The ’73 oil crisis and capital’s eternal soap opera


An acute observation on the articulation between capital’s representability and the technical composition of labour post-73, from his remarkable 1980 essay ‘The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse’ (worth revisiting in these Anthropocene-mongering times):

The very image of the worker seems to disintegrate before this recomposition of capital. The burly, “blue collared” line worker seems to blur in the oil crisis, diffracted into the female service worker and the abstracted computer programmer. The large concentrations of factory workers that proved so explosive are dispersed, the specific gravity of the worker’s presence is dramatically reduced. And it all feels so different! Your wages go up but they evaporate before you spend them, you confront your boss but he cries that “he has bills to pay,” and even more deeply, you don’t see your exploitation any more. On the line, you literally could observe the crystallization of your labor power into the commodity, you could see your life vanishing down the line, you could feel the materialization of your alienation. But in the service industries, your surplus labor seems to be non-existent, even “non-productive,” just” a paid form of “housework,” cleaning bedpans, massaging jogger’s muscles, scrambling eggs. While in the “energy/information” sector you seem to be engulfed by the immense fixed capital surrounding you, it feels as if you were not exploited at all, but a servant of the machine, even “privileged” to be part of the “brains of the system.” These feelings disorient struggles. As the vast spatial migrations “to look for a job” disaggregate militant circles, the old bastions are isolated and appear archaic, almost comic.


The divergence of prices and values is nothing new. On the contrary, it has always been an essential aspect of capitalist rule. Values (worktime) must be transformed into prices and this transformation is never one-to-one. The essence of the transformation of values into prices is that though capital extracts surplus value locally, it does not let those who do the extracting command and expend this surplus value. The hand of capital is different from its mouth and its asshole. This transformation is real, but it causes illusions in the brains of both capitalists and workers (including you and me!). It all revolves around mineness, the deepest pettiness in the Maya of the system. For capital appears as little machines, packets of materials, little incidents of work, all connected with little agents of complaint, excuse and hassle. Each individual capitalist complains about “my” money, each individual worker cries about “my” job, each union official complains about “my” industry; tears flow everywhere, apparently about different things, so that capitalism’s house is an eternal soap opera. But mineness is an essential illusion, though illusion all the same. Capital is social, as is work, and pitiless as Shiva to the complainers, but needs their blindness to feed itself. It no more rewards capitalists to the extent that they exploit than it rewards workers to the extent that they are exploited. There is no justice for anyone but itself.

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