
which social relations exist (commodity-form, value-form, money-form,
capital-form and so on). In other words, bourgeois theory is blind to the
question of form: commodities and money (and so on) are not even thought
of as being forms, or modes of existence, of social relations. Bourgeois
theory is blind to the transitory nature of the current forms of social rela-
tions, takes for granted the basic unchangeability of capitalist social
Bourgeois thought, however, is not just the thought of the bourgeoisie,
or of capitalism’s active supporters. It refers rather to the forms of thought
generated by the fractured relation between doing and done (subject and
object) in capitalist society. It is important to see that the critique of bour-
geois theory is not just a critique of ‘them’. It is also, and perhaps above all,
38 The Labour Debate
a critique of ‘us’, of the bourgeois nature of our own assumptions and
categories, or, more concretely, a critique of our own complicity in the
reproduction of capitalist power relations. The critique of bourgeois
thought is the critique of the separation of subject and object in our own
The fetishism which is so highly elaborated in the work of the political
economists and other bourgeois theorists is equally the basis of everyday
‘common-sense’ conceptions in capitalist society. The assumption of the
permanence of capitalism is built into the daily thought and practice of
people in this society. The appearance and real existence of social relations
as fragmented relations between things conceal both the basic antagonism
of those relations and the possibility of changing the world. The concept of
fetishism (rather than any theory of ‘ideology’ or ‘hegemony’) thus pro-
vides the basis for an answer to the age-old question, ‘why do people
accept the misery, violence and exploitation of capitalism?’ By pointing to
the way in which people not only accept the miseries of capitalism but also
actively participate in its reproduction, the concept of fetishism also under-
lines the difficulty or apparent impossibility of revolution against
Fetishism is the central theoretical problem confronted by any theory
of revolution. Revolutionary thought and practice is necessarily anti-
fetishistic. Any thought or practice which aims at the emancipation of
humanity from the dehumanisation of capitalism is necessarily directed
against fetishism.
There are, however, two different ways of understanding fetishism,
which we can refer to as ‘hard fetishism’ on the one hand, and ‘fetishisa-
tion-as-process’, on the other. The former understands fetishism as an
established fact, a stable or intensifying feature of capitalist society. The
latter understands fetishisation as a continuous struggle, always at issue.
The theoretical and political implications of the two approaches are very
The more common approach among those who have emphasised the
concept of fetishism is the ‘hard fetishism’ approach. Fetishism is assumed
to be an accomplished fact. In a capitalist society, social relations really do
exist as relations between things. Relations between subjects really do exist
as relations between objects. Although people are, in their species-
characteristic, practical creative beings, they exist under capitalism as
objects, as dehumanised, as deprived of their subjectivity.
What Labour Debate? 39
The constitution or genesis of capitalist social relations is here under-
stood as a historical constitution, something that took place in the past.
Implicitly, a distinction is made between the origins of capitalism, when
capitalist social relations were established through struggle (what Marx
refers to as primitive or original accumulation), and the established capital-
ist mode of production, when capitalist social relations are in place. In the
latter phase, fetishism is assumed to be established in a stable condition. In
this view, the importance of Marx’s insistence on form is simply to show
the historicity of capitalist social relations. Within this historicity, within
the capitalist mode of production, fetishised social relations can be regard-
ed as basically stable. Thus, for example, the transition from feudalism to
capitalism involved a struggle to impose value relations, but it is assumed
that, once the transition has been accomplished, value is a stable form of
social relations. Value is seen as struggle only in relation to the transitional
period; after that it is regarded as simply domination, or as part of the laws
which determine the reproduction of capitalist society.
There is a central problem for those who understand fetishism as ac-
complished fact. If social relations are fetishised, how do we criticise them?
The hard understanding of fetishism implies that there is something special
about us, something that gives us a vantage point above the rest of society.
They are alienated, fetishised, reified, suffering from false consciousness,
we are able to see the world from the point of view of the totality, or true
consciousness, or superior understanding. Our criticism derives from our
special position or experience or intellectual abilities, which allow us to
understand how they (the masses) are dominated. We are implicitly an
intellectual elite, a vanguard of some sort. The only possible way of chang-
ing society is through our leadership of them, through our enlightening
them. If it is taken that social relations really are fetishised in this sense (if
fetishism is seen as an established fact), then Marxist theory and practice
become elitist: we, the enlightened, think and act on behalf of the unen-
lightened. The idea of revolution as the self-emancipation of the workers
then becomes nonsensical, as Lenin quite logically pointed out.
The second approach, what we called the ‘fetishisation-as-process’ ap-
proach, maintains that there is nothing special about our criticism of
capitalism. As theorists or Marxists, we occupy no privileged position
above the throng, but simply have a peculiar way of articulating our partic-
ipation in the conflict in which all participate. If that is the starting point,
however, then there is no way that fetishism can be understood as ‘hard
fetishism’. If fetishism were an accomplished fact, if capitalism were
40 The Labour Debate
characterised by the total objectification of the subject, then there is no way
that we could criticise fetishism.
The fact that we criticise points to the contradictory nature of fetishism
(and therefore also to the contradictory nature of our selves), and gives
evidence of the present existence of anti-fetishism. The point is made by
Ernst Bloch:
Alienation could not even be seen, and condemned of robbing people of their
freedom and depriving the world of its soul, if there did not exist some meas-
ure of its opposite, of that possible coming-to-oneself, being-with-oneself,
against which alienation can be measured (Bloch, 1964: 113).
The concept of alienation, or fetishism, in other words, implies its opposite:
not as essential non-alienated ‘home’ deep in our hearts, but as resistance,
refusal, rejection of alienation in our daily practice. It is only on the basis of
a concept of anti-alienation or anti-fetishism that we can conceive of al-
ienation or fetishism. If fetishism and anti-fetishism coexist, then it can
only be as antagonistic processes. Fetishism is a process of fetishisation, a
process of separating subject and object, always in antagonism to the op-
posing movement of anti-fetishisation, the struggle to reunite subject and
Once fetishism is revealed as process of fetishisation, the hardness of
all categories dissolves and phenomena which appear as things or estab-
lished facts (such as commodity, value, money, the state) are revealed as
processes. The forms come to life. The categories are opened
to reveal that
their content is struggle.
Once fetishism is understood as fetishisation, then the genesis of the
capitalist forms of social relations is not of purely historical interest. The
value-form, money-form, capital-form, state-form etc. are not established
once and for all at the origins of capitalism. Rather, they are constantly at
issue, constantly questioned as forms of social relations, constantly being
established and re-established (or not) through struggle. The forms of social
relations are processes of forming social relations. Every time a small child
takes sweets from a shop without realising that money has to be given in
exchange for them, every time workers refuse to accept that the market
dictates that their place of work should be closed or jobs lost, every time
that the shopkeepers of o Paolo promote the killing of street children to
protect their property, every time that we lock our bicycles, cars or houses
value as a form of relating to one another is at issue, constantly the object
What Labour Debate? 41
of struggle, constantly in process of being disrupted, re-constituted and
disrupted again.
All of those apparently fixed phenomena which we often take for
granted (money, state, power: ‘they are there, always have been, always
will, that’s human nature, isn’t it?’) are now seen to be raging, bloody
battlefields. It is rather like taking a harmless speck of dust and looking at it
through a microscope to discover that the ‘harmlessness’ of the speck of
dust conceals a whole micro-world in which millions of microscopic organ-
isms live and die in the daily battle for existence. But in the case of money,
the invisibility of the battle it conceals has nothing to do with physical size,
it is the result rather of the concepts through which we look at it. The
banknote we hold in our hand seems a harmless thing, but look at it more
closely and we see a whole world of people fighting for survival, some
dedicating their lives to the pursuit of money, some (many) desperately
trying to get hold of money as a means of surviving another day, some
trying to evade money by taking what they want without paying for it or
setting up forms of production that do not go through the market and the
money-form, some killing for money, many each day dying for lack of
money. A bloody battlefield in which the fact that social relations exist in
the form of money brings untold misery, disease and death and is always at
issue, always contested, always imposed, often with violence. Money is a
raging battle of monetisation and anti-monetisation.
Seen from this perspective, money becomes monetisation, value valor-
isation, commodity commodification, capital capitalisation, power power-
isation, state statification, and so on (with ever uglier neologisms). Each
process implies its opposite. The monetisation of social relations makes
little sense unless it is seen as a constant movement against its opposite, the
creation of social relations on a non-monetary basis. Neoliberalism, for
example, can be seen as a drive to extend and intensify the monetisation of
social relations, a reaction in part to the loosening of that monetisation in
the post-war period and its crisis in the 1960s and 1970s. These forms of
social relations (commodity, value, money, capital and so on) are intercon-
nected, of course, all forms of the capitalist separation of subject and
object, but they are interconnected not as static, accomplished forms, but as
forms of living struggle. The existence of forms of social relations, in other
words, cannot be separated from their constitution. Their existence is their
constitution, a constantly renewed struggle against the forces that subvert
42 The Labour Debate
Fetishisation and Class
All that I take as a starting point. The question to be addressed here is what
implications this understanding of fetishisation as a process has for our
understanding of class.
Most discussions of class are based on the assumption that the fet-
ishised forms are pre-constituted. The relation between capital and labour
(or between capitalist and working class) is taken to be one of subordina-
tion. On this basis, understanding class struggle involves, firstly, defining
the working class and, secondly, studying whether and how they struggle.
In this approach, the working class, however defined, is defined on the
basis of its subordination to capital: it is because it is subordinated to capi-
tal (as wage workers, or as producers of surplus-value) that it is defined as
working class. Indeed it is only because the working class is assumed to be
pre-subordinated that the question of definition can even be posed. Defini-
tion merely adds the locks to a world that is assumed to be closed. Once
defined, the working class is then identified as a particular group of people,
who can then be made the object of study. For socialists, ‘working class’ is
then treated as a positive concept and working class identity as something
to be prized. There is, of course, the problem of what to do with those
people who do not fall within the definitions of working class or capitalist
class, but this is dealt with by a supplementary definitional discussion on
how to define these other people, whether as new petty bourgeoisie, salari-
at, middle class or whatever. This process of definition or class-ification is
the basis of endless discussions about class and non-class movements, class
and ‘other forms’ of struggle, ‘alliances’ between the working class and
other groups, and so on.
All sorts of problems spring from this definitional approach to class.
Firstly, there is the question of ‘belonging’. Do we who work in the univer-
sities ‘belong’ to the working class? Did Marx and Lenin? Are the rebels of
Chiapas part of the working class? Are feminists part of the working class?
Are those active in the gay movement part of the working class? In each
case, there is a concept of a pre-defined working class to which these
people do or do not belong.
A second consequence of defining class is the definition of struggles
that follows. From the classification of the people concerned there are
derived certain conclusions about the struggles in which they are involved.
Those who define the Zapatista rebels as being not part of the working
class draw from that certain conclusions about the nature and limitations of
What Labour Debate? 43
the uprising. From the definition of the class position of the participants
there follows a definition of their struggles: the definition of class defines
the antagonism that the definer perceives or accepts as valid. This leads to a
blinkering of the perception of social antagonism. In some cases, for exam-
ple, the definition of the working class as the urban proletariat directly
exploited in factories, combined with evidence of the decreasing proportion
of the population who fall within this definition, has led people to the
conclusion that class struggle is no longer relevant for understanding social
change. In other cases, the definition of the working class and therefore of
working class struggle in a certain way has led to an incapacity to relate to
the development of new forms of struggle (the student movement, femi-
nism, ecologism and so on).
Defining the working class constitutes them as a ‘they’. Even if we say
that we are part of the working class, we do so by stepping back from
ourselves and by classifying ourselves or the group to which we ‘belong’
(students, university lecturers and so on). On the basis of this definition, it
is possible to pose the question of their class consciousness and to study it.
What consciousness do they have of their class position and their class
interests? Is this consciousness what it ought to be? Is it a true conscious-
ness or a false or limited (trade union) consciousness? If, as is usually
argued, it is a false or limited consciousness, then the conclusion is usually
that the revolutionary transformation of society is impossible or that it must
be led from outside, by a Party or by intellectuals.
The fundamental problem is that if the working class is defined on the
basis of subordination and there is no other way of defining it then the
theoretical circle is closed: there is no way out except by complementing a
fictional objectivity with a fictional subjectivity.
If, on the other hand, we do not start from the assumption of the fet-
ishised character of social relations, if we assume that fetishisation is a
process and that existence is inseparable from constitution, then how does
this change our vision of class?
The argument in the first part of this paper would suggest that class,
like money, like state, like value, has to be understood as a process, as a
process of class-ification. Capitalism is the ever renewed generation of
class, the ever renewed class-ification of people. Marx makes this point
very clearly in his discussion of accumulation in Capital:
Capitalist production, therefore, under its aspect of a continuous connected
process, of a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not on-
44 The Labour Debate
ly surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capitalist relation: on
the one side the capitalist, on the other, the wage-labourer (Marx, 1965: 578).
In other words, the existence of classes and their constitution cannot be
separated: to say that classes exist is to say that they are in the process of
being constituted.
The constitution of class can be seen as the separation of subject and
object. Capitalism is the daily repeated violent separation of the object from
the subject, the daily snatching of the objectcreationproduct from the
subjectcreatorproducer, the daily seizure from the subject not only of her
creation but of her act of creation, her creativity, her subjectivity, her
humanity. The violence of this separation is not characteristic just of the
earliest period of capitalism: it is the core of capitalism. To put it in other
words, ‘primitive accumulation’ is not just a feature of a bygone period, it
is central to the existence of capitalism.
The violence with which the separation of subject and object, or the
class-ification of humanity, is carried out suggests that ‘reproduction’ is a
misleading word in so far as it conjures up an image of a smoothly repeated
process, something that goes around and around, whereas the violence of
capitalism suggests that the repetition of the production of capitalist social
relations is always very much at issue.
Class and Classification
The understanding of class as classification
has implications for all aspects
of the discussion of class.
(1) Class struggle is the struggle to class-ify and against being class-
ified at the same time as it is, indistinguishably, the struggle between
constituted classes.
More orthodox discussions of class struggle tend to assume that classes
are pre-constituted, that the subordination of labour to capital is pre-
established, and to start from there. In the approach suggested here the
conflict does not take place after subordination has been established, after
the fetishised forms of social relations have been constituted; rather, it is a
conflict about the subordination of social practice, about the fetishisation of
social relations. The conflict is the conflict between subordination and
insubordination, and it is this which allows us to speak of insubordination
(or ‘dignity’, to borrow the Zapatistas’ phrase) as a central feature of
capitalism. Class struggle does not take place within the constituted forms
What Labour Debate? 45
of capitalist social relations: rather the constitution of those forms is itself
class struggle. This leads to a much richer concept of class struggle in
which the whole of social practice is at issue. All social practice is an
unceasing antagonism between the subjection of practice to the fetishised,
perverted, defining forms of capitalism and the attempt to live against-and-
beyond those forms. There can thus be no question of the existence of non-
class forms of struggle. Class struggle, then, is the unceasing daily antago-
nism (whether it be perceived or not) between alienation and dis-alienation,
between definition and anti-definition, between fetishisation and de-
We do not struggle as working class, we struggle against being work-
ing class, against being classified. It is the unity of the process of
classification (the unity of capital accumulation) that gives unity to our
struggle, not our unity as members of a common class. Thus, for example,
it is the significance of the Zapatista struggle against capitalist classifica-
tion that gives it importance for class struggle, not the question of whether
the indigenous inhabitants of the Lacandon Jungle are or are not members
of the working class. There is nothing positive about being members of the
working class, about being ordered, commanded, separated from our prod-
uct and our process of production. Struggle arises not from the fact that we
are working class but from the fact that we-are-and-are-not working class,
that we exist against-and-beyond being working class, that they try to order
and command us but we do not want to be ordered and commanded, that
they try to separate us from our product and our producing and our humani-
ty and our selves and we do not want to be separated from all that.
(2) We are/are not working class. To say that class should be under-
stood as classification means that class struggle (the struggle to classify us
and our struggle against being classified) is something that runs through us,
individually and collectively. Only if we were fully classified could we say
without contradiction ‘we are working class’ (but then class struggle would
be impossible).
We take part in class struggle on both sides. We classify ourselves in
so far as we produce capital, in so far as we respect money, in so far as we
participate, through our practice, our theory, our language (our defining the
working class), in the separation of subject and object. We simultaneously
struggle against our class-ification in so far as we are human. We exist
against-in-and-beyond capital. Humanity is schizoid, volcanic: everyone is
torn apart by the class antagonism. We are self-divided, self-alienated. We
who struggle for the reunification of subject and object are also we who
46 The Labour Debate
produce their separation. Rather than looking to the hero with true class
consciousness, a concept of revolution must start from the confusions and
contradictions that tear us all apart. There is no pure, revolutionary subject.
The linking of the purity of the subject with revolution, very clearly in the
case of Lenin’s idea of the Party, but also in the case of Negri’s ‘multitude’,
is part of the tradition of the left, part of its tendency towards puritanical
Does this mean that class distinctions can be reduced to a general
statement about the schizoid character of humanity? No, because there are
clearly differences in the way in which the class antagonism traverses us,
differences in the degree to which it is possible for us to repress that antag-
onism. For those who benefit materially from the process of class-ification
(accumulation), it is relatively easy to repress anything which points
against or beyond classification, to live within the bounds of fetishism. It is
those whose lives are overturned by accumulation (the indigenous of Chia-
pas, university lecturers, coal miners, nearly everybody) in whom the
element of againstness will be much more present. It remains true, howev-
er, that nobody exists purely against or against-and-beyond: we all
participate in the separation of subject and object, the classification of
humans. Notions of class composition, decomposition and recomposition
should be understood, therefore, not as the changing position of different
groups but as the changing configuration of the antagonism that traverses
all of us, the antagonism between fetishisation and anti-fetishisation, be-
tween classification and anti-classification.
(3) Is work central to classification? Yes-and-no.
Work is an ambiguous term. It can be understood either as labour (al-
ienated work) or, more broadly, as purposive, creative activity. To avoid
the ambiguity, we shall refer to labour as doing rather than to ‘work’.
Labour is the production of capital and the production of capital is the
production of class, classification. The production of capital is at the same
time the production of surplus-value, exploitation. If there were no exploi-
tation, there would be no production of class.
However, the statement ‘labour is the production of capital’ is tautolo-
gous and misleading in so far as it assumes the pre-constitution of labour,
the prior abstraction of human doing. The argument so far suggests that we
cannot understand capitalism simply in terms of the conflict between labour
and capital for, to do so, is to start from pre-constituted categories, from an
assumed existence-in-abstraction-from-constitution. Exploitation is not just
the exploitation of labour but the simultaneous transformation of human
What Labour Debate? 47
doing into labour, the simultaneous desubjectification of the subject, the
dehumanisation of humanity. This does not mean that doing, the subject,
humanity exist in some pure sphere waiting to be metamorphosed into their
capitalist forms. The capitalist form (labour) is the mode of existence of
doing/ subjectivity/ humanity, but that mode of existence is contradictory.
To say that doing exists as labour means that it exists also as anti-labour.
To say that humanity exists as subordination means that it exists also as
insubordination. The production of class is the suppression(-and-reproduc-
tion) of insubordination. Exploitation is the suppression(-and-reproduction)
of insubordinate doing. The suppression of doing does not just take place in
the process of production, as usually understood, but in the whole separat-
ing of subject and object that constitutes capitalist society.
Thus: labour produces class, but labour pre-supposes a prior class-
ification. Similarly, production is the sphere of the constitution of class, but
the existence of a sphere of production, that is the separation of production
from human doing in general also presupposes a prior classification.
The answer, then, to our question about the centrality of work is surely
that it is not labour that is central but doing, which exists in-against-and-
beyond labour. To start from labour (as in ‘labour studies’ or ‘the labour
debate’) is to enclose oneself from the beginning within a fetishised world,
such that any projection of an alternative world must appear as pure fancy,
something brought in from outside.
Underlying this discussion of class is an attempt to understand the current
development of capitalism. Capitalism is in overt crisis in most of the
world and in a situation of fragility in the rest, a situation in which the open
outbreak of crisis is deferred through the ever-increasing expansion of
credit. The crisis of class domination, however, does not correspond in any
obvious way to a surge in the strength of the working class. This is a central
question for anti-capitalist theory: if the world is a world of class struggle,
how is it that when one side (labour) is weakened, the other (capital) is
nevertheless in crisis? Elsewhere,
Werner Bonefeld and I have suggested
that credit expansion brings about a temporal dislocation between the surge
of struggle and the manifestation of crisis (as in 19171929, 19681974,
1999). The discussion here suggests a second approach: the weakness of
48 The Labour Debate
capital is the result not of the strength of labour (as constituted class, as
movement), but of the strength of anti-classification, of non-identity.
Capital accumulation is voracious. It requires an ever more complete
subordination of humanity, an ever more profound classification of exist-
ence. This is surely the significance of Marx’s discussion of the tendency
of the rate of profit to fall: if exploitation and the dehumanisation which it
implies is not intensified, there is crisis. Crisis then is the result not of the
strength of the working class or of the labour movement, necessarily, but of
the strength of the general resistance to capital’s drive for an ever more
profound subordination of humanity (dignity, as the Zapatistas say).
That in us which exists against-and-beyond capital is not our existence
as working class but our struggling against being working class. We are the
anti-class, those who are in-against-and-beyond being working class. That
is what we need to explore and articulate.
Adorno, T. W. (1991), Negative Dialectics, Routledge, London.
Bloch, E. (1964), Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie (Bd. 2), Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Bonefeld, W. (n.d.), ‘Capital, Labour and Primitive Accumulation: Notes on Class and
Constitution’, Unpublished paper.
Bonefeld, W. and J. Holloway (eds) (1991), Post-Fordism and Social Form, Macmillan,
Bonefeld, W. and J. Holloway (eds) (1995), Global Capital, National State and the Politics
of Money, Macmillan, London.
Bonefeld, W., R. Gunn and K. Psychopedis (eds) (1992), Open Marxism, Volume I: Dialec-
tics and History, Pluto Press, London.
Gunn, R. (1987), ‘Notes on Class’, Common Sense, no. 2. pp.
Holloway, J. (1991), ‘Capital is Class Struggle (And Bears are not Cuddly)’, in W. Bonefeld
and J. Holloway (eds), Post-Fordism and Social Form, Macmillan, London..
Jessop, B. (1991), ‘Polar Bears and Class Struggle: Much Less than a Self-Criticism’, in W.
Bonefeld and J. Holloway (eds), Post-Fordism and Social Form, Macmillan, London.
Marx, K. (1965), Capital, Volume I, Progress, Moscow.
1. In writing this, I have had two other papers very much in mind: Richard Gunn’s ‘Notes
on Class’ (1987) and Werner Bonefeld’s chapter in this book.
2. For examples of this approach, see Bob Jessop (1991); for a critique, Holloway
What Labour Debate? 49
Adorno makes the same point (1990: 377378): ‘Greyness could not fill us with
despair if our minds did not harbour the concept of different colours, scattered traces
of which are not absent from the negative whole.’ But he immediately gives the point a
pessimistic, reactionary twist quite different from Bloch by adding, ‘the traces always
come from the past and our hopes come from that which was or is doomed.’ The dif-
ferent colours do not come from the past: they come from present resistance.
4. This is the core of the approach often referred to as ‘Open Marxism’: see Bonefeld W
et al. (1992).
5. Is classification the same as classification in general? I think so, but this is an argument
that would take us beyond the bounds of this paper.
6. On this, see Bonefeld W and Holloway J 1995.
1.2 Class Struggle and the
Working Class: The Problem
of Commodity Fetishism
As my contribution to The Labour Debate, I would like to disagree with the
basic positions put forward by John Holloway, and with the interpretation
of Marx on which he bases those positions. The focus of my remarks will
be John’s interpretation and critique of Marx’s theory of commodity fetish-
First, I would like to stress that I agree absolutely with John that we
must start from a view of labour as an active subject of the reproduction of
capitalist social relations and so as the actual or potential agent of the
transformation of those social relations and even of the transformation of
the form of society itself or, in simpler terms, that capitalism is based on
class conflict.
I also agree that any democratic socialist politics that does
not take the actually existing subjectivity of the working class as its starting
point is bound to be self-defeating. So I agree with John’s rejection of a
view of the working class as a social grouping which is constituted as the
passive object of capitalist exploitation, ignorant of its true interests, lack-
ing a consciousness of its historical role, perhaps even happily integrated
into capitalist society.
John’s point in drawing this distinction is to develop an argument
about the role of the intellectual in late capitalist society, and this is where I
disagree most fundamentally with him. John argues that ‘we [intellectuals]
occupy no privileged position above the throng, but simply have a peculiar
way of articulating our participation in the conflict in which all participate’.
John rejects the attribution of any special privileges to the intellectual,
because he bases his rejection of capitalism not on a critique of capitalist
exploitation but on a romantic aspiration to reclaim creativity from capital-
ist labour. From this perspective the intellectual is just a worker like any
other, robbed of his or her creativity in just the same way as is an agricul-
tural worker or an assembly line worker. John refuses the privileges of an
What Labour Debate? 51
intellectual, but at the same time he abdicates the responsibilities of the
The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof
John starts by stressing the pivotal role of Marx’s theory of commodity
fetishism, but then he disagrees quite fundamentally with what Marx actu-
ally wrote. Before we look at John’s criticism of Marx, let us review
Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism.
One component of Marx’s youthful theory of alienated labour was a
romantic critique of commodity production on the grounds of the dehuman-
ising impact of the division of labour and the reduction of human creativity
to labour-time. This was the basis on which Marx initially condemned
Ricardo’s political economy for its ‘cynicism’, and it is the element of
Marx’s work on which Marxist romanticism, including that of John, has
Marx continued to see labour, in the sense of self-conscious
productive activity (John’s creativity), as the practice that distinguishes
humans from animals, but the starting point of Marx’s theory of commodity
fetishism is not this idea of labour as creativity, but the concept of social
labour, the idea that every society is based on some form of social produc-
tion in which the members of society are not self-sufficient but in which
they meet their needs by participating in co-operative labour.
The interdependence of the producers is articulated through the social
relations within which the various members of the society produce and
distribute their products, but the character of those social relations differs
from one society to another. Social relations of production may be organ-
ised co-operatively or they may be organised hierarchically, they may be
organised self-consciously or with little conscious co-ordination. In fact,
Marx distinguished a number of typical modes of production based on
typical forms of the social relations of production: two co-operative and
self-conscious forms of organisation of production: primitive communism
and communism, and four modes of production based on hierarchical
production relations: the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and capitalist modes of
production. In the analysis of a particular mode of production it is essential
not only to identify the typical form of the social relations of production,
but also to consider the form of the reproduction of the material forces and
the social relations of production.
52 The Labour Debate
The organisation of social production involves the allocation of the la-
bour of individual members of society to different activities, which is
associated with the allocation of a part of the social product to the members
of society to enable them to reproduce themselves. The social product may
be allocated in accordance with need, or it may be allocated in accordance
with social status, or it may be allocated in accordance with the contribu-
tion of the individual to production, or a part of it may be appropriated by
non-producers. Allocation on the basis of the contribution of the individual
to production might take the form of allocation on the basis of the amount
of labour-time expended, but different kinds of labour might be judged to
make qualitatively different contributions to social production and reward-
ed accordingly. The allocation might take place through a centralised
system of distribution, it might take place on the basis of a decentralised
system of reallocation or it might take place on the basis of custom and
habit. There are lots of different and perfectly conceivable ways of organis-
ing a system of social production. But any society must have some means
of allocating social labour and distributing the social product in such a way
as to secure the reproduction of its individual members and of the material
forces with which and the social relations within which they produce.
In a hypothetical society of petty commodity producers, such as
formed the starting point of Adam Smith’s model, commodities are ex-
changed between producers as the products of labour on the principle of the
equalisation of the returns to the expenditure of labour-time in different
activities, the social presupposition of which is the mobility of labour
between occupations and the indifference of the labourer to the content of
the labour, presuppositions which, Marx argued, do not in fact pertain in a
society of petty commodity producers since they are fully developed only
in a mature capitalist society. Nevertheless, on these assumptions, com-
modities would tend to exchange in proportion to the labour-time expended
on their production, so that the labour theory of value is appropriate to the
conceptualisation of the quantitative regulation of the social relations of
such a form of commodity production.
With the systematic exchange of the products of labour as commodi-
ties, one commodity assumes the form of universal equivalent, becoming
the money commodity, so that the value of each particular commodity is
expressed in its exchange ratio with the money commodity. The division of
labour in such a society is then regulated by the exchange of commodities
for money through which the expenditure of private labour by each produc-
er is commensurated with the labour time socially necessary for the
What Labour Debate? 53
production of the commodity in question and social labour is allocated
between the production of different commodities in appropriate propor-
The social character of the labour of the individual is then quantitative-
ly expressed in the exchange ratio between the product of that labour and
the money commodity. The participation of the individual in social labour
is realised in the actual sale of the commodity for money, which provides
the means with which the producer can buy the means of production and
subsistence required for his or her social reproduction.
It was this analysis of the social form of commodity production that
Marx summed up in his theory of commodity fetishism, according to which
‘the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest
appear, not as direct <