Death, Seizure, Workers’ Control

This evening in our circle, we discussed the notion of workers’ control.  If we look to a letter, written by Trotsky from exile in Turkey to German Social Democrats, we are told that

Control can be imposed only by force upon the bourgeoisie, by a proletariat on the road to the moment of taking power from them, and then also ownership of the means of production. Thus the regime of workers’ control, a provisional transitional regime by its very essence, can correspond only to the period of the convulsing of the bourgeois state, the proletarian offensive, and the failing back of the bourgeoisie, that is, to the period of the proletarian revolution in the fullest sense of the word.

The convulsion of the bourgeois state is the symbol of its death, naturally, as any beast that is shot through its head will jerk.  But what if these convulsions were not restricted solely to the bourgeois state in the spectacle of its death, but were also a performance of the new declaration of worker’s control?  We must interpret it at once as both, to approach the problematic from the position of the Marxian orthodoxy, since it is the sound of the cannons of the proletariat that draw the master’s blood.

Listen to the words of this song by Joy Division: “She’s Lost Control”.  The song is about an epileptic girl suffering from her seizures.  Ian Curtis, who often sang of alienation and sadly hung himself, also suffered from epilepsy.  In addition to convulsions and a loss of control over one’s body, the epileptic seizure creates dissonance between the subject and the self, resulting in confusion and the absence of awareness: “Confusion in her eyes that says it all // She’s lost control”.

On one possible diagnosis, the seizure of control of the worker assumes an epileptic form.  This is to say that the worker (whose consciousness is that of a class, if not immediately then certainly at least in the event of the seizure; his diagnosis is thus that of the class, as a whole, that seizes) loses control of the body, the corpus or simply a body politic, losing itself in the event of its seizure through the loss of class awareness.  The result is a loss of control, which can be either a relinquished control returned to the bourgeoisie (as with our Spanish anarchists) or a constitutive loss of control that degenerates and transforms the sovereignty of the worker’s state (as with the Soviet Union).

This does not require that we be able to cite Joy Division as any kind of authority on the political emancipation of the proletariat.  I am told that Ian Curtis voted for Thatcher in ’79.  Rather, we must only allow ourselves an expeditious flight into metaphor, to allow us to unfold an argument.

If epilepsy in the individual patient is reducible to neurophysiology, then the epilepsy of the working class must be related to historico-material conditions, in keeping with the metaphysical doctrine of dialectical materialism.  I am not, strictly speaking, a materialist; however, immanent critique requires the principles of the tradition under diagnosis (and like any medical doctor, we can hope to be so ennobled as to strive towards its health!).

It is a law of the logic of capitalism that living labour, the labour of traditional factory workers, comes to be replaced by fixed labour as a result of capitalist investment in the machinery of production.  This is familiar as every technocratic worker’s fear: the fear of one’s labour, of one’s self as a terminus in the labour process, being replaced by automation.  Marx expounds such laws in Capital, and also in the Grundrisse.  This investment into the machines of production becomes absorbed into the process of capital itself.

This machinery, which is a force of production, also manufactures labour power.  Machines produce, but insofar as they produce they also free up the labour power of non-automated labour production (that is, of the workers).  But the laws of capital are also such that labour power is converted from social labour into fixed labour, which is none other than the machines themselves.  Thus, fixed labour, and thereby labour itself, is reproductive.

Baudrillard has called this the “hegemony of dead labour over living labour,” which is also a hegemony of fixed over social labour.  This hegemony arises out of the internal contradictions of capitalism.  For Marx, the transformation from fixed back to social labour is a problem whose solution is to be carried out under the sovereignty of the emancipated proletariat; Marxian fixity does not have in it the finality of Baudrillard’s ‘death’.  Particularities of this solution aside, we find ourselves now able to diagnose the epileptic worker.  Here, it is worth quoting Baudrillard at length:

In the Grundrisse, Marx says: ‘Labour becomes productive only by producing its own opposite [that is, capital]’ (p. 305n), from which we may logically conclude that if labour comes to reproduce itself, as is the case today within the compass of the ‘collective labourer’, it ceases to be productive.  This is the unforeseen consequence of a definition which did not even consider that capital might take root in something other than the ‘productive’, precisely, perhaps, in labour voided of its productivity, in ‘unproductive’ labour, somehow neutralised, where capital simply eludes the dangerous determinacy of ‘productive’ labour and can begin to establish its total domination (Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1996).

Modern capitalism creates the phenomenon of unproductive labour.  This labour is not localized in the traditional factory site held in such high regard by those historical hopefuls of a classical proletarian emancipation.  Perhaps it is more self-evident to affluent workers of the West: any call center, any shopping mall, any software engineering firm or office where programmers work, is a site of unproductive labour.  Terms like ‘busy-work’ and the much dreaded ‘make-work project’ give voice to this form of labour.  Recent estimates for the average amount of time spent by such workers on work, in the course of an eight-hour working day, range from 2.5 to 6 hours.

The result is the corruption of the proletariat.  Baudrillard goes on to argue that the working class takes on the values and habits of its new role as the unproductive class.  This is far flung from the figure of the slave who, in Hegel’s dialectic, constitutes its own self-consciousness essentially by working on it (see Phenomenology of Spirit, §178-196); the value of the unproductive labour is pure negativity, essentially constituting itself as death.  Baudrillard autopsies the unions of French workers in the 60s and 70s, which – precisely as they make an appearance only as a death, as a class incapable of building through a connection to labour it has lost – acquiesce, without spirit, to the total control of the ruling class.

A working class convulsing, and at the moment of its seizure of control, losing it.  Beyond all of this epileptic poeticizing, there is a concrete question to put forth: has the working class been fundamentally transformed under the re-productive revolution in the modern capitalist state? – that is, has the proletariat been corrupted, as Baudrillard suggests?  Is the epileptic working class of the West capable today – suspending judgement over all yesterdays – of seizing and maintaining a state of worker’s control?

Here, I have no answers.  I am listening again to the words of Joy Division’s song: “the myths and the lies” of neoliberal ideology and capitalism; a “darkness” that breaks in as a negation of this mythology, which also breaks down the afflicted epileptic worker for whom it exists as a negative; when worker’s control is lost, “the change is gone,” and with it “the urge [for change/to lose control] is gone”.  To lose control is an urge – control cannot be lost if not first seized.  Finally, “When here we come” is either a promissory note (the urge will come again: here we [the workers/slaves] come); or it is moribund resignation (the urge to lose control was gone when we came here).

I could live a little better with the myths and the lies,

When the darkness broke in, I just broke down and cried.

I could live a little in a wider line,

When the change is gone, when the urge is gone,

To lose control.  When here we come.