Sunday, 17 January 2016

What is a worker? The partial truth of neo-liberalism

According to Marx, the proletariat is the class of people who are deprived of means of production and therefore forced to sell their labour-power to secure their livelihood. Labour-power, as Marx writes, is a peculiar commodity that produces more value than is needed for its own reproduction. By working for the capitalist, the workers therefore produce more value for the capitalist than they get back; their labour-power becomes a source of surplus-value for the capitalist.

It goes without saying that workers as an empirical existence are more complex than this. But even as an analytical construct the worker is not a simple category in Marx. Looking at the above definition, we can see that it refers to more than the function of producing surplus-value for the capitalist. Centrally, it refers to the act of "selling" a particular commodity, namely labour-power. Here I will suggest that the worker can be seen as a composite category, in which the function of producing surplus-value for the capitalist is only a part. In addition, workers are themselves part capitalist and part commodity.  

Why is the worker part capitalist? In selling a commodity such as labour-power, there seems to be little in principle that distinguishes the worker from a small-scale capitalist, except for the peculiar nature of this commodity. That they have nothing else to sell but their labour-power is the crucial fact that, so to speak, dooms them and makes them uniquely disadvantaged since it prevents them from appropriating the surplus-value that their labour creates. Even while behaving like small-scale capitalists on the market, the nature of the commodity therefore bars them from becoming part of the capitalist-class. The point I want to make here, however, is that a worker is not just a person who works for the capitalist, but also a person whose work is mediated by the market and who in that sphere is forced to behave in a way that resembles that of a capitalist. The analogy with the capitalist doesn't stop at the sphere of circulation since the worker is not just a seller, but also a producer of labour-power. This production may take place through the unremunerated labour of family-members, but also through the education system. This, of course, is what opens up for the neoliberal discourse of everyone being his or her own “enterprise” (Foucault 2008:148) and the dream of a society where everyone is supposed to behave as entrepreneurs. In today's society, which is increasingly shaped by this dream, the worker thus becomes a person who invests in her future through education and training, who has to take risks and face competition, who needs to marketize and advertize herself, whose product can be depreciated, whose unemployment is nothing but well-deserved creative destruction and so on. 

The readiness of workers to transform themselves in accordance with this dream sholdn't be wholly surprising from a Marxist viewpoint. Labour-power, in fact, is not just a commodity, but like all commodities a form of capital ("human capital" in neo-liberal parlance) and in managing this capital the worker is part capitalist. Like other forms of capital, labour power goes through cycles of production and circulation. For instance, to use the categories of Volume 2 of Capital one might observe that labour power isn't simply fluid capital (as Marx tends to say) but also often a form of fixed capital in which investments have been made by schools, employers, parents and workers themselves. Labour-power is a product that may be stored, transported, advertized, and sold. Some commentators have remarked on the fact that workers seem to figure so little in Volume 2, which they say tends to focus on the activities of capitalists – but isn’t this an illusion created by the fact that the worker is in fact partially a capitalist? Wouldn’t it be better to say that Volume 2 does analyze the worker, but indirectly, from the particular angle of the worker-as-capitalist, and that this works rather fine in this volume since it focuses on circulation – a sphere where, unlike in production, the roles of workers and capitalists almost coincide?

Almost but not entirely. Workers are distinguished from the capitalist not just through their function in the production process but also through the fact that, unlike capitalists, their commodities are part of themselves. Marx importantly distinguishes between the worker and labour-power. Only the latter achieves existence as a commodity. Being physically inseparable from the worker, yet formally independent of him or her, labour-power takes shape as a commodity through an alienation of part of the worker’s self from him- or herself. The analytical separation doesn’t mean that the worker can dispose of labour-power just like other capitalists may dispose over their products. Alienation remains a problem since the separation is never complete. The commodity can never exist apart from the worker’s body,  through which the worker is chained to processes beyond his or her control. As Polanyi points out, labour-power is a “fictitious commodity” that cannot be produced and disposed of at will purely in response to economic pressures. Any attempt to do so would be socially intolerable. 

The worker, then, is a complex figure who doesn’t coincide with the pure function of creating surplus-value for the capitalist. This complexity of the worker has nothing to do with the empirical blurriness of class boundaries or the increasing differentiation of class in today’s societies (which is an enormous but separate field of study which I won't discuss here). The problem is that there is an analytical complexity about class in Marx. Unlike the capitalist, who is depicted as a capitalist pure and simple, the worker is portrayed as three things at once: an exploited person, a commodity and a potential capitalist.

I’d like to end by offering a reflection on the implications of this composite character of the worker  for an understanding of working-class politics, in particular for what Adorno in Minima Moralia calls "the grimly joking question: where is the proletariat?". This question deals, of course, with the old problem of class-consciousness and the puzzlement why the working class has accommodated itself to capitalism. Why is it so pleased with living a life as an exploited class rather than facing "with sober senses that real conditions of their lives” as and Marx & Engels hoped would happen in the Communist Manifesto? This puzzlement has of course been fruitful in its own way. Concepts like false consciousness, ideology, hegemony and so on have been used to find explanations.

However, we could also try to approach the problem from another angle. If the worker is simultaneously a person who provides the capitalist with surplus value, a commodity subject to economic laws, and a capitalist disadvantaged by the peculiarity of his or her product, then the contradictions faced by the worker are also bound to be multifarious and susceptible to being articulated in several different directions, none of which seem to be adequately described as "false consciousness". Instead, they are all possible versions of a "true" consciousness, or at least part of what such a true consciousness would be.

First, the "real conditions" that workers face are of course in part being forced into a system where they provide the bourgeoisie with surplus-value. From that vantage-point the interest of the worker is certainly to try to overturn that system or at least to claim a larger part of the surplus-value cake, as in classical social democracy. Having arrived at this realization, a political position that would be close at hand would seem to be to adopt the standpoint of "workers" to criticize capitalism and to try to advance the position of workers as far as possible.

Secondly, however, the process of "facing with sober senses the real conditions" of one's life as a worker may very well end up with workers endorsing the neoliberal ideology of the entrepreneurial self. Since workers function in a capitalist-like fashion at least during a certain stage of their economic life, a reflection on real conditions may make them want to pursue a competitive strategy of turning themselves into even more perfect embodiments of the neoliberal subject. Far from seeking to overturn the system, here the worker ends up trying to win out in the competition and thus legitimates the system. This appears to be the option pursued by a large part of the proletariat today, especially that part which identifies as middle-class. It is also the option encouraged by the expansion of the system of education.

But there is also a third possibility - namely that workers recall that their existence as commodies will prevent them from ever becoming real capitalists. The training and self-disciplination of the would-be entrepreneur reveals itself as a training to become the perfect commodity. To the extent that this realization inspires resistance, the form such resistance takes would seem to be the struggle for the liberation from labour (in Postone's sense). Such a struggle would be anti-capitalist, to be sure, but it wouldn't be pro-worker. Rather than furthering the position of workers, the goals would be the end of system where people are forced to turn themselves into commodities.

To repeat, all these possibilities seem equally "true". So what to do? There is certainly nothing automatic about the working class becoming an emancipatory force or being a trustworthy counterpoint to capital. Personally, I would go for the third possibility and try to explore the politics associated with it. But to anyone opting for the first or second, all I could reply would be: don't forget that your truth is only one of three! If you really want to face your conditions with sober senses, don't forget to reflect on all three of them.


Adorno, Theodor W. (1978) Minima Moralia, London: Verso.

Foucault, Michel (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979 (ed. Michel Senellart), New York: Picador.

Marx, Karl (1993) Capital : A Critique of Political Economy: Volume 2, London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich (1992) The Communist Manifesto, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Polanyi, Karl (1989) Den stora omdaningen: marknadsekonomins uppgång och fall, Lund: Arkiv förlag.

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