Theses on the Character Masks of Capital, the Social Classes and What Follows for Anti-Capitalist Politics
1. The classes
a) Every child knows how the classes appear: as a divided society, split into an extremely rich minority, a bigger minority of extremely poor citizens, and in between an infinitely variable hierarchy of incomes, consumption levels, (in-)security, health, culture, even life expectancy. This doesn't require Marx. Churches, trade unions, and political parties also deplore these facts from their points of view.
b) Anyone who speaks of classes says more than sociological phrases about social inequality. He identifies the reason for the unequal distribution of good fortune: a person's relation to the ownership of the means of production – in particular, whether one owns them as property or whether one only owns oneself – decides in advance one's working life and the results of one's individual efforts and is on average not significantly changeable. The possession of “economically relevant property” (Heinrich) allows its owner to exploit the labor and life process of the society as a means to his own enrichment: Only he has the means to organize work, to undertake production and to allow the willingness of the propertyless masses, who are not able to work on their own account, go to work – of course, under the condition that the process increases his property. Vice versa, the exclusive disposal of some over the instruments of material wealth determines that the great mass of citizens will be servants to the growth of others' property and that they can obtain and improve their own income only by increasing the property of the other side. The owners of labor power can not extricate themselves from this situation by working. That's why the label “class society” is a fundamental criticism: It characterizes a system which determines that many serve the growth of others' wealth, of which they have nothing; a system that in addition relates all the other statuses and social roles of those who are not owners of capital or wage laborers to this antagonism that dominates the society.
c) The aggrieved people see their situation differently. Because they are not imprisoned at birth into a caste or status but are allowed to compete freely with their property for economic success, they also want to know nothing about how a class position defined by propertylessness to a great extent predetermines their lives. In their eyes, the fact that it may be that they are forced to enter into employment contracts by no one other than their own interest in income and/or lack of money, legitimizes the results of their striving as products of their achievement: competition generates justice! The exceptions – the rags to riches stories – prove that it is possible; that it does not depend on one's class position, but what one makes of it. The competition to which they are entitled and willing conceals from them that this very competition of free and equal citizens mediates the content of a one-sided employment relation between a ruling class that appropriates the fruits of social labor and a servant class which permanently lives an uncertain existence and in relative or absolute poverty.
d) For the anti-capitalist left, there is something to be done: the critique of the false consciousness of the victims of the system. Because if they would see their class position as it is, they would not put up with it. They think of it it as “we're down here, you're up there,” find themselves “socially powerless,” veer between self-doubt because they “don't get very far” and transparent delusions of grandeur. But one thing they do not know and agree with is that they are the fools of the show and of the world to work in order to make others rich, and that they themselves even produce the power that exploits them through their services.
2. System – Character mask – human
a) If one uses Marx to speak of capital as an “automatic subject” and of the humans as character masks and personifications of capital, one formulates first and foremost a puzzle that must be solved. The actors are in fact not puppets, but self-conscious humans who have and know their interests and the means to realize them. One must explain how it comes about that they execute the laws of capital, which they do not at all know; and through pursuing their conscious interests, they create the economic objective constraints at which many fail.
The first source of the “subjectless” power of the capitals and their objective constraints is the not at all subjectless power of the state. The political power constitutionally establishes and guarantees private property, a right to exclusive disposal over processed and unprocessed nature as well as their own labor. This private disposal extends to the means of consumption which everyone needs, as well as to the means of production which, even more surely, everyone needs. State power sets the property right of ownership before every utility and thereby defines what wealth is in this society: it is not a heap of useful things, but the power of disposal and access to them quantified in money. And it makes this social power of access – a legal, hence a relation of force – into economic leverage, a source of new wealth: one grants access to what one owns to others who need it only when they provide an equivalent or render a service whose amount is determined by the degree of their dependence on the property of the other. Only under the political power of property do means of labor become instruments of appropriation of the results of others' labor; only under these conditions do the living needs of the have-nots transform into the compulsion to make themselves serviceable to others' money interests.
b) On the basis of the political constraint of interacting as private owners, the actors force on each other the logic and the consequences of their sources of income, which they pursue in competition with each other: providers of the same types of commodities compete for the same demand and get informed by the totality of suppliers and buyers, “the market,” what their offer is worth. The retroactive effect of their own interest on the capitalistic actor, by the fact that others pursue the same interest, brings neither new nor different purposes into the world than are in the sources of income pursued by the actors themselves. The capitalist with the purpose of increasing money through the use of his property, and the worker with the purpose of earning money through labor, enter into the competition, but because others with the same interests make the market contentious, or for labor power jobs, they force on each other not the purpose but the yardstick of success for the pursuit of their purpose, and thereby the “inner tendencies” of capital (or wage labor) are expressed to each player as a relation to objectified laws. (Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin ed., p. 414, 752) Each individual faces the conditions of success for his capitalistic interest and the means he must take for it as external facts and objective constraints to which he must be adequate in order to succeed.
The entrepreneur, for example, by using a capital advance wants to achieve a surplus, a money difference – and indeed the largest possible. This purpose is well above the modest viewpoint of needs and livelihood. The demand for money is – unlike that for all other goods – per se boundless; and that for sources of capital is even more. What the capitalist wants is value and value expansion. What he does not know and does not want is the law of value, which he and his peers create and are subject to by their all-around actions.
The competition forces on the economic subjects only consequences which are already included in their economic means – and that is opposite for the opposing classes: it forces the capitalists to use the means for their purpose: to achieve the desired surplus above their costs, they must lower the costs of their human and objective factors of production and use the paid factors as extensively as possible. They don't have to know anything at all about the difference between the living labor capacity and the technical facilities: they automatically do right by them when they buy them at the lowest possible price and use them intensively. They have the means of their success, which competition forces them to use at the current level of society.
For labor power, it's a different story: They are themselves the means of their success; the competition also forces them to reduce costs. Only, they themselves are these costs: They must offer themselves cheaper, work longer, make themselves more useful to capital with their ability and willingness than the competitor for the job. The competition forces the capitalist to use his means more efficiently to satisfy his monetary materialism; competition forces the wage-laborer to sacrifice his materialism.
3. Class consciousness and class struggle as they exist – and how we need them to be
a) Criticism of capitalism aims at the wage-dependent majority. First, because in this system their materialism falls by the wayside, while the rich minority sees their materialism served extremely well as a by-product of capital accumulation. Wage earners therefore have good reason to shake off the ruinous service to capital. Second, only they have the power to do so: with their labor they reproduce and increase the power of capital over themselves. The final refusal of their service takes away from capital its power over the society and from the state the means of its forcible protection.
b) It is not that there is no class consciousness – only what kind! The antagonism between wages and profits is not a secret. Trade unions are the organized consciousness that the worker, on the one hand, as a free owner of his source of income can fend only for himself and compete for his advantage. For his labor to function as a source of income at all, he needs the opposite, the elimination of competition, uniting with his peers: Only collectively can he face the dominant economic power, the owners of capital, as a negotiating partner and not stand there as a helpless petitioner. The other side – this much is understood by the union – won't pay anything at all voluntarily.
c) Consciousness of the antagonism is, however, complemented by its opposite: the wage laborer needs precisely the profit-makers, who grant him nothing, in the role of employers: only they can initiate something with his willingness to work and pay him a wage. The contradictory position means that the wage-dependent notice the conflict of interests from the outset only from the viewpoint of the required reconciliation. They confront the interests of the other side not as equals with their own interests, but with a request for compromise, which should be possible because they do not deny the capitalists their right to profit. They maintain a “personalizing capitalist critique”: they see their opponent not in this class and its objective interest, but in individual “greedy egoists” who seeks “maximum profit” instead of normal profit, who care only about “profit over people”; just a bad man who refuses to compromise, although he could easily afford it.
d) What is needed and what is lacking is the insight, free of morality, that capital and its agents are not liable for a crime against an imagined community and not to be blamed for a betrayal of a social responsibility, but that their interest is just the universal interest of this society on which all other interests depend, and to which they are all subordinated. Capitalists fulfill their social obligation when they increase their profit, because the people and the common good, social responsibility, etc. have the precondition that the means for it must first be produced – capitalistically, of course. The workers have to realize that the whole order is a system of an interest hostile to them and that their own source of income is not property, but nothing other than the free form of a servitude to purposes alien to their own.
Translation of theses presented by Peter Decker, an editor of GegenStandpunkt, for a podium discussion with Michael Heinrich on April 25, 2012 in Bielefeld, Germany.