Sunday, August 7, 2011

incomplete notes on the concept of the proletariat....

       I've found myself in a bit on a bit of a tangent in relation to my dissertation project.  Needless to say, for those of you who know me, this tendency to fall into tangent is not precisely shocking.  My reading of Alys Weinbaum's Wayward Reproductions brought me back into contact with Immanuel Wallerstein and Etienne Balibar's group of essays, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, which, along with an interesting talk given by Jody Dean on the concept of the communist horizon (you can see it here) returned me to the question of the concept of the proletariat.  I've been thinking about this off and on for any number of years, and Balibar's introduction returned me to some of those thoughts.  Balibar notes,

     "Alongside this, the emergence of the specific struggles of immigrant workers in France in the seventies and the difficulty of expressing these politically, alongside Althusser's thesis that every social formation is based on the combination of several modes of production, had convinced me that the division of the working class is not a secondary or residual phenomenon, but a structural (though this does not mean invariant) characteristic of present-day capitalist societies, which determines all the perspectives for revolutionary transformation and even for the daily organization of the movement for social change." (Balibar 2-3)

      Significantly, Balibar connects Althusser's concept of overdetermination with the history of racialization in the capitalist world-system.  That history according to Balibar can neither be dismissed as either a throw back to a former era as some conventional marxists attempt to argue nor as a superstructural phenomenon.  In effect, Balibar's argument follows the general trend of thought within the various schools of thought within historical materialism. Following Wallerstein's arguments, the forms of racialization simultaneously structure and legitimate the division and hierarchy of labor of that system.  Balibar is equally concerned with avoiding the neo-racist fallacy of transforming forms of racialization into a trans-historical phenomenon, and refuses to label the phenomenon as invariant.  In effect, a variety of racisms structure the class struggle, but that struggle continually mutates and transforms those struggles.

      As significant as that conversation is, and it is a conversation that I suspect that this blog will return to, I want to think about Balibar's comment in relationship to the concept of the proletariat.   There has been a tendency amongst contemporary (ostensible) historical materialist thinkers to conceptualize various notions of the proletariat subject.  This has come up in the work of Badiou, Zizek, and Gopal Balakrishnan, either as a presence or absence of a revolutionary subject.  But as Balibar implicitly notes, the proletariat is better understood as an assemblage or collectivity, one that is structurally divided.  Balibar follows up on this argument further in the text.

      "1.  Marx's thesis concerning the polarization of classes in capitalism is not an unfortunate error, but the strong point of his theory.  However, it has to be carefully distinguished from the ideological representation of a 'simplification of class relations' with the development of capitalism, and idea bound up with historical catastrophism.

      2.There is no 'ideal type of classes (proletariat and bourgeoisie) but there are processes of proletarianization and embourgeoisement, each of which involves its own internal conflicts (which I shall, for my part, following Althusser, term the 'overdetermination' of the antagonism): in this way we can see how the history of the capitalist economy depends on political struggles within the national and transnational space."  (Balibar 11)

     Capitalism is defined by the increased intensification of struggle between exploiter and exploited, but that struggle doesn't simplify as it polarizes, instead it mutates and takes on new and more complex forms.  Balibar takes the concept of the bourgeois and proletarian classes and turns them into processes, created through the fluid struggles of the field of class struggle that defines capitalist modernity.  When Balibar argues that "the history of the capitalist economy depends on political struggles within the national and transnational space", he also acknowledges that the terrain of struggle is defined by the ability of the proletariat coalesce as a collective assemblage.  That struggle is dependent on producing "an effective anti-racism", a way of restructuring racist social structures contained in the social formation.

     In a certain sense, Dean's talk becomes significant here.  Dean engages in a certain sense of nostalgia in her talk by referring back to the party form.  To be honest, the need to return to the party strikes me as a problematic formulation, both ignoring its failure and the critiques that are brought up by Anton Pannekoek amongst others, but it also returns the conversation to the concept of assemblage.  For Dean, the party allows for a form of discipline that creates modes of solidarity, or to return to my Deluzian appropriation, new forms of assemblage containing new capacities, new strengths.  At the same time, Dean doesn't engage substantially in the questions of racism and sexism that drive the critical work of Balibar and Wallerstein, favoring the expressive causality that seems to dominate amongst contemporary thinkers.  We need to return to the concept of overderermination introduced by Althusser.


  1. I'm sure they appreciate your Ivory Tower support and academese.

  2. I similarly appreciate your ability to attach your name to your comments. This is anti-intellectual bullshit under a thin veneer of resentiment. Don't bother coming back.