One of the most common critiques that I hear of Marx within several specific academic frameworks is that Marx somehow imagines a ‘homogenous proletariat.’ Marx’s simplified vision of the world is almost inevitably contrasted with a more sophisticated vision of the world that is either being proposed by the speaker or is taken up by a thinker that the speaker wants to see either supplant Marx or transcend his limited vision. To be clear, this interpretation is not invented whole cloth by this audience. One can only turn to particular threads of Marxist iconography, particularly within the tradition of socialist realism and particular trends of ‘anti-identitarian’ Marxism to find this homogeneity either in the singular image of the heroic male worker who is intended to stand in for the proletariat as a whole or the antagonism toward difference found within certain strands of thought. However, this interpretation of Marx doesn’t particular hold up well when you turn to the first volume of Capital. I’m going to turn to that work to first try to understand how that interpretation arises from that work, and then look at how that interpretation falls apart when we consider the work as a whole. Rather than producing homogeneity, Marx argues the infinite chain of equivalence at the heart of capitalist accumulation is dependent on an intense process of discipline that not only constructs forms of difference but is deeply committed individualization of the worker and the citizen.
The homogeneity reading probably can be best understood by looking at the first chapter of Capital. Marx begins his investigation into political economy by examining the “” the commodity. This chapter attempts to answer the question, what is behind the endless chain of equivalences that form market relations. Why can we think about objects as different and discrete as linen, coffee, and gold in relation to each other? To do so, Marx distinguishes between use and exchange value. The use of an object is singular and cannot determine the forms of equivalence that drive the commodity form. The fact that I can use the bible that Marx discusses as a form of edification, an object for display to establish an identify for an audience, or as a doorstop doesn’t really explain its cost. Use value is central to that system. If an item doesn’t have a use, it won’t be purchased, and therefore will by necessity fall out of the circulatory process of the system. However, to understand why something is worth something, we have to look at its exchange value, the point that Marx spends most of the chapter on. Marx then diligently works through dozens of permutations of equations in order to get to the notion that value at the heart of this system is what he calls ‘socially necessary labor.’ The value is dependent on average time it takes to produce something within a given social setting. Marx emphasizes that this is by no means a stable system and his work in Capital and The Poverty of Philosophy goes into the ways that forms of competition, class struggle, and technological development cause this to change. He then goes on to explore how the exploitation of this labor is necessary for the production of surplus value.
However, one can see where one could get to a notion of homogeneity through a good faith reading of this section of the book. In order for labor to act as an equivalent, there has to be some sense of the sameness of that labor. But Marx has already provided some pretty important caveats that should warn against this reading. He has already indicated he is thinking of labor only within the context of simple average labor, which by its nature, excludes more complex and skilled forms of labor. Even more significantly, he argues,
If we then disregard the use-value of commodities, only one property remains, that of being products of being products of labour. But even the product of labor has already been transformed in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value. It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn or any other useful thing. All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished. Nor is it any longer the product of the joiner, the mason, or the spinner, or any other particular kind of productive labour. With the disappearance of the useful character of the products of labour, the useful character of the kinds of labour embodied in them also disappears; this in turn entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labour. They can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract.
Let us now look at the residue of the products of labour. There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human labour, i.e. of human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure. All these things now tell us is that human labour-power has been expended to produce them, human labour is accumulated in them. As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values—commodity values” (Marx 128).
The homogeneity of labor power is only possible through an intense process of abstraction. It operates in the averages of multiple competing spaces of production, rather than within the material practices of the laboring process. It disciplines and animates the process of production and as we will see later has a deep impact how we conceive ourselves in relationship to each other, but it gives no sense of how something is produced. Moreover, there is a critical edge to the description of this process, indicating a sense of violence that is implicit in this process and its erasure of particularity, one that isn’t simply limited to a sense that roughly equivalent workers are being roughly equivalently exploited. But the full implications of that critique are only available later in the book. After all, we’re still operating within the terrain of the market, the realm of equivalences that is dependent on equals interacting and competing as sellers and buyers.
To understand the laboring process that creates the condition for that market to work, we need to begin by turning to Ch 13, Co-operation. Marx opens the chapter by emphasizing the importance of social production. Marx notes, “Capitalist production only really begins, as we have previously seen, when each individual capital simultaneously employs a comparatively large number of workers, and when, as a result, the labour-process is carried on on an extensive scale, and yields relatively large quantities of products.” (Marx 439) The increase in the level of workers tends to average out the differences in production within this condition even without the intervention of machinery, but the introduction of machinery intensifies this process, shifting the relationship of workers to their work. Marx notes, “When numerous workers work together side by side in accordance with a plan, whether in the same process, or in different but connected processes, this form of labor is called cooperation” (Marx 443) That cooperation create the conditions in which the labor of many creates a level of productivity that could not be matched by the same amount of workers in isolation. The process of cooperation itself intensifies production and the level of exploitation.
Marx intensifies his analysis when he turns to the next chapter, “The Division of Labor and Manufacture”. He argues that the process of cooperation within the factory setting specifically produces a kind of collective worker that is produced through the cooperative process of the factory. He notes,
The collective worker, formed out of the combination of a number of specialized workers, is the item of machinery specifically characteristic of the manufacturing period. The various operations performed in turn by the producer of a commodity, which coalesce during the labour process, make demands of various kinds on him. In one operation he must exert more strength, in another more skill, in another more attention; and the same individual does not possess these skills in an equal degree. After the various operations have been separated, made independent and isolated, the workers are divided, classified and grouped according to their predominant qualities. If their natural endowments are the foundation on which the division of labour is built up, manufacture, once introduced, develops in them new powers that are by nature only fitted for limited special functions. The collective worker now possesses all the qualities necessary for production in an equal degree of excellence, and expends them in the most economical way by exclusively employing all his organs, individualized in particular workers or groups of workers, in performing their special functions. The one-sidedness and even the deficiencies of the specialized worker become perfections when he is part of the collective worker. The habit of doing only one thing converts him into an organ which operates with the certainty of a force of nature, while his connection with the whole mechanism compels him to work with the regularity of a machine.
Since the various functions performed by the collective worker can be simple or complex, high or low, the individual labour-powers, his organs, require different degrees of training, and must therefore possess very different values. Manufacture therefore develops a hierarchy of labour-powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages. The individual workers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function; while the various operations of the hierarchy of labour powers are parceled out among the workers according to both their natural and their acquired capacities. Every process of production, however, requires certain manipulations, which every man is capable of doing. These actions too are now separated from their constant interplay with those aspects of activity which are richer in content, and ossified into the exclusive functions of particular individuals. (Marx 469)
As we can see in this extensive passage. The figure that constitutes the figure of equivalence is a sort of collective assemblage of workers and machinery, disciplined into a matrix of procedures by a plan or set of plans. The overall effect of this process is a disciplinary homogeneity, produced by each individual worker’s connection to ‘the whole mechanism’ in order to produce ‘an equal degree of excellence.’ However, the process that produces this almost cyborgic subjectivity does not transform the individual parts into equivalents. Instead, the parts of the machine are defined by specialization and individualization. This process may start with some sense of ‘natural endowments’ but the disciplinary apparatus quickly steps into ‘develop in them new powers that are by nature only fitted for special limited functions.’ Rather than creating homogeneity, capitalist discipline within Marx’s analysis produces an intense form of individualization that is enforced by Marx’s use of the metaphor of the specialized organ of the body. This specialization also involves hierarchy, a division between ‘simple or complex, high or low’ forms of labor, corresponding to a ‘scale of wages.’ At this point, it’s hard to recognize the image of Marx that we discussed at the beginning of the essay.
However, Marx’s examination of the disciplinary process doesn’t stop at the point of production, the factory. Instead, he shifts into a discussion of the monitoring of populations that are selectively brought into and are taken out of the productive process depending on the economic cycle, the ‘Industrial Reserve Army of the Unemployed.’ This shift notably moves the classificatory and disciplinary system as noted previously to the outside of the factory, and it shifts the narrative from the relationship between employer and employee to a state logic. The increase of the use of machines creates a surplus population that no longer is needed in the factories. These populations are then brought into the factories and are ejected from them in response to the boom and bust cycle that defines the process of capitalist accumulation. Marx notes that these surplus populations are not as Malthus has it, a product of natural processes, but a distinct historical product of capitalist accumulation.
For our purpose though, the importance of this category is its continuation of the process of distinction and individuation that begins in the factory itself. We see the state introducing an intense set of disciplinary apparatuses to classify and divide the population for purposes of surveillance and policing. The proletariat then is not only defined by an intense formation of individuation and differentiation at the level of the factory, but outside as well. We find a class formation that is deeply fragmented through the disciplinary process of capitalist accumulation, differentiated by skill, access to work, legal status, and other factors. It’s easy to see how this analysis can incorporate the modes of racialization that both define the history of the workplace along with the forms policing that contribute to the construction of a racialized population. It’s notable that Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s analysis of the prison in Gold Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California operates through the categories of surplus populations and the industrial army of the unemployed introduced by the first volume of Capital.
At a historical level, Marx doesn’t minimize the importance of imperialism and slavery in constructing the capitalist world system. As Marx notes in Chapter 31: The Genesis of Industrial Capitalism,
“The discovery gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in minds of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings if the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation Hard on their heels follows the commercial war of the European nations, which has the globe as its battlefield. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes gigantic dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the shape of the Opium Wars against China, etc…. Force is the midwife of every society which is pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power. (Marx 915-916
Far from ignoring the forces of colonialism, Marx identifies the colonial process as both the starting point of capitalist accumulation, and as an ongoing process as the reference to the Opium Wars indicates. The European system of industrialization is dialectically intertangled with the process of colonialism and each is dependent on the other. We can see Marx distinctively identifying the operation of capitalism as a world system, one that is dependent on extraordinary levels of violence and force to keep in motion. We might also see this as another moment of heterogeneity in Marx’s analysis. If the factory is marked by individualization and disciplining of the workforce, and the construction of surplus populations requires state discipline and surveillance, the factory itself requires colonial violence to make its production viable. Marx earlier in the book makes the same observation about the relationship between factory production, notably textiles and the plantation, the two systems mutually reinforcing each other’s growth.
Just as significantly, he sees the transformations after the civil war as central to understanding the possible transformation of the system. Marx introduces this in the Preface to the First Edition to the book. “Let us not deceive ourselves about this. Just as in the eighteenth century the American War of Independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class, so in the nineteenth century the American Civil War did the same for the European working class.” (Marx 91) Far from playing an incidental role in the transformation in the world system, Marx saw the civil war as a marker for a dramatic shift in social conflict. He continues this analysis at the end of the preface, “At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Wade, Vice-President of the United States, has declared in public meetings that, after the abolition of slavery, a radical transformation in the existing relations of capital and landed property is on the agenda. These are signs of the times, not to be hidden by purple mantles or black Cossacks. They do not signify that tomorrow a miracle will occur. They do show that, within the ruling classes themselves, the foreboding is emerging that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and constantly engaged in a process of change.” (Marx 93) Slavery in effect played a lynchpin role in holding together the system and its abolition created possibilities for transformation, albeit far from certain ones.
None of this erases the flawed political analysis and practice of Marxist groups throughout the long history of their operation, and nor should it, but it points to a rich set of possibilities that are contained within Marx’s analysis and create the space to continue to use and build on Marx’s materialist analysis. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this at this point, but I wanted work through some of this material.