Translation from Spanish of a piece by John Brown, published 10th November 2016.
The societies we live in today are capitalist societies. A capitalist society is a class society. In class societies, a minority sector of the population appropriates the surplus of material production. By surplus of material production, we mean that part of wealth produced in excess of what has to be allocated for the reproduction of the life of the worker, and the reproduction of the means of production necessary in turn for this. In every class society, without exception, the principle of the Chinese philosopher Mencius holds: “Some work with their minds, others with their bodies. Those who work with their minds rule, those who work with their bodies are ruled. Those who are ruled produce food, those who rule are fed.” What justifies the appropriation of the surplus, according to Mencius, is the fact that there are those who have the knowledge of how to rule, and those who lack it. This is the usual justification in a bureaucratic society in which the ruling class and the State are fused together.
In any case, whatever the justification given, the appropriation of the surplus also requires legal sanction, which translates into ownership of the means of production, and an amount of potential violence in order to give effect to the rights associated with this ownership. A feudal lord can be the owner of the lands that a worker cultivates, but in order to collect his tributes, he needs armed men. The appropriation of the surplus by the ruling class, depends, in non-capitalist class societies, on a political relation of dependence with regard to the sovereign or the lord, and on a capacity for armed violence. Ownership of the means of production, whether the land or any other means, is an expression of the relation of the worker’s dependence upon the ruling class or particular members thereof. The appropriation of the surplus, or in other words, the exploitation of the worker, is carried out through the two elements that determine the political relation: the law that legitimates ownership of the means of production (mainly land) and the personal dependence of the worker, and the violence that creates and reproduces the social conditions for the law to function.
In non-capitalist class societies, relations of class and exploitation are not only visible but are openly justified by ideology and by law. A lord exploits the peasants who work in his fields because he exercises over them a political domination that is open, legal and legitimate. Elsewhere, in such societies, it is not the owner of the means of production who controls them during their use in production. A peasant in a feudal regime controls the productive process autonomously, without the interference of the lord-owner of the land. The latter only intervenes in order to appropriate the surplus already produced, and does so from outside the production process.
In capitalism, as Marx shows in the first book of Capital, exploitation is inseparable from the production process, and as such has no direct connection to a relation of political domination. The worker produces in the same day of work, and in an indistinguishable manner, the part of wealth necessary for the reproduction of her life (of her ability to work) and the surplus appropriated by the owner of the means of production. This owner, the capitalist, controls the entire production process and combines in this labour power (the capacity of human individuals to work) with machinery and raw materials, with the object of producing commodities. During this process the body and the potency of the labourer dominate, at least temporarily, without there being a political dependency of the worker with regard to the owner of the means of production. The appropriation of the surplus as such becomes invisible, since the boss pays the worker for her “work” as stipulated in the contract and appropriates as a net benefit the value of the part of production that is not turned into wages, in paying off the means of production, payment for raw materials or reinvestment. The political and social domination exercised over the worker by the owning class is no less invisible than the exploitation itself
Political domination is not, under capitalism, an explicit condition for exploitation. This allows capitalism to divide social activity into two major spheres: an economic sphere that is considered autonomous and self-regulated, ideally without political interference, and a political sphere that is also autonomous in which in principle economic inequalities play no part. Classes are thus rendered invisible, and liberalism historically has boasted of having constituted a society without classes, in contrast to the feudal society characterised by its juridical institutionalisation and ideological legitimation of classes. This separation of politics and economics is not based, however, on the disappearance of social inequality, but rather its rendering invisible by means of law and ideology.
Under capitalism, as in any class society, there exists a direct relation between exploitation and domination, but the fact that the exploitation takes place within the very labour process, in the economic sphere, does not allow this relation to be seen. This relation between domination and exploitation is invisible because it occurs on two levels that are neither perceptible nor formalised by either law or ideology, nor are they present in the consciousness of subjects: in the microphysical realm of productive processes, discipline in the factory or other spaces of production (now blurred in many cases with spaces where one lives), and in the macro-physical realm of overall political domination by the ruling class or classes unified in the State. Both dimensions, which are invisible in the intermediate space represented by law and the market, function outside the latter and they constitute, in Marx’s terms, forms of despotism (factory despotism) or dictatorship (class dictatorship).
The invisibility of exploitation and domination does not prevent the worker, even if unaware of them, from feeling their effects in her own body. Within the framework of freedom provided by law and the market, each worker feels, in one way or another, the submission and physical and mental atrophy that a regime of exploitation involves. However much the submission to a work regime organised by a boss might be seen as normal and not as ‘wage slavery’, resistance to exploitation does manifest itself, at the very least, and still unconsciously, as rejection, boredom, laziness, sabotage, as material, corporeal resilience. Neoliberalism, by intensifying exploitation and extending the space for labour into the entirety of life’s activities, has eliminated neither this dark feeling of submission, nor the sad passions that constitute it, nor people’s resistances against it whether individually or collectively. There are classes and there is class struggle, however much these appear invisible to the naked eye and the microscope and telescope of historical materialism are required to bring them to light. This does not mean that these classes are subjects with perfectly defined interests of their own, nor does it mean that they have a political programme arising spontaneously or through their own essence. This is so much the case that resistance to domination by capital can even prove, within certain limits, useful to capitalist development itself. Without class struggle there would have been no large-scale industry, or machinery, or rational organisation of labour, or computers, or communications revolution. All these innovations correspond to capital’s need to maintain the submission of the worker, be it through discipline of her body (in the phases of industrial capitalism that lead to Fordism) or as control over life and ways of life (under the present, post-Fordist, capitalism).
In the political, too, which under capitalism appears as an autonomous sphere, the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and other capitalist classes demands the mobilisation on the part of the ruling minority of wide sectors of social majorities, specifically the exploited sectors. As Althusser reminds us, the ruling class, by being few in number in society, has never been able to exercise its domination on its own, and has always needed, within the frame of its political action, to recruit among dominated sectors. This does not only mean that the ruling class unified in its State generates obedience throughout the whole of society, but that it actively mobilises for its party -or parties- masses of people from exploited and dominated categories. In certain cases, this mobilisation has been combined with forms of social negotiation such as Roosevelt’s New Deal, or the Keynesian, ordo-liberal and social-democratic policies of Europe following the Second World War. In other cases, there has been no negotiation as such, and this has translated into the offer of unilateral protection from an authoritarian leadership, as in the case of fascisms.
The victory, with strong support from popular and working class sections, of Donald Trump, a multimillionaire, racist, xenophobic, sexist and socially reactionary businessman, in the recent North American presidential elections, is not, in this context, any surprise. Nor is the fact that he won wide support among sections of the white working class and petty bourgeoisie. Given the impossible situation in which neoliberal capitalist rule, personified in the US elections by Hillary Clinton, found itself, unable to offer any kind of real social negotiation to popular sectors under attack from the neoliberal system of financial pillage, Donald Trump was able to portray himself as the candidate of resistance against globalisation, with a programme based on a rejection of free trade and the constitution of an ideological solidarity between popular and oligarchical sectors around the defence of a supposed North American white nation. The rejection of immigrants and free trade appears in Trump’s programme as the most widespread expression of rejection of the cosmopolitanism of globalised elites. In the same way, Ford, the foremost businessman in the automobile sector, and admired by Hitler, linked, in the 1930s, a common antisemitic and anti-cosmopolitan hatred of the Bolshevik Jew perverting the working class, which also included many poor Jews, and of the financial elite represented by a Jewish oligarchy symbolically associated to the name of Rothschild. Ford, however, had something to offer: a stable job and a decent wage in exchange for the obedience of workers under his despotic control. Ford, however, did not take up political roles and respected the separation between politics and economics that constitutes a pillar of the capitalist regime. This was possible in so far as the economy was a limited activity: material production and financial speculation had precise times, places and agents, and was territorialised in spaces such as the national economy, the factory, or financial centres. There were spheres of life that had nothing to do with the production of wealth. This model lasted until the 1970s, when it entered in crisis, no longer able to contain the demands for wages and rights from workers. Indeed, a wide section of workers played a leading role in revolts in major capitalist centres against the factory and its discipline, which converged with revolts of students and sections of the middle class.
Neoliberalism changed this situation entirely. In order to save capitalist profits, it destroyed the Fordist pact, making each worker a supposedly free economic agent, an entrepreneur. The relation between the worker and capital was no longer a collective negotiation as with Roosevelt’s New Deal or Fordism, but rather a strictly mercantile relation in which the worker is merely an agent of the market who submits to the conditions of the market. Labour and social rights fade away, and the State that had itself elevated collective bargaining into law, merely protects forms of individual contract. It did not take long for this to produce a redistribution upwards of wealth once the relation between wage incomes and capital incomes had been altered in favour of business profits, especially those of finance.
Elsewhere, the worker-cum-entrepreneur-of-the-self, increasingly lacking in rights, experiences the whole of life transformed into time and space for labour. Not only are the limits of the working day dissolved, but every activity, whether consumption, leisure or rest, is turned into a potential source of profits. Data exchanged through communications networks, as well as any other social activity, whether public, private, or even intimate, are turned into units of value that become the object of appropriation and trade for businesses. Nonetheless, the resistance, of workers now converted into a multitude put to work for capital, did not disappear. In fact, the demand for rights and social payments and the desire for access to consumption -indispensable conditions for the functioning of capitalism- were satisfied in the only possible and desirable way for finance capital: through debt. The debt crisis announced in 2008 that continues to work its effects put an end to this safety release valve. Easy credit was ended, and with it, the access to consumption of various goods for large sectors of society. The immediate consequence of this was a crisis in the system of political representation. It was no longer possible to maintain the illusion that debt was a merely economic reality and that the power of finance was not political, especially when the response of states to the crisis was a massive rescue operation for banks and financial entities. The illusion of a liberal State that gives economic agents a free hand such that the very creation of financial wealth for a few could generate positive (trickle-down) effects for the vast majority of the population, became evidence of a class power that imposed upon the population the payment of public and private debts that it had not chosen, or had no means of not choosing.
It is this ugly face of neoliberal political power that has been gradually showing its face in the near ten years of crisis that the system has undergone. This power has been turned directly into the collection agent for financial creditors, and as a consequence, for direct extortion of the surplus. In a way, neoliberal capitalism has returned to extra-economic forms of exploitation typical of pre-capitalist regimes. This produced a brutal crisis of representation: it is now impossible to make out as if the economy exists on the one hand and politics on the other. The economy is directly political and politics is exercised from the ruling classes and its State as a direct form of exploitation. Naturally, a situation such as this has eroded the democratic illusion in two senses: on one hand it has eroded the illusion, by showing the profound incompatibility between democracy and capitalism, but, on the other, it has eroded democracy itself, by turning it into something that broad sectors of societies reject, seeing in it only the form of their exploitation. The alternative presenting itself today is clear: either a democracy deployed against the capitalist order and its State; or a capitalist State highly personalised in boss-sovereigns such as Trump or Berlusconi, who impose capitalist rule in mafioso style, at once brutal and protectionist, offering protection in exchange for obedience, a global Corleone. Capitalism, following a long period in which it was able to play with the autonomy of the political and the correlative autonomy of the economic, is once again showing its nature, which, despite the disguise, was never absent, of a regime of class political domination and exploitation. Characters such as Trump or Marine Le Pen are the face of the new political regime of capital.