Wildcat 88, winter 2010

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Value struggle or class struggle?

Massimo De Angelis‘ book The Beginning of History: Value struggles and global Capital was published by Pluto Press in 2007. We have translated a review from Aufheben 1 into German and put it online. We have also summarised the main arguments for German readers, and because the summary contains some points for discussion, here it is now in English.

Aufheben criticise both the Commons and Common debates. In their introduction, they relate both to a single root in »autonomist Marxism« or the Italian Autonomia the 1970s. Only towards the end of the text, in a chapter called From the sphere of production to the sphere of circulation; the trajectory of Autonomia, do the comrades from Aufheben set out their idea of what »autonomist marxism« or operaismo actually was: the offensive workers‘ struggles of the 1960s/70s had with some justification led to the centrality of the factory, the autonomy of the mass worker as the revolutionary subject and even to Negri‘s refusal or dissolution of the law of value. But the crisis and the end of the struggles demonstrated the weaknesses of »autonomist Marxism«: the emphasis on subjectivity and autonomy, which was important in the beginning, had become a fanciful, positivist and ahistorical philosophy of the revolutionary subject. The attempts to grasp the whole society as a factory have led to production drifting out of sight.
We share this criticism. But it is a pity that Aufheben attempt to apply it to all of operaismo, so that they disregard the strengths of the early operaismo of the 1960s. There is no other explanation for the attempt, based on the example of Poll Tax movement, to dismiss as bad ideology any account of the varying importance or impact of workers‘ struggles according to those struggles‘ position within productive co-operation.
Operaist instruments, for example militant inquiry into class composition and productive cooperation, could help us get closer to what Aufheben demand: an analysis of the prospects and limits of »real struggles and movements« and a closer determination of our practical possibilities. But let‘s follow the different sprouts Aufheben see growing from a common root: Negri‘s thoughts end in a totalising fetishism of production, because he holds »immaterial labour« to be anti-capitalist almost by nature. He completely loses sight of the fact that capital still commands this activity. Up to this point, Aufheben share De Angelis‘ criticism of Negri, likewise seeking a firmer grounding in actual social relations and struggles.
But here they begin their criticism of De Angelis‘ three central concepts: »outside«, »Commons« and »Enclosures«. Aufheben see a fetishism in this triangle, with two reasons behind it. First, the dive into the fascinating but one-sided aspect of pure, positive class struggle. Second and related, the change from a class perspective to that of the bourgeois individual. This accounts for mystifications, misleading questions and a theory that, consequently, is moralising and a dead-end.

For Aufheben, the weak point of »autonomist marxism« was its reaction to the decline of workers‘ struggles. In order to expand the idea of the exploitation of (surplus) value to all of society, »value« had to be detached increasingly from its specific form. »In order to generalise ‘production’ to the larger society, this had to be reduced to aspects which can be present whether or not commodities are created and whether or not there is a wage relation. These aspects are the subjective aspects of capitalist production – its aimlessness and despotism.«
According to Aufheben, De Angelis takes this development to a logical conclusion with The Beginning of History. For him, production is only an »effect of the market«: the market has assumed command. And from here, the viewpoint of the bourgeois individual is very close: in the sphere of circulation we appear as subjects on the market, only connected through exchange. Only the impersonal laws of the market rule here, according to which seemingly equal values are exchanged via the money form. But only in the sphere of production are we confronted with the fact that capital has command, and it is here that Aufheben see the dynamic of class struggle: despite all the dreams of management, direct discipline, force and despotism are still necessary. »The sphere of production therefore implies the inescapable antagonism between ‘capital’ and ‘labour’«; the invisible hand of the market becomes the grip of class antagonism. As De Angelis looks only at circulation, he can only perceive divided and fragmented individuals. Capital becomes an abstract counterpart, working according to invisible laws and putting us into competition against each other. De Angelis may contribute some good thoughts about the current social problems, along with criticism of the »optimistic term« ’multitude‘. But – and this for Aufheben is the snag – looking from the perspective of the bourgeois market subject, he cannot give a »material reason for class solidarity«. Because of this, he fetishises the outside and the individual who »must seek to join or reinforce his ‘communities’ and their ‘values’« in order to do something against all this shit.

Aufheben regard this as the »unnecessary problem« of a theory »that cuts off class struggle«. A theory that logically can no longer see how the »the subject can actually emerge as an antagonistic subject from within the daily relations of wage-work and exchange«. Consequently, De Angelis must repeatedly relativise »his outside«, his Commons as outside. He makes the National Health Service a Common that must be defended against privatisation, while admitting at the same time that hospitals are institutions exercising state control.
De Angelis cites enclosures as evidence for his arguments, stylising the historical Commons as a homogeneous community. Behind this Aufheben see a polar social development of peasant-capitalists and wage workers (cf. Article on Common Property).

A »good theory« should enable us to come to terms with real contradictions and human beings, and to intervene politically. It is also supposed to help us solve De Angelis‘ dilemma: why can capital integrate struggles over and aver again, what were the material reasons for such a compromise, which social forces were involved… Aufheben conclude that De Angelis cannot offer all this, but only a very general system of values for ahistorical communities. Plus a vague and moralistic call to the individual to join these.

[1] 16/2008

[go to series on Commons, Common Wealth, Commonism…]

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