Marina Vishmidt: HUMAN CAPITAL OR TOXIC ASSET: AFTER THE WAGE
This is a sequence of reflections on affirmation and negation, on identification and severance: determinate negation as strategic affirmation, the identification of concrete universals and severance from a defunct relation. These lines will be explored with reference to the current situation of the waged and unwaged working class, most proximately in Britain, as “debt” becomes the ideological white noise and the practical horizon of all social and political imagination. Household indebtedness is confused with the state deficit in the spontaneous ideology of the Conservative austerity agenda, as what remains of the crisis-riddled economy is sacrificed to the “debt” – as poor people to loan sharks, so Britain to the bond investors. The nationalist narrative of “we’re all in this together” eliminates any space for discussion as to who might bear greater responsibility for the crisis, and who should be paying for it. The announced cuts make it all too clear – it’s the bloated public sector and welfare payments which are responsible, and those that have the least shall have even that taken away, as the Biblical parable goes. Yet a fatalistic consensus prevails for now, transfixed by a menace beyond dispute: the “debt.”
Debt has taken on an unprecedented social centrality, almost eclipsing the labour theory of value as both the principle of capital accumulation and the principle behind the structural role of labour in social relations organized through the value-form. The social logic of speculation is also at work [sic] in the premise of human and social capital which, as Jason Read argues, has reformulated every human activity as an investment in a future of potential access to greater social wealth. The notion of “human capital” also serves to eradicate any antagonism between those who own the means of production and those who only have their labour to sell, since both are understood to be investors seeking to maximize a return, which is only natural.1
Debt has of course also been the prime driver of accumulation for the past couple of decades, from deficit spending in the public sector contingent on a finance boom driven by the opulent trade in CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) and other fancifully quantified risk instruments, to the characteristic business of financialization – profiting from the hugely expanded consumption of credit products that its own effect of suppressing wages had created a demand for. In debt-financed accumulation, value was no longer at issue, but wealth; and as workers did not produce wealth, but were a liability on the balance sheet, the only way they could reimburse the wealth creators, the entrepreneurs, was by going into heavily commodified debt. And consumer debt, it need hardly be added, was the force that inflated the asset values that crashed so impressively two years ago, along with the demand it was able to sustain. It is in this scenario that we must look at what the shift from worker to debtor as the definitive social identity for most people today augurs for political re-composition in a time when unemployment and welfare cuts will leave them with marginal resources to either pay debts or meet more immediate needs. And, as has been plentifully evident around the world, austerity budgets trigger counter-attacks on the terrain of reproduction at once, as in Greece and Spain. This is because “social spending” is the first reduction demanded by the agencies of fiscal discipline, and public services become the stakes of survival when low-paid or nonexistent jobs become the norm, a condition exacerbated by cuts. In times of crisis, when the ratio of waged to unwaged starts to tilt negatively, reproduction becomes the political battleground, if only through sheer force of numbers of people who can’t get access to a wage, as well as the important category of the “working poor” who have to rely on benefits. The very existence of the “working poor” is the clearest demonstration, if required, that it is capital and not the indebted worker who is the parasite on the state, as the state allows employers to pay minuscule wages which it then agrees to supplement. The feasibility of targeting social services with the moralistic rhetoric of personal responsibility – like the received idea of a “dependency culture” – relies absolutely on a common sense which blacks out the systemic forces which are genuinely dependent, if not addicted to, the existence of a super-exploited, unemployed, illegalized and desperate “workforce.” It has to ignore the structural necessity of a low-waged and unwaged reserve army which enables capital (including state and semi-private entities) to suppress wages, since the state ultimately meets the costs of reproduction in fear of worse consequences. It is in this sense that all “welfare,” regardless of its levels of generosity or parsimony, regardless of whom it identifies as “deserving” or “scrounging,” is corporate welfare, since its function is ameliorative to the operations of the market, rather than redistributive. Needless to say, “welfare reform,” like austerity, fails on its own economistic terms. The factors of decreasing demand and the cost of policing welfare by outsourcing it to for-profit organizations that have an incentive to cut the welfare rolls ends up being far more expensive than the portion of state expenditure welfare comprised in the first place. But if private contractors are happy, and the tabloids are appeased, than markets are surely working overtime in the public interest.
No matter how obvious these contradictions seem to be, and how long they’ve been around, it is worth pointing out time and time again that the fight we have on our hands is not one against market rationality, to be countered with a more “social” set of principles for the economy. There is no rationality, only the looting and cannibalism which set the terms of capitalist accumulation for now. As the likes of David Harvey have exhaustively shown in their work, but which is no less obvious from reading the newspapers, “economic rationality” is a red herring for authoritarian managerial regimes of state power. Neoliberalism is a state project, with state-financed programs of engineering competitiveness across the entirety of social life. Because it is first and last an ideological project, objective circumstances or results have very little standing in it. Thus there’s no relevance to exposing its murderous or hypocritical inequities; it can only be drained of legitimacy ideologically. The argument is easier to make, paradoxically, because the objective conditions themselves have been shaped by the ideology to the point where, as some propose, “the class relationship” is coming to an end and communism is for the first time possible without a prior, “programmatic” affirmation of the working class. Work is no longer available objectively nor desirable subjectively as a political identity, although this lack of content does not prevent the ruling class from continuing to wield it as a disciplinary cudgel.2 Although these ideas have been around since at least the 1970s, with the “Zerowork” strain of post-autonomist thinking, and all the variations of the “refusal of work” stance on the communist and anarchist ultra-left, their re-emergence now comes into the very different political landscape of three decades of neoliberal reaction, globalized capitalism and the destruction of organized labour, not to mention the de-industrialization of Europe, North and South America, the Middle East and Africa and the vast low-grade industrialization of parts of Asia and China. The “communist idea” now has to take into account that the refusal of work is not a political choice, but a prerogative exercised by a stage of capitalism that has much less need of surplus-value production since the discovery that debt is far more profitable.
In the vision of “austerity,” everyone is potentially a parasite on the nation’s solvent body, looking to compound the nation’s interest rate in the global markets. So why not behave like one? What is the outcome of a process, underway for at least two decades in the UK, whereby the majority of the population is positioned as the actual or virtual waste of the system? What could be the (anti-)political subjectivity of human capital turned toxic asset? When finance is universally agreed to be the source of all value, the machine of accumulation is rent, not productive investment. The generation of wealth boils down to trade in the “fictitious capital,” along with rent-seeking and capitalization/enclosure of existing [public] assets. As the only way workers can contribute to that valorization is through debt, debt stands as the point of de-legitimation of the current logic of capital. A refusal of debt must take the place of refusal of work in a situation when work is being refused by capital anyway.
Having said that, it is very ambiguous for now to what extent, if at all, such political implications have been drawn by the campaign groups, unions and grassroots party activists on the British left. It seems difficult to detect a real consideration of debt going on, besides the generic “we won’t pay for your crisis” standpoint; there is no disputing that someone does have to pay, and this by and large consists of making an economic case for one sector at the (implicit) expense of another. Nowhere is the stunted outlook of the mainstream British socialist left more conspicuous than in the “Right to Work” and “Green Jobs” campaigns that have been appearing on its fringes since the “crisis” hit. They seem to be missing something central about how capital operates nowadays (not to mention the simultaneously reactionary and idealist perspective of demanding “good jobs”): wealth is no longer created through productive investment, and workers don’t want jobs, they just want money. Why else would all the most visible instances of workplace militancy in the past couple of years, from factory occupations to “bossnappings” and threats to blow factories up, all center around better remuneration packages for job losses rather than the maintenance of jobs? Neither capital nor labour are interested in jobs: all anyone is interested in these days are assets. Capital has neither the inclination nor the resources to offer workers more exploitation right now, but there has to be recognition that exploitation remains the bedrock of the social contract, and it is achieved most efficiently without jobs in an economy premised on the capitalization of debt. Isn’t the “jobless recovery” appearing as the watchword in economic analysis today built on assumptions that consumption (or “consumer confidence”) can single-handedly drive a return to prosperity, that is, through another credit bubble? It is immaterial that the global economic crisis was triggered by the bursting of a systemic credit bubble; credit bubbles are the only conceivable avenue of a return to normality, much as disastrous neoliberal policies are only intensified in the aftermath of their resounding failure.
It seems evident, from this perspective, that we can only produce wealth (not value) for capital now through our debt repayments. In that case, shouldn’t debt be the pre-eminent focus of resistance and revolt, rather than petitioning imaginary benefactors for imaginary jobs? Further, it needs to be restated time and again that any demand for jobs dovetails all too harmoniously with the government propaganda against the “workshy” who will be forced off welfare if they don’t come to the independent realization that “work sets you free,” as the current Work and Pensions secretary has been quoted as saying. This no doubt inadvertent refrain of the National Socialist slogan throws light on the “obscene” agenda of the “we’re all in it together” mantra providing the rather flimsy legitimation of the announced cuts. On this point at least, there is no departure from earlier historical periods where worsening economic conditions were used to build up a nationalist consensus that paved the way for fascism.
If workers are now “human capital,” then the moment of negation of the social relations that have brought us here can start with affirmation: the affirmation of the sick and deteriorating nature of capital from the side of its “human” variant (what was once known as “variable capital”). As “human capital” is being maximized in or out of work, the terrain of reproduction (social services, health, housing) seems like the most direct arena in which this capital can become collectively dysfunctional, also a necessity in the era of intensified biopolitical surveillance and risk management which social services represent for “dependent” populations in the UK.3 The docility of the service “user,” isolated, managed and humiliated in the absence of an employment allowing her to exist without recourse to state benefits, is what needs to be questioned by the users, as well as by the service workers, at the point of “delivery” and in solidarity. It must be recognized that social benefits are actually a “social wage,” and consist not of charity from the state, but of the value extracted from formerly and currently employed workers, as well as that funnelled from them in taxes and VAT. The position of supplication has to be transformed into a position of “insolence,” of justified and collective appropriation. After all, if there are no more workers, then surely oughtn’t “human capital” assert its own series of claims, as capital has asserted its claims for the past 40 years to the exclusion of all others?
The dialectic between affirmation and negation needs some clarification. Any practical critique entails both moments, though not a linearity or progressive vector between them. In any social movement, there needs to be an identification of a position (of exclusion, of injustice) in the contradiction, before the place of exclusion is negated by re-organizing the terms of justice or inclusion themselves on another basis. We can see this in the feminist and queer movements, where the structural role of the “woman” or “homosexual” must be accurately identified within the relations of capitalist patriarchy before gender and heteronormativity can be overturned. The same thing with the “classical” class struggle: the social affirmation of workers as a discrete class with interests incompatible with those of bosses and the organization this engenders is a precondition for the political imperative to negate wage-labour and capital. Mobilization around the “wrong” (Rancière) precedes, and persists through, the elimination of the conditions that produce that “wrong,” the conditions which orient the definitions of justice and at the same time, exclude certain kinds of people from making claims via those definitions (like the exclusion of women and many others from the scope of the French Revolution’s “Rights of Man” – which did not prevent the “Rights of Man” being seized by women, by Haitian slaves, as the programme of their fights for liberation.) Using another set of terms, we can look at the “void” or the “point of inconsistency” of the situation (Badiou) as that which is invisible from its point of view, but which is nonetheless primary for it; a moving contradiction. For Marx, it is the co-existence of perfect equality in the sale and exchange of labour power in capitalism with exploitation in production. This is glossed by the Malgré Tout Collective thus: “Structural injustice does not reflect a failure or a partial dysfunction of capitalism: on the one hand, it is perfectly consistent and it leaves no room for reproach; on the other hand, this injustice is what establishes or makes capitalism possible, it is its point of inconsistency, necessarily invisible to capitalism itself. Thus the free, just and rational rules of the market, the laws of supply and demand, have their origin in an injustice, an alienation and an absurdity that are unintelligible to the system, and which are, consequently, perfectly legal and consensual even in the eyes of a large number of workers and trade unionists. This is why the point is not so much that injustice sparks up rebellion, but rather that rebellion forces the inconsistency of the system: it’s in light of the revolutionary political project that the system reveals itself as unjust.”4
It may be that political action that is used to expose this point of inconsistency and to practically refute its terms may not even be recognizable as political action, because it is proposing a new set of identifications – not only of what constitutes injustice or a “wrong,” but of what it means to act politically, and the divisions it introduces are not the familiar ones, since it is no longer seeking to adjust concrete phenomena to an ideal structure, but to question the structure as such, and the subjectivities produced in it, which are at once singular and universal: “[the] position is not ‘negotiable,’ or cannot be answered from the normality of the situation, because it implies its destruction. In this way, political action ceases to be a partial claim, so as to become a singularity: something unforeseeable by the situation because it questions its very foundations. At this point it’s no longer a matter of a class, but of an unclassifiable or anomalous political subject. This subject does not exist outside the situation. It’s a subject that arises from, but is not linked to, the situation because the situation does not foresee it. At the same time, this singularity is universal from the very moment it introduces a rupture that concerns all the inhabitants of the situation (bourgeois, petit-bourgeois, intellectuals, artists, proletarians, etc.), who now have to decide whether or not to commit to the struggle that questions not only the situation they inhabit, but also what they in themselves are.”5
This subtractive moment (strikes, refusals to be monitored, refusals to enter into “workfare” programs, sharing information and resources between claimants rather than between claimants and the state, or even mass and organized “benefit fraud”) can become a constitutive moment in reclaiming the social legitimacy which seems to be the exclusive property of markets for now, provided it can move from a dismissible, “partial” activity to a “universal” one which re-organizes the majority perception of general interest – a perception that is more often than not, more often unconsciously than overtly, on the side of the markets rather than other people (or, rather, refuses the distinction between them). When the legitimacy of the state is grounded in its responsibility to markets – as the true generators of wealth – rather than to the public, who are deemed to just consume this wealth, it has to be workers who break down this apparent reality through their new primary role as indebted consumers, or sources of unproductive wealth accumulation, at the same time as through their role as unproductive workers,6 waged or unwaged, commodity-producing or relationship-managing.
An itinerary of the politics of reproduction, leading up to a more precise exposition of what shape the “politics of debt” could assume, is the goal of this text. First, we will revisit the history of the politics of reproduction through the Welfare Rights Movement, Italian Autonomist feminism, the Wages for Housework campaign and “self-reduction” in 1970s Italy, the Claimants’ Unions of the 1980s and the Unemployed Workers unions and initiatives in present-day Britain. In Part Two, we will explore the thesis that the claim of unproductive labour to unproductive capital must be asserted as part of the decomposition of the wage-labour-capital relation discussed by the “communisation” current (Theorie Communiste and Endnotes), which entails the impossibility of asserting a work-based political identity (“only revindicative struggles”), either subjectively (no-one identifies with their jobs) or objectively (workers’ power is broken by law and by globalized re-structuring) and which, as we have already seen, needs to be asserted through the point of inconsistency of the situation – for the politics of debt, we can provisionally name it as “uncapitalized life,” just as “free human activity” came to name human praxis beyond wage labour when wage labour was decisive, both to relations of production and struggles for emancipation. The class relation Marx describes below may be in its historical eclipse:
“Capitalist production, therefore, under its aspect of a continuous connected process, of a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capitalist relation; on the one side the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer.” (Capital, vol. 1)
But the class relation between creditor and debtor flourishes in that vacuum, so long as capitalism in its core lineaments is still with us and so long as most of the populace has to survive within its laws and mediate this survival through the value-form. Again, Marx ensures it doesn’t escape us that, “When viewed, therefore, as a connected whole, and in the constant flux of its incessant renewal, every social process of production is at the same time a process of reproduction.” (p. 711) To the historical (and still current) figures of the housewife and the benefits claimant, we add the figure of the debtor, and try to trace a politics of debt on the ground of the politics of reproduction. What happens to the concept of the “social wage” after the wage?
1 Jason Read often writes on the anthropology of neoliberalism: “To quote Etienne Balibar, ‘The capitalist is defined as worker, as an “entrepreneur”; the worker, as the bearer of a capacity, of a human capital.’ (Balibar, 1994: 53). Once ‘capital’ and ‘investment’ have been redefined so broadly, the scope of the economic is drastically redefined. Any activity that increases the capacity to earn income, from learning a new computer program to getting one’s teeth whitened, is an investment in human capital. Economic rationality, the balancing costs and returns, risk and benefits, is removed from the specialized realm of the market, from the specific science of economics, to become tantamount to rationality altogether. Neoliberalism thus entails a particular version of ‘capitalism without capitalism,’ a particular way of dispensing with the antagonism of capitalism while maintaining private property and inequality.” ‘Reductions and Amplifications of the Political’, Unemployed Negativity blog post, 20 October 2009, http://unemployednegativity.blogspot.com/2009/10/reductionsamplifications-of-political.html
2 Compare Owen Hatherley’s enunciation of this point in his blog post ‘Work and Non-Work’: “Yet still, work goes on, as controlled, brutal and idiotic as it ever was. Thatcherism with a human face claims to have abolished the working class, but it perpetuates work to an ever more ludicrous extent, particularly when it wants to remind the ‘core voters’ of its roots in the movement of the toiling classes. British jobs for British workers. War on the workshy. Work more to earn more. Work trials for the disabled, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for those who don’t want to work. He who does not work, neither shall he eat. Today, the only response to this has to be – the party of the workers, whatever or wherever it is, must stand against work.” Then the more rigorous development through Marx’s categories in the Endnotes text, ‘Crisis in the Class Relation’: “[...] the proletariat increasingly becomes that which is produced by capital without producing capital. As the population that is simply superfluous to capitalist production, yet one which has no autonomous mode of reproduction, the surplus population is reproduced as a side-effect of capitalist production. Since its self-reproduction is not mediated through the exchange with capital of productive labour for the wage, it does not close the circuit with capital, and its existence thus appears as contingent or inessential relative to that of capital. […] As the wage form loses its centrality in mediating social reproduction, capitalist production itself appears increasingly superfluous to the proletariat: it is that which makes us proletarians, and then abandons us here. In such circumstances the horizon appears as one of communisation; of directly taking measures to halt the movement of the value form and reproduce ourselves without capital.” Endnotes, no. 2, pp. 17–19; also at http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/2
3 See ‘Battle of all Mothers (or: No Unauthorised Reproduction)’ by Madame Tlank, at http://www.metamute.org/en/The-Battle-of-all-Mothers
4 The Manifesto of the Malgré Tout Collective (written in 1995). Available many places on the web, including at http://www.gtrlabs.org/node/106
6 Neil Gray, ‘The Tyranny of Rent,’ Variant 37, print edition pp. 37–43 and online: http://www.variant.org.uk/37texts/13RentTyranny.html: “When McLay suggested, in 1990, that groups like Workers City pointed towards the future, he talked of the traditional image of the worker as producer of wealth becoming more problematic every day. Indeed, the manufacturing sector now accounts for only 6% of the Glasgow labour market, while low-paid services work now accounts for 88% of the workforce.” This figure comes from a 2009 report produced at the University of Glasgow, ‘Beyond Aspiration: Young People and decent work in the de-industrialised city’ http://www.variant.org.uk/events/Doc7Poverty/BeyondAspiration.pdf