By Chris Harman
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The not so “weightless world”

This article is over 16 years, 10 months old
As many look to radical alternatives to the barbaric system of capital, the ideas of philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek have struck a chord. But beneath the surface of his post-Marxist arguments, do his ideas have the potential to change the world?
Issue 317

The Marxism 2007 festival held in London this summer showed that a new layer of activists are eager to debate ideas of how to change the world. Many are drawn to the ideas of people such as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who spoke at the festival.

Žižek is an entertaining speaker, using his personal idiosyncrasies to sometimes hilarious effect as he rejoices in provocations directed against mainstream liberal ideology.

Yet when you cut through the philosophical – sometimes obscure – language, he has not a lot to say. He called for “emancipatory” struggles in his talk, but his only reference to where they might come from was the slums of Third World cities.

I asked him why his analysis did not deal with the central thesis of Marx that the central process of capitalism, based on the accumulation of alienated labour in the form of surplus value, created a working class which had the potential to fight back against the system.

His retort was to the effect that Marx’s theory of value was irrelevant today because the key factor of adding value to goods was immeasurable intellectual labour. To argue otherwise, he implied, was a form of doctrinaire dogmatism from old fashioned Marxists who simply rant on about the working class.

But I could not help feeling that his own understanding of present day capitalism owed much to two notions very fashionable within the mainstream liberal ideology he usually attacks. The first is the claim that we live in a “weightless world” of “immaterial production”.

But those who make this claim themselves depend on a vast number of very material products, for example their food, beds, homes and transport, as well as the computers and software they use to write articles about immaterial production.

This ties in with the second myth, that somehow “human capital” in the form of knowledge replaces the “dead labour” which Marx described as going into plant and machinery. It is this which leads Žižek to claim that the measure of labour is no longer the measure of value.

But knowledge today is itself a product of industry-like processes. Advances in technology are produced by hierarchically organised teams under pressure to produce necessary advances in the necessary time, just as if they were putting fittings on cars on an assembly line.

There has been a recent mass of empirical study into the changes that are really taking place in the world workforce. Žižek did not refer to any in his talk, and in an article in the journal Rethinking Marxism he simply asserts: “Today’s ‘post-industrial’ society needs fewer and fewer workers to reproduce itself (20 percent of the workforce on some accounts).” In fact, a World Bank study has shown that a higher proportion of the world workforce are in wage labour than ever before – a third full time and another third combining it with work on the land.

It could not be otherwise. For global capitalism is still expanding despite its ups, downs and recurrent crises. Its expansion is fed by pumping labour out of living human beings to create profit, rent and interest (which together make up what Marx called surplus value). New categories of employment are thrown up and old ones transformed. But all of them are subject to the characteristic capitalist subordination of human creativity to measurement by the hour and minute – or, as Marx put it, measuring value on the basis of “socially necessary labour time”.

It is the centrality of labour to the functioning of the system that gives those undertaking it potential to challenge the system. Concentrated at the heart of its productive processes, they are repeatedly driven to develop collective ways of fighting it.

Žižek counterpoises the “inhabitants of slums” in the giant cities of the Third World, as “the new proletariat” and the “germs of the future”, to the working class. But slum dwellers are made up of individuals with a vast variety of ways to make a livelihood: petty street traders, casual labourers, contract workers for giant multinationals, small employers, or touts for taxis or hotels.

Such heterogeneous masses are not driven to fight back collectively like workers except in exceptional cases, for example when real estate speculators threaten to flatten the slums or the police go wild. Organisation existing in slums tends to be that of “populist politicians” offering meagre jobs or doles to those who mobilise votes for them, of religious revivalists dishing out pie in the sky, or of communalist parties fighting to improve the position of one section of the middle class at the expense of another from a different ethnic or religious background.

There are exceptions to this pattern. They arise precisely when a movement of workers shows there is a collective force capable of challenging the system and, in doing so, providing hope for all the oppressed groups that make up slum “communities”. Recent examples include the coming together of workers’ and community struggles in Oaxaca, Mexico and La Paz-El Alto, Bolivia.

The audience for people like Žižek today shows a new interest in radical ideas due to the influence of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement. But you cannot discover how to fight the system without moving beyond a philosophical gloss on fashionable myths to examine the empirical reality of modern capitalism and the character of concrete struggles against it. This is something Žižek showed no sign of doing.

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