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Discussing OWS (5): Slavoj Zizek on interpreting #OccupyWallStreet as a Movement of the Salaried Bourgeoisie

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th January 2012


Michel Bauwens:

I very often appreciate Zizek’s radical thought and insights, including in the excerpts reproduced below. However, notions like workers and bourgeoisie, used here below in the context of a ‘salaried bourgeoisie’, in a non-structural way, strikes me as particularly unproductive. Equating precarious knowledge workers with the notion of being part of the ruling class, equating top financiers with web designers can only create confusion, much as Richard Florida did with the notion of the creative class. Though a hedge fund manager and a precarious web designer may both work with ‘sympolic value’ (i.e. processing ‘immaterial’ knowledge rather than directly ‘making things’) understanding is not advanced by placing them on the same continuum, irrespective of their structural place in the production process. But this is not to say of ourse, that contemporary class formations are much more fluid than they once were, with may young knowledge workers moving from salaried to freelance to enterpreneurial positions and back again. My own take is that movements like Occupy and Indignados are an expression of the knowledge workers that are now a substantial, even majorititarian in western countries, fraction of the working population. They are not a fraction of the ruling financial or managerial class.

Excerpted from Slavoj Zizek:

1.

“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 Shrugged of 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.

2.

‘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 are here describing the process that the ideologists of today’s ‘postmodern’ capitalism celebrate as the passage from material to symbolic production, from centralist-hierarchical logic to the logic of self-organisation and multi-centred co-operation. The difference is that Hardt and Negri are faithful to Marx: they are trying to prove that he was right, that the rise of the general intellect is in the long term incompatible with capitalism. The ideologists of postmodern capitalism are making exactly the opposite claim: Marxist theory (and practice), they argue, remains within the constraints of the hierarchical logic of centralised state control and so can’t cope with the social effects of the information revolution. There are good empirical reasons for this claim: what effectively ruined the Communist regimes was their inability to accommodate to the new social logic sustained by the information revolution. They tried to steer the revolution, to make it yet another large-scale centralised state-planning project. The paradox is that what Hardt and Negri celebrate as the unique chance to overcome capitalism is celebrated by the ideologists of the information revolution as the rise of a new, ‘frictionless’ capitalism.

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.”

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