Labour in the Era of Fictitious Capital

By Norbert Trenkle
Never Work Conference presentation
Cardiff, 10 July 2015
Translation by Joe Keady
Original German available here


It is widely understood that social production in capitalist society takes the form of commodity production. That is why Marx quite rightly regarded the commodity as the “elementary form” of capitalist wealth and chose it as the analytical starting point for his critique of political economy. Economic theory has no idea at all what to do with this theoretical approach. It treats the notion that people mediate their sociality through the production and exchange of commodities as an anthropological truism. It never regards a human being as anything other than a potential private producer who manufactures things in order to exchange them with other private producers while always keeping his or her own particular interests in mind. The difference between wealth production in modern capitalist society and in traditional communities is therefore regarded as merely one of degree, with the caveat that the social division of labour is far more highly developed under modern capitalism due to technological advancements and the clever insight that people become more productive as they become more specialised.

This view is a simple projection that intrinsically legitimises capitalist relations as trans-historical. While commodities and money did exist in many pre-capitalist societies, their social significance was entirely different from that under capitalism. Interactions with commodities and money were always embedded in other forms of domination and social configurations that existed at the time (feudal dependency, traditional norms, patriarchal structures, religious belief systems, etc.), as Karl Polanyi has shown. By contrast, in capitalist society, commodities and money represent the universal form of wealth while simultaneously playing the role of social mediator. That is to say that individuals establish their relationships with one another and with the wealth they produce through commodities and money.

But when things are produced as commodities, the corresponding productive activities take on a very specific form. They are performed in a sphere apart from the diverse other social activities and they are subject to a specific instrumental logic, rationality, and time discipline. This common form has nothing to do with the particular content of the various activities. It can only be ascribed to the fact that they are performed for the purpose of commodity production. Based on this social structure, all these activities fall under a single rubric: labour.

Like the commodity, labour has a dual character. It is divided into a concrete side, which produces use value, and an abstract side, which produces value. Concrete labour is of interest to the commodity producer strictly insofar as he or she can only sell the produced commodity if it is of some use to the buyer. For the producer, use value is only a means to an extrinsic end: the transformation of abstract labour, as embodied by the commodity, into money. This is because money is the universal commodity or, as Marx called it, the queen of commodities or the commodity to which all other commodities refer. Put another way, money represents the abstract wealth of capitalist society or its universally recognised wealth.

In this respect, only the abstract side of labour is universally socially accepted because it alone enters into social circulation as value (represented by money) and remains as such. The concrete side of work, by contrast, terminates with each sale because use value then disappears from social circulation: an object’s utility becomes the buyer’s private affair. The material wealth that takes the form of use value under the conditions of commodity production is therefore always particular.

So we can say not only that labour is a form of activity in which capitalist wealth is produced in its specifically dual form; furthermore, it also fulfils the core function of social mediation. Or, to put it more precisely, it is the abstract side of work that fulfils this function while the concrete side remains subordinate.
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Ukraine: The Greece of the East?

By Tomas Konicz
Originally published in Telepolis, March 14, 2014
Translated from the original German by Joe Keady

The IMF, together with European institutions, is setting Ukraine’s future reform and economic policy

If we take International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials at their word, Ukrainian citizens will have to start drilling new holes in their belts so they can buckle them even tighter than they would otherwise have needed to. After a visit to Ukraine in early March, Reza Moghadam, director of the European Department of the IMF, said that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the new rulers’ zeal for reform. The current authorities in Kiev, he said, are fiercely determined to take on “an economic reform agenda.”

Members of the transitional government clarified what this meant shortly after the revolution in Kiev. In late February, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced “unpopular steps” that would lead Ukraine “out of its financial crisis.” In more concrete terms, Yatsenyuk was talking about cutting the national budget by laying off and reducing the wages of public servants.

In early March, shortly before Moghadam’s visit to Kiev, Yatsenyuk made himself even clearer by announcing the transitional government’s total subordination to the Monetary Fund’s dictates. According to a report in the Financial Times (FT), a few hours before the Monetary Fund’s delegation arrived, he declared that his administration would “meet all IMF conditions.” According to Yatsenyuk, there is a simple reason for this servile approach: “We don’t have any other options.” By saying so, the Prime Minister articulated the weakened negotiating position of a new transitional government that can no longer maneuver between East and West but rather has to meet the West’s demands in order to survive politically.

According to the FT, the Ukrainian leader made these comments before a “meeting of European business people in Kiev” – people who were obviously looking to explore Ukrainian investment and buyout opportunities firsthand. Yatsenyuk was apparently determined not to disappoint his illustrious audience. The Prime Minister affirmed that he would consider “privatizing parts of Ukraine’s crude oil and gas sectors.” The FT noted that these are, after all, “Ukraine’s strategic assets.”

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The Price of Progress

By Boaventura de Sousa Santos
Originally published on Pú, June 21, 2013
Translated by Joe Keady

Boaventura de Sousa Santos
Doctor of Sociology of Law, Yale University, and professor of sociology at the University of Coimbra, Portugal

[Photo source: Salon]

When they elected Dilma Roussef to the presidency, the Brazilian people opted to move more rapidly toward global-power status. Much of the leadership for that push came from behind, yet it had a new drive: the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (a.k.a. Rio+20) in 2012; the World Cup in 2014; the Olympic Games in 2016; fighting for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council; an active role in the growing prominence of the “emerging economies,” also kown as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa); the naming of José Graziano da Silva as director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2012 and Roberto Azevêdo as director general of the World Trade Organization starting in 2013; an aggressive policy of exploiting natural resources in Brazil as well as in Africa, primarily in Mozambique; and promotion of major industrial agriculture, particularly for soy, biofuel, and livestock production.

As the beneficiary of the positive international public image that President Lula da Silva and his socially inclusive policies have earned, this forward-looking Brazil stands before the world as a new kind of benevolent, inclusive power. So there could not have been more international surprise at the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets of Brazil’s major cities this past week. And while the recent demonstrations in Turkey were immediately understood as indicative of “two Turkeys,” it was more difficult to see “two Brazils.” Yet there they are, right before our very eyes. What makes it difficult to see is the very nature of the “other Brazil,” a Brazil that eludes simplistic analyses. That Brazil is made up of three narratives and temporalities. The first is the narrative of social exclusion (one of the most unequal countries in the world), estate-owning oligarchs, violent despotism, and restrictive and racist political elites. It is a narrative that dates back to the colonial era and has been reproduced in constantly evolving forms right up to the present day.

The second narrative is that of the demand for participatory democracy, which goes back some 25 years and reached its zenith in the constituent process that produced the 1988 Constitution, in the participatory premises of urban politics in hundreds of cities, in the 1992 impeachment of president Collor de Mello, and in the creation of citizens’ councils in the main areas of public policy, particularly in health care and education, at different administrative levels (municipal, regional, and federal).

The third narrative goes back just barely ten years and has to do with the vast social inclusion policies that President Lula adopted starting in 2003. They reduced poverty significantly, created a middle class with a lofty consumerist vocation, acknowledged racial discrimination against people of African descent and the indigenous population, and led to affirmative action policies and greater recognition of quilombola [descendants of slaves] and indigenous territories.

Since President Dilma came to power, these last two narratives have slowed down or even stopped. And since politics cannot allow a vacuum, this fallow terrain has been occupied by the first, older narrative, fortified under the new vestments of capitalist development and new (as well as old) forms of corruption. Participatory democratic forms were co-opted, neutralized at the command of large-scale infrastructure and mega-projects. They ceased to motivate the younger generations orphaned by family life and integrative community, dazzled by the new consumerism and blinded by a desire to participate in it. Policies supporting social inclusion ran out of steam and ceased to respond to the expectations of those who felt that they deserved more and better. The quality of urban life deteriorated in the name of international prestige events that absorbed investments that should have been used to improve transportation, education, and public services in general. The persistence of racism in both the social fabric in general and the police force specifically became apparent. Indigenous and rural leaders were murdered with growing frequency, having been demonized by political elites as “obstacles to growth” simply for fighting for their own land and their way of life against agribusiness and mining and hydroelectric mega-projects (such as the Belo Monte Dam, dedicated to providing cheap energy for the extraction industry).

President Dilma was the standard bearer for this insidious change. She assumed an attitude of undisguised hostility toward social movements and indigenous people, a drastic change from her predecessor’s perspective. She fought corruption, but she left the issues that she considered less important to her more conservative political allies. So, for example, the Commission for Human Rights, which has historically been committed to minority rights, was handed over to a homophobic evangelical pastor who sponsored a bill known as the “gay cure.” The demonstrations show that it was in fact the president, rather than the country at large, who woke up. With her eyes on the international experiment, as well as the 2014 presidential elections, President Dilma has made it clear that repressive responses would only intensify the conflict and isolate governmental authorities. With that in mind, the mayors of nine cities have already decided to reduce the price of public transportation. But that is hardly even a beginning. If they are to be consistent, the other two narratives (participatory democracy and intercultural social inclusion) will have to reclaim their past dynamism. If that happens, Brazil will show the world that the price of progress is only worth paying if it deepens democracy, redistributes wealth, and recognizes the cultural and political difference of those who regard progress without dignity as a step backward.

‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’ by Gilles Deleuze

[This brief essay, nearly a quarter of a century old now, has never been more timely. -Ed.]

Postscript on the Societies of Control
By Gilles Deleuze
Originally published in L’autre journal, No. I, May 1990.
Original French version here
Translator: Unknown [Credit your translators, folks!]


I. Historical

Foucault located the disciplinary societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; they reach their height at the outset of the twentieth. They initiate the organization of vast spaces of enclosure. The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first the family; then the school (“you are no longer in your family”); then the barracks (“you are no longer at school”); then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison, the preeminent instance of the enclosed environment. It’s the prison that serves as the analogical model: at the sight of some laborers, the heroine of Rossellini’s Europa ’51 could exclaim, “I thought I was seeing convicts.”

Foucault has brilliantly analyzed the ideal project of these environments of enclosure, particularly visible within the factory: to concentrate; to distribute in space; to order in time; to compose a productive force within the dimension of space-time whose effect will be greater than the sum of its component forces. But what Foucault recognized as well was the transience of this model: it succeeded that of the societies of sovereignty, the goal and functions of which were something quite different (to tax rather than to organize production, to rule on death rather than to administer life); the transition took place over time, and Napoleon seemed to effect the large-scale conversion from one society to the other. But in their turn the disciplines underwent a crisis to the benefit of new forces that were gradually instituted and which accelerated after World War II: a disciplinary society was what we already no longer were, what we had ceased to be.

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure–prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors–scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons. But everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods. It’s only a matter of administering their last rites and of keeping people employed until the installation of the new forces knocking at the door. These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing disciplinary societies. “Control” is the name Burroughs proposes as a term for the new monster, one that Foucault recognizes as our immediate future. Paul Virilio also is continually analyzing the ultrarapid forms of free-floating control that replaced the old disciplines operating in the time frame of a closed system. There is no need to invoke the extraordinary pharmaceutical productions, the molecular engineering, the genetic manipulations, although these are slated to enter the new process. There is no need to ask which is the toughest regime, for it’s within each of them that liberating and enslaving forces confront one another. For example, in the crisis of the hospital as environment of enclosure, neighborhood clinics, hospices, and day care could at first express new freedom, but they could participate as well in mechanisms of control that are equal to the harshest of confinements. There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.

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Saturating the Human Wellbeing Market

By Mateo Aguado
Original Spanish version published in Rebelión
Translation by Joe Keady

As we all know, a substantial portion of our human wellbeing depends on the possibility of satisfying  certain material needs, needs that we, in a market economy, meet through consumption. The inequalities that exist in the world, however, mean that everyone does not have the same opportunity for consumer action; those opportunities are always greater in the wealthier, more “developed” countries, which is to say countries with higher GDP per capita.

Although GDP has traditionally been used to compare social progress and human wellbeing internationally, many researchers have criticized that usage and questioned the extent to which a country’s average income might actually reflect the well being of its citizens. That criticism of GDP as an indicator of progress can be summed up as follows: a) using a mathematical average ignores social inequality; b) it does not incorporate other factors that have a significant impact on wellbeing, such as life expectancy, amount of available leisure time, or environmental degradation; c) it does not consider production through black market labor or from labor that the marketplace does not provide (such as domestic or voluntary labor); and d) it calculates aspects that do not create wellbeing (such as military expenditures) while simultaneously ignoring aspects that do (such as artistic heritage).

While there are studies that differ, the ones that have been completed to date on the relationship between income and human wellbeing have shown that, past a certain threshold (between $13-18,000 dollars annually per person), higher income do not improve the quality of a person’s life (1). Which is to say that there is a threshold above which the relationship between income and wellbeing disappears; above which more money does not mean greater life satisfaction.

Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that a proportionate relationship between per capita GDP and life satisfaction does exist below $13,000 annually per person. In that case, small increases in income bring significant improvements in life satisfaction. That is to say that income and wellbeing do develop in parallel in those cases where almost all income is allocated to meeting the most basic needs (such as eating when the food supply is uncertain), which are the ones that have the greatest impact on wellbeing.

In any case, once a certain necessary income level has been reached that is sufficient to guarantee access to the basic material needs to live well, an increase in income no longer entails a relative increase in the quality of life. In that case, income may increase tremendously without corresponding to human wellbeing at all.

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‘Revolutionary Mythology and Revolutionary Reality’ by Rudolf Rocker

Originally published in Die Freie Gesellschaft, Vol. 4, Issue 36/37, 1952
Original German version available via here.
Good intro to Rocker’s work available here.
Translated by one Joe Keady.

Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958) was a bookbinder, member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and anarchist activist from Mainz, Germany. He fled to London in 1895 where he was active in the Jewish labor movement and edited Yiddish newspapers. He was interned during World War I and in 1919 returned to Germany where he co-founded the Free Workers’ Union of Germany (FAUD). He drafted the FAUD’s Declaration of Syndicalist Principles and remained one of its leaders until he immigrated to the United States in 1933. He was also a major influence on the development of the German anarcho-syndicalist movement and the Federation of Libertarian Socialists (FFS) after World War II.

Revolution and the Cult of Revolution

The impression that a thing creates from afar is always different from how it appears up close. Both perspectives have their advantages, but they have disadvantages as well. When we observe a landscape from a distance, we can see how distinct elements interrelate with one another. We get a complete picture rather than just segments of it. As we move closer we see things more clearly, but we lose the overall impression that can give us perspective: As the saying goes, we can’t see the forest for the trees. It is only from a distance that we can comprehend scale or the proportion of one thing to another. But it is only when we look from up close that we can analytically observe the course of development and assess it in detail.

The same can be said of every historical event without exception. Major historical turning points like the Reformation or the French Revolution create new social realities based on the restructured social circumstances. Historic events that are already in the past, and that we consequently can only assess from the perspective of the present, gradually become traditions to us and those traditions are what form the basis of our assessment in most cases. But tradition is always a colorful mixture of truth and poetry that is created under the influence of the circumstances that we ourselves live under. And that is why an image always arises that is entirely different from the one that the people who lived during the period in question actually experienced. The result is that we often see things in a romanticized light and it is therefore not unusual that we end up with ideas that have little in common with historical reality. That is entirely understandable: The further behind us a historical period gets, the less we find ourselves in a position to accurately comprehend the lot of individuals of that time. We see the outer contours of the image, the heroic gestures of great men who became leaders in those struggles and above all the dramatic acts that are clearly silhouetted against the background of historical events. So we have a wider scope, but the more intimate details, the ones whose interrelations create the complete picture, remain largely unknown to us and, as a result, have not impact on our judgment.

It is only when we ourselves have experienced a similar catastrophe of worldwide importance, as is the case today, that thinking people can hone their understanding of past events. Their own environment forces them to compare what is today with what once was. The scales fall from their eyes and they begin to understand that there are many things in the past that they have only seen through the tinted lens of tradition and therefore many things that they have misjudged or fundamentally misunderstood. Their own experience makes them more critical and helps them look more deeply into things that they had hardly noticed before or had accepted as self-evident to the point that they gradually became internal certainties that no longer required agonizing over. And the fact that we are coming to these conclusions right at this moment should come as no surprise at all: We always understand best the things that become entwined with our own fate. Personal experiences are always stronger and more enduring than the most beautiful traditions that are transmitted to us by others. Anything that a person has to slowly and painfully achieve through his or her own thought will always make a deeper mark than illusions that are readily accepted as truth. That is why periods like the one we are experiencing today are trying years when each of us has to decide whether he or she has learned anything from the past thirty years or has simply come up short.

I am not arguing that tradition is inherently harmful or should be discarded. There are traditions that pass ideas and intellectual accomplishments on to subsequent generations and that would be disastrous to lose because they are among the most precious pursuits of our personal and social life. That is why they frequently inspire posterity for centuries afterward and strongly influence people’s intellectual lives, often much more deeply than most people realize. But as strong as tradition’s influence on subsequent generations might be, we should never forget that it is only the reflection of a time that has passed and, because of the way that it comes about, poetry will necessarily replace the deeper knowledge of historical events that we have lost. That is precisely why it not infrequently becomes a cult that clouds our sense of reality and misleads us toward idealistic ways of thinking that are also fictitious. But we only really become aware of that when we are suddenly (and usually without the necessary mental preparation) surprised by major, violent events that force us to acknowledge that a previous period in our history has reached its conclusion – even while the future is still foggy and we can only gradually make out the new paths that we have to carve in order to face the new reality.
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Collapse and Rebirth in the Mayan World of the Zapatistas


EZLN supporters use their silence as a sign of protest — Photo by Victor Camacho

By Luis Hernandez Navarro
Translated from the original Spanish by Joe Keady
Originally published in: La Jornada, December 22, 2012

Nothing can reappear that never went away. By silently and peacefully occupying five cities in Chiapas this December 21, the Mayan Zapatista rebels did not reappear but rather reaffirmed their existence.

The EZLN has been here for more than 28 years. It never went away. It grew discreetly for its first ten years, then publicly announced its own existence more than 18 years ago. Since then it has sporadically spoken and remained silent, but it never stopped existing. Its disappearance or irrelevance has been declared time and again, but it has always resurfaced powerfully and meaningfully.

The start of the new Mayan cycle was no exception. More than 40 thousand Zapatista supporters marched in the rain in five cities in Chiapas: 20 thousand in San Cristóbal, 8 thousand in Palenque, 8 thousand in Las Margaritas, 6 thousand in Ocosingo, and at least 5 thousand more in Altamirano. It was the largest mobilization since the rebels first emerged in southeastern Mexico.

The scale of the protest is an indication of its internal power: far from declining in recent years, it has grown. It shows that the opposing strategy of counterinsurgency, carried out by the various governments, has failed. It demonstrates that their project is not only a genuine expression of the Mayan world but of many poor mestizo campesinos in Chiapas as well.

The EZLN has never left the national scene. Guided by its own political calendar, true to its own ethical consistency, and with the power of the state against it, it has strengthened its own forms of autonomous government and sustained its political authority among the indigenous villages within the country and its active solidarity networks internationally. If it does not always appear in public, that does not mean that it is not present in many significant struggles across the country.

Its supporters govern themselves, administer justice, and resolve agrarian conflicts through the five Boards of Good Government in the autonomous municipalities of Chiapas. In their territories, the rebels have established their own health and education systems independently of the state and federal governments, organized production and commerce, and maintained their military structure. They have successfully addressed the challenge of transferring leadership from one generation to the next. Moreover, they have effectively avoided the threats posed by the drug trade, public insecurity, and migration. The book Luchas muy otras. Zapatismo y autonomía en las comunidades indígenas de Chiapas [Other Struggles: Zapatismo and Autonomy in the Indigenous Communities of Chiapas] is an extraordinary window into some of these experiences.

This December 21, the Zapatistas staged a march that was orderly, dignified, disciplined, cohesive, and silent – and that silence resounded far and wide. Just as they have had to cover their faces to be seen, they were now refusing to speak in order to be heard. It was a silence that expresses a fertile capacity for other horizons of social transformation and a tremendous power from below; a silence that communicates the will to resist in the face of power from above: As Ivan Illich once said, “He who remains silent is ungovernable.”

One cycle of political struggle came to an end in Mexico this first of December at the same time that another began. The EZLN has a lot to say in the nascent map of social struggles that is starting to appear in this country. Its mobilization may have a strong impact on them.

Amid the contours that define the new stage of social struggle, we find: the return of the old PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) dinosaur to the president’s office, with its Salinismo leadership style and its authoritarian use of state power; the pretense of social-conflict management based on an agreement among the elites that excludes the ranks of the subaltern; and the crisis, decomposition, and reorganization of the parliamentary left and the emergence of new social movements.

The EZLN is a new player that, without being invited, has taken a recently available seat at the national political table.

The Pacto por México, which was signed by the PRI, the PAN (National Action Party), and, individually, by the president of the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) claims to establish a program of reforms without broad segments of society. The EZLN mobilization makes it clear that a very broad part of Mexican society has not been included in that agreement and that what its signatories have agreed upon does not necessarily have the citizens’ support.

The party of the Aztec sun (the PRD) is mired in an internal struggle that could fracture it. The New Left’s aspiration to yoke its destiny to the Peña Nieto government mortgages off any possibility of maintaining critical distance from power.

The National Regeneration Movement (known as Morena for short) has been jumping through organizational hoops to register as a party; the Organization of the People and the Workers (OPT) will probably follow suit. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of political and social territory that the parliamentary left has left vacant and the Zapatistas have undeniable political authority among its inhabitants.

In the past year and a half, social movements that question power have emerged outside of the political parties. They do not feel that they are being represented by any of them. The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, #YoSoy132, community struggles against public insecurity and ecological devastation, student protests in defense of public education, and others are not on the same paths as the institutional politicos. The sympathy toward Zapatismo among those groups is real.

But beyond this moment, the marches of the thirteenth Mayan baktun are a new ¡Ya basta! similar to the one that was spelled out in January 1994. They are a renewed way of saying ¡Nunca más un México sin nosotros! (Never again a Mexico without us!), as expressed in October 1996, that opens up new horizons. They ask for nothing and they demand nothing. They are demonstrating the power of silence. They are announcing the collapse of one world while another is being reborn.