Recognize People’s Real Power, Research Time, 15/12/2016

You know, back when I started this blog, I knew a lot of its posts would follow the research I was doing for Utopias. And one of the first declarations I made in my historical research was that, even though I knew I’d engage with some works in the marxist tradition, I was no marxist.

Reading Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, the landmark 1980s work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, I’m even more convinced of my non-marxism.

Here's an idea that was really prominent in the history of marxism. Not just the academic marxist scholarship – I’m talking about the early 20th century, when the biggest demographic of marxism was political activists and revolutionary radicals.

People's demands can change their whole society. It's called politics.
This is the idea they criticize pretty robustly: That capital totally dominates labour conditions. In other words, the people, organizations, and broader social forces that own, control, and express a society’s sources of wealth controls its labour conditions too.

The concept is connected with traditional marxism’s social, political, and economic determinism. The macro-level structure of society entirely determines all the conditions and movements that are part of it. Society’s superstructure is its only agency.

Labour, meanwhile, isn’t an activity. That would imply that it has agency. Work, according to the tradition, is a commodity – labour-power. You can negotiate the value of your work as a wage, but work’s only feature is its applications, what a boss sends you to do.

Laclau and Mouffe rip this concept apart, and they do it as part of a sustained attack on the entire marxist tradition – both in the theory and in the activism, which until only the last few decades were two sides of the same movement. That attack is uncovering and tearing down a recurring error in marxist thinking that fundamentally misunderstands the world.

The tradition ignores the contingency of history – sees only the logical necessity of theoretical argument and is blind to the messy dynamism of life.

In this context, the tradition ignores how it wasn’t just capitalist society’s superstructure changing according to abstract internal laws of motion that determines labour conditions. Labour conditions are the product of dynamic struggle between working people and the large conglomerates and elite business leaders who employ them.

In 19th century Europe, the children’s rights movement took kids out of dangerous, dehumanizing factory work. In the early 20th century, the union movement won restrictions on the working day’s and week’s length.

Ernesto Laclau and his partner Chantal Mouffe were two figures in the
group that brought ecological ways of thinking to the philosophical
tradition in complex, multidimensional ways. Their academic roots in
marxist studies made them two of the most explicitly political in that
Today, workers are changing the conditions of labour through activism again. Business leaders aim to casualize and destabilize all employment through models like the gig economy and the sharing economy. So workers are building organizations that network among each other to pool financial and knowledge resources – essentially a union of contractors.

Organizations like the Urban Worker Project in Ontario, which is developing to look a bit more like a medieval guild than a modern labour union.

Where business leaders want to drive their labour costs lower and lower, workers are organizing to keep their wages fair. And that fairness is in reference to the actual cost of living in their cities. The continent-wide Fight For $15 movement is the spearhead organization here.

These are political movements that have the power to condition and entirely remake economic relationships in society. Recognizing their real power in the world is a fatal critique of traditionally orthodox marxist thinking.

These arguments are all so simple when you think about them that I find it weird that there are orthodox marxists left anymore.

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