The Return of History

by nineteensixtyseven

The recent issue of the New Left Review contained an interesting paper by Michael Denning, ‘Wageless Life’ which aims to ‘decentre wage labour in our conception of life under capitalism’ by stressing the point that ‘capitalism begins not with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living.’ In other words:

‘Unemployment precedes employment, and the informal economy precedes the formal, both historically and conceptually. We must insist that ‘proletarian’ is not a synonym for ‘wage labourer’ but for dispossession, expropriation and radical dependence on the market. You don’t need a job to be a proletarian: wageless life, not wage labour, is the starting point in understanding the free market.’

‘Proletarianisation’, thus, was a definite historical process which, if we follow E.P. Thompson, disrupted the moral economy of pre-capitalist formations and which has, as Marx put it, ‘pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.”

What caught my attention most, however, was the historical analysis of the construction of ‘unemployment’ as a concept, and especially the comment that the ‘modern notion of unemployment depended on the normalization of employment, the intricate process by which participation in labour markets is made ordinary.’  This was by no means an even process, as a transitional craft consciousness remained as workers struggled against their separation from the means of production and the imposition of more authoritarian forms of socialised factory production on the one hand, and attempted to prevent the entry of unskilled and female workers to the labour market on the other.

The concept of unemployment itself also evolved from a symptom of idleness and individual failure to a more contingent phenomenon to be ‘insured’ against through contributory National Insurance.’ When the Great Depression exposed the limitations of this view it was then reconceptualised in terms of aggregate demand and integrated into the macro-economics of Keynesianism.

It struck me, of course, that this normalization of employment paralleled the normalization of the capitalist mode of production as the ‘natural’ state of affairs.  This, too, was an uneven process as the peasantry clung to pre-capitalist economic relations.  Indeed, upon the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 the reaction of peasants in some areas was to insist on the return of 19th communal forestry rights perceived to have been stolen from them in the act of enclosure.

This more generalised normalization of capitalism was reflected in the evolution of economics. The classical economists, including Smith and Marx, were all political economists in the sense that their analysis of ‘economics’ was synthesised with a wider view of society and the line between micro and macro was barely pronounced. Moreover, the classical school was predicated on variations of the labour theory of value, conceiving of value as a creation of production.

The labour theory of value had obvious political connotations and was of course developed into the basis of Marx’s argument for the exploitative nature of capitalism. More fundamentally, Marx exposed the social relations concealed in the commodity and transcended classical political economy by revealing the historical nature of these relations of production. Hilferding expressed the significance of this well in his response to Böhm-Bawerk that ‘the demonstration of the historic transitoriness of bourgeois relationships of production signifies the close of political economy as a bourgeois science and its foundation as a proletarian science.’

For the neoclassical school, however, value was not a product of objective social relations but was subjective in character. That is to say, as Mandel puts it, neoclassical economics and the theory of marginal utiltiy start ‘from individual consumption rather than social production’ and therefore:

‘whereas Marx and the classical economists start from the social character of the act of exchange, and regard exchange value as an objective link between owners (producers) of different commodities, the marginalists start from the individual character of needs, and regard exchange-value as a subjective link between the individual and the thing.’

In other words, the micro-economic and subjectivist starting position of the neo-classical theorists of marginal utility conceals conceals the true nature of the commodity as a product of definite social relations. These relations are presumed a priori and are thereby naturalised. It need not be added that these theorists had no theory of crisis until it took Schumpeter to recognise the systemic nature of capitalist crisis and internalise it as a positive- ‘creative destruction.’

The main issue with the subjectivist turn in economics was that it was essentially static. No system of thought which abstracted itself from the social character of the economy could integrate a conception of development, for history is in essence the product of social agents acting in aggregate. Perhaps this suited the post-1848 generation well, withdrawing to mathematical models in imitation of the fin de siècle retreat into the realm of the unconscious; the Austrian school of Carl Menger sharing a commonality with Vienna’s most famous father of psychoanalysis.

The fundamental point is that history, then and now, is dangerous and that is why the bourgeoisie were so keen to abstract from it or indeed have it declared ‘ended’ with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The knowledge that everything is potentially transitory is the elephant in room for any upholder of the status quo, whether in the 19th century or now.  Simply put, the idea that the current system had a beginning suggests the possibility that it also will end.  The symptoms suggest themselves.  9/11 has confounded the Hegelian unfolding of liberal democracy and September 2008 discredited the purveyors of neoliberalism theology. As Alan Greenspan’s mental universe imploded in front of Congress, commentators grasped around for some historical anchor to prevent them from drowning in the relativistic void resulting from postmodernism’s myopic destruction of the grand narrative.

Humanity faces huge choices as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. Economic and environmental catastrophes are not mere discourses and history has not ended so let us return to a critical engagement with the world around us as a prerequisite for changing it.


Filed under Economics, History, Marxism

2 responses to “The Return of History

  1. Dre

    Clearly ’employment’, leisure, idleness, independence/dependence are socially constructed, and are ideas/categories which depend on how both work and the distribution of its product are organised. But an important materialist historical variable to add here is the role of technology. From the earliest domestication of plants and animals, to the connected rise of machine production and the harnessing of fossil fuels (which has yielded three industrial revolutions, the third of which we live in the midst of) the dependence of production on human work and the abundance of product have changed dramatically. ‘Employment’ and ‘Unemployment’ in their classic senses were connected to the forms of social organisation that were dominant in the era of the first industrial revolution– which also gave us the Marxist oeuvre. This was a period in which labour’s threat to withhold labour gave it a power of command over the social product of work. How do we cope in a period in which unemployment and underemployment become in fact more common than permanent full time employment in many parts of the world, and in which since labour is not an object of demand, it is less clear how those who do not control the means of production can claim a fair share of the surplus product of labour?

  2. Very true, RD. As David Harvey has been saying, the latest financialised phase of capitalist development has been marked by the excessive power of capital over labour, as seen by chronic structural underemployment/unemployment and stagnating real wages.

    I think the answer could lie in the formation of a hegemonic bloc with the formally employed playing a central, or even the central, role but also encompassing those who are unemployed or are in marginal employment ie. short-term contracts, agency or outsourced non-unionised work. In so far as ‘claiming a fair share of the surplus product of labour’ means redistribution of profits through higher wages those in a strong position vis-a-vis capital can use more traditional forms of collective bargaining but also, on a national level, make political demands on the state for greater employment rights for the marginal. The latter could be helped to form unions of the unemployed, community organisations and other democratic collectives and work in unison with the labour movement. I’m thinking on my feet here but the inter-connectedness of the problem needs some joined-up solutions.

    In so far, however, as claiming a truly fair share of the surplus goes there would need to be intrusions into the realms of property rights and would require more radical solutions; nationalisation of credit, investment to meet social need, more democratic control of management structures etc

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