Surplus Population, Social Reproduction, and the Problem of Class Formation

The black lumpen proletariat, unlike Marx’s working class, had absolutely no stake in industrial America. They existed at the bottom level of society in America, outside the capitalist system that was the basis for the oppression of black people. They were the millions of black domestics and porters, nurses’ aides and maintenance men, laundresses and cooks, sharecroppers, unpropertied ghetto dwellers, welfare mothers, and street hustlers. At their lowest level, at the core, they were the gang members and the gangsters, the pimps and the prostitutes, the drug users and dealers, the common thieves and murderers.

– Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power

Lazarus Begging for Crumbs from Dives's Table (Heinrich Aldegrever, 1552)
Lazarus Begging for Crumbs from Dives’s Table (Heinrich Aldegrever, 1552)

1. Introduction

Today, few uphold the old belief that wage labor will gradually expand to cover the majority of the world’s population. Once, this was the condition of the historical belief that capitalism would create the conditions under which wage labor could be organized as a global power to match capital. Instead another teleology has appeared, claiming that capitalist development entails working class disorganization. Rather than a narrative of progress, this is a narrative of decline, of precarity, informalization, and immiseration.

Marx had once predicted that a revolution would become organizationally possible through “the ever expanding union of the workers,” and materially urgent due to the deepening of proletarian misery: “A radical revolution can only be the revolution of radical needs.”1 In the twentieth century, the combination of misery and organization was rare, due to the concessions given to organized labor in the Global North, concessions which were to a large extent made possible by the exploitation, misery, and violent suppression of colonial populations. Today, we see instead a tendency towards the disorganization of northern labor, which is to a large extent due to competition from low-paid and less organized workers in the Global South. It thus appears that the two elements of Marx’s theory are mutually exclusive, but in a different way than believed by many during the mid-19th Century, when the idea of full employment and unionization was seen as a possibility. Instead, Marx’s own strong arguments for the impossibility of full employment have been re-actualized through a re-reading of Marx’s theory of “generalized law of capitalist accumulation” and the capitalist tendency to produce surplus-populations.2

The foremost luminaries of this reactualization have been the proponents of communization theory, among whom the collective Endnotes is perhaps the most influential voice in the Anglo-Saxon world. Referring to Endnotes, Fredric Jameson, for example, has recently offered the provocative suggestion that Capital is a book about unemployment rather than about exploitation.3 The writings of communization theorists on surplus population are of interest both because they provide an explanatory framework for understanding the empirically observable phenomena of the informalization of labor and the development of immiseration and slums, analyzed by writers such as Jan Breman and Mike Davis, and because it is one of the most sophisticated among the (in any case few) contemporary Marxist attempts to think the conditions of revolutionary communist practice today.

This text takes its diagnostic starting point in these new theoretical developments, with an aim to think through the challenge they pose in terms of the question of class formation and organization. It proposes that the central task of class composition is to respond to the problem of the contingency of proletarian reproduction, which all proletarians have in common, but deal with in many different ways. This means that class composition must start from the recognition that the modes of proletarians’ struggle are extremely diverse: from the limit condition of peasants fighting against becoming proletarianized to the classical figure of the wage-laborer on strike, lies a whole range of struggles to which feminist and anti-colonial writers are more attuned than most Marxists. Once we recognize this constitutive heterogeneity of the exploited and expropriated populations of the world, we recognize that any general theory of “the proletariat” as a revolutionary agent will have to start from the self-organization and composition of differences and particularly of different strategies of life and survival.

In order to elaborate such a theory, I turn to the Marx of the 18th Brumaire, a text not interested in the elaboration of the abstract historical dialectic of communist revolution, but in developing and deploying a method of analysis of concrete struggles. This text has rightly been lauded by many as a model materialist analysis of the conjuncture – of the crisis, the relations of class forces, the historical temporality of events, the dynamics of political representation and violence, etc. Marx’s richly textured meditation on the play of contingency and necessity in the French revolution of 1848 and its aftermath is an important corrective to the all too common Marxist attempt to limit political analysis to what can be derived from the critique of political economy or to the question of the prospects of revolution. What follows is the attempt to relate the widely observed conception of political contingency and class formation in the 18th Brumaire with the question of the contingency of proletarian reproduction. Starting from the latter allows me to read the Brumaire not merely as an analysis of the actions of constituted classes, but to draw from it a theory of class formation and class differentiation.

While the problem of proletarian reproduction has been raised with renewed urgency by the crisis and the growth of surplus populations, it has a wider significance. As observed by Michael Denning, the proletariat is not defined by exploitation and labor, but by its real or virtual poverty. The key insight of this text is that any practice of proletarian class formation and organization – the condition sine qua non of communist strategy – must start not only with this virtual poverty, but with the real strategies of life and survival through which proletarians live this problem.

2. The Necessity of Surplus Population Under Capitalism

Marx always gave a dual definition of the proletariat: in terms of the problem of the contingency of their reproduction, their existence as “virtual paupers,” and in terms of their exploitation as workers.4 In other words, the proletariat is defined by its separation from the means of reproduction, and its compulsion to reproduce itself by reproducing capital. The reproduction of the proletariat (the value of its labor-power) is kept in line with the reproduction of capital through the “normal” working of the law of value: if wages rise too high, capital will hire less workers, thus creating a reserve army exerting a downward pressure on wages.5 The point here is that as long as the employed and unemployed do not combine, wages will always fall back in line with the requirements of capital accumulation.

Marx pointed out that state violence is generally unleashed should such a combination force the law of value temporarily out of function. However, there are two other crucial limitations of workers organization, which are both based on the long-term secular tendencies of capital. First, the production and accentuation of differences within the proletariat along gendered and racialized lines, which leads to competition between and within national workforces; and secondly, the production of surplus populations.

As Marx notes with regards to the national and religious conflicts between the English and the Irish, this antagonism is the secret of the working class’s impotence in England, despite the level of organization of its English part. It is the secret of the maintenance of power by the capitalist class. And the latter is fully aware of this.6 This is not merely a strategy of divide and rule, however, but an effect of capital’s chase for absolute surplus value, which – as soon as it has extended the existing workday as much as possible – brings it to incorporate the labor-forces of areas where the reproductive cost of labor is lower, and where necessary labor is thus less relative to surplus-labor time. In the Grundrisse, Marx writes:

Surplus time is the excess of the working day above that part of it which we call necessary labor time; it exists secondly as the multiplication of simultaneous working days, i.e. of the laboring population. … It is a law of capital … to create surplus labor, disposable time; it can do this only by setting necessary labor in motion – i.e. entering into exchange with the worker. It is therefore equally a tendency of capital to increase the laboring population, as well as constantly to posit a part of it as surplus population – population which is useless until such time as capital can utilize it. … It is equally a tendency of capital to make human labor (relatively) superfluous, so as to drive it, as human labor, towards infinity.7

Second, Marx discovers that the chase for relative surplus value itself replaces workers with machinery, leading to an internal secular tendency towards the growth of surplus populations.8 Thus, by enrolling new populations as workers and by expelling existing workers in favor of machinery, capital produces ever larger working classes alongside ever greater surplus populations, which makes the challenges of suspending the law of value through organization ever greater. We see here two tendencies of capitalism: whether in crisis or in periods of growth, existing lines of production will shed labor. Despite periodic crises, capital will accumulate ever more capital, and employ ever more proletarians. This gives us “the general law of capitalist accumulation”:

The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and therefore also the greater the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productivity of its labor, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, also develop the labor-power at its disposal. … But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labor-army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to the amount of torture it has to undergo in the form of labor. The more extensive, finally, the pauperized sections of the working class and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. Like all other laws, it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here.9

If we try to break this down we have three effects of this law: the expansion of the mass of employed (“active”) proletarians, of the number of unemployed (“reserve”) proletarians, and of the mass of unemployable (“consolidated”) proletarians.10 The effect of the latter two categories is to press down wages, i.e. the monetary part of the reproduction of the working population. Indeed, capital constantly produces a relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to the fulfillment its drive for valorization.11 The expanded reproduction of capital is thus both the expanded reproduction of the employed and unemployed populations, positing an ever greater relative surplus, a “disposable reserve army” bred by the capitalist mode of production.12 “Modern industry’s whole form of motion therefore depends on the constant transformation of the working population into unemployed or semi-employed ‘hands.’”13

In recent decades such surplus populations have mostly been produced by automation manufactured in the Global North, whereas the surplus populations of the Global South overwhelmingly remain victims of the combined push of population growth and industrial agriculture in rural areas (subdivision of land, capitalist competition and expropriation). The northward migration from the former colonies introduces an already racialized population into an indigenous workforce rendered insecure by off-shoring, automation and informalization, with some longing for the heyday of Northern labor during the time of open white supremacy and the national social state.

In this increasing immiseration of the proletariat it is possible to find both a deepening contradiction between capital and labor – and thus an increased hope of a revolutionary clash rather than an integrationist class compromise – and an increasing competition between workers and between workers and the unemployed, and thus a decreased hope for solidarity and collective action. We discover this ambivalence in the writings of the communizationist journal and writing collective Endnotes. In their second issue, Endnotes developed a structural analysis, which claimed that the reproductive cycles of capital and labor were becoming increasingly decoupled, leading to a “secular crisis” of “the reproduction of the capital-labor relation itself” and an objective pressure on the proletariat to abolish capital.14 The inability of capital to satisfy the demands of the workers was thus a condition of possibility of communism. However, in their third issue this condition of possibility appeared as a condition of impossibility: “an increasingly universal situation of labor-dependence has not led to a homogenisation of interests. On the contrary, proletarians are internally stratified” and their collective interests have often been captured by markers of race, nation, gender, etc.15 These remarks allow, as we will see, no more than a hope grounded in a theory of the secular deepening of the antagonism between capital and labor, and the exhaustion of all possibilities of mediating it. In what follows we will see that Endnotes’s meditations on the necessities of capitalist development and the abstract possibility of communization leaves us without a materialist method of class formation.

3. Reproductive Crisis and Revolutionary Hopes

Endnotes’s theory of revolution is based on the tendency towards antagonistic reproduction given by the General Law of Capitalist Accumulation. They posit a deepening crisis of the reproduction of the class relation itself, whereby the reproduction of capital and of the proletariat will enter into a deepening antagonism:

With its own reproduction at stake, the proletariat cannot but struggle, and it is this reproduction itself that becomes the content of its struggles. As the wage form loses its centrality in mediating social reproduction, capitalist production itself appears increasingly superfluous to the proletariat: it is that which makes us proletarians, and then abandons us here. In such circumstances the horizon appears as one of communization; of directly taking measures to halt the movement of the value form and reproduce ourselves without capital.16

The tendency here described can only be seen as pointing in the direction of revolution or communization, if we claim that capitalism has reached some absolute limit to expansion, some exhaustion  of the capitalist teleology itself. Otherwise, capital will have room to maneuver and give concessions, and we would thus be dealing either with a contingent limit, which poses nothing but a window of revolutionary opportunity, or more fluid fields of struggles. Staking everything on one global totalizing process of subsumption and abjection, communization theory describes a process that is heading for its limit. This theory tends to reduce the question of revolution to its structural condition: general squeeze on living conditions. But because the processes of capitalist accumulation entails both the increasing competition and atomization of workers, Endnotes can only conceive of struggle as the spontaneous coming together of the separated, principally in riots and insurrections. But in this duality of objective tendency and subjective irruption, it is easily overlooked that riots are conditioned by everyday resistances that work against the naturalization of oppression and explore the limitations of other less antagonistic forms of redress. It is equally easy to forget the role of whispers, rumors, and camaraderie that precede a riot, setting the tone of its affective atmosphere of anger and contagious mutual trust. To understand all this is necessary to understand the connection between the structural “conditions of possibility of riots” and the riot itself. Perhaps it is the belief in the imminent exhaustion of the global process of capitalist accumulation that makes it possible to neglect such considerations.

Albert O. Hirschman once observed that when Marx and Engels in the late 1840s – most influentially in the Manifesto – thought that capitalism was reaching its final limit, they failed to recognize the capacity of imperialism to displace capitalism’s contradictions and postpone its crisis.17 More problematically, Marx’s prioritization of the thesis that revolution would come about through the globalization and exhaustion of capitalist development, lead him to briefly lend colonialism support as a driver of the process that would make the proletariat a global reality, and thus communism a global possibility.18 This implication is premised on an abstract formal dialectical reversal, which completely effaces how the effects of the global division of labor are divisive and disciplining, and hence the necessary difficult task of developing cross-border solidarity. Similarly, according to Hirschman, V. I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg only really recognized this power of imperialism when they could say it had run its course, i.e. when the recognition did not contradict the idea that revolution is objectively imminent. Hirschman’s provocation raises the following question: does the orientation of the revolutionary desire of Marxists – insofar as it is sustained by the theory of capital’s real teleology running its course – orient them away from the problem that there might still be venues for capitalist expansion as well as other modifying circumstances to the general law?19 And furthermore, does capital not have the capacity to re-subsume areas and populations it has previously spat out as if they were new to it – once they have been sufficiently devalued?  The problem with the thesis of exhaustion is that in order to give hope it needs to suggest a uniform deepening of the proletarian antagonism with capital. This allows theory to avoid the question of strategy and organization, and allows it to “solve” the problem of the proletarian condition through a simple dialectical schematic à la “the expropriators are expropriated.” While we might agree that that is indeed the formal concept of communist revolution, it says nothing whatsoever about the real movement that abolishes the present state of things.

In his critique of communization theory Alberto Toscano relates its “almost total neglect of the question of strategy” to “the collapse or attenuation” of collective bodies capable of projecting a strategy.20 As a theory of communist revolution, communization is a theory of the insufficiency of all real practices, yet curiously a theory of hope. This is the case, because it is speculatively derived from the observation that capitalist development entails a deepening contradiction between the reproduction of the working class and the reproduction of capital. Under such conditions, labor must abolish capital or suffer its own slow death as surplus population. This is a theory of the “conditions of possibility of communism,” in Endnotes’s Kantian formulation. Because Endnotes focus on the “moving contradiction” between capitalist and working class reproduction, they tend to pose the question of composition from the classical point of view of uniting “the” proletariat in order to produce a historical subject adequate to abolish capital, often defining the proletariat in excessively formalistic ways, as fully atomized and mutually competitive and mistrustful, whereby the problem of their coordination becomes so radicalized that even struggle can only be thought as an event of spontaneity rather than a process based on the coming together and increased connectivity of already existing networks of solidarity and trust.21

As with Marx and Engels in the Manifesto, deepening misery becomes the occasion for a conditional belief in progress, a kind of perverse faith that history will progress by its bad side – or perhaps the thesis is merely that if it progresses by its bad side, it will do so in a more communist way this time, unmediated by trade unions and parties, and free of the laborist productivism of former epochs. But freeing themselves of the weight of the past in this way, we also find ourselves in a vacuum, pinning our hopes on the absence of the positive tendency on which Marx and Engels hung their hats, namely the growing organization and productive power of the proletariat, the vehicle through which immiseration spelled the possibility of mass action rather than the barbarism of the war of all proletarians against all.

In addressing this tension, Endnotes do not provide any operational concepts and tactics that might enable the composition or abolition of these differences, except “struggle itself,” which spontaneously will abolish the double-bind in which workers find themselves: “they can act collectively if they trust one another, but they can trust one another — in the face of massive risks to themselves and others — only if that trust has already been realized in collective action.” Instead of participating in the collective development and sharing of tactics and tools of struggle, Endnotes admit the speculative character of their theory, which they consider a “therapy against despair,” the answer (revolution) to which the proletarians have not yet formalized the question. In short, communization is an answer whose only question is abstract, it responds not to the concrete problem of class formation, but to the abstract problem of fending off the despair of the theorists of revolution.

However, the debate that is of interest here is not one between forms of hope, and the possibility of revolution discovered in good or bad general historical tendencies. Neither from surplus population to communization, nor from the multitude to commonwealth, as it were. It is easy to understand that a theoretical indication of hope is necessary to keep practical reason from falling into cynicism, melancholia, or opportunism.22 But such narratives risk leaving us stuck in the Kantian problematic of orientation in thinking, according to which the rational subject will only commit itself to practical, moral action if it has hope that its action will succeed in furthering morality materially or spiritually – and in which only the kind of action that addresses the tendencies that give hope, can itself be seen as carrying a historical promise, that is a promise of more than short term gains and eventual defeat. For Kant, the practical necessity of optimism ultimately becomes an argument for the practical necessity of the idea of God, for Endnotes it becomes an argument for the continuous meditation on revolution, that is, on an answer to which proletarians have not formulated the question. Even if the concept of communization, unlike Kant’s God, is founded on a systematic materialist and dialectical understanding of the laws of movement of capital, such a theory does not, as we have seen, provide us with a strategic, practical orientation of class formation and strategies of reproduction, nor with a concept of state violence.

Even if Marx’s systematic analysis of the tendency towards the production of surplus population is empirically confirmed, as suggested by Endnotes and Aaron Benanav – Marx is still adamant that it has many modifying circumstances from which he abstracts in Capital.23 However, while Marx is right to exclude them from his exposition for methodological reasons, we cannot draw any political lessons from a law without considering its countervailing tendencies that not only work against the tendency, but even suspend it. Some of these are internal, like the periodic devaluation of labor to the point that labor renders highly mechanized production uncompetive, which would lower the organic composition of capital. Another, and more significant moderator is declining birthrates, which Marx does not take into consideration as he methodologically takes demographic growth a variable dependent solely on wage levels. Thus, because of deindustrialization, declining birth rates due to women’s struggles for reproductive health and refusal of child bearing, violent state suppression of birthrates, etc. – it is possible that the tendency towards surplus population is periodically reversed. Further, the available pool of labor has historically been diminished by war, epidemics, famine and the slow death of poverty, declining public health standards and deadly policing of poor neighborhoods and borders.

What is interesting and challenging about the re-actualization of the theory of surplus populations today is that, unlike the immiseration thesis of the Communist Manifesto, it is not predicated on a thesis of the gradual embourgeoisement of the world, or on the homogenization of the proletariat. The reality of surplus-populations poses instead the issue of a generalized crisis of reproduction, and the multitude of survival strategies that arise from it, including modes of wealth appropriation far short of revolution proper, women’s struggles, and various forms of state and para-state violence.24 Reversing the relation between theory and practice, it poses a very non-Kantian question: what does it mean to orient revolutionary practice from the standpoint of the problem of the proletarian condition and the manifold ways to live it?

4. The Common Problem of Reproduction

We have seen how the proletarian condition is best understood as one of separation from the means of reproduction. This is the condition of capital organizing proletarians as wage laborers. New separations are constantly produced by capital’s expansive drive for absolute surplus value, a tendency through which ever new populations are included in the workforce – women and agricultural producers primarily.25 Furthermore, we have seen how the drive for relative surplus value tendentially spits out more workers, rendering them superfluous to capitalist production. In the course of long periods of mass-unemployment, and as an effect of the secular decline in employment we see a growth of the consolidated surplus-population, i.e. a population unfit, unable, unwilling to work, because of poor health, age; or – which Marx only mentions – because it has adopted another mode of reproduction.

Primitive accumulation, violently destroyed and destroys previous modes of reproduction. In Feudal Europe as in the Global South today and in colonial times, primitive accumulation ruptures customary bonds of authority, as well as the peasants’ organic tie to the land, and leaves individuals atomised and bereft of the means and relations necessary to survive and actualise their potentials. Marx’s retrospective analysis of primitive accumulation in Capital focuses on how this process lead to the creation of a mass of proletarians, who had to combine with capital as workers in order to survive. However, we also see in his narrative the outline of a different set of histories of struggles against the enclosures, food riots, and of the criminalized, and thus subversive strategies of survival and reproduction. The impotentiality of individuals had and has to be enforced by private and public violence, their propensity to combine autonomously or within and against their workplaces made the process of the integration of the proletariat into work-life a protracted process.26

In tandem with the repression of other modes of survival, money develops into a general condition for participation in society: if you don’t have it you are compelled to obtain it, be it by working, stealing, selling yourself or by marrying someone who has money. In other words, proletarians have to reproduce themselves through exchange. However, this gives us nothing but the abstract social form through which labor is reproduced; indeed the ways in which labor takes this form are innumerable. Behind the common problem of the proletarians (dispossession of means of re/production) and their common ‘solution’ (money) lies a manifold of heterogeneous modes of life through which the proletarian condition can and must be lived. Thus, as Silvia Federici shows,

primitive accumulation … was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as ‘race’ and age, became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.27

What is also implied here is that as the reproduction of the proletariat became mediated through the wage, it did not abolish proletarian self-reproduction; the wage has very rarely been high enough for workers to obtain all the means of their reproduction (food ready for consumption, sex, cleaning, health care) directly on the market.28 Instead, the wage became a form through which the unpaid reproductive work of women, but also of children and other dependents, was mediated through the mostly male wage, producing what Mariarosa Dalla Costa calls the patriarchy of the wage.29 Whereas Marx’s analysis focuses first on the accumulation of “men,” and then on their production and reproduction of capital through their exploitation, authors such as Federici, Fortunati, Dalla Costa and James provide a theory of the condition of possibility of Marx’s analysis: the production and reproduction of labor power itself.30 To understand the history of how struggles over reproduction started to wane, it is therefore not enough to analyze the integration of proletarians in wage-labor and the criminalization of alternative reproductive practices. We must understand with Federici how one effect of this war on women, whose most violent episode was the witch-hunts, was that the proletariat was split.31 This effect of this war was not just the primitive accumulation and disciplining of women’s bodies by capital, state and church, but also the subordination of proletarian women to proletarian men. For these men the struggle for reproduction was often – and once alternative routes were exhausted mostly – a struggle to find women who could reproduce them. To the macro-violence of the clergy and the state, a micro-violence of the everyday was added, often drawing on the discursive resources and images produced by the former. Economic compulsion and extra-economic violence are inseparable but yet distinguishable under capitalism.

The destruction of the different forms of reproductive self-organization of the proletarians did not entail a destruction of proletarian reproduction as such, but the creation of the modern nuclear family, within which unpaid reproductive work took care of the reproductive needs of children and wage workers, so the workers could remain free-floating mutually competitive productive bodies. Hence we can understand the modern family as an essential survival-unit in a condition of insecurity, but we have to understand how the stability of this nuclear family model is inextricably linked to the stability of the male wage.

Thus, if we read together Marx’s chapters on primitive accumulation with his analysis of the general tendencies of capitalist accumulation, we must conclude that struggles over reproduction are becoming an increasingly important issue, not merely in the form of struggles over the wage and working day, but as defenses of welfare (the social wage), and struggles to appropriate the means of reproduction or against their expropriation. If the proletariat is, as Endnotes and Benanav write, “rather a working class in transition, a working class tending to become a class excluded from work,” we must note that it is also a class increasingly in need of alternative ways to secure its own reproduction. Before this becomes a matter of revolutionary struggle it is a matter of everyday solutions and resistances to the problem of proletarian reproduction.

5. Proletarian Differentiation

Marx conceptualizes the problem of the proletarian condition in two ways: in terms of its exploitation and in terms of its expropriation. If the former relates to the (waged) working class, the latter refers to anybody separated from the means of re/production, a pauper virtual or actual. Marx recognized that the proletariat also attempts to survive outside the capital-relation, as lumpenproletariat, rural or urban. This class lives as an excluded insider to “the silent compulsion of economic relations,” faced not with exploitation but with the “direct extra-economic force which is still… used, but only in exceptional cases.”32 Marx had first introduced the lumpenproletariat in a discussion of Max Stirner’s romantic vision of non-productive and work-refusing ragamuffins and lazzaroni. After 1848, the problem of the lumpenproletariat becomes a problem of the failed revolution, of the proletarians who sold themselves to the reactionaries. This approach, which stresses the difference between the working class and the lumpen, and contains certain moments of moralization from the perspective of the work ethic and law and order, has since been at the mainstream of Marxism, with the most notable exceptions in Frantz Fanon and the Black Panther Party.

Marx’s focus on the contrast between the productivity of the proletariat and the “parasitism” of the lumpenproletariat mirrors capitalist value-production criteria, instead of asking the question of the common condition of the two, and the often blurred borderline between them. To theorize the proletariat as differentiated into workers and lumpenproletarians entails not prioritizing the problem of exploitation over domination or vice versa, but rather seeing these as different ways in which proletarians live their condition: at the extremes some suffer only domination or exploitation directly, but mostly, proletarians are faced with some mix of both. And through the mediation of competition of jobs and state handouts, etc., all proletarians are always indirectly submitted to both, but in an uneven way in which some are relatively privileged over others.

Thus, wage labor is one of many ways in which proletarians try to solve the problem of separation. If the proletarian is a virtual pauper, then in the proletarian condition (to take this word in the sense of the “human condition,” but historicized and negative) the proletariat is stratified into different strategies of dealing with this problem:

proletarian condition

 

In Marx’s analysis the proletariat analysis is not limited to the actively working industrial proletariat, which was so central to trade union, socialist and communist strategy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If the proletariat consists, as Engels claimed in 1888, of “the class of modern wage laborers, who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor-power in order to live,” we must note that this does not imply that they find willing buyers.33 The proletariat thus consists both of the employed and the unemployed. If the proletariat and lumpenproletariat are not agglomerations of concrete individuals, but modes of life that individuals slip in and out of according to the need and availability of work or other strategies of survival, the distinctions begin to blur. Yet it is clear that frequent conflicts might arise between these populations, both for moral reasons (e.g. the protestant work ethic) and the negative impact of crime on the everyday lives of working people.34 What distinguishes the lumpenproletariat from the unemployed is its mode of life, its everyday strategies of hustling, theft, and sex work, a subjectivity or conduct that tends to make it unemployable, whereas the unemployed law-abidingly look for work. Similarly, there are conflicts between the unemployed and the employed, most obviously the downward pressure on wages and conditions exerted by the former, or struggles for job-security by the latter. These groups therefore cannot share the same strategies for dealing with their class condition: the workers reject the “parasitism and crime” of the lumpen. The unemployed compete with each other and press the wages of the employed. Many employed workers struggle against the inclusion in the labor market of new groups of (women, lumpen, migrants, blacks) in order to maintain their position. Finally, those reproducing the labor force – mainly women – are under pressure from the labor force itself, to reproduce it. This is what it means that different parts of the proletariat live the proletarian condition differently. Now it becomes clearer what is at stake in the problem of class formation.

 

6. Class Formation Through Struggle

Marx distinguished between the forms that subsume classes (the value-form, money-form, capital-form, state-form, etc.), and the active process of class-formation in struggle.35 This distinction recurs in Operaismo‘s notion of class composition, which has both a passive and an active form: the composition of the class as workers, and the active effort of composing the elements of the class, autonomously. “The political class composition… is determined by how the ‘objective’ conditions of exploitation are appropriated ‘subjectively’ by the class and directed against those very conditions.”36 It is here useful to recover a passage from The German Ideology describing active and passive class formation:

The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, become subsumed under it. This is the same phenomenon as the subjection of the separate individuals to the division of labor and can only be removed by the abolition of private property and of labor itself.37

Individuals are formed as a class, through their subsumption and limitation in the web of necessities of their social condition, but are forming a class through a common struggle. When there is no common struggle, those who could form a class fall back into internal competition or mutual indifference. In the absence of common struggles, the “objective class interests” become abstract slogans compared to the concrete reality of the interests of individual and families to compete with others for scarce resources. This should tell us why attempts to “raise proletarian consciousness” are generally met with derision. To say that people share a common problem to which there is a common solution is an abstract truth, which in itself will convince only very few to compose in common struggle; this requires trust in one another and in the tactics of struggle. A common problem is only a problem if a solution can be imagined; if not, it is simply a condition, a given if troubling fact, which might as well instill cynicism and opportunism. Struggles only emerge where people believe – rationally and affectively – that collective response to a problem is better than or complementary to the ways in which they deal with their condition in their everyday.

The last part of the quote indicates that the problem of the proletarian condition cannot be finally “solved,” but only dissolved, through “the abolition of private property and of labor itself.” Thus, the problem will persist and insists through all attempted solutions, be they individual or collective. This is one of the reasons for the investment of hope in political representatives who might solve the problem, religions that promise otherworldly salvation, and drugs that help you forget the whole mess. This also provides a justification for the projections of communist theory, in as much as it projects a solution that at least rests on the collective self-activity of the believers.

But is important that this communist horizon is not construed as a matter of overcoming and negating particular individual strategies of reproduction, in the sense of raising yourself to the level of universality of the class in the uniformity of its antagonism with capital. Rather, the practical task of class composition – which is necessary for posing the problem of the abolition of the proletarian condition concretely instead of remaining stuck in mutual competition and abstract hope – consists in developing collective strategies of life and survival which either combine, supplement or make superfluous individualized forms of reproduction.

If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages. This is so true that English economists are amazed to see the workers sacrifice a good part of their wages in favor of associations, which, in the eyes of these economists, are established solely in favor of wages.38

Marx makes this argument, which is clearly orientated by the practice of the English workers, against Proudhon’s theoreticist rejection of workers’ combinations. Proudhon argues against workers’ combinations, for what will they achieve, even if they win wage rises: the capitalist class will push down wages to make up for lost profits, the cost of organizing will itself be higher than what is won, and at the end of the day the workers will still be workers, the masters still masters. While questioning the economic side of Proudhon’s argument, Marx’s focus on the experiences of the Bolton workers suggests that something more, and more important than wages, can be gained from combinations and struggle.39

However, the problem of the proletarian condition is much wider than any existing or even possible organization of wage labor. In the face of surplus population, trade unions will have their bargaining power undermined by the increasing competition from the un- or underemployed, and some will engage in a loosing battle to lower competition through enhancing the exclusion of some groups, on grounds of race, gender, or citizenship status. W.E.B. Du Bois pointed to this problem, when he wrote about the black working class in the United States:

Theoretically we are a part of the world proletariat in the sense that we are the mainly exploited class of cheap laborers; but practically we are not a part of the white proletariat and are not recognized by that proletariat to any great extent. We are the victims of their physical oppression, social ostracism, economic exclusion and personal hatred; and when in self-defence we seek sheer subsistence we are howled down as “scabs.”40

The problem of proletarian separation can only be tackled in those nodal points where common solutions can be produced, and forms of competition – racialized, gendered, nationalistic, etc., can be undermined. This entails, quite significantly, facing the challenge of thinking the conditions of the composition of those that are not part of a workplace, which in Marx’s writing is quintessentially the problem of the peasants and lumpen-proletarians raised in the 18th Brumaire.

7. The Material Conditions of Composition

Where the Communist Manifesto, written shortly before the 1848 Revolutions, was a meditation on the historical tendency towards immiseration, proletarian class power and revolution, Marx wrote The 18th Brumaire in 1852 as a reflection of the failure of that revolution, particularly a failure that was due to the failure of the proletariat to compose with the lumpen and the peasants.41 It is useful to return to this text today, when it is clear that the general tendency towards surplus population leaves us with a theory of the difficulty of revolution as much as of its urgency. In it Marx developed a materialist theory of class composition, as a corrective to the general, historicist projections of the Manifesto. The Brumaire is often read as a text in which the problem of class divisions – between proletarians and between the proletariat and its allies – is one of enlightening proletarians about their objective common interest and organizing them, of establishing alliances with the organizations of other classes, and of finding ways to politically represent the unorganized and “unenlightened” residues of the proletariat and other subaltern classes. Thus the question of strategy and force becomes reduced to the question of recomposing the political forces with a view to establishing new class alliances. However, if we look carefully at Marx’s reflections on classes in the text, we see that it is a profound reflection on the relation between classes as constituted categories of people, and the shifting and inherently practical and existential responses to the contingency of proletarian reproduction through which classes crystallize or melt away. Marx’s analysis of the chaos of the revolutionary crisis solely in terms of its political contingency is implicitly but indisputably shaped by presumptions about the question of reproductive contingency.

7.1. The peasantry

The 18th Brumaire conceptualizes the problem of separation in its most radical, most scattered and isolated forms: the small-holding peasants, a mass of semi-proletarians who are largely being undermined by the developing markets in food, taxes, and debts and the lumpenproletariat. Marx’s analysis of the counterrevolutionary section of the lumpenproletariat that was organized by Bonaparte, touches quite profoundly on the question of reproduction. He did not only offer them representation and partial protection, but a temporary solution to their condition of insecurity and poverty: pay, comradeship, and a mission. While the lumpenproletariat secured the dominance of Louis Bonaparte in the Parisian streets, it was the peasantry that elected him in December 1848. Marx asks what it is about peasant life that made them susceptible to electing a leader so alien to them. Unlike the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry does not easily produce or come into contact with more or less organic intellectuals. This gives us the basis of Marx’s often criticized statement that the small-holding peasants are

incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent [vertreten] themselves, they must be represented [vertreten]. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.42

But what is it in their mode of life that makes the peasants susceptible to this mode of representation, Vertretung? Here we must ask how Bonaparte became an answer to the peasantry’s need for orientation and representation. By understanding this need we understand how it might instead be satisfied by a movement of revolutionary composition. Marx’s inquiry into this problem starts not with the consciousness of the peasants, but with a description of the peasants’ specific mode of life, their problems and the possible solutions:

The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France’ bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants. … Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient… and thus [the peasantry] acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; alongside them another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these make up a village, and a few score of villages make up a Department. In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.43

Thus the everyday and the mode of (re)production of the peasants separates them from one another, making it hard to constitute any political collectivities. And unlike the isolated urban proletarians who live in close proximity and attend the same workplaces, peasant families live stationary lives with few neighbors.44 Where a discourse that starts from the need of science and ideology would ask: how can the peasants be represented, and how can they be enlightened about the conditions under which they live, an inquiry starting with the way the peasants are living their condition comes up with different results:

Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class.45

The peasantry lives this common problem, but the very character of the problem itself, as well as the peasants’ limited means of communication and its localized mode of life, means that while it is formed as a class, it cannot form a class. This shows the strictly relational and self-relating character of Marx’s concept of class; the peasants share certain problems (market fluctuations of the prices of their produce, competition, their enslavement to capital through debt), but the ways these are formulated and dealt with are local.46 While this might create or maintain strong bonds of local communities and moral economies, the peasant population as a whole is a mere mass. It does not find the collectivity in which these problems could be articulated as common interests, where the everyday struggles of each peasant family or village could become a common struggle.

The isolation of the small-holding peasants meant that they were lost for the revolution: instead they were united by Bonaparte, a man in whose fame and power these individual peasants found a protector. Their trust in him as their representative was based on the historical memory of their alliance with the old Napoleon. A mass, whether heterogeneous and connected by locale (like the lumpen) or relatively uniform and separated (like the peasantry), is most easily united under a master or master-signifier. However, the isolation also points to the fact that a movement which develops the technical means and organizational forms through which peasants can communicate and link up is one that will abolish the need for a representative and enable the peasantry to represent itself. And indeed most of the successful revolutions and anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century – in China most paradigmatically – were to a large extent successful due to the central involvement of peasant, party due to a communist re-appreciation of the peasantry, and due in part to the increased capacity of transportation and communication and thus coordination due to telegraphs, telephones, railways, cars, etc.

While changes in the means of communication and transportation were not a relevant variable in describing a revolutionary and counter revolutionary period of four years, he did consider the becoming revolutionary of the peasantry. Thus, he invested his hopes in the revolutionary organization of the small-holding peasantry on its worsening condition, pointing to the possibility that a change in the character of the peasants’ problem would lead them to seek its representative in the proletariat. In short, Marx did not suggest that the peasants could not be revolutionary:

The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant who strikes out beyond the condition of his social existence, the small holding, but rather one who wants to consolidate his holding; not the countryfolk who in alliance with the towns want to overthrow the old order through their own energies, but on the contrary those who, in solid seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favored by the ghost of the Empire.47

Marx defines revolutionaries as those who aim to abolish the old order, rather than improve their position within it, who opt for a different future rather than a repetition of the past in the present. Further, he notes that the ranks of the revolutionary peasants are likely to swell with the growth of the rural lumpenproletariat, “the five million who hover on the margin of existence and either have their haunts in the countryside itself” or move back and forth between town and countryside with “their rags and their children,” reminding us of Jan Breman’s contemporary analyzes of the circulation and migration of landless and land-poor labor in South and Southeast Asia.48 As the small-holding peasant class is drawn further into the bourgeois order, the conservative consolidation will become an option for still fewer peasants; in other words, the strategies and modes of living the peasant condition will change as this condition changes. Now, Marx writes (in what was certainly also a strategic intervention in a process of class composition), the interests of the peasants are close to those of the urban proletariat, in which they will find a “natural ally and leader” – while many young lumpen peasants will be lost to the army.49 The terrain of struggle and political class composition also changes – the majority of the peasants no longer find their interests aligned with the bourgeoisie, as under Napoleon, but as turning against it. Thus, while Bonaparte would like to appear as the “patriarchal benefactor of all classes … he cannot give to one class without taking from another,” severely constricting his capacity to unite different classes under his representation.50

Curiously, the proletarian leadership of the peasantry advocated by Marx seems to install it in position of representation of the isolated peasantry, similar to that of the modern Prince Bonaparte, on the one hand, or a certain automatism of them joining the proletariat in the city – instead of the lumpen. It would thus seem that our reading brings us to the very traditional interpretation that Marx – according to the iron logic of his own argument – could only be champion of the industrial proletariat. However, Marx is not hostile to peasants per se, nor does he, as we have seen, present the peasants as necessarily counter-revolutionary. The arguments around their subordination to proletarian leadership mainly relate to the development of the means of communication and combination, i.e. the means of relating and composing in struggle, and of representing themselves. As we see in the case of the petty bourgeoisie, it is the character of their mode of life, its problems and solutions, which keeps them conformist: as their problem is changing, then so will their political orientation. In The Civil War in France, written in 1871, Marx asks: “how could it [the peasants’ earlier loyalty to Bonaparte] have withstood the appeal of the Commune to the living interests and urgent wants of the peasantry?” The reactionary rural assembly of landowners, officials, rentiers and tradesmen…

knew that three months’ free communication of Communal Paris with the provinces would bring about a general rising of the peasants, and hence their anxiety to establish a police blockade around Paris, so as to stop the spread of the rinderpest.51

In the 18th Brumaire Marx was hostile to the lumpenproletariat, skeptical of the peasantry’s revolutionary capacities, and hopeful about the urban proletariat. The whole issue here is to keep in mind that Marx’s reflections, while informed by a structural analysis, are first of all conjunctural. They are focused on the material conditions of combining or allying what is separate around common struggles, and on the invention and construction of new solutions to the problems of the times and of life. Technologies of communication (means of contagion, as it were) and the capacity to overcome or bypass the force of the state are decisive. But first of all, it is a question of aligning and shaping the interests of populations under the pressure of time. In his rebuttal of Bakunin’s critique that he wishes to make the proletariat the master of the peasants, Marx remarks that it is simply an issue of composing interests. With owner-peasants it is a matter of the proletariat doing for them at least what the bourgeoisie is able to, while proletarianized agricultural workers can organize with the proletarians immediately, in as much as there reproductive strategies can be composed. Finally, with respect to the rural workers, the goal is not a mere class alliance, but to effect a reorganization of their reproduction toward communal ownership, without antagonizing the peasants, i.e. without forcibly collectivizing them or removing their rights to the land.52 We here see how Marx understands class composition as a matter of composing different struggles around reproduction, and not of feigning that this difference is simply an illusion hiding their common essence, identity, or problem.

7.2 Composing with the lumpen

To raise the problem of the class composition of the peasantry today and already in Marx’ times, is to discuss the struggles around the risk or actuality of landlessness or landpoverty and debt. Along with the question of surplus populations produced by mechanization (which also happens in industrial agriculture), this leads us towards the problem of the lumpenproletariat, as an extreme, informal condition and mode of survival and death.

Already in the Manifesto Marx and Engels had warned against this group:

The “dangerous class,” the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.53

In the 18th Brumaire the lumpenprolateriat re-enters as a problematic figure for Marx’s schema of revolution: as a class the lumpen are irrefutably a product of bourgeois society and its dynamics, and a class of radical needs, yet one organized against the 1848 revolution in France.

The February Revolution had cast the army out of Paris. The National Guard, that is, the bourgeoisie in its different gradations, constituted the sole power. Alone, however, it did not feel itself a match for the proletariat. Moreover, it was forced gradually and piecemeal to open its ranks and admit armed proletarians, albeit after the most tenacious resistance and after setting up a hundred different obstacles. There consequently remained but one way out: to play off part of the proletariat against the other.54

Thus enter the lumpenproletariat in the narrative of the failure of the revolution, made historically relevant by the 24,000 young men recruited to the Mobile Guard to suppress the revolutionary proletariat. Marx’s scepticism with regards to the lumpenproletariat is a result of his awareness of how the political allegiances of a class are shaped by the ways in which this class reproduces itself. While this did not lead him to suggest that political recomposition can be achieved through recomposition of reproduction, we shall see that such a conclusions can and must be drawn from his writings on the lumpen.

In the 18th Brumaire it would seem that Marx lapses into the organicist idea of parasitism when, invoking the nation, he writes that the lumpen, like their chief Louis Bonaparte, “felt the need of benefiting themselves at the expense of the laboring nation.”55 However, Marx’s “nation” as a victim appears ironically, in relation to Louis Bonaparte’s own consistent self-representation as the savior of the nation. What Bonaparte and the lumpenproletariat have in common is their character as floating elements in the situation – if Bonaparte eventually becomes the figure uniting contradictory class interests it is precisely because of his apparent elevation above the classes. On the other hand, the lumpenproletariat was exploited exactly as an element that has no stable station or stake in society. For Bonaparte – as for the financial aristocracy – it takes abstractions and money to exploit an unstable situation. A significant example is the case of the young members of the Mobile Guard, who were captivated by their Bonapartist officers’ “rodomontades about death for the fatherland and devotion to the republic.”56 On top of this ideological seduction, it took monetary corruption (1 franc 50 centimes a day) to bring the malleable young lumpenproletarians into the Bonapartist ranks.57 The problem of the lumpenproletariat might not be that they are the paradoxical product of bourgeois society standing in the way of the world-historical revolution, but that their untimely up-rootedness is so contemporary in times where “everything solid melts into air,” that its organization in the revolution requires a wholly different mode of political composition.

It is clear that the counterrevolutionary character of this group of overwhelmingly young and male lumpenproletarians does not allow any general points to be made about the lumpenproletariat as such. Consider Marx’s numbers: 25,000 in the Mobile Guard compared to 4 million “recognised paupers, vagabonds, criminals and prostitutes in France” – a large part of whom were women.58 Furthermore, even this particular section enrolled in the Mobile Guard, “capable of the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices as of the basest banditry and the foulest corruption,” cannot be said to be counter-revolutionary per se.59 Indeed, while Marx does not suggest any tactics by which the lumpenproletarians can be won for the revolutionary cause, his description of how they became counter-revolutionaries, implies that other ideological articulations and other ways of satisfying their needs could bring them to another cause. Here we have radical needs that are not definable in terms of stable class interests, but as the wavering interests of a heterogeneous group which can compose with whomever can help satisfy their needs and desires, with whomever it can share a slogan, an idea and a meal (just like, we should add, the working-class itself before it is ideologically and organizationally homogenized by the workers movement). From this perspective of needs and the thirst for ideas and conviviality, the problem with the lumpenproletarians for the revolution is no longer that their modes of life are essentially counter-revolutionary, but that they, unlike the workers who are fed by capital, will not be satisfied by slogans, but only by cash pay and food (and a bit of moral license). There therefore is no structural reason why Marx’s strategic orientation couldn’t heed the urgency of Frantz Fanon’s call to organize the (mostly landless, rural) lumpenproletariat, whose alliances are never given in advance, but who will always take part in the conflict: “If this available reserve of human effort is not immediately organized by the forces of rebellion, it will find itself fighting as hired soldiers side by side with the colonial troops.”60 And there is no structural reason – quite the contrary – that communisationists should not look to the practices of the Black Panthers, which started from the question of the armed and legal self-deference of a surplus population against the racist policing of its alternative forms of survival – its hustling and informal economies – and progressed to the implementation of survival programs that would drew tens of thousands to the struggle and powerful municipal election campaigns in Oakland, California.61

The willingness of young lumpenproletarians to enlist in the Mobile Guard brings up the question not just of radical needs and their revolutionary potential, but the question of their practical organization around concrete solutions: the problem of all those that cannot or will not work is of an immediate everyday character. The needs of the lumpenproletarian are more immediate than those of the employed, and more non-conformist than those of the unemployed; in the absence of exploitation their modes of life are criminalized, their neighborhoods colonized, in the terms of the Black Panthers, by the police.62 Thus the programmatic demand of an abolition of bourgeois property will be inefficient if it does not address the immediate needs of those that will otherwise sell themselves to the counter-revolution.

The history of the proletariat outside the wage-relation, of the proletarians rendered superfluous to capitalist production (if not necessarily indirectly purposeful as a reserve army) and the proletarians that always were superfluous, is a history of constant attempts to create other modes of reproduction, their victory, co-optation, or suppression. If proletarian self-reproduction against capital – i.e. a reproduction that opens for the self-abolition of the proletariat as proletariat – is to come on the agenda, it is not enough to state that such communization is an invariable revolutionary project of the proletariat (Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic) or a project only possible today, a deepening radical need (Théorie Communiste, Endnotes).63 To open the historical orientation of communization theory to the practical question of organization, it becomes unavoidable to relate it to ongoing practices of de-proletarianization. To go beyond this we need to see not only possibility and growing existential need, but potentialities which can be – or are striving to be – actualized. To do this is to open for the question of composition, emulation, organization, and contagion, between heterogeneous strategies of reproduction, as they exist or are needed to satisfy the practical situated needs of proletarians in relation to the many different ways they live this condition-problem.

While the reproduction of large sections of the Western European proletariat was mediated by the welfare state, what Balibar calls the “national-social state,” another range of struggles have taken hold, among migrants in Europe and proletarians in the “Global South.”64 Informal work and illegal activities, squatting and land occupations most significantly, but also what Asef Bayat calls quiet encroachments, a popular version of what Italian autonomists called auto-reduction in poor Levantine and North African neighborhoods and slums.65 Even where such activities are carried out on a small group or individual basis, attempts to crack down on those modes of reproduction have often resulted in mass popular resistance as Bayat points out; in short, we can speak of these as emergent moral economies of the proletariat.66 Similarly, the often “individualized” – if highly networked – ways in which migrants move often cohere into common struggles when they are met with a fence. Bayat shows that strategies of quiet encroachment, along with existing organizations of resistance such as workers unions, informal communities around mosques, and the football fan clubs, were all practical conditions for the capacity of the spontaneous uprising to pose the existence of Mubarak’s regime as a practical problem.

What matters are strategies that might build the proletarian capacity to resist and thus to project solutions to its misery, i.e. see it is a problem rather than a fate. Today, the tactics and strategies for dealing with, and abolishing the proletarian condition can thus only be reduced to the questions of the welfare state and trade unions through gross neglect. Furthermore, such strategies that have long been relevant where “development” was always a fiction, will become increasingly important a Europe that is provincializing itself and abolishing welfare rights in bundles. The forms of organization and class composition possible and necessary under conditions of surplus population and the squeeze on proletarian reproduction starts with “survival” programs. If not, the current violent and economic annihilation of the proletarian capacity to resist and combine will prevent any revolutionary crystallization.

8. Conclusion

Starting with the question of proletarian reproduction has several advantages: it immediately connects the macroanalysis of capital with the existential urgency of individual and collective strategies of life and survival. Further, it allows us to avoid positivistic sociologies of class based on the compartmentalization of a population, and economistic definitions of class in terms of economic functions within the division of labor. It allows us to think the structural and existential aspects of class formation together, and to understand how both composition and differentiation are responses to the same problem.

I have argued that the proletarian problem must be defined more broadly than by exploitation. The lumpen, the unemployed, unpaid reproductive workers, and the working class live the same problem-condition – the separation from the means of (re)production. Yet they live it differently, and these differences of daily practices, creates a differentiation of needs and desires, which is profoundly intertwined with processes of gendering, ableism and racialization, etc. The communizationist orientation to the conditions of possibility of communism poses the question of a solution adequate to the generality of this problem: the proletariat becomes the name for all those who ideally share an interest in abolishing this problem. From a spectatorial distance, this approach points out the limitations of existing struggles from the point of view of the capitalist totality, which provides it with a theory of what form such a revolution must necessarily take to be adequate. To intellectuals this is a theory of the logical form and possibility of revolution; to proletarians it is a theory of the inadequacy of their efforts. Merely pointing out the limitation of any one struggle by reference to the epochal radicality of a problem is a recipe for cynicism and indifference. It is not enough to be faced with a common problem; this yields nothing but an understanding of the proletarian condition as a misfortune. Unless there is the development of common tactics and strategies of dealing with concrete problems, the different mutually competing strategies for dealing with it will prevail. Any revolutionary practice must start with solutions that are situationally more convincing or desirable than existing ones. Instead of withdrawing to its own niche in the division of labor out of habit or for fear of violating the purity of struggles, theory, considered as a part of such movements, is the active effort to disseminate strategies of combination and struggle, and of elaborating commons and transversal points of connection between different struggles. Taking seriously the fact that resistances and networks of solidarity preexist irruptions of open struggle means to go beyond the faith in spontaneity. This entails an ethics of militant, embedded research, knowledge production, and popular pedagogy, which proceeds through practices of collectively mapping of the possibilities of composition, and reflections on how to connect and extend networks of trust and solidarity.67 It implies sharing tools of organizing and tactics of struggle, taking measure of the rumors and whispers, and engaging in small struggles in ways that can help them transform fear and mistrust into courage and solidarity.

The problem of the revolutionary organization of proletarian difference is one of inventing common solutions to the common problem of the proletariat, whether lumpen, employed or unemployed. But this must start with a recognition that the strategies of the struggle will differ significantly, according to the many ways the problem is lived and survived. Our task cannot be to search for the equation that will give us the result we want, but to explore the maximal possibilities of abolitions of separations here and now, between us and between us and our means of reproduction – be it through riots and affinity groups, mutual aid and autonomous zones or through taking municipal or state power. All this depends on situated assessments of the possibilities of composition, the state of the enemies and the relations of forces.68 If the struggle proceeds successfully, class-differences will be abolished both gradually and in leaps. Proletarians will be stuck less and less in the mode of life they had developed to deal with a problem of their separation, by abolishing this separation and thus their existence as proletarians. Struggles for de-separation are not merely courageous struggles for love, but also often entail fearful search for security. The affective atmosphere of communism cannot be given except through sensitivity to the micro- and nanopolitical dimensions of any movement. Further, if communism is to be thought again as a real movement we must accept that it cannot be a unitary process, but only the combination of manifold desires and needs of more or less separated proletarians, uniting for selfish reasons, but producing a telos in excess of their selfishness, a transindividual sublation of their individuality. Marx saw this clearly when he participated in the Parisian proletarians’ conviviality. He noted that the means to create communism is communism itself: that is, communism practiced produces itself as a need and an aim in itself.69 Communism is not an abstract Kantian “ideal” nor a plan, nor a universal and global horizon from which to judge all struggles or find hope. Communism, instead, is best described as a possible emergent telos in processes of combination, when they fold back on themselves and become self-reproducing, self-organized and capable of defending themselves. Such deseparation can only be effective when it involves the world of things and begins to abolish property as a form of separation. What is needed for this to happen is not the sustenance of hope, but practics of composition and experimentation with need, desire and possibility. Globality or universality are not terrains of collective action, but levels of theoretical abstraction. The questions of scaling up and universality will remain practically irrelevant until they are posed as concrete questions of the conditions of reproducing, combining and defending real movements.


  1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973); 118. Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction,” in Early Writings, (London: Penguin, 1992), 252. 

  2. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1976), 762-872. 

  3. Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital (London: Verso, 2012). 

  4. Michael Denning, “Wageless Life,” New Left Review 66 (November-December 2010): 79-97. 

  5. Marx here brackets the role of the state, which complicates this picture, without abolishing the general dynamic, particularly under conditions of strong inter-state competition for capital investments. 

  6. Marx’s letter to Vogt and Mayer, April 1970 in MECW – Marx and Engels: April 1868-July 1870, vol. 43 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1988), 475. 

  7. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), The Pelican Marx Library (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 398–9. 

  8. It must be noted that Marx’s has nothing to do with Thomas Mathus’s earlier theories of surplus population. Where Malthus presumed that natural factors such as demographic growth and the scarcity of land and food would lead to surplus population, Marx analyzed the emergence of surplus populations as a strictly historical effect of the capitalist mode of production. They share, however, a blindness to the fact that women’s struggles would significantly increase their capacity to limit the amount of children born. 

  9. Marx, Capital: Volume I, 798. Marx does not present what such modifying circumstances might be, and leaves this as a simple ceteris paribus clause. Henryk Grossman has a useful list of the economic factors from which Marx abstracts in his systematic analysis. “3. Modifying countertendencies” in Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown, trans. Jairus Banaji (Marxists.org, 1929).  

  10. Marx distinguishes between four different modes of existence of surplus populations: 1. floating form: urban in and out of work. 2. latent form: the masses that can be called in from rural areas. 3. stagnant: extremely irregular employment. 4. Pauperism: lumpenproletariat; consisting of those unemployable, either because they refuse work, or because they cannot work. This is what we can call absolute surplus-population. Marx, Capital: Volume I, 794–97. 

  11. Ibid., 782. 

  12. Ibid., 783-4. 

  13. Ibid., 786. 

  14. Endnotes and Aaron Benanav, “Misery and Debt,” Endnotes 2 (2010), 32. 

  15. Endnotes, “Spontaneity, Mediation, Rupture,” Endnotes 3 (2013), 230. 

  16. Endnotes, “Crisis in the Class Relation,” Endnotes 2 (2010), 19. 

  17. Albert O. Hirschman, “On Hegel, Imperialism and Structural Stagnation,” in Journal of Development Economics, vol. 3 (1976), 1-8. 

  18. Karl Marx, “British Rule in India,” in Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969). But Marx soon rectified his position on colonialism: see Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2010.), Lucia Pradella, Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy New Insights from Marx’s Writings (London: Routledge, 2015). 

  19. Hirschman, “On Hegel, Imperialism and Structural Stagnation,” 6-7. 

  20. Alberto Toscano, “Now and Never,” in Communization and its Discontents, ed. Benjamin Noys (Wivenhoe/New York/Port Watson: Minor Composition, 2013), 92. 

  21. This is a critique of the explicit attempt to develop concepts for thinking composition in “Mediation, Spontaneity, Rupture,” 230-232. In texts where Endnotes engage in empirical discussions, of the insurrections of 2011 in “The Holding Pattern,” ibid., we see a much richer and more flexible conception of struggle dialectically articulated with their analysis of the movement of capital and the class contradiction, but as soon as Endnotes’s focus on the question of communization, their conception of struggle becomes formalistic. My hope is that that this kind of difficulty can attune us to the importance of discussing the limitations of the Marxist method of “levels of abstraction,” particularly the way in which the privileging of the critique of political economy tends to blackbox what is most in need of practice-oriented theorization, or worse yet place it in some realm of the “purely particular” which is unworthy of thought, or only worthy in a way that sustains a dualism between it and the universality of the critique of political economy. 

  22. Immanuel Kant, “What Is Orientation in Thinking?,” in Political Writings, trans. H.B. Nesbit, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 

  23. “Misery and Debt,” in Endnotes 2 (2010); Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2007). “Like all other laws, it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here.” Capital vol.1, 798. 

  24. See for instance Melinda Cooper, “Workfare, Familyfare, Godfare: Transforming Contingency into Necessity,” South Atlantic Quarterly 111, no. 4 (Fall 2012): 643-61. 

  25. This analysis will be based on Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis of Marx’s theory of expanded reproduction. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (London: Routledge, 2003). 

  26. Marx, Capital: Volume I, 897, Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia, 2004), particularly 87-91. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (London: Verso, 2002), 15-29. For the Diggers, see Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, new ed. (London: Penguin, 1991), 110ff.; on riots, see Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988). 

  27. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, 64. 

  28. Ivan Illich, Shadow Work (Boston: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1981), K. Hart, J.-L. Laville, & A.D. Cattani, The Human Economy, (London: Polity Press, 2010). 

  29. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1973). 

  30. Ibid. See also Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “Capitalism and Reproduction,” The Commoner 8 (Autumn/Winter 2004). 

  31. Federici, Caliban and the Witch; Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital (New York: Autonomedia, 1995). 

  32. Marx, Capital: Volume I, 899. On the notion of the inclusion of the excluded as excluded, see Colectivo Situaciones, 19&20 Notes for a New Social Protagonism, trans. Nate Holdren and Sebastián Touza (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2011), 103-106. 

  33. In a note to the English edition of ibid., 108. Denning, “Wageless Life.” 

  34. Marx’s analysis of the interplay between the common sense and day to day common sensibility of work and law-abiding behavior among ‘working people’ has been usefully updated in Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1993), 142, 149. 

  35. In terms of the philosophy of nature, the vocabulary of composition suggests exteriority, juxtaposition and conjunction, while the concepts of form suggest interiorizing organization, either as subsumption or self-organization. Marx’s early concept of the crystallization and self-organization of the mass gives us a logic of the passage from class composition to class formation. 

  36. Matteo Mandarini, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Time For Revolution, by Antonio Negri (London: Continuum, 2004), 265. 

  37. Marx and Engels, “The German Ideology,” in Selected Works. Vol. 1. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 65. 

  38. Karl Marx, “The Poverty of Philosophy,” in MECW. Vol. 6. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 211. 

  39. Ibid. 

  40. W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Class Struggle,” The Crisis 22, no. 4. (August 1921), 151. 

  41. Karl Marx, “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973). 

  42. Marx, “18th Brumaire,” 479. 

  43. Ibid., 478. 

  44. On the often misunderstood phrase “idiocy of rural life,” Hal Draper remarks the idea that “idiocy” equals stupidity is based on a mistranslation. “In the ninetheenth century German still retained the original Greek meaning of forms based on the word idiotes: a private person, withdrawn from public (communal) concerns, apolitical in the original sense of isolation from the wider community.” The backwardness of the peasantry has nothing to do with a rejection of rural life, but with the fact that they – in the absence of means of communication and transportation – cannot easily participate in organized social life and its struggles, except by proxy, exemplified by the long representation of the French peasantry by the Bonaparte family. Hal Draper quoted in “Notes from the Editors,” Monthly Review 55, no. 5 (October 2003). 

  45. Marx, “18th Brumaire,” 479. 

  46. “… the feudal obligation was replaced by the mortgage…” Ibid., 481. 

  47. Marx, “18th Brumaire,” 479. 

  48. Ibid., 482. Thus the number of rural paupers in France, according to Marx’s numbers, is greater than the urban lumpenproletariat, which he sets at 4 million; also Fanon finds the most important group of lumpenproletarians in the colonies and post-colonies among the landless peasants. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1st Evergreen Black Cat Edition (New York: Grove Press, n.d.), 111. The total number of paupers, 11 million, would thus have been almost one third (32.7 percent) of all inhabitants in metropolitan France, which in the period in 1848-52 was around 36 million. This, incidentally, is the exact same percentage as that living in “extreme poverty” (less than $1.25 p.d.) in India in 2010, as estimated by the World Bank. “Poverty & Equity Data | India,” The World Bank, 2010. 

  49. Marx, “18th Brumaire,” 482–3. 

  50. Ibid., 486. 

  51. Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France,” in Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 226. 

  52. Karl Marx, “From Comments on Bakunin’s Book, Statehood and Anarchy,” in Selected Works, vol. 2 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 410–411. 

  53. Marx and Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” 118. 

  54. Karl Marx, “The Class Struggles in France,” in Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 219. 

  55. Marx, “18th Brumaire,” 442. 

  56. Karl Marx, “The Class Struggles in France,” in Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), 220. 

  57. Marx, “18th Brumaire,” 422. 

  58. Marx, “18th Brumaire,” 482. 

  59. Even if, as mentioned by Trotsky and Fanon, the danger of a rightist cooption of the lumpenproletarians remains. Trotsky: “Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat – all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” Leon Trotsky, “Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It,” Pioneer Publishers, August 1944. 

  60. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1st Evergreen Black Cat Edition (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 137. 

  61. Eldridge Cleaver even explicitly developed a theory of surplus population caused by colonial displacement and automation, which he dubbed the lumpenization of mankind. Eldridge Cleaver, “On the Ideology of the Black Panther Party,” 1970. See also Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story (New York: Anchor Books, 1993), Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013).  

  62. Cf. Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1991). 

  63. For a collection of texts from the debate between Théorie Communiste and Dauvé & Nesic see Endnotes, Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic, and Théorie Communiste, Endnotes, vol. 1 (London, 2008). 

  64. Étienne Balibar, Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy before and after Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994), 134. 

  65. Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013). 

  66. To speak with Edward P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present no. 50 (February 1, 1971): 76-136. 

  67. See for example the issue on the “Workers Inquiry” of Viewpoint Magazine, issue 3, edited by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi. See also Marta Malo de Molina, “Common Notions, part 1: Workers-inquiry, Co-research, Consciousness-raising,” in eipcp, April 2004, Colectivo Situaciones, “On the Researcher-Militant,” in eipcp, September 2003. For an extensive bibliography, see http://fuckyeahmilitantresearch.tumblr.com/. For popular pedagogy one can start with Paolo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London: Penguin, 1996). Countercartography, another example of militant research, develops counter-maps of flows of money, goods and subjectivites, and forms of struggle and organization within a field of power. See for instance the work by the 3Cs-Collective and Countermapping Qmary. 

  68. On the question of building power, see my contribution with Manuela Zechner, “Building Power in a Crisis of Social Reproduction,” in the forthcoming issue of ROAR Magazine

  69. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Paris 1844,” in Early Writings (London: Penguin, 1992), 365. 

Author of the article

is a postdoctoral researcher and member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint.