[definitely a C.I.S. production]
By surplus club, frankfurt
When considering unemployment, social exclusion or precarity, it is inadequate to simply take refuge within the empirical question of which groups live under these conditions. Contemporary sociological identities are themselves forms of appearance, moments of the totality of the reproduction of the capital-labor relation and therewith in the devaluation of the labor-power commodity presently unfolding through the category of the surplus proletariat.
At the outset of 2015, anyone hoping for a recovery of labor markets is told to lower their expectations. Specious apologetics on the resilient turnaround of unemployment rates and job creation stumble against continuously revised growth forecasts reflecting the inertia of both high-GDP and emerging market economies. On a global level, the period since the crisis of 2007-08 has witnessed, at best, tepid economic activity despite unprecedented monetary stimulus and liquidity injection. Business investment remains predominantly stagnant, most recently with energy producers dramatically cutting back total capital investment. Even China is stuttering and decreasing its appetite for raw materials, while the professed German success story cannot be read without the unfolding process of precarious capital concentration of a rapidly declining Eurozone, rather than as an indicator for lasting growth. At the same time, the world economy continues its recourse in unrestrained leveraging, further exacerbating credit-to-GDP ratios, with, according to a recent report by the International Centre for Monetary and Banking Studies, total public and private debt reaching 272% of developed-world GDP in 2013. The recent alarm of deflation means a rise in the real value of existing state, corporate, and household debt. Corresponding to the fiscal approach of higher budget deficits is, since 2010, the outright purchasing of government, corporate and real estate bonds by central banks and paid for with newly printed money – i.e. ‘quantitative easing’. The European Central Bank has, most recently, followed the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan in the latter policy despite the fact that it has yet to demonstrate itself as an effective response to decelerating economies. Instead, the money created enters into the banking system, shoring up balance sheets on finance capital and fomenting bubbles within assets held.
These conditions outline the phenomenal contours of the present crisis of capital accumulation, which is at the same time a crisis of the reproduction of the capital-labor relation. Since the economic restructuring of the 1970s, deregulation has expanded the flexibility of labor markets and fundamentally reoriented the conditions of the class relation. While unemployment remained relatively abated during the postwar period – alongside the assurances of the welfare state – developments in capital accumulation since then have witnessed an unprecedented ascendance, in terms of duration and concentration, of both unemployment and underemployment. Since the early 1970s and through the dismantling of the Keynesian wage-productivity deal of the postwar period, the capitalist mode of production has been stumbling to combat the anguish of diminishing returns. Its recourse of economic restructuring consisted in the expansion of finance capital and increasing the rate of exploitation in an attempt to stabilize and defer its own inherent propensity to undermine the process of self-valorization. The 21st century thereby opened with a reign of labor-power devaluation that has only intensified its duress, which, alongside fiscal and sovereign debt crises expressed in austerity, continues to wield unrelenting immiseration.
Materially, the crisis of 2007-08 has only worsened the conditions of labor with, for example, the labor participation rate in the US now at a 36-year low, eclipsing any earnestly lauded low-wage job creation and its feeble average hourly earnings. For that segment of the proletariat not losing their jobs or dropping out of the labor force altogether – for which unemployment statistics have very little to say – the types of employment still available are largely temporary, part-time, seasonal, freelance, and in general, precariously informal without contractual guarantee of compensation. Thus, as the present moment finds an overcapacity of surplus capital unable to find lasting investment, the effective demand for labor-power follows suit and diminishes. Through the critique of political economy, this phenomena finds systematic expression in what Marx refers to as the “general law of capital accumulation”. Here, the proportional expansion of total capital, itself resulting from the productivity of labor and therewith in the production of surplus value, yields a mass of workers relatively redundant to the needs of the valorization process. This tendency arises simply from the nature of capital. As capital develops labor as an appendage of its own productive capacity, it decreases the portion of necessary labor required for a given amount of surplus labor. Therefore, the relation of necessary labor needed by capital continuously declines. This occurs through the organic composition of capital in which competition between competing capitals induces the generalization of labor-saving technologies such as automation, thereby increasing constant capital at the expense of variable capital, resulting in a relative decline in the demand for labor. The production of this relative surplus population is the devaluation of the total labor-power that takes on the form of a dislodgement of workers from the production process and in the difficulty of absorbing them through customary or legally regulated channels. If the labor-power of the proletariat cannot be realized, i.e. if it is not necessary for the realization of capital, then this labor capacity appears as external to the conditions of the reproduction of its existence. It turns into a crisis of the reproduction of the proletariat who is surrounded, on all sides, by needs without the means to adequately satisfy them.
Friends have pointed out that surplus population is a necessary product of capital accumulation and therefore a structural category deriving from the ratio of necessary and surplus labor. It is a tendency that is always already there and inherently constitutive of the capital-labor relation independent from its historical configurations. So why might one justify its emphasis within the present conjuncture? After all, the notion of a surplus population “is already contained in the concept of the free labourer, that he is a pauper: virtual pauper.” (Grundrisse) The task therefore remains to demonstrate why the relative surplus population is paradigmatic of the class relation in the present moment and what are the implications for contemporary class struggle.
This essay will annoy, piss-off, and bring denunciations from some of my friends and colleagues. That’s fine. One of the things that politically engaged people who are striving for substantial structural social change fail to do is to identify those things which make success difficult. And that starts by looking at ourselves.
I am a white, male, heterosexual, meat-eating, butter-slathering, well-off, whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking, elderly professional. Many people looking at that description would assume that I am either a racist insurance salesman thrill-riding with police as an auxiliary cop in Oklahoma, or a corporate shill tea-bagging at a Koch brother’s fundraiser and wreaking environmental carnage. More gentle and refined folks might give me the benefit of the doubt. They might picture me as someone wearing a tweed sport jacket, with the obligatory leather elbow patches, smoking a pipe, adjusting my suspenders and musing over some arcane text while ignoring the ravages of racism, sexism, imperialism and capitalism that grant me the privilege of a comfortable but relatively useless life. In fact, many people who know me marvel that I am not precisely that. After all it is my assigned role in life and only a psychopath would not protect the advantages and privileges bestowed on him.
The point is that my identity and my individual choices are irrelevant to advancing the cause of substantial structural social change, which incidentally I happen to support by any means necessary. Excessive attention to differences, individualism and lifestyle choices dilute any comprehensive approach to changing economic, political and social reality in the United States and the world. As Jock Young pointed out, in late modernity we all struggle with ontological insecurity. That’s not an accident. That very social structure many of us wish to change makes ontological insecurity inevitable. In fact, ontological insecurity is a valuable weapon in their fight to maintain power and control. If they can divide society by race, gender, food choice, sexual preference or any other “difference” they can slow down and impede organizational efforts to get rid of them.
Intersections and race
Racism isn’t a disease. It isn’t a psychological disorder. It isn’t a cultural identity. Racism, simply put is a form of oppression. Racism is one of many forms of oppression which interact to create pervasive systems of discrimination and, more importantly, powerful systems of social control. Racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, immigration status and other categories of social exclusion are not simply personal problems, although they have deeply personal ramifications. Racism is one of many very powerful weapons used in society to achieve three goals:
First, it is used to justify economic and political policies which protect and reinforce power. Demonizing, dehumanizing, objectifying and socially excluding people is an ideological weapon used by those in power to divide us, dominate us, and make structural conditions that would otherwise be recognized by any thinking person as cruel, barbaric and insane, seem normal and reasonable. Simply put, it is a weapon that rationalizes the horrific and the unacceptable.
Second, racism is used to create economic conditions where some people, particularly women and socially constructed racial groups, are easier to exploit. Social exclusion creates a situation where wages and salaries can be depressed and entire social groups can be forced to accept menial, servile and dehumanizing work.
Third, racism, sexism, homophobia and the rest are effective tools of division. Those most disadvantaged and oppressed in society can be manipulated into patterns of distrust, hatred and discrimination. They also can, and often do, give a sense of power to whites, men, heterosexuals, and “citizens” which prevents those most disadvantaged and exploited in society from working together to confront the real sources of their problems.
In the United States our socially constructed definitions of race and ethnicity are constantly changing and adapting to the needs of power. Racism in all its forms has been a remarkably adaptable device used throughout our history to justify the mistreatment and dehumanization of millions of people. Of course the obvious examples are slavery and genocide. The enslavement of African-Americans was absolutely vital to the growth of the American economy. It buttressed agricultural production in the South and industrial production in the North where the products of slavery were manufactured into commercial goods. It provided enormous revenues from foreign trade and tariffs and excised taxes to fund the state. “Manifest destiny” and the occupation of the North American continent was achieved by genocide and war directed at Native American peoples. The geographical expansion and subsequent resource extraction which fueled the American economy was dependent on barbarism and slaughter. We also sometimes forget the other omnipresent forms of racism and discrimination.
If you remember there was a time in this country when whites hated white people. The white puritans of the Plymouth Colony threw out other white puritans! A system of exploited labor requires that someone, even if they look just like us and think just like us, must be dehumanized and vilified to justify their lack of privilege. The Irish were brought to the new world in indentured servitude to work the fields and build the cities. They were vilified as Papist drunks and housed in the most horrifying ghettos. Italian immigrants necessary to the shrimp and fishing industries were denounced as criminals. East European Jewish immigrants were blamed for prostitution even though the sex trade was well established as long ago as the Plymouth colony. The Chinese were brought here to build the railroads and then denounced as drug fiends. Mexicans, both in the 1930s and today are imported by labor leasing companies and consigned to the most demeaning labor, particularly in agriculture, and then blamed for the horrors of marijuana.
From the first Puritan settlers who eviscerated the Pequot tribe and the import of African slaves to today’s disingenuous and phony “war on terrorism,” racism and social exclusion has been a powerful weapon to justify violent and repressive policies at home and abroad, to create a compliant and divided populace, and to offer privilege and advantage to some at the expense of others. The point of all of this has been to reinforce and protect the economic, political and social power of the ruling elite.
The question is, of course, what do we do about all of this? Liberal reformists tell us that the answer is to extend some privileges to others while making certain their own privileges are not in any way inconvenienced. “Equality” sounds good. But if society is to pursue equality someone has to give something up to get there. It is populism at its worst. “Equality” is, in fact, a highly desirable goal. Fighting for equality can bring people together. It can expose the structural inequities of the system. It is positive; it is progressive and offers the opportunity to bring people together. But, it’s not enough.
No more Marxism on the Cambridge syllabus
Simon Hewitt, RP 191 (May/Jun 2015)
In March the Philosophy Faculty at Cambridge removed a course on Marxism from its syllabus. This was in spite of significant opposition, including two student-led petitions. Along with another course on Power this constituted the entire coverage of non-liberal political philosophy, leaving coverage of questions about human society dominated by the liberal tradition.  At Cambridge, as elsewhere, political philosophy as a sub-discipline looks set to become the enterprise of writing footnotes to Rawls. 
In earlier decades courses on Marxism were not unusual, and research in the field considered credibly part of the philosophical enterprise. Neither is the case now; the seemingly inexorable decline has been marked by prominent departmental milestones, of which the loss of the Cambridge course is one, the ending of the federal University of London BA another.  It may be that the situation is better in departments with a continental orientation, where if nothing else Marx can always be smuggled in under the catholic auspices of ‘critical theory’, but these are in a minority in the UK system.
It was not always thus. It is a curious feature of the history of English language philosophy since Russell and Moore, generally not considered a radical affair, that Marx always found favour in some quarters. As partisan a positivist as A.J. Ayer was prepared to give Highgate Cemetery’s best-known resident a hearing, on the basis that Marxism entailed historical predictions, which were subject to the test of empirical verification.  The ethos of postwar British philosophy was receptive to a certain understanding of Marx, namely a scientistic and historically determinist one, even if such a ‘Marx’ was a caricature. Marx’s writings have always been dubiously situated with respect to the analytic–continental division in Western philosophy, a division whose clarity is in no way as great as the earnestness with which its boundaries are policed, and whose own material basis in the academy is long overdue critical investigation. The standard narrative about this division identifies Kant as the last shared ancestor of analytic and continental philosophy. Marx, like Hegel, postdates Kant, but pre-dates the cementing of the rival traditions, often reckoned to have taken place in the persons of Frege and Husserl. He awkwardly escapes the discipline’s own self-narrative, and ever threatens to shatter the all too cosy symbolic order of the philosophical academy.
“30-40 years ago, the state could afford to BUILD 1 million flats in 10 years, now it’s too poor to even RENOVATE them.”
This exclamation is highly representative of the activism that has flourished in the suburbs of Stockholm these past years. In this case, it comes from Megafonen (‘The Megaphone’), a grass-roots activist group founded by young people in the Stockholm suburb Husby in 2008, around the principles of democracy, welfare, community, work and education. The state, says Megafonen here, no longer lives up to its proper function, which would be to ensure the material well-being of people through housing policies. The ambivalence of this perspective is already clear in the nostalgic reference to the heyday of Swedish social-democratic welfare, represented by the state housing policy which led to the construction of ‘1 million flats’ between 1965 and 1974. On the one hand, it recognises cuts, privatisations, closures, etc. as symptoms of an already existing capitalist restructuring. On the other hand, its actions emerge as the affirmation of what is left of the infrastructure and political institutions that formed the Swedish workers’ identity, e.g. public housing.
This ambivalence can be made coherent: by fighting the advancement of the restructuring, one is at the same time defending that which it has not yet reshaped. But then, one leaves aside an essential product of the destruction of workers’ identity: the end of the political existence of the proletariat in Sweden which, in the most pauperised areas, has been acompanied by the development of inarticulate riots between 2008 and today. If we take the practices of these riots into account, the ambivalence of Megafonen’s type of activism – the fact that it operates within that which incarnates the end of workers’ identity, and at the same time tries to organise upon the remnants of that identity –, appears as a contradiction between the conditions in which it exists and its perspectives. In a time in which the proletariat, in the obligation to sell its labour power which defines it, is structurally excluded from the table of collective bargaining, this activism still does, through its denunciations of ‘the state’ and its various institutions, affirm the possibility of a dialogue and a future within this society. In a word, it defends a welfare state which no longer exists.
It would be tempting to analyse this contradiction along a revolt-reform axis, in which the riots would incarnate the destructive language of ruptures, whereas the activists would incarnate the constructive language of politics. The riots would be a mere symptom of the destruction of workers’ identity, whereas the activists would be trying to find a remedy to it. But if one takes a closer look at the events in the long run, this political-theoretical construct does not fit. Of course, the riots are not harmoniously united with this activism. The practices of burning cars and setting fire to the head-quarters of various institutions, or fighting the police and the fire brigade, are qualitatively different from practices such as demanding specific political transformations and explicitly stating what institutions’ function should be. But with regard both to the subjects that carry out these practices, and to the practices themselves, the relation between riots and activism is not that of two clearly distinct camps. What is at stake is to reveal this contemporary relation between rioting and activism in Sweden, to see what this says about the current period more broadly.
Six years after the riots in Malmö, five years after the riots in Göteborg, and more than a year after the week of riots in Stockholm and other Swedish cities, the scarcity of writings about these events prevents us from even picturing what happened during the riots. Therefore, what is needed first and foremost is a description of the emergence of both riots and activism in the suburbs of these cities between 2008 and last year. The focus on the practices which compose the riots on the one hand, and the activism on the other, must be followed by an exposé both of their historical production and of that which structures the so-called suburbs today. This will lead us to look at the inner relation between the riots and the activism in these suburbs, and to formulate a question which exceeds the Swedish context: that of social and political integration.