Yesterday I discussed the attempt to replace class analysis with ‘identities’, and the roots of this development in both the unprecedented post-war economic boom and the defeat of working class resistance when the boom came to an end, provoking capitalist crisis and retrenchment.*
Fast forward to the present day. Plenty of post-marxist intellectuals are still playing the same game. I want to look briefly at Goran Therborn and more in-depth at Slavoj Zizek as they provide useful models by which to gauge the ideological routes of thought of identity-favouring theories.
They display the tendency to seek for ‘other’ (i.e. non-class related) forms of resistance to capitalism. In this article, we’ll look at their preference for casting slum-dwellers in this mould. Neither examine this group using the materialist analysis of Marx, however; instead they prefer other categories of analysis (though Therborn and Zizek differ from one another too).
As I’ve outlined before, Therborn proposes that the ‘dialectic of modernity’ – that is, the opposition between labour and capital is decreasing to the point where it can no longer be considered a useful analytical tool. In his book From Marxism to Post-Marxism, he establishes other criteria and axes by which to measure society.
He views the growth of the slum-dwelling population as an ‘urban proletariat in the pre-Marxist sense of informal labourers’, ascribing to them an identity that stands outside the Marxist concept of class as determined by one’s position in the relations of production.
Zizek’s view of modern class struggle is that in four ways is the new popular alliance against capitalism being created by capitalism itself. Through the ecological destruction of the planet**; the ‘inadequacy of private property’ as a basis for dealing with knowledge (resulting in paradoxes like the modern copyrighting of ancient cures – perhaps we might characterize this as the final enclosure of the commons, consonant with total globalization); the harvesting of human biogenetics with the emerging potential to change ‘human nature’, and ‘new forms of apartheid’.
The last is of particular relevance here. Several of my recent articles have dealt with the problems of rectifying relative inequality, e.g. that black people bear proportionally more poverty than whites, without a clear class narrative, of universally empowering working class people regardless of identity. I contend that the concept of apartheid used by Zizek is a form of this problematic style of identity politics, and does so at what Badiou is probably correct in defining as an ‘evental horizon’ of modern class struggle. Zizek explains:
“While the [classical Marxist working class] is defined in the precise terms of economic ‘exploitation’ (the appropriation of surplus values generated by the situation of having to sell one’s own labor-power as a commodity on the market), the defining feature of the slum-dwellers is socio-political, it concerns their (non-) integration into the legal space of citizenship, with (most of) its incumbent rights” (In Defense of Lost Causes, 2008, p425)
This socio-political feature is a way to focus on the slum-dwellers as the excluded, something synonymous with their status as ethnic minorities, as lesser citizens and the victims of prejudice in their home countries. The bait-and-switch technique by which we move to focus on this is by dismissing the working class of the favelas, ghettos, slums and barrios as ‘informal labourers’.
Implicit to the quotation below, is Zizek’s recognition of the Marxist distinction between the working class as a class-in-itself, an objective reality, and a class-for-itself, the subjective understanding of that objective reality and its use as a guide to action.
Yet instead of casting the slum-dwellers as merely a disorganised part of the global proletariat, for Zizek, because of their status as informal labourers, the slum-dwellers are Rancière’s ‘part of no part’, which Zizek elsewhere contrasts with the classical Marxist conception of the proletariat. He proffers instead the identity of the lumpenproletariat. The slum-dwelling lumpens are:
“The free floating element which can be used by any stratum or class…the radicalizing ‘carnivalesque’ element of the workers’ struggle, pushing them from compromising moderate strategies to an open confrontation.” (ibid, p286)
But surely makes more sense to point out that the objective reality of the slum-dwellers position as working class remains, what needs to be built is a subjective consensus to push the slum-dwellers into open class struggle?
Actually from these areas particularly, we have plenty of evidence of that consensus being constructed through the basic drive to solidarity born of capitalist exploitation and attempts to monopolize democratic government. Zizek himself cites a key one; the move of the Venezeulan slum-dwellers to support Hugo Chavez during the coup against him. Yet support did not spring out of the earth spontaneously, which one would not necessarily appreciate from Zizek’s writings.
In Venezuela as in the mountains above La Paz, Bolivia, the primary means of political organisation is first and foremost economic. If we take Bolivia, where the ethnic make-up of the poorest areas can be uniformly Aymara, Quechua or Guarani and so on, it’s the Federation of Working Class Street Sellers and other unions, the demand for the ayllu economy and the soviet-like Fajave which makes up the backbone of Evo Morales’ support network. These were fashioned long-term, out of struggle for the basic needs of the individual and the collective.
The point is simple: the methods of resistance undertaken in the more politically advanced slums differ little from forms of organisation that have been known in Europe since the industrial revolution.
They unite on the basis of common exploitation and class. Revolutionaries will naturally emerge from the struggles undertaken by these organisations – the role of Western socialists is to lend a hand in widening and deepening the appeal of such organisations, and connecting them with the international labour movement. It is to facilitate, to expedite, the development of a class-in-itself towards a class-for-itself.
The contention that what exists is ‘only’ a pre-Marxist proletariat (presumably Therborn is referencing the Roman proletarii and capitecensi, who, on a simplistic level, were essentially insecure wage labourers also) is nonsense. Informal labour may be the order of the day, as Zizek and Therborn contend, but this is a basic trick of any employer, because the uncertainty undermines opportunities for labour organization and speeds capital accumulation. Hence the increasing casualization of labour in the developed economies.
Similarly, apatheid may be widely practiced against indigenous peoples, who are pushed to the edges of society in all senses – to face deprivation of economic participation and rights, social prejudice and loss of citizenship and concomitant political rights (Paul Mason, Live Working or Die Fighting, 2008, pp210-214). Yet opposition to this is coterminous with opposition to wider forms of economic exploitation, which can affect relatively well-off tech workers in Argentina, compelled to take over their factory, just as it can the ethnic minorities of Bolivia.
The withdrawal of the State, or its half-hearted presence, in many of these ghetto areas does not represent a change in the objective position of the residents, as Zizek contends, if such a thing is even true – it may not be, as many states have history of intervening with indiscriminate violence in such arenas. Thus was sparked the 2003 Bolivian uprising, in protest at the police shooting of eight people from the slums above La Paz.
I see no reason why, even if accusations of state withdrawal are true, it should promote the socio-political to primary category of analysis, other than that it neatly fits with the schematic Zizek draws about the slum-dwellers being the part of no-part, the lumpenproletariat that by its very exclusion can radicalize the proletariat, whose position inside the capitalist system is contradictory – as they must at once resist and prop it up.
Except the proletarian position is exactly the role of these slum dwellers also. They sell their labour power in exchange for a wage, and everything else about their lives, the organization of the economy and so on is decided elsewhere. This is precisely the condition of the working class elsewhere, the relative levels of poverty and pay notwithstanding.
Only the universal and global aspect to the working class offers any hope of widening a particular struggle from a local issue, that might win gains eventually clawed back by disenchantment or violence, into one that crosses borders and awakens acknowledgment around the world.
Undermining that universality is the hope of the reactionary Right. Whether it involves sophisticated dog-whistle politics about how the “rights” of minorities serve only to work to the disadvantage of the majority, or whether it’s a clear appeal to naked ethnic and racial prejudice, the reactionary Right must either acquire support from the working class by dividing it against itself, or it must fail in its agenda. We serve that agenda if we advocate a one-sided approach to what Zizek calls the ‘socio-political’ exclusions visited on minorities.
It’s easy to recognize that these exclusions are wrong, it’s easy to call for their correction, and it’s very easy to attack anyone who shows a hint of reserve as racist. It is not easy to actually correct the exclusions, and less easy still to carry with you precisely the working class that is the backbone of the Left. It’s impossible to carry the working class without appealing directly to the paramount struggle which undermines all identities – that of the working class against the capitalist class – and linking the fight for inclusion to the other struggles.
In Bolivia, the Movement Towards Change may yet fail, as may the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela. Neither have struck at the power-base of their opponents, private property and its economy, and neither have fully realised the promise, offered to their supporters by the factory occupations and the temporary action committees, of a democratic, planned economy. If they focus on identity, they surely will fail. In Bolivia particularly, those tactics could open a space where the ‘white’ governors might appeal to their ‘white’ provinces for military support to resist Morales, exploiting nervousness and prejudice which might otherwise be allayed.
My solution is not that we return to the ‘monolithic’ politics of the Parti Communiste Français circa 1960, as this would invite the disaster that the main organ for socialist politics once again becomes detached and isolated from whole new layers of the working class, but nor (to return us to our immediate focus) can we concentrate on identity without looking at class, as Harriet Harman and New Labour attempt to do. I am suggesting that while advocacy for minority groups is important, it must march in lock-step with a wider, nuanced class narrative.
This is to the benefit of minorities; every socialist revolution has been accompanied by massive changes to the social order. Whether it was the defence of the black Haitian Revolution by the masses of a racist Parisian society, or the introduction of women’s rights across Europe just as the continent was convulsing in the throes of revolution, an assault on the class system is an assault on all oppression. Even at a lower ebb, class struggle challenges preconceived notions of identity; thus the miners’ strike and women for example.
Importantly, however, fighting to challenge prejudice and exclusion must be adapted as a tactical weapon governed strategically by a class agenda, rather than the other way around, since it is not our goal to fight for the right of certain individuals from any given minority to be elevated to the same status as the elites of our society in proportion to their numbers in our society. It is our goal to overthrow elites full stop. Read more…