WFH: Is the "W" we do "FH" really "labor"?

Maybe, maybe not!

For the past two months, like millions of Americans, I’ve been working from home. Most recently, I’ve been working from home in an apartment I moved into at the end of March, furnished almost entirely from and Walmart since a trip out to Emeryville IKEA isn’t exactly doable. Most mornings, I wake up and sit down at my SHW Home Office 55-Inch Large Computer Desk, Oak, lean back in my Vitesse Gaming Chair (Sillas Gaming) Video Gaming Chair Ergonomic Computer Desk Chair High Back Racing Style Comfortable Chair Swivel Executive Leather Chair and hop on some early-morning conference calls. When my meetings are done, sometimes I’ll bring my laptop over to my Modway Revive Contemporary Modern Fabric Upholstered Sofa In Teal and check email from my couch.

Why is it that under the new reality of state-mandated quarantine, a certain group of “nonessential” workers are nevertheless able to carry-on through Zoom calls, while another group is thrust into unemployment as a result of being physically distanced from the means of production? Does language like “professional managerial class” for this first group capture the reality of the class relations, and if not, what language does?

For Marx and a world of revolutionary theorists who came after him, to view things through a historical materialist lens leads one to a view that the dominant mode of production that we live under is called “capitalism” — defined by an emerging class antagonism between those who own a surplus of commodities to buy and sell on the market (“capitalists” or the “bourgeoisie”) and those who have, in the long, run, nothing to sell except their ability to perform human labor (“labourers” or, collectively, the “proletariat”). In Capital, Marx describes the labor-process as one in which human activity effects the transformation of some material, or “commodity,” into another commodity which has the ability to satisfy some human need:

In the labour-process, therefore, man’s activity, with the help of the instruments of labour, effects an alteration, designed from the commencement, in the material worked upon. The process disappears in the product, the latter is a use-value, Nature’s material adapted by a change of form to the wants of man. Labour has incorporated itself with its subject: the former is materialised, the latter transformed. That which in the labourer appeared as movement, now appears in the product as a fixed quality without motion. The blacksmith forges and the product is a forging.

Core here is the aspect of the connection between the worker’s imaginative ability and the physical motion that affects that change — the motion inherent to labor is embodied in a fixed object, the commodity the worker has produced.

In her new book Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? McKenzie Wark discusses the core physicality inherent to Marx’s writing on the effects of an acceleratingly intense labor-process:

Human labor is not just abstracted into a homogenous quantity in the commodity form. Labor gets minced and boiled into Gallerte: aspic, meat jelly. Or in today’s terms into something like what appears in those truly disgusting online videos that show the extrusion from some machine of that major ingredient of hamburgers: pink goo. Sutherland: “The living hands, muscles and nerves of the wage laborer are mere ‘animal substances,’ ingredients for the feast of the capitalist.” Marx’s image of what happens to labor is not a genteel conceptual abstraction but a vulgar image from industrial butchery.

Much of the historical and social aspects of Marx’s Capital focus on the degradative physical effects of the capitalist mode of production: children mangled by machines and laborers dying of exhaustion from overwork in crowded factories.

It’s clear that this metaphor hasn’t entirely disappeared in our times, as we see low-wage “essential workers” now forced by economic necessity to work jobs that put them at risk of COVID-19 infection — the “ground-glass opacities” visible on the CAT scans of more serious Coronavirus patients attest to the living character of capital as body-muncher.

An unusual cause of patchy ground-glass opacity | Thorax

But what are we to make of the proliferation of a whole group of workers whose core metaphor of surplus value-extraction is not of the meat-grinder, but for whom ideological identification and class solidarity with the capitalists and managers isn’t quite right either? A whole group of workers still able to sit at home through the crisis, dutifully and anxiously checking their Slack notifications for new tasks and feedback on recent output — but who nevertheless are only able to continue this work through careful psychological and pharmacological management with increased antidepressant doses and emerging tools like remote therapy.

Yes, the materialist view will tell us psychology has its basis in real material relations, but what if we were to investigate that this qualitative difference may in fact be generative for those who want to understand our situation?

From Wark:

Industrial capitalism was not terribly interested in workers who think and feel. It wanted hands. It wanted muscle. It was a flesh-eating machine. Whatever disgusting and terrifying power lurks in these more recent stories does not so much eat bodies as brains. This combinatory works two ways: either your mind is erased and your body is another mind’s vehicle; or your mind is subordinated to the will of another power. Either way, your mind is not your own. It feels like some vile takeover. But what if this isn’t just a takeover, but a whole new class relation?

So, core to Wark’s argument, advanced in Capital Is Dead, is that rather than accepting the orthodox line that capitalism is a near-eternal structure that must exist as the dominant mode of production until its final negation by communism, it’s possible that the period we call “capitalism” may already have been rendered history. And what’s in its place might be even worse.

Here Wark goes on to sketch out a new mode of production that may be emerging, one concerned with the creation and flow of information — both as an augment to flows of capital (e.g. the growing dominance of the “logistics industry”) and as holders of cultural significance and symbolic dominance (e.g. the relatively-recent establishment of the Disney Corporation as global media hegemon rather than simple capitalist monster). Where David Harvey summarizes Marx’s definition of capital as “value in motion”, here value is abstracted from its physical form, and it’s the motion we’re all focusing on.

Here forms a new class relation between what Wark tentatively refers to as “hackers” and “vectoralists” — hackers create and chop up knowledge into new forms, and vectoralists own and control how that knowledge is directed.

And, like I wrote in a previous post, what I think is important here is less the idea that this idea of a new mode of production is one which is fully established and hegemonic, but whether it’s possible that we can see in our current situation a new paradigm struggling to emerge. As Wark says (bold mine):

Perhaps it is as hard to describe transitions between modes of production as it is to describe changes in mood.

Let us also try to describe, just as Marx did, what may be emerging rather than what is established. If one starts with what is established, it is easy to interpret any new aspect of the situation as simply variations on the same essence. Starting with what may be emerging provides a suitable derangement of the senses, a giddy hint that all that was solid is melting into air.

Through this lens, I think there’s a lot of phenomena that start to make more sense:

  • Mark Fisher’s description in Capitalist Realism of the ubiquity of “depressive hedonia” and the psychological nature of the effects of modern culture on his university students — perhaps the real conditions being reacted to were not mere capitalism at all, but the growing rise of a hegemonic vectoral culture.

  • The growth of abstraction in the advertising and fashion industry, where the core work serves to develop an abstraction separate from the pure utilitarian use-value of the commodities on display.

  • The rise of companies like Google and Facebook can be seen as primitive accumulation over the informational commons of the internet.

As Wark points out, the perfect metaphor for this is The Matrix’s original plot, shelved for being too complex, where human beings are used not as batteries for their mere electrical power, but as nodes in a computational structure that works to direct and power the machines as they continue their functioning.

And so, if we are to take all of this analysis even the littlest bit seriously, the question for those who want to change all of this and create something better, I think, becomes: if this is not capitalism, but something worse, and some of the people wrapped up in this are not laborers, but something else, what is to be done?

The task for us is, as it always has been, to understand the choke points strategically and work to organize around them — Jane McAlevey has done phenomenal work on the strategic importance of health care, education, and logistics on labor organizing, and as we work to push back in the face of an accelerating capitalist (or something else) system, we must figure out how to stand together to win a world in which the oppressed classes are able to remake society in our image.