Beyond the Class Struggle
By Robert Kurz
[This article originally published 2/2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.krisis.org.]
Traditional Marxists have watery eyes when they use the terms "class" and "class struggle". Their identity as critics of capitalism stands and falls with these terms. However the theoretical paradigm of the "proletariat" is remarkably dusty in the conditions of a standardized capitalist world system at the beginning of the 21st century under the conditions of the 3rd industrial revolution, corporate globalization and social individualization. The more defiantly Marxist veterans celebrate that we "still live in a class society", the less they change the conditions although the capitalist contradictions intensify as never before and a socio-economic world crisis of a new type shakes the planet. Talk of a "return of the classes" remains helpless and sociologically superficial without an economic basis. Therefore this term is of no use to the new mass movements against capitalist globalization, war and social disintegration.
The conceptual model of radical criticism must be dusted off. The Marxist "revolutionary class" was clearly the factory proletariat of the 19th century. United and organized by capital itself, the "revolutionary class" should be its gravedigger. The wage-earning social groups of the state and commercial services, infrastructures and so forth can only be reinforcements to the "proletariat"... The traditional class and revolution schema cannot survive amid a reversal of the numerical relation as already intimated since the beginning of the 20th century (and superficially reflected by old Marxism as in the Bernstein debate).
The employees of the public service and other secondary sectors who gradually represent the majority in capitalist reproduction are different from the old "proletariat" sociologically and economically. Their reproduction costs like the costs of their activity are derived from industrial surplus value production... However the "financing" of these sectors can no longer come from the real surplus value production but must be simulated through anticipation of future surplus value, first of all through state indebtedness, state money creation and also private indebtedness and the "financial bubble economy". Hilferding's theory of "finance capitalism" can be seen in this context... Capital itself produces a degree of socialization through the structural necessity and the numerical preponderance of the public services and other secondary sectors that it cannot bear any more. This contradiction intensifies in the 3rd industrial revolution. Capital destroys its own foundation in a pincer movement. On one side, the are3as appearing as "dead costs" in the reproduction of aggregate capital expand. On the other side, the micro-electronic revolution shrivels the capital-intensive core of industrial production as never before.
The marginalization of the factory proletariat is identical with the new type of fundamental capitalist crisis. The secondary public sectors can be formally transformed into commercial capital through privatization. However the public sectors are simultaneously dismantled and demolished because their economically derived character is not changed.
Capital de-socializes society since it cannot maintain the achieved interconnection. The result is a crisis-sociology of the mass unemployed and social security recipients, of the pseudo-independent and misery-entrepreneurs, single mothers and flexibilized job hoppers up to the collapse of the third world in the primitive subsistence economy and the plundering economy.
The nature of competition implicit in the concept of capital is revealed in this crisis. Labor competes against capital. Labor competes against labor, capital against capital, branch against branch, nation against nation, position against position, economic block against economic block, man against woman, individual against individual and even child against child. In this system of universal rivalry, the "class struggle" dissolves as an integral element and is revealed as a mere special case that capital cannot transcend. On a lower stage of development, the factory proletariat was recognized as a civil subject in this structure. To compete, one had to act in these common forms.
Capital and labor are actually only different aggregates of one and the same social substance. Labor is living capital and capital is dead labor. However the new crisis consists in the melting off of the substance of "abstract labor" in the capital-oriented basis through capitalist development. Thus the term "class struggle" loses its metaphysical, seemingly transcendent luminosity. The new movements can no longer be defined "objectivistically" and formally through an ontology of "abstract labor" and their "position in the production process". These movements can only be defined substantively by what they want to prevent - the destruction of social reproduction by the false objectivity of capitalist forms - and by what they seek as the future: the rational communal use of the productive forces according to their needs instead of according to the mad criteria of capital logic. Their common interest can only be the common interest of the emancipatory goal, not the common interest of an objectivization or de-personalization defined by the capital-relation. Theory must conceptualize what practice carries out in a blind groping way. The new movements can become radically critical of capitalism in a new way beyond the old class struggle myth.