From a Marxist perspective, understanding the link between them, or between knowledge and politics, requires a theory of social abstraction. More precisely, the Marxist account of ‘real abstraction’ would provide the key required for the strategic articulation of cognitive abstraction with social abstraction. But if, as Alfred Sohn-Rethel maintained, the latter asymmetrically determines the former then the reassertion of their symmetry will be summarily dismissed as idealist delusion. By the same token, the varieties of representational modeling that, on Srnicek and Williams’ account, are supposed to yield cognitive traction on the abstract dynamics of capital will be disqualified in advance by the claim that such representation is congenitally blind to its own social determination. This demotion of representation follows from the bald claim that capital’s real subsumption of intellectual labour reduces all scientific representation to calculation, aping the abstractions of the value-form. But this in turn invites perplexity as to what exactly distinguishes ‘good’, i.e. cognitively virtuous and politically emancipatory abstraction, from ‘bad’, i.e. cognitively deficient and politically reactionary abstraction. How do the abstract categories of the Marxist dialectic – capital, labour, value-form, commodity, circulation, production, etc. – succeed or fail to map contemporary social reality when deployed in competing (and often politically antagonistic) explanations? What theory is fit to recognise ‘the real movement abolishing the present state of things’ in conditions of real subsumption?
I want to broach this question by contrasting accelerationism’s attempt at tracking the ‘real movement’ with that of Jacques Camatte, whose text The Wandering of Humanity is not only contemporaneous with those of classical accelerationism but shares their central premise – labour’s complete integration into capital – while drawing a radically different conclusion. Capital’s ‘domestication’ of humanity is to be countered not through the Nietzschean overcoming of the ‘all too human’ (the unleashing of desiring-production, etc.) but through the human community’s complete exit from the ‘community of capital’ enforced under real subsumption. Camatte’s analyses in many ways prefigure those of contemporary proponents of communisation. The group Endnotes define communisation as ‘the direct destruction of the self-reproducing relation in which workers as workers – and capital as self-valorising value – are and come to be.’ But as we shall see, Endnotes reject Camatte’s account of the logic of subsumption as well as his claim that human communities can withdraw from capital’s self-reproducing relation. They argue (rightly, in my view) that there can be no exit from the capital relation because it constitutes us: ‘What we are is, at the deepest level, constituted by this relation, and it is a rupture with the reproduction of what we are that will necessarily form the horizon of our struggles.’ Thus there can be no secession from the capital relation, only its abolition. Communisation is the name for this abolition-in-process. This is a lucid and compelling thesis. But it is the exact sense in which we are constituted by the capital relation, as well as the link between the cognitive and practical conditions for its abolition, that I would like to examine below. The rationale for doing so is the following: although radically antagonistic, communisation and accelerationism can be usefully contrasted in such a way that each illuminates the other’s blindspot in the articulation of cognitive and social abstraction.
1. — The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism — that of Feuerbach included — is that the Object [der Gegenstand], actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object [Objekts], or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism — but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects [Objekte], differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective [gegenständliche] activity. In The Essence of Christianity [Das Wesen des Christenthums], he therefore regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance [Erscheinungsform]. Hence he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’, activity.
2. — The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.
3. — The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.
4. — Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-estrangement [Selbstentfremdung], of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular [weltliche] one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated [vernichtet] theoretically and practically.
5. — Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants sensuous contemplation [Anschauung]; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.
6. — Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man [menschliche Wesen = ‘human nature’]. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence is hence obliged:
- To abstract from the historical process and to define the religious sentiment regarded by itself, and to presuppose an abstract — isolated - human individual.
- The essence therefore can by him only be regarded as ‘species’, as an inner ‘dumb’ generality which unites many individuals only in a natural way.
7. — Feuerbach consequently does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual that he analyses belongs in reality to a particular social form.
8. — All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.
9. — The highest point reached by contemplative [anschauende] materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals and of civil society [bürgerlichen Gesellschaft].
10. — The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity.
11. — Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
— Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach, 1845
Considering the social capital in its totality, the movement of its accumulation now causes periodical changes, affecting it more or less as a whole, now distributes its various phases simultaneously over the different spheres of production. In some spheres a change in the composition of capital occurs without increase of its absolute magnitude, as a consequence of simple centralisation; in others the absolute growth of capital is connected with absolute diminution of its variable constituent, or of the labour power absorbed by it; in others again, capital continues growing for a time on its given technical basis, and attracts additional labour power in proportion to its increase, while at other times it undergoes organic change, and lessens its variable constituent; in all spheres, the increase of the variable part of capital, and therefore of the number of labourers employed by it, is always connected with violent fluctuations and transitory production of surplus population, whether this takes the more striking form of the repulsion of labourers already employed, or the less evident but not less real form of the more difficult absorption of the additional labouring population through the usual channels. With the magnitude of social capital already functioning, and the degree of its increase, with the extension of the scale of production, and the mass of the labourers set in motion, with the development of the productiveness of their labour, with the greater breadth and fulness of all sources of wealth, there is also an extension of the scale on which greater attraction of labourers by capital is accompanied by their greater repulsion; the rapidity of the change in the organic composition of capital, and in its technical form increases, and an increasing number of spheres of production becomes involved in this change, now simultaneously, now alternately. The labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population; and it does this to an always increasing extent. This is a law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production; and in fact every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population, historically valid within its limits and only in so far as man has not interfered with them.
But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost. Independently of the limits of the actual increase of population, it creates, for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation. With accumulation, and the development of the productiveness of labour that accompanies it, the power of sudden expansion of capital grows also; it grows, not merely because the elasticity of the capital already functioning increases, not merely because the absolute wealth of society expands, of which capital only forms an elastic part, not merely because credit, under every special stimulus, at once places an unusual part of this wealth at the disposal of production in the form of additional capital; it grows, also, because the technical conditions of the process of production themselves — machinery, means of transport, &c. — now admit of the rapidest transformation of masses of surplus-product into additional means of production. The mass of social wealth, overflowing with the advance of accumulation, and transformable into additional capital, thrusts itself frantically into old branches of production, whose market suddenly expands, or into newly formed branches, such as railways, &c., the need for which grows out of the development of the old ones. In all such cases, there must be the possibility of throwing great masses of men suddenly on the decisive points without injury to the scale of production in other spheres. Overpopulation supplies these masses. The course characteristic of modern industry, viz., a decennial cycle (interrupted by smaller oscillations), of periods of average activity, production at high pressure, crisis and stagnation, depends on the constant formation, the greater or less absorption, and the re-formation of the industrial reserve army or surplus population. In their turn, the varying phases of the industrial cycle recruit the surplus population, and become one of the most energetic agents of its reproduction. This peculiar course of modern industry, which occurs in no earlier period of human history, was also impossible in the childhood of capitalist production. The composition of capital changed but very slowly. With its accumulation, therefore, there kept pace, on the whole, a corresponding growth in the demand for labour. Slow as was the advance of accumulation compared with that of more modern times, it found a check in the natural limits of the exploitable labouring population, limits which could only be got rid of by forcible means to be mentioned later. The expansion by fits and starts of the scale of production is the preliminary to its equally sudden contraction; the latter again evokes the former, but the former is impossible without disposable human material, without an increase, in the number of labourers independently of the absolute growth of the population. This increase is effected by the simple process that constantly “sets free” a part of the labourers; by methods which lessen the number of labourers employed in proportion to the increased production. The whole form of the movement of modern industry depends, therefore, upon the constant transformation of a part of the labouring population into unemployed or half-employed hands. The superficiality of Political Economy shows itself in the fact that it looks upon the expansion and contraction of credit, which is a mere symptom of the periodic changes of the industrial cycle, as their cause. As the heavenly bodies, once thrown into a certain definite motion, always repeat this, so is it with social production as soon as it is once thrown into this movement of alternate expansion and contraction. Effects, in their turn, become causes, and the varying accidents of the whole process, which always reproduces its own conditions, take on the form of periodicity. When this periodicity is once consolidated, even Political Economy then sees that the production of a relative surplus population — i.e., surplus with regard to the average needs of the self-expansion of capital — is a necessary condition of modern industry.
At the foundations of Horkheimer’s analysis is the belief that “Work and misery no longer come together, people no longer experience both.” Here is the nub of Horkheimer’s account: those who work enjoy a degree of comforts (a tragic situation for revolutionary foment); those who do not, live a life of sheer suffering, a suffering that can only set them free in the long run. And while I will not elaborate this point here, I would argue that it is this claim that grounds the larger Frankfurt School account of political economy. It is the kind of claim Herbert Marcuse will make famous with his vision of “Liberation from the Affluent Society.” According to Marcuse, “The insanity of the society…is the degree to which it is capable of conquering poverty and reducing the toil of labor and the time of labor and of raising the standard of living.” It is insane to ease the lives of poor people (at least ones with jobs), or, more important, it is insane to rid society of poor people, because those formerly revolutionary (“wretched”) subjects necessarily find themselves more “integrated” (a word in obsessive circulation) into capitalist society. They won’t risk revolution, because their lives are too “comfortable.”
This is what Horkheimer means when he says (in a later piece of writing) that “Marx’s and Engel’s teaching that the struggle for higher wages and shorter hours of work would finally put an end to the prehistory of mankind is a pathetically secularized Messianism, infinitely inferior to the authentic one.” Marx and Engels were duped (like the employed poor) into believing that unions could save them. Beginning in 1940 Horkheimer developed a broad-ranging and influential thesis about unions, what he called “the theory of rackets.” In a world defined by rackets “All have become employees, and in the civilization of employees” everyone loses their “dignity.” As he put it in the same note on Marx and Engels, “rackets control everything more or less according to plan, the capitalists through conflicts among each other and with the unions.” It is important to see that Franz Neumann, at the same moment Horkheimer put forward the “racket theory” responded in detail with his account of Behemoth (1942). As Neumann observes in his introductory note to the book, he chose the word Behemoth to explain National Socialism because it described a “non-state, a chaos, a rule of lawlessness and anarchy,” which is to say, it was anything but in “control of everything according to plan.”
Alongside this symbolic and political decline of the problem of the working class, one finds the development of new social movements and a radical critique of classical Marxism. In a conference given in Japan in 1978, Michel Foucault asked whether we weren’t beginning to witness “in this period of the end of the 20th century, something like the end of the age of Revolution.” By this, as Michael C. Behrent astutely points out, he meant not an “end of the revolution” resembling the one imagined by François Furet, but “rather [an age] of the proliferation of struggles, the aim of which is to redistribute the power differential in society.” Such a reconfiguration of struggles announced the end of the centrality of the working class and the intensification of the kinds of actions—for the “excluded,” the “marginal,” and the other “subalterns”—dear to Foucault. And it was this increasing importance of occupying buildings for the homeless, distributing food to African immigrants, or demonstrating for prisoners’ rights, etc. that led Sartre to understand this as a transition towards a “moral Marxism” and to see these actions as essentially “moral gestures,” the moral dimension residing precisely in the increasing displacement of questions of exploitation by concerns about “minorities,” the “marginal,” and the “excluded”—in short, by questions of domination and discrimination.
This well-known displacement in Western Marxism compelled many thinkers and movements to redefine their sense of the “social agents who could play the role of the revolutionary subject, as understudies who might replace an indisposed working class: Third World peasants, students, intellectuals, the excluded.” It was along these same lines, for example, that the Marxist theoretician Herbert Marcuse defended the position that the traditional working class had been thoroughly “integrated” into the capitalist system, and that only “active minorities” and the “young, middle-class intelligentsia” were henceforth capable of radical political action. For Marcuse, these “under-privileged” groups, “humiliated, frustrated, oppressed, victims of segregation” might now, allied with students, constitute a decisive element in the unleashing of social revolts. The epicenter of social shocks to come was not to be found in the classical proletariat, but among the “unemployed,” the “blacks in the ghettos,” and other marginalized “ethnic” groups. For Marcuse, it was thus self-evident that “modifications in the structure of capitalism alter the basis for the development and organization of potentially revolutionary forces,” a view that would be similarly consecrated by André Gorz’s defense of the idea that the classical worker had disappeared, taking with him “the class able to take charge of the socialist project and translate it into reality.” For Gorz, today, “the majority of the population now belong to the post-industrial neo-proletariat which, with no job security or definite class identity, fills the area of probationary, contracted, casual, temporary and part-time employment.” Unlike Marx’s proletariat, this subject no longer defines itself “with respect to its position in the process of social production,” but rather by the fact that it appears to belong to no class, by the very exclusion from society that is the source of its radical potential and its potential radicality. As a “non-class,” it doesn’t seek emancipation from within labor, but rather more generally from labor. Gorz thus offers a fundamental critique not only of Marxism, but of the idea of progress and of the “meaning of History.” It is no longer possible to imagine a highly industrialized society beneficial to all like the one Marx dreamed of. At best, we might be able to conceive, parallel to such a society, of increasing “areas of autonomy” freed from labor. At which point, it’s no longer a question of seizing “power,” but of constructing, on its margins, other forms of agency, other organizational forms.
Marx often says that what is hidden in capitalist society is clearly visible in feudal society or in the primitive community, but precisely in the latter societies we can clearly see that the economic is not directly and clearly visible!—just as in these same societies we can also clearly see that the degree of effectivity of the different levels of the social structure is not clearly visible!
Anthropologists and ethnologists ‘know’ what to confine themselves to when, seeking the economic, they come up with kinship relations, religious institutions, etc.; specialists in medieval history ‘know’ what to confine themselves to when, seeking for the dominant determination of history in ‘economy’, they find it in politics or religion. In all these cases, there is no immediate grasp of the economic, there is no raw economic ‘given’, any more than there is any immediately ‘given’ effectivity in any of the levels. In all these cases, the identification of the economic is achieved by the construction of its concept, which presupposes a definition of the specific existence and articulation of the different levels of the structure of the whole, as they are necessarily implied by the mode of production considered.
To construct the concept of the economic is to define it rigorously as a level, instance or region of the structure of a mode of production: it is therefore to define its peculiar site, its extension, and its limits within that structure; if we like to return to the old Platonic image, it is to ‘divide up’ the region of the economic correctly in the whole, according to its particular ‘articulation’, without mistaking this articulation. The ‘division’ of the ‘given’, or empiricist division, always mistakes the articulation, precisely because it projects on to the ‘real’ the arbitrary articulations and divisions of its underlying ideology. There is no correct division and therefore no correct articulation, except on condition of possessing and therefore constructing its concept. In other words, in primitive societies it is not possible to regard any fact, and practice apparently unrelated to the ‘economy’ (such as the practice which are produced by kinship rites or religious rites, or by the relations between groups in ‘potlatch’ competition), as rigorously economic, without first having constructed the concept of the differentiation of the structure of the social whole into these different practices or level, without having discovered their peculiar meaning in the structure of the whole, without having identified in the disconcerting diversity of these practices the region of economic practice, its configuration and its modalities.
It is probable that the majority of the difficulties of contemporary ethnology and anthropology arise from their approaching the ‘facts’, the ‘givens’ of (descriptive) ethnography, without taking the theoretical precaution of constructing the concept of their object: this omission commits them to projecting on to reality the categories which define the economic for them in practice, i.e., the categories of the economics of contemporary society, which to make matters worse, are often themselves empiricist. This is enough to multiply aporia.
If we follow Marx here, too, this detour via primitive societies, etc., will only have been necessary in order to see clearly in them what our own society hides from us: i.e., in order to see clearly in them that the economic is never clearly visible, does not coincide with the ‘given’ in them any more than in any other reality (political, ideological, etc.). […]
Despite the massive ‘obviousness’ of the economic ‘given’ in the capitalist mode of production, and precisely because of the ‘massive’ character of this fetishised ‘obviousness’, the only way to the essence of the economic is to construct its concept, i.e., to reveal the site occupied in the structure of the whole by the region of the economic, therefore to reveal the articulation of this region with other regions…and the degree of presence (or effectivity) of the other regions in the economic region itself.
If men relate their products to one another as values insofar as these objects count as merely objectified husks of homogeneous human labour, there lies at the same time in that relationship the reverse, that their various labours only count as homogeneous human labour when under objectified husk. They relate their various labours to one another as human labour by relating their products to one another as values. The personal relationship is concealed by the objectified form. So just what a value is does not stand written on its forehead. In order to relate their products to one another as commodities, men are compelled to equate their various labours to abstract human labour. They do not know it, but they do it, by reducing the material thing to the abstraction, value. This is a primordial and hence unconsciously instinctive operation of their brain, which necessarily grows out of the particular manner of their material production and the relationships into which this production sets them. First their relationship exists in a practical mode. Second, however, their relationship exists as relationship for them. The way in which it exists for them or is reflected in their brain arises from the very nature of the relationship. Later, they attempt to get behind the mystery of their own social product by the aid of science, for the determination of a thing as value is their product, just as much as speech. Now as far as concerns the amount of value, we note that the private labours which are plied independently of one another (but because they are members of the primordial division of labour are dependent upon one another) on all sides are constantly reduced to their socially proportional measure by the fact that in the accidental and perpetually shifting exchange relationships of their products the labour-time which is socially necessary for their production forcibly obtrudes itself as a regulating natural-law, just as the law of gravity does, for example, when the house falls down on one’s head. The determination of the amount of value by the labour-time is consequently the mystery lurking under the apparent motions of the relative commodity-values. The producers’ own social movement possesses for them the form of a motion of objects under the control of which the producers lie instead of controlling the motion. As far as concerns the value-form finally, we note that it is just exactly this form which objectively veils the social relationships of private workers and consequently the social determinations of private labours, instead of laying them bare. If I say that coat, boots, etc. relate themselves to linen as universal materialization of abstract human labour, the insanity in such a way of putting things leaps into view. But if the producers of coat, boots, etc. relate these commodities to linen as universal Equivalent, then the social relatedness of their private labours appears to them in exactly this insane form.