Why the Working Class?
I have written before that class matters, but for what does it matter? Our goal is the establishment of a society wherein our social labor is utilized to meet and expand human needs. The goal of this article is to explain why the working class is capable of this task. The previously mentioned article chiefly highlights the differences between the petty-bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and the fact that the divergence of their interests lay in the relationship the petty-bourgeoisie has to the means of production, namely the fact that they have some ownership. This ownership gives rise to particular interests separate and apart from the interests held by the working class. To see the most stark contrast in interests, we’re going to need to look at the bourgeoisie proper, and in order to do that, we’re going to need to talk about what the bourgeoisie have that the proletariat does not.
Capital, of course, is what the bourgeoisie has that the proletariat does not, but what is Capital? Capital is a social machine whose content is labor. The action of the machine is to compel labor to present itself as labor-power upon the market. The fuel for the machine is, you guessed it, labor. Capital is not a ‘thing’ it is a relationship, namely a relationship of force, of forcing labor to appear on the market as labor-power so that Capital can accumulate the surplus labor-time to grow itself. So what does it mean for Capital to compel labor to present itself as labor-power for sale on the market? For the English free-peasantry it meant the enclosure of the commons, a bloody repression that saw the birth of modern capitalism, for the African slave it meant being shipped like cargo away from their own society, for your local Wal-mart greeter it means the attacks upon social security and medicare, for your Uber driver it means the constant downward march of wages. In all and every case it means a denial of access to, or possibility of producing, life’s necessities, necessities which are locked behind a gate that can only be opened with the sale of labor-power, the transformation of more and more fragments of the day in to labor-time.
The content of Capital is labor, and in order to accumulate this to itself it must have access to labor-power on the market. Luckily, in the perfect world in which we live, the process of accumulating labor simultaneously compels labor to present itself again as labor-power. Unluckily, in the wretched world in which we live, the process of accumulating labor requires labor to function. That’s not what Capital wants. Capital doesn’t want to use labor, it wants to accumulate labor. Using labor means that the labor is lost for Capital. Using labor means paying for labor-power. That’s the other main tendency of Capital, aside from compelling labor to present itself as labor-power, reducing the amount of labor-time that is paid for.
Labor is made to present itself as labor-power by denial of access to, or possibility of producing, life’s necessities, and the cost of labor-power is deteriorated by preventing the very same labor which is compelled to present itself as labor-power from taking part in the production process.
So we’ve seen what Capital wants, Capital wants to grow itself. Capital wants more Capital that is simultaneously more Capitalistic than that which came before. What about the labor side of the equation?
Labor’s initial reaction to the onslaught of Capital is to struggle on the given terms. Capital wants to reduce all labor-time to unpaid labor-time, so labor responds and attempts to receive payment for the entire labor-time. The division of labor-time between paid and surplus labor does not reveal fully the two functions of both parts. The paid labor-time is paid so that the working class can sustain and reproduce itself as the working class. Always and everywhere this or that section of the working class is paid below or above this average. The values constituted in this paid labor-time go towards the necessities of life. On the flip-side, the unpaid labor-time, the surplus value, is divided in to numerous portions. This fragment of surplus value goes towards the necessities of life for the capitalist, this, much larger fragment, goes towards the simple reproduction of the current scale of production, this fragment goes towards expanded reproduction. In short, surplus value sustains the physical body of the capitalist and supplies him/her with luxuries while also sustaining Capital as Capital and making more Capital more Capitalistic.
If the economic strength of this or that section of the working class becomes so great as to be able to bite into a large portion of the surplus labor-time and claim it for their own, what they really begin to do is to claim a portion of value otherwise destined to become Capital for themselves. This is wealth in an untransformed fashion. The physical wealth that the workers are seizing is usually consumed and denied the opportunity to become Capital. However, some workers are capable of using the additional value obtained to become property owners. This was essentially the case originally explored in the class matters article. The workers either consume the additional wealth awarded to them and thus reflex back as workers again in to the Capital wage-labor relationship, or they use that wealth to become property owners themselves. This property becomes a wedge between the propertied workers and the proletariat proper. It is theoretically possible for the working class to seize the entire value produced by themselves, but in practice the bourgeoisie will halt production long before this occurs. Indeed, the bourgeoisie will, and has before, sabotaged production once it is at risk of escaping their control.
The methods used to obtain a larger portion of labor-time for the benefit of the working class are well-known to us. Strikes, sabotage, negotiations, in short, union struggles are the way that the working class encroaches upon capital to claim a larger share of that labor-time for itself. This share can take many forms including higher wages, more paid time off, better retirement plans, better healthcare benefits etc. In the final result, however, what occurs is that the worker has more money to themselves. The only thing that has been changed is the distribution of value.
But does this mean that unions aren’t worth our time? On the contrary, our initially stated goal is the establishment of a society wherein social labor is utilized to meet and expand human needs, and unions give us some measure of practice in this very act. The organization of a picket line requires the direction of social labor which is not subordinated to the accumulation of surplus value, but to social need. The problem lies in the fact that the struggle is taking place on the terms set by Capital, in the antagonism between Capital and labor as a money relationship. The limits of this struggle have already been outlined above, the point, however, is to use the independent power of the working class to transcends those limits by no longer confining their demands to merely desiring a larger portion of their labor-time to be paid. Instead what must be seized is control over production itself by using the same practice at directing social labor to achieve victory in the struggle over payment during the production process, but now in a struggle over the control of the entire production process. Beyond even the alteration in the distribution of wealth (struggle over wages) and the control over production (workers becoming property owners) is the linking up of those two ‘moments,’ consumption and production, such that they are no longer separate moments mediated by exchange. In order to achieve this, the proletariat must abolish itself as the proletariat, its labor-power shall no longer be sold, but used directly with the intention of meeting and expanding human needs.