Originally published in the LRB 26 January 2012
How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to do with Microsoft producing good software at lower prices than its competitors, or ‘exploiting’ its workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). Millions of people still buy Microsoft software 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, from science to practical knowhow. Gates effectively privatised part of the general intellect and became rich by appropriating the rent that followed.
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). Yet this is at the core of today’s struggles over intellectual property: as the role of the general intellect – based on collective knowledge and social co-operation – increases in post-industrial capitalism, so wealth accumulates out of all proportion to the labour expended in its production. The result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatisation of knowledge.
The same is true of natural resources, the exploitation of which is one of the world’s main sources of rent. 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.
A consequence of the rise in productivity brought about by the exponentially growing impact of collective knowledge is a change in the role of unemployment. It is the very success of capitalism (greater efficiency, raised productivity etc) which produces unemployment, rendering more and more workers useless: what should be a blessing – less hard labour needed – becomes a curse. Or, to put it differently, the chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege. The world market, as Fredric Jameson has put it, is ‘a space in which everyone has once been a productive labourer, and in which labour has everywhere begun to price itself out of the system.’ In the ongoing process of capitalist globalisation, the category of the unemployed is no longer confined to Marx’s ‘reserve army of labour’; it also includes, as Jameson notes, ‘those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, “dropped out of history”, who have been deliberately excluded from the modernising projects of First World capitalism and written off as hopeless or terminal cases’: so-called failed states (Congo, Somalia), victims of famine or ecological disaster, those trapped by pseudo-archaic ‘ethnic hatreds’, objects of philanthropy and NGOs or targets of the war on terror. The category of the unemployed has thus expanded to encompass vast ranges of people, from the temporarily unemployed, the no longer employable and permanently unemployed, to the inhabitants of ghettos and slums (all those often dismissed by Marx himself as ‘lumpen-proletarians’), and finally to the whole populations and states excluded from the global capitalist process, like the blank spaces on ancient maps.
Some say that this new form of capitalism provides new possibilities for emancipation. This at any rate is the thesis of Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, which tries to radicalise Marx, who held that if we just cut the head off capitalism we’d get socialism. Marx, as they see it, was historically constrained: he thought in terms of centralised, automated and hierarchically organised industrial labour, with the result that he understood ‘general intellect’ as something rather like a central planning agency; it is only today, with the rise of ‘immaterial labour’, that a revolutionary reversal has become ‘objectively possible’. This immaterial labour extends between two poles: from intellectual labour (the production of ideas, texts, computer programs etc) to affective labour (carried out by doctors, babysitters and flight attendants). Today, immaterial labour is hegemonic in the sense in which Marx proclaimed that, in 19th-century capitalism, large industrial production was hegemonic: it imposes itself not through force of numbers but by playing the key, emblematic structural role. What emerges is a vast new domain called the ‘common’: shared knowledge and new forms of communication and co-operation. The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.
Hardt and Negri’s analysis has some weak points, which help us understand how capitalism has been able to survive what should have been (in classic Marxist terms) a new organisation of production that rendered it obsolete. They underestimate the extent to which today’s capitalism has successfully (in the short term at least) privatised the general intellect itself, as well as the extent to which, more than the bourgeoisie, workers themselves are becoming superfluous (with greater and greater numbers becoming not just temporarily unemployed but structurally unemployable).
If the old capitalism ideally involved an entrepreneur who invested (his own or borrowed) money into production that he organised and ran, and then reaped the profit from it, a new ideal type is emerging today: no longer the entrepreneur who owns his company, but the expert manager (or a managerial board presided over by a CEO) who runs a company owned by banks (also run by managers who don’t own the bank) or dispersed investors. In this new ideal type of capitalism, the old bourgeoisie, rendered non-functional, is refunctionalised as salaried management: the members of the new bourgeoisie get wages, and even if they own part of their company, earn stocks as part of their remuneration (‘bonuses’ for their ‘success’).
This new bourgeoisie still appropriates surplus value, but in the (mystified) form of what has been called ‘surplus wage’: they are paid rather more than the proletarian ‘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), and it is this distinction from common proletarians which determines their status. 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. The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency. In La Marque du sacré, Jean-Pierre Dupuy conceives hierarchy as one of four procedures (‘dispositifs symboliques’) whose function is to make the relationship of superiority non-humiliating: hierarchy itself (an externally imposed order that allows me to experience my lower social status as independent of my inherent value); demystification (the ideological procedure which demonstrates that society is not a meritocracy but the product of objective social struggles, enabling me to avoid the painful conclusion that someone else’s superiority is the result of his merit and achievements); contingency (a similar mechanism, by which we come to understand that our position on the social scale depends on a natural and social lottery; the lucky ones are those born with the right genes in rich families); and complexity(uncontrollable forces have unpredictable consequences; for instance, the invisible hand of the market may lead to my failure and my neighbour’s success, even if I work much harder and am much more intelligent). Contrary to appearances, these mechanisms don’t contest or threaten hierarchy, but make it palatable, since ‘what triggers the turmoil of envy is the idea that the other deserves his good luck and not the opposite idea – which is the only one that can be openly expressed.’ Dupuy draws from this premise the conclusion that it is a great mistake to think that a reasonably just society which also perceives itself as just will be free of resentment: on the contrary, it is in such societies that those who occupy inferior positions will find an outlet for their hurt pride in violent outbursts of resentment.
Connected to this is the impasse faced by today’s China: the ideal goal of Deng’s reforms was to introduce capitalism without a bourgeoisie (since it would form the new ruling class); now, however, China’s leaders are making the painful discovery that capitalism without the settled hierarchy enabled by the existence of a bourgeoisie generates permanent instability. So what path will China take? Former Communists generally are emerging as the most efficient managers of capitalism because their historical enmity towards the bourgeoisie as a class perfectly fits the tendency of today’s capitalism to become a managerial capitalism without a bourgeoisie – in both cases, as Stalin put it long ago, ‘cadres decide everything.’ (An interesting difference between today’s China and Russia: in Russia, university teachers are ridiculously underpaid – they are de facto already part of the proletariat – while in China they are provided with a comfortable surplus wage to guarantee their docility.)
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 Shruggedof 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.
At the same time it is clear that the huge revival of protest over the past year, from the Arab Spring to Western Europe, from Occupy Wall Street to China, from Spain to Greece, should not be dismissed merely as a revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie. Each case should be taken on its own merits. The student protests against university reform in the UK were clearly different from August’s riots, which were a consumerist carnival of destruction, a true outburst of the excluded. One could argue that the uprisings in Egypt began in part as a revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie (with educated young people protesting about their lack of prospects), but this was only one aspect of a larger protest against an oppressive regime. On the other hand, the protest didn’t really mobilise poor workers and peasants and the Islamists’ electoral victory makes clear the narrow social base of the original secular protest. Greece is a special case: 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.
The proletarianisation of the lower salaried bourgeoisie is matched at the opposite extreme by the irrationally high remuneration of top managers and bankers (irrational since, as investigations have demonstrated in the US, it tends to be inversely proportional to a company’s success). Rather than submit these trends to moralising criticism, we should read them as signs that the capitalist system is no longer capable of self-regulated stability – it threatens, in other words, to run out of control.