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(en) John Holloway: We are the Crisis of Abstract Labour*

Date Fri, 14 Apr 2006 08:37:16 +0300

Transcript of a talk given in Rome, 2006
“Voices of resistance: alternative voices”. What are our
voices? Our voices are the voices of the crisis of abstract labour. We
are the crisis of abstract labour. We are the power of creative doing.
We are crisis. We are not in the first place a positive force, but a
negative one. What brings us here today is not something positive
that we have in common, but the No that we all share. No to
capitalism, no to a world of violence and exploitation, no to a form of
social organisation that is quite literally destroying humanity, in
every sense of the word. No to a world in which what we do is
determined by forces we do not control. ¡Ya basta! But this ¡ya
basta!, this refusal, does not stand outside capital, it goes to the very
heart of capital, simply because capital depends on our yes, on our
acceptance, on our agreement to labour and create value, on our
reproduction of the obscenity that surrounds us. Our NO is a no with
force, simply because the existence of capital depends upon our
saying yes. Our NO is the endemic crisis of capital.

We are NO, we are negativity, we are the crisis of capital. But we are
more than that. We are the crisis of that which produces capital, the
crisis of abstract, alienated labour. Abstract labour produces capital.
Indeed, capital is the abstraction of labour, the process by which the
immense richness of human creativity is controlled, contained,
harnessed in the service of the expansion of value. The abstraction
of labour reduces the intense colour of creative doing to the greyness
of value production, to the emptiness of money-making. In
capitalism, creative doing (what Marx called concrete or useful
labour) is subjected to abstract labour, it exists in the form of
abstract labour, but this form conceals a constant tension, a constant
antagonism between content and form, between creative doing and
abstract labour. Creative doing is subjected, but not eliminated by
abstract labour: it exists in constant rebellion against abstract labour,
it exists as the latent crisis of abstract labour.

Here then is the core of class struggle: it is the struggle between
creative doing and abstract labour. In the past it has been common to
think of class struggle as the struggle between capital and labour,
understanding labour as wage labour, abstract labour, and the
working class has often been defined as the class of wage labourers.
But this is quite wrong. Wage labour and capital complement each
other, wage labour is a moment of capital. There is indeed a conflict
between wage labour and capital, but it is a relatively superficial
conflict. It is a conflict over the level of wages, the length of the
working day, the conditions of labour: all of these are important, but
they presuppose the existence of capital. The real threat to capital
comes not from abstract labour but from useful labour or creative
doing, for it is creative doing that stands in radical opposition to
capital, that is, to its own abstraction. It is creative doing that says
“no, we shall not do what capital commands, we shall do what
we consider necessary or desirable”.

We are the crisis of abstract labour, we are the crisis of the labour
movement, the movement built upon the struggle of abstract labour.
Since the early days of capitalism, abstract labour has organised its
struggle against capital, its struggle for better conditions for wage
labour. At the core of this movement is the trade union movement
with its struggle for higher wages and better conditions. In the
classic literature of orthodox Marxism, this is seen as the economic
struggle, which must be complemented by political struggle. The
political struggle is organised in parties, which have the winning of
state power as their focus - either by parliamentary means or by
armed struggle. The classic revolutionary party aims, of course, to
go beyond the perspective of the trade unions and to lead a
revolution that will abolish abstract, wage labour, but in reality it is
(or was) trapped within the world of abstract labour. The world of
abstract labour is a world of fetishism, a world in which social
relations exist as things. It is a world populated by money, capital,
the state, the parties, institutions, a world filled by false stabilities, a
world of identities. It is a world of separation, in which the political is
separated from the economic, the public from the private, the future
from the present, the subject from the object, a world in which the
revolutionary subject is a they (the working class, the peasantry), not
a we. Fetishism is the world of the movement built upon the struggle
of wage labour, abstract labour, and from this fetishism there is no
escape: it is a world that is oppressive and frustrating and terribly,
terribly boring. It is also a world in which class struggle is
symmetrical. The complementarity of abstract labour and capital is
reflected in a basic symmetry between the struggle of abstract labour
and the struggle of capital. Both revolve around the state and the
struggle for power-over others; both are hierarchical; both seek
legitimacy in acting on behalf of others.

We are the crisis of abstract labour and its labour movement. That
has always been true, but what is new is that we are no longer just
its latent crisis, but its open, manifest crisis. Abstract labour has
always been the key to capitalist domination, that is to say, the
conversion of creative doing into abstract labour and, with it, the
transformation of human creators into wage labourers. Employment,
in other words, has always been the core of capitalist control. The
so-called full-employment economies of the post-war period,
combined with the massive and intense abstraction of labour in the
Fordist era were perhaps the high point of the rule of abstract labour
and its institutions - of which the classic labour movement was a
central part. This mode of domination has been in open crisis for the
last thirty years, and we are that crisis, our NO, our refusal to accept
the conversion of our creativity into meaningless abstract labour, the
conversion of ourselves into machines.

But what of neo-liberalism, what of war, what of empire and
biopower and the new forms of social control? Have they not
overcome the crisis and created a new basis for capitalism? No, I do
not think so, and we should be very careful in our theorisations not
to turn crisis into a new paradigm, a new era of domination, a new
empire, simply because the positivities of paradigmatic thought
incarcerate our negativity, close our perspectives. It is capital’s
task to create a new paradigm, not ours. Our task, both theoretical
and practical, is to create instability, not stability. Marxism is a
theory of crisis, not of forms of domination: not of the strength of
domination, but of its fragility. And there are many, many
indications of the fundamental fragility of capital at this moment:
both its growing violence and its continued dependence on the
constant expansion of debt. Certainly, there is a constant expansion
and intensification of the abstraction of labour: we in the universities,
for example, are very aware of the way in which our work is being
subjected more and more directly to the demands of the market. But
at the same time, there is an increasing failure of abstract labour to
contain the thrust of creative doing within the bounds of value
production, within the bounds of the market.

That is the crisis of abstract labour: the inability of abstract labour to
contain the force of creative doing. Employment has always been,
and continues to be (despite the extension of discipline to the whole
of the “social factory”), the principal disciplinary force of
capitalism, the principal means of containing and reducing our
humanity, our refusal-and-creation. The crisis of employment
everywhere both intensifies this discipline (as people compete for
jobs) and weakens it, as it fails to fill people’s lives: the
precariousness of employment is also the precariousness of the
abstraction of labour. Increasingly, the struggles of protest against
capitalism go beyond the bounds of the movement based on abstract
labour. It is not that the old labour movement ceases to exist, or that
it ceases to be important for the improvement of living conditions,
but increasingly the struggles against capitalism overflow from the
structures and conceptions of this movement. Whether or not the
category of class is used explicitly, this is not an abandonment of
class struggle, but an intensification of class struggle, a different
level of struggle. This is a struggle that breaks the symmetry that
characterised the struggle of abstract labour, a struggle that is
fundamentally asymmetrical to the struggle of capital and rejoices in
that asymmetry: to do things in a different way, to create different
social relations, is a guiding principal.

In this new reconfiguration of class struggle, we are the
revolutionary subject. We? Who are we? We are a question, an
experiment, a scream, a challenge. We need no definition, we reject
all definition, because we are the anti-identitarian power of creative
doing and defy all definition. Call us the multitude if you like, or,
better, call us the working class, but any attempt at definition makes
sense only in so far as we break the definition. We are
heterogeneous, we are dissonant, we are the affirmation of
ourselves, the refusal of alien determination of our lives. We are,
therefore, the critique of representation, the critique of verticality and
of any form of organisation that takes responsibility for our lives
away from us. Listen to the voices of the Zapatistas, of the
piqueteros of Argentina, of the indigenous in Bolivia, of the people of
the social centres of Italy: the subject they use all the time to speak
of their struggle is “we”, and it is a category that carries real

We are feminine, nosotras not nosotros, because the crisis of
abstract labour is the crisis of a male-dominated activity and form of
struggle and because the new class struggle does not have the same
gender composition as the old.

We are the breaking of time, the shooting of clocks. The movement
of abstract labour projects revolution into the future, but our
revolution can only be here and now, because we are alive here and
now and in the future we shall be dead (or immortal). We are the
intensity of the moment, the search (Faust’s search, Bloch’s
search) for the moment of absolute fulfilment. We are the poetry of
the working class, the working class as poetry.

Our revolution, then, cannot be understood as building for the great
event in the future, but only as the creation here and now of cracks
or fissures or ruptures in the texture of domination, spaces or
moments in which we say clearly “no, we will not accept that
capital should shape our lives, we shall do what we consider
necessary or desirable”. Look around and we can see that these
spaces or moments of refusal-and-creation exist everywhere, from
the Selva Lacandona to the momentary refusal-and-creation of an
event like this. Revolution, our revolution, can be understood only as
the expansion and multiplication of these cracks, these
lightning-flashes of refusal-and-creation, these volcanic eruptions of
doing against labour.

Asking we walk. Preguntando caminamos.
* Antiauthoritarian anticapitalist "marxist academian"
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