Sunday, January 29, 2012

Salaried bourgeois on "revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie"

Zizek's latest for the LRB is proof of that old adage that those who attack multiculturalism in the name of class instantly forfeit their probity on both subjects.  Actually, that isn't an old adage.  I just made it up.  But it is nonetheless true.  To explain: Zizek has expended a lot of polemical energy attacking a certain kind of poststructuralist and post-marxist politics for its abandonment of class.  But this critique was bound up with a simultaneous attack on 'political correctness', 'multiculturalism', and so forth, in the name of a 'leftist plea for Eurocentrism'. Of course, it was possible to appreciate the former critique without subscribing to the latter.  (And if you want a serious critique of post-marxist fashion, you must read Ellen Wood's The Retreat from Class.)  But it was never very clear what Zizek understood by 'class', apart from a structuring discursive principle: it was always invoked somewhat dogmatically.  If one doesn't expect from Zizek a scientific analysis of social classes, one would at least expect him to know what he thinks classes are.  It's quite clear from his latest piece, which re-states some of the theses earlier expounded in Living in the End Times, that he either has no idea, or has a novel theory of classes that he has yet to explain.

Rent, surplus value and the "general intellect"
Zizek's main argument is that the current global upheavals comprise a "revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie" in danger of losing its privileges.  He begins by making an argument about the source of ruling class wealth in advanced capitalist formations.  Taking the example of Bill Gates, he asserts that the latter's wealth derives not from exploiting workers more successfully - "Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary" - but "because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms".  In other words, Microsoft doesn't extract surplus value but rent, through its monopolistic control of information.  This is paradigmatic of "the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatisation of knowledge". The influence of post-operaismo in all this is clear: Zizek accepts and expounds the idea that intellectual labour is "immaterial" labour, which he maintains has a predominant or "hegemonic" role in late capitalism.  On this basis, he asserts that orthodox marxist value theory has become problematic, as "immaterial" labour simply cannot be appropriated in the way that "material" labour can.

Before going any further, just note that this whole line of argument is a red herring.  Even accepting the narrow focus on Microsoft's "intellectual workers" as a paradigm of 21st century work, their "relatively high salary" has no direct bearing on whether they are efficiently exploited. Or rather, if it indicates anything, it would tend to be that they are likely to be far more efficiently exploited than other workers. Globally, this is the trend: the higher the wages, the higher the rate of exploitation.  It is also the trend historically: the famous high wages offered by Ford were possible in part because the techniques of Taylorism allowed the more effective extraction of relative surplus value.  (The distinction between relative and absolute surplus value would be a fairly basic one for anyone claiming to operate within a marxisant radius.)  This is not to say that all of Microsoft's "intellectual workers" are therefore diamond proletarians.  Classes are formed in the context of class struggle, and the extent to which these workers are 'proletarianised' or 'embourgeoised' will depend on how successfully managers have subordinated the labour process, etc.  Nor does it strike me as a wholly unreasonable proposition that Gates' main source of added value is monopoly rent - it is arguable, at least.  But Zizek's argument in support of this idea is simply a non-sequitur.

Marx, the sock puppet
Zizek goes on to explain how his approach differs from that of orthodox marxism, and much of his argument hinges on how he sets up Marx as a foil.  Thus: "The possibility of the privatisation of the general intellect was something Marx never envisaged in his writings about capitalism (largely because he overlooked its social dimension)."  Setting aside the curious claim that Marx "overlooked" the "social dimension" of capitalist productive relations, it is worth re-stating what Zizek undoubtedly already knows: the writings on the 'general intellect' are part of an exceptionally brief fragment in the Grundrisse, and would thus be hard pressed to 'envisage' anything; nonetheless, the description of the "general intellect" in the Grundrisse as a "direct force of production" manifest in the "development of fixed capital" assumes that the "general intellect" is already privatized.

What Zizek means, I assume, is that Marx did not anticipate the monopolization of "general social knowledge", and therefore did not anticipate that the major class struggles in an advanced capitalist formation might be over the share of rent rather than over the direct extraction of surplus value.  This is clear in the way that he treats the example of oil.  For, according to Zizek: "There is a permanent struggle over who gets this rent: citizens of the Third World or Western corporations. It’s ironic that in explaining the difference between labour (which in its use produces surplus value) and other commodities (which consume all their value in their use), Marx gives oil as an example of an ‘ordinary’ commodity. Any attempt now to link the rise and fall in the price of oil to the rise or fall in production costs or the price of exploited labour would be meaningless: production costs are negligible as a proportion of the price we pay for oil, a price which is really the rent the resource’s owners can command thanks to its limited supply."  So, this raises two questions: i) did Marx really not anticipate in his theory the possibility that rent extraction would be a source of major class struggles?; and ii) as a corollary, does the example of oil and its absurdly high prices undermine the labour theory of value?

This is fairly straightforward to establish.  First of all, the evidence of Marx's writings is that he understood that there could exist a class or fraction of people whose income depended on rent extraction.  Marx discussed two main types of rent.  These were, differential rent, and absolute ground rent.  To explain the first type of rent, it is necessary to specify some implications of the labour theory of value, which Zizek maintains is outmoded.  First of all, if the value of goods is determined by the socially necessary labour time invested in them, it would tend to follow that if less labour time is needed to make the goods then over time the exchange value of these goods would decline.  But the fact is that producers are in competition with one another for market share, so will tend to invest in labour saving devices so as to reduce their labour costs.  And even if, over time, the replication of this tendency throughout the economy - enforced by imperative of competition - the result is to reduce the total profit on the goods, the immediate effect is to enrich whoever temporarily has a more efficient firm as a result.  They obtain a differential rent because their investment enables them to obtain a larger share of a diminishing pool of surplus value.  The second type of rent, absolute rent, needs no lengthy exposition here, but can be said to be that type of rent that would most naturally arise in monopoly situations.  At any rate, it's reasonable to suppose that Bill Gates' wealth must embody some of both types of rent, alongside an unknown quantity of direct surplus labour.

Secondly, Marx's labour theory of value is not rebutted by the fluctuations of oil prices.  The theory is not supposed to explain price fluctuations, which respond to supply and demand.  The exchange value is an average across the productive chain; there is no mathematically fixed relation between the price of one particular commodity and the exchange value that exists as an average over the whole class of commodities which changes over time.  Nor is the theory endangered by the fact that the relation between supply and demand can be manipulated in monopoly situations to drastically increase the actual price of a good.  I am well aware that there are valid controversies regarding the labour theory of value.  Nor do I imagine that Kliman's heroic work will completely save the orthodox theory from its doubters, many of whom aren't even operating on the same theoretical terrain.  But Zizek's challenge is, purely on theoretical grounds, ineffectual.  It is a straw man that he dissects to such devastating rhetorical effect in this article.  For the sake of concision, I omit other instances in which he travesties Marx, both in this and other articles - we'd be here for a long, tedious time.

The "salaried bourgeoisie"
Zizek uses terms extraordinarily loosely.  Take the "salaried bourgeoisie", whose "revolt" apparently motivates this piece.  They are said to be leading most of the strikes taking place.  Zizek thus presumably includes in this groups like the public sector workers who have struck in most European countries.  Yet, he doesn't say what makes them a "salaried bourgeoisie".  His useage implies a novel class theory, but the closest he comes to defining this term is where he specifies that he means those who enjoy a 'privilege', being a surplus over the minimum wage.   Now, it's not at first clear what he means by the minimum wage.  There are, of course, legally enforced minimum wages in a number of advanced capitalist societies, but he doesn't mean that.  That would be arbitrary and would tell us nothing directly about productive relations.  But mark what he does mean by the 'minimum wage': "an often mythic point of reference whose only real example in today’s global economy is the wage of a sweatshop worker in China or Indonesia".  This no less arbitrary, as Zizek himself acknowledges.

Now, while the manner of his exposition implies a critical distance from such concepts, he nonetheless deploys them, arguing that they are themselves constitutive of a politically and discursively constructed division of labour: "The bourgeoisie in the classic sense thus tends to disappear: capitalists reappear as a subset of salaried workers, as managers who are qualified to earn more by virtue of their competence (which is why pseudo-scientific ‘evaluation’ is crucial: it legitimises disparities). Far from being limited to managers, the category of workers earning a surplus wage extends to all sorts of experts, administrators, public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and artists. The surplus takes two forms: more money (for managers etc), but also less work and more free time (for – some – intellectuals, but also for state administrators etc).  The evaluative procedure used to decide which workers receive a surplus wage is an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual competence; the surplus wage exists not for economic but for political reasons: to maintain a ‘middle class’ for the purpose of social stability."

In this sense, the "surplus wage" that characterises the exploitation of the proletariat by the "salaried bourgeoisie" is a discursive fiction, unanchored in real productive relations.  Still, having thus qualified his terms, it is nonetheless clear that it corresponds to some material processes.  After all, if the labour theory of value no longer adequately captures the workings of surplus extraction, and if the 'hegemonic' pattern of accumulation is the extraction of rent, then the 'surplus wage' has some material basis as that which is paid out of a share of the rent (largely extracted by Western corporations from the citizens of the Third World).  Further, Zizek goes on to maintain that the efficacy of such 'classes' is not the less real for their being political and discursive.  It explains current political behaviour, he says (and here I must quote at length):

"The notion of surplus wage also throws new light on the continuing ‘anti-capitalist’ protests. In times of crisis, the obvious candidates for ‘belt-tightening’ are the lower levels of the salaried bourgeoisie: political protest is their only recourse if they are to avoid joining the proletariat. Although their protests are nominally directed against the brutal logic of the market, they are in effect protesting about the gradual erosion of their (politically) privileged economic place. Ayn Rand has a fantasy in Atlas Shrugged of striking ‘creative’ capitalists, a fantasy that finds its perverted realisation in today’s strikes, most of which are held by a ‘salaried bourgeoisie’ driven by fear of losing their surplus wage. These are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians. Who dares strike today, when having a permanent job is itself a privilege? Not low-paid workers in (what remains of) the textile industry etc, but those privileged workers who have guaranteed jobs (teachers, public transport workers, police). This also accounts for the wave of student protests: their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus wage in later life."

Zizek goes on to qualify this observation - each protest must be taken on its own merits, we can't dismiss them all, etc. - but is clearly arguing that the general thrust of the strikes and protests is in defense of relative privilege.  This is especially true of the "special case" of Greece, where "in the last decades, a new salaried bourgeoisie (especially in the over-extended state administration) was created thanks to EU financial help, and the protests were motivated in large part by the threat of an end to this".  So far the only evidence offered for the existence of this 'salaried bourgeoisie' is in its ostensibly discernible, concrete effects in the political behaviour of social layers affected by crisis.  Yet this behaviour can be explained far more efficiently by the class interests of fractions of the proletariat who, due in part to superior organisation vis-a-vis their employers, have obtained a degree of job security and in some cases relatively high wages.  In which case, the concept is useless.

As is typical with Zizek, each step in his argument is characterised by an astonishing lack of precision, a slipshod and loose useage of terms, straw man attacks, sock puppetry and so on.  There are lots of fireworks, but little real theoretical action: all show, no tell, an empty performance of emancipatory politics.  And I just thought I'd spell that out because so many people messaged, prodded and otherwise cajoled me into criticising this latest from Zizek.  I hope you're satisfied.