“…The Political Economy of the Working Class…”

Revolutionary howdy to all:

This post is not exactly a representation of my final paper project, so I don’t intend it as my main online contribution for the semester. On the other hand, I would be delighted if it comes up in class.

I’m very sympathetic to the aims of Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony, especially in the way it seems to open itself, at least for me, to valuable criticism. Toward that end, I wanted to share some thoughts–bringing together a lot of different things that have been on my mind–before they flutter away.

Laclau and Mouffe seek to employ the Gramscian notion of hegemony for the purposes of understanding the social as a permanently riven field of articulations in which particular groups temporarily assume the representative function of universality. As they make clear in the preface, and as is especially clear from Mouffe’s other writings, the polemical dimension of this move is to challenge, on the right, those who valorize the political as a positive universal sphere in which competing claims can work toward reconciliation. On the left, so to speak, the argument confronts those who want a return to the privilege of the economic, perhaps even to the privilege of a single class, as a path through the quagmire of postmodern skepticism.

Point taken. What interest me, though, are struggles in which the political and the economic have a more complex relationship than in those of, for example, first world identity politics, and in such cases I worry that a model focusing on the moment of political articulation as constitutive risks placing the site of fissure in the social itself and thus overlooking the presence of autonomous, radically opposed social bodies. National struggles against colonialism present many examples in which the political struggle is an economic struggle, while the effort to create resistant economic arrangements is itself a struggle for the articulation of a national identity that precedes and runs deeper than the communicative level of competing claims. In many Latin American contexts–just since I’ve been reading about these lately, not to exclude any other regions–resistance to foreign domination takes the form of reclaiming natural resources that bear an immediate connection with national, cultural, racial, and indeed personal identity. The fact that a people’s material wealth is siphoned away at the pleasure of a system that also brutalizes it through a variety of political apparatuses registers as alienation even at the level of individual consciousness. The effort for emancipation thus involves reclaiming these resources in a movement that unites the struggle for rights, military expulsion of the foreign power, the fight against economic oppression, resistance to the world capitalist system in general, and the articulation of identity. (With regard to Latin America, we all know about the example of Venezualan oil, but a more interesting case to explore might be the battle over coca in Bolivia.)

My interests in these situations is largely strategic. Broadly speaking, I think it could be argued that history is kinder to emancipatory movements that consider the economic, political, and in some cases military aspects of their struggles holistically. I mean this in two senses. On the one hand, this combinatory approach can lead to more lasting institutions, as in the cases of Cuba, Venezuela, the Zapatista occupation, and others. On the other, more interesting hand, these institutions can oppose a more radical alternative to the neoliberal or capitalist-globalist status quo, forestalling the kind of assimilation we’ve talked about in reference to movements that remain primarily on the level of the political. (I think one important example of this right now is Egypt, where a largely political revolution that certainly fits Hegemony’s analytical model of a particular group assuming the representation of the universal has revolved backward, after the death and torture of many, into a military-police regime not radically different from the first one. In this case the decisive fact, from my perspective, is that the particular group presenting itself as the universal was not the group for whom freedom from economic oppression was the primary issue. It was, at least on its vanguard level, a group of young people whose political intelligence and idealism evinces their relatively high level of education, and while occupied Tahrir Square represented an alternative space with a radical political logic of its own, the alternative, even communist economy that spontaneously appeared within it served only to maintain the political manifestation; we might ask whether the succeeding events could have been different if the activists had put a greater focus on building this utopian economy into a lasting institution capable of opposing the regime on a front parallel to the struggle over rights.) While I fully endorse Gabriel’s point that it is naive to see such interventions as mere failures when they fall short of achieving a truly comphrehensive, radical shift, I think this point operates more on the analytical than the strategic level. These kinds of more gradual institutional changes–such as the example we keep returning to in class of the feminist movement–emerge through a logic largely obscure to the intentions of individual actors, and while they can be significant, I think revolutionary strategy still necessarily involves the effort to align intention with result, however incomplete this alignment must remain in the end.

The historical and theoretical implications of these phenomena are highly complex. I want to close, though, somewhat elliptically, by pointing toward a curious place in Marx’s Inaugural Address to the First International. During John’s presentation we talked about this speech with reference to Marx’s praise of the efforts that led to the Ten Hours Bill in England. The passage John mentioned concerning the temporality of the workplace in fact appears in the larger context of a really fascinating distinction relevant to the theoretical concerns I’ve been considering. Here’s the quote:

“This struggle about the legal restriction of the hours of labor raged the more fiercely since, apart from frightened avarice, it told indeed upon the great contest between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class. Hence the Ten Hours bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class” (Marx-Engels Reader, 517).

One way of considering Marx’s project, as well as those of the utopian socialists who came before him, is as the politicization of the economic. Against a simple base-superstructure interpretation, he thought the rapidly accelerating capitalist activity of his time presented a unique revolutionary situation because it brought the two spheres together more transparently than any previous economic system–while the Ten Hours Bill may have represented a partial victory for labor, the process of primitive accumulation in England rested on a progressive, nonviolent takeover of the state apparatus and its lawmaking power by a group of private individuals, or in Laclau and Mouffe’s terms, an assumption of universal representation by a particular group. In the world of feudalism, the state’s influence over the economy consisted largely in the collection of taxes and their use (sometimes) in the management of very sparse social services, as well as the manipulation of tariff policy. Royal finances had very little to do with the economic lives of the overwhelming majority. The advent of capitalism necessitated a thoroughgoing interpenetration of these spheres, and the project of socialism proceeds from the recognition of their historically accomplished inseparability. My contention, then, is that this inseparability has only become more insistent today, and that attempts at reconfiguring the social must consider this fundamental fact of its operation.

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