The Uses of the Useless: Political Philosophies of Unemployment

[Paper delivered at the Historical Materialism 2012 conference, 10 November 2012]

As soon, therefore, as it occurs to capital … no longer to be for the worker, he himself is no longer for himself: he has no work, hence no wages, and since he has no existence as a human being but only as a worker, he can go and bury himself, starve to death, etc. The worker exists as a worker only when he exists for himself as capital; and he exists as capital only when some capital exists for him. The existence of capital is his existence, his life; as it determines the tenor of his life in a manner indifferent to him. Political economy … does not recognize the unemployed worker, the workingman, insofar as he happens to be outside [the] labor relationship. The rascal, swindler, beggar, the unemployed, the starving, wretched and criminal workingman – these are figures who do not exist for political economy but only for other eyes, those of the doctor, the judge, the gravedigger, and bum-bailiff, etc.; such figures are spectres outside its domain. (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844)

The incapacity to politicise unemployment outside of a weak and ambiguous demand for the right to work, job programmes and the retention of some of the benefit-structures of the welfare state is one of the salient features of the ongoing crisis. This has been accompanied by a public compulsion to reassert the centrality of waged-labour to social life and citizenship, rolling out of a punitive apparatus centred around the practices of ‘workfare’, bitterly encapsulated in such anecdotes as the requirement that British ‘job-seekers’ increase the number of hours spent looking for jobs that do not exist. This is indeed a social landscape in which the following observation by André Gorz has a caustic pertinence: ‘Never has the “irreplaceable”, “indispensable” function of labour as the source of “social ties”, “social cohesion”, “integration”, “socialization”, “personalization”, “personal identity” and meaning been invoked so obsessively as it has since the day it became unable any longer to fulfil any of these functions’ (Gorz, Reclaiming Work, p. 57, quoted in Weeks, The Problem with Work, p. 77).

Though I’d like to question the temporal cast of the end of work argument advanced by Gorz and others, I think underscoring the rift between a ubiquitous ideology of work and its social disaggregation is salutary today. In this talk I want to suggest that inquiring into the current relevance of Marx’s theory of relative surplus populations, and its difficult translation into the language of politics, provides an important counter to two opposite, but equally limiting, political philosophies of our current moment: on the one hand, a position that severs the political assertion of equality the structural antagonism between capital and labour (which we could associate with Badiou), on the other, a view that sees the liberation of the productivity of living labour from its parasitic capitalist fetters (which we could associate with Negri).

Now, it is important to note that both neo-Jacobin communisms and vitalist productivisms took their cue from the social and ideological decomposition of the industrial working class and from the crisis of Marxism of the 1970s, the one intensifying its communist politics to the detriment of its economic totalisation, the other maintaining many of its most traditional schemas (above all that of the forces of production breaking through the integument of legal and political relations) while abandoning the location of productive labour and insurgent subjectivity in the industrial proletariat. I would suggest that such positions, in symmetrical ways, neglect the character of contemporary struggles as responses to the ‘structural adjustments’ of the capital-labour relation, but in particular that they strain to articulate the problem of political subjectivity in the present with that of labour as the dominating (though according to some also residual) form of social synthesis. Parenthetically, there is an irony in this, as the struggles around the reserve army of labour were critical to the political genesis of both of these currents of thought I’m alluding to – in French Maoism’s orientation towards the undocumented and hyper-exploited ‘international proletariat of France’ and in Italian autonomia’s concern with the young metropolitan sub-proletariat.

The political consequences of the ‘end of work’ were thought in the more combatively optimistic strands of the seventies European Left with the paradigm of the Grundrisse’s so-called ‘Fragment on Machines’ in mind – in a nutshell as theories of the partial liberation from the realm of labouring necessity through the intercession of automation, reverting the contradictory dynamic whereby intensified productivity and the potential for the accumulation of social wealth, rather than capital, were accompanied by the immiseration of workers and society. The linearity of this account, both in terms of the secular direction of accumulation and in terms of the political subjectivity of its offspring and gravediggers is a weakness that many critics have highlighted. The suggestion by a number of recent authors from which I’ll be drawing – among which Ken Kawashima, Michael Denning, Aaron Benanav and Fredric Jameson – to rethink capitalism and its negations starting from the arguments in Chapter 25 of Capital and related sections of the Grundrisse poses a timely challenge, with the potential to unseat nostalgic conceptions of proletarian politics, as well as premature farewells to the working class.

Among the virtues of this focal shift towards the question of surplus populations are (1) the recovery of the dialectical core of Marx’s argument about “unemployment”, traduced by theories of immiseration and end of work; (2) the sensitivity to the uneven spatial and temporal dialectic of capital; (3) an attention to the disciplinary and demographic dimensions of social change which is capable of articulating biopolitics, discipline and accumulation in terms of the violent imposition and deposition of the capital/labour relation; (4) the capacity to recast the question of the racial and gendered constitution of class as a constituent rather than supplementary dimension of this relation; (5) the foregrounding of the problem of proletarian politics in the present outside of nostalgias for the industrial working class or premature farewells. I want to deal with these five points in turn, with extreme brevity, simply to provide some of the theoretical coordinates for approaching our political present in light of the Marxian notion of surplus populations.

1. Dialectics of Surplus: Population is perhaps the most glaring example of the manner in which Marx’s dialectic transfigures the one-sided abstractions of political economy. In that rare discourse on method which is the 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse he famously writes ‘It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc.’ Yet once this dialectic of the abstract and the concrete is applied to the notion of population, the result is a devastating departure from Malthusian naturalism and all of its parlous political consequences. For it is precisely in the entirely social relation between capital’s ‘breeding’ of a necessary labouring population and its simultaneous generation of a differentiated, stratified relative surplus population that Marx encapsulates the most massive and momentous contradictory effects of capital accumulation. Projecting the dynamic of the working day onto a dialectical demography, Marx argues in the Grundrisse that capital’s is driven to create as much labour as possible, while, in the inverse direction, making the part taken by necessary labour diminish. There is thus ‘a tendency of capital to increase the labouring population, as well as constantly to posit a part of it as surplus population – population which is useless until such time as capital can utlize it. … It is equally a tendency of capital to make human labour (relatively) superfluous, so as to drive it, as human labour, towards infinity’ (399). Or, in more markedly Hegelian language, ‘Capital, as the positing of surplus labour, is equally and in the same moment the positing and the not-positing of necessary labour; it exists only insofar as necessary labour both exists and does not exist’.


2. Geography and Temporality of Surplus: Scale and speed, driven by what Massimiliano Tomba has discussed in terms of differentials of surplus-value, are both at stake in this process, lending the absorption and repulsion of surplus populations an immensely complex and variegated rhythm, which is nevertheless globally marked by an increase in absolute labouring population and a faster increase in the relative surplus population (the whole process being characterised by Marx in terms of acceleration). In a rich study on the history of unemployment, Maria Grazia Meriggi has nicely encapsulated this process:

‘Together with the magnitude of social capital already in function, together with the degree of its increase, with the extension of the scale of production and of the mass of the workers put in motion, together with the development of the productive force of labour, together with the wider and fuller flow of all the sources of wealth, there also extends – in Marx’s analysis – the scale in which a greater attraction of workers on the part of capital is tied to a great repulsion of the latter. … Thus the working population produces in greater measure, through the accumulation of capital which it has itself produced, the means to render itself relatively superfluous’ (La disoccupazione come problema sociale, p. 136).

As outlined in an incisive chapter on the global reserve army of labour in Bellamy Foster and McChesney’s The Endless Crisis, global labour statistics bear much of Marx’s analysis out, with depeasantization and the integration of formerly ‘socialist’ countries into the global labour force leading the ILO to track an increase between 1980 and the present from 1.9 to 3.1 billion into the global work force, within which they identify 1.4 billion wage workers, 1.7 billion ‘vulnerably employed workers’ (including own-account workers involved in ‘subsistence and entrepreneurial activities’ and ‘contributing family workers’ made up mainly of unpaid women family workers) and 218 million unemployed. Including ‘discouraged workers’, and other categories, they tally up a ‘maximum size of the global reserve army’ of 2.4 billion people. What is critical to this reserve army, according to Bellamy Foster and McChesnay’s account, and what complicates the account of surplus populations in Marx – which, we should recall, is predicated on abstracting from the existence of a plurality of capitals and from geographical, political and other differences – are the radical divergences in the value of labour-power it mobilises. They borrow here the terminology of a Morgan Stanley analyst, to emphasize that today’s global reserve army is the object of ‘global labour arbitrage’, surplus-profits gained from exploiting the international wage hierarchy. The notorious superexploitation of workers at the Foxconn iPod, iPhone and iPad assembly plants in Longhua, Shenzen illustrates this phenomenon, including significantly, the combination of the employment of vast quantities of labour combined with the decreasing significance of the necessary labour component in the value of the final product.

Despite the massive labour input of Chinese workers in assembling the final product, their low pay means that their work amounts only to 3.6 percent of the total manufacturing cost (shipping price) of the iPhone. The overall profit margin on iPhones in 2009 was 64 percent. If iPhones were assembled in the United States – assuming labour costs ten times that in China, equal productivity, and constant component costs – Apple would still have an ample profit margin, but it would drop from 64 to 50 percent. In effect, Apple makes 22 percent of its profit margin on iPhone production from the much higher rate of exploitation of Chinese labour. (The Endless Crisis, p. 140)

3. Disciplining the Surplus: The importance of a theory of populations to an understanding of contemporary power is of course at the centre of the theoretical fortune’s of Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, and of its various iterations by Giorgio Agamben and others. Not least of the virtues of attention to the theme of surplus populations in Marx is to undo the notion put forward by Foucault himself in The Order of Things, according to which Marx’s critique of political economy is epistemically locked in with its object of critique. It is precisely on the question of population that the break not just with Malthus, but with Ricardo is most definite. The means of subsistence theory, whereby the ‘workers’ rapid multiplication prevents wages from rising for any length of time above the natural price of labour; when they multiply slowly or die off this keeps wages from falling too long below it’ (Rubin, History of Economic Thought, p. 281), is dismantled for an understanding that population under capitalism is a social force, and that biological minima of subsistence cannot generate any kind of ‘iron law of wages’ (Lassalle’s variant on Ricardo’s Mathusian borrowings). Where a more fruitful connection with Foucault can be found is in the idea that to stratify and discipline this surplus, to commodify labour power and to maintain the contingency of the sale of labour a whole set of apparatuses and institutions (from Poor laws to unemployment provisions to workfare) are required. In Foucault’s own Marxian formulation in Discipline and Punish:

‘the two processes – the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital – cannot be separated; it would not have been possible to solve the problem of the accumulation of men without the growth of an apparatus of production capable of both sustaining them and using them; conversely, the techniques that made the cumulative multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital’ (p. 221).

Or, to use the even more evocative formulation from the 1973 Brazilian lecture course ‘Truth and Juridical Forms’:

‘A web of microscopic, capillary political power had to be established at the level of man’s very existence, attaching men to the production apparatus, while making them into agents of production, into workers. This binding of man to labor was synthetic, political; it was a linkage brought about by power. There is no surplus-value without sub-power. I speak of “sub-power,” for what’s involved is the power I described earlier, and not the one traditionally called “political power.” I’m referring not to a state apparatus, or to the class in power, but to the whole set of little powers, of little institutions situated at the lowest level. What I meant to do was analyze this subpower as a condition of possibility of surplus value.’ (Foucault, ‘Truth and Juridical Forms’, in Power, pp. 86-7)

This formulation allows us to think, following Kawashima’s suggestion in The Proletarian Gamble, how the fashionable theme of biopolitics can be wrested from the ‘bad abstraction’ of populations, to think the fraught dialectic of the centrifugal and centripetal pressures on the ‘living labour power of surplus populations’. It also permits us to think a different articulation between the disciplinary anatomopolitics of ‘fixing’ and adapting the labourer to dead labour, on the one hand, and managing the productivity of populations, on the other. The formalist distinction between biopolitics and anatomopolitics, proposed by Foucault, is undermined by the manner in which differential processes of proletarianisation, of the generation of what Denning has recently referred to as wageless life, condemns workers to the capital-labour relation, especially when this relation is experienced as a temporary or permanent exclusion. As Marx put it in Capital:

‘The law which always holds the relative surplus population in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock. It makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth. … It forms a disposable industrial army, which belongs to capital just as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost’ (p. 784).

4. Race and Surplus: Just as the idea that capital inadvertently organizes a politicised working class through the spatial discipline of the factory often led to a teleology of organisation that occluded the difficulties and ambivalences of politicisation, so a contemporary focus on surplus population risks thinking, even less plausibly, that marginalisation or expulsion from the capital-labour relation is itself a more or less linear factor of politicisation. It is here that some of the analytical and political uses to which the notion of surplus populations was put to in the 1970s can be of important use in confronting the ways in which the differential structures of ‘superfluity’ can play a role in political subjectivation and in an uneven and combined process of proletarianisation. In particular, the articulation of race and capitalism through the concept of surplus population in the concluding chapter of Hall et al. Policing the Crisis, ‘The Politics of Mugging’, provides us with a means to reflect on some of the stakes of thinking the politics of unemployment in light of the antagonistic segmentation and social violence that inheres in the production of superfluous populations – in their instance the unemployed black youth which were the target of the 1970s moral panic over crime. Dovetailing with the discussions of the politics of women’s reproductive labour at a time when, to quote Braverman, ‘the female portion of the population ha[d] become the prime supplementary reservoir of labour’, approaching the black proletariat in Britain through the angle provided by the contradictory logic of superfluous populations promised for Hall et al. a break with the narratives of social exclusion and criminality. It introduced the strategic problem, shared with feminist debates over housework, of how to align, as they put it ‘sectoral struggle with a more general class struggle’, in terms of the ‘double structure’ of exploitation at work in both the sexual and racial division within class relations. Most significantly, as they write: ‘the key to unravelling the relation of both is not the question of whether each directly receives a wage or not, since a proportion of each is, at any time, in employment – i.e. ‘waged’ – while the rest are ‘wageless’; […] the key lies in the reference to capital’s control over the movement into and out of the reserve army of labour’ (Policing the Crisis, p. 369), which is especially significant to the extent that modern capitalism has made us of two principal reserve armies: women and migrant labour (p. 381). The authors of Policing the Crisis try to position themselves in the debate over the politics of the black British proletariat that pitted the Race Today collective against Black Liberator. It’s a rich account, but I wanted simply to indicate their attempt to wend a path between an autonomist politics of the ‘refusal of work’ which sees a caste-like racial (and sexual) hierarchy of labour, one that foregrounds wagelessness as a positive political starting-point, and a more classical analysis wherein black workers are ‘conceived … as a reserve army of labour (of a special, racially differentiated part’ which is ‘used, productively or unproductively, in relation to the needs and rhythms of capital. A they constitute a black sub-proletarian stratum of the general working class’, and their struggles are, according to the Black Liberator collective, for the time being, locked in a more economistic and less directly political struggle.

5. Politics of the Surplus: As Hall et al. note with regard to the writings of Fanon and the political programme of the Black Panther Party, the strategic difficulties of organising a class politics capable of responding both to the centrifugal and centripetal dynamics of surplus populations, and more significantly to the extreme segmentations and hierarchies imposed on the waged and the wageless are legion. The irony, of course, is that Fanon and the Panthers felt obliged to resurrect and reaffirm the category of the lumpenproletariat as a way of continuing an anti-capitalist politics from a standpoint which was not that of the constituted working class at the point of production but of the reserve army itself. Suspicion and hostility towards the nostrums of official communism and the official labour movement also played a signal role. Thus we can read in a programmatic text ‘On the Ideology of the Black Panther Party’, which transposes Fanon’s political provocation into the North American metropolis:

We are Lumpen … The Lumpenproletariat are all those who have no secure relationship or vested interest in the means of production and the institutions of capitalist society. That part of the ‘Industrial Reserve Army’ held perpetually in reserve; who have never worked and never will; who can’t find a job, who are unskilled or unfit, who have been displaced by machines, automation, and cybernation, and were never ‘retained or invested with new skills’; all those on Welfare or receiving State Aid. … Also the so-called ‘Criminal Element’, those who live by their wits….those who don’t even want a job … in short all those who simply have been locked out of the economy and robbed of their rightful social heritage. (Cited in Worsley, ‘Fanon and the Lumpenproletariat’)

As the passage makes clear such lumpen politics was a way to retain a heterodox fidelity to Marxian categories while recognising a situation in which the capital-labour relation was experienced, to quote Marx, as the ‘not-positing of necessary labour’. It was also a way of responding to the fact that ‘racial oppression was the specific mediation through which this class experienced its material and cultural conditions of life, and hence race formed the central mode through which the self-consciousness of the class stratum could be constructed’ (p. 387). Capitalism, in keeping with this revitalisation of Marx’s categories, requires the exploitation not only of ‘productive’ workers, but also of those who are ‘expelled from production, pauperised out of work, or assigned to a position of more-or-less permanent “marginality”, or who, when recruited back into capital’s fitful productive cycle, are taken up through the operation of its secondary labour markets’ (p. 392). If the accumulation of capital requires the accumulation of men and women, this is a differential accumulation, which is enforced and reproduced through violent segmentations among workers, of which racism is a primary ideological and practical form. In conclusion, taking Marx’s discussion of surplus populations as a political framework permits us perhaps to redraw the dubious distinction between working class and proletariat, often expressed in a rather transcendental vein (the working class as an empirical entity, the proletariat as a subjectivity based on a void of qualities and total negativity), in a much more complex and dynamic fashion. Rather than an anachronistically exclusive focus on the industrial working class, it allows us to begin, with Marx’s proposition that all free labourers are ‘virtual paupers’, since ‘according to their economic conditions [they] are merely living labour capaciti[es], hence equipped with the necessaries of life. Necessity on all sides, without the objectivities necessary to realize [themselves] as labour capaicit[ies]’ (Grundrisse, p. 604). But, as Hall et al.’s stress on the need for political strategies able to confront the ‘discrepancies, the divergences, the non-correspondences between the different levels of the social formation in relation to the black working class – between the economic, political and ideological levels’ (p. 393) suggest, we should be wary of the kind of philosophies of history that treat this critical ‘virtual’ status into a tendentially unified reality – be in the form of propositions of universal wagelessness, precarity, surplus humanity. If anything, an analysis of surplus populations attunes us to the potent ways in which capital exerts segmented, highly mediated, spatially differentiated and temporally syncopated forms of proletarianisation, and that, precisely, it is far more effective in the constant unmaking and decomposition of working classes than in unifying, structuring and organising its own gravediggers.

[Most images are taken from Hugo Gellert’s lithographs of Das Kapital.]

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2 Responses to The Uses of the Useless: Political Philosophies of Unemployment

  1. Pingback: The Uses of the Useless: Political Philosophies of Unemployment | reificationofpersonsandpersonificationofthings

  2. Pingback: Surplus – Labour and Capital, Utopia and Dystopia | Novara Media

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