(The following is a guest post by Roger Gathman, author of the weblog Limited, Inc.)
What would one have said, in 1976, about Tronti’s essay and the future it forecast? Here is my tendentious and unfair opinion: one of the things one could have forecast is that, as the privileged site of production became less and less like a nineteenth century factory, the term 'factory' would experience a metaphorical creep. And that this creep would disguise the increasing blurring of the analytic distinction between production and consumption, and thus miss what distinguishes the Keynesian period from its predecessors.
Let’s illustrate this with a little story. When Tonti writes: “… capital reach[ing] a high level of development it no longer limits itself to guaranteeing collaboration of the workers - i.e. the active extraction of living labour within the dead mechanism of its stabilisation - some-thing which it so badly needs. At significant points it now makes a transition, to the point of expressing its objective needs through the subjective demands of the workers, ” I imagine he was not thinking of the embodiment of that demand in union pensions. But, indeed, in the forties, fifties, sixties and the seventies, a lot of money flowed into union pensions (I am talking about the U.S.), and that money did a lot of things. I’m not talking about the most colorful things, like the way Teamster pension funds built Las Vegas. I’m talking about your standard pension investments in equities in general. In the eighties, those funds – to the disappointment of the new breed of body snatching Randians, eager to take down the traditional enterprise structures and replace them with a new structure dedicated to the proposition that an enterprise is an aphid, and the upper management is a super-ant – were mobilized by the traditional managers of capitalist enterprises against the LBO merchants. Schwab and Thomas, in a review of Union pension investment patterns published in Michigan Law Review, Feb 98, were much more prescient about labor and its place in influencing the internal composition of the capitalist enterprise than Tronti was in 1976:
Managers traditionally were thought to represent shareholders' interests and unions were thought to represent workers'. Of course, a viewpoint that equates managers' and shareholders' interests is naive. Corporate scholars have long emphasized a divergence between managers and shareholders. Indeed, in the 1980s workers often aligned with managers against shareholders in thwarting hostile takeovers, depriving shareholders of substantial premiums in the process. Most empirical work has found that workers were not harmed by takeovers and so gained little from this alignment. In the 1990s, a historic shift has begun, as worker-shareholders prod other shareholders into holding management more accountable. Important changes in corporate governance have already resulted. To maintain its momentum, this realignment will require unions to modify their self-image as well. Unions, swept along by actions of their pension funds, increasingly will focus on the long-run health of corporations. If they do not, labor-shareholder activism may be a fad of the 1990s, doomed to fizzle. But the potential exists for fundamental change in both corporations and unions.
If you check out that reference (7) to the claim that “workers were not harmed by takeovers,” you will find that Schwab and Thomas’s reference says something a bit different – that line production workers were not initially “slimmed” as much as middle management. Of course, in factory creep, those middle management types are as much in a factory as the revolutionary academic, thrust into the assembly line of grading papers. But lets be literal for a second. Viewing this – as Tonti does, and as Schwab and Michael want us to – solely in terms of aggregate class relations, what should the union pension fund manager do? On the one hand, there is class solidarity. There is also the notion that, if you allow a company to fire en masse its paper pushers for no individual crimes of lese corporation, but simply because you want to tick the stock upwards, that may well lead to a general laxity in terms of firing, slimming, and otherwise becoming lean and mean.
On the other hand, it turns out that the worker’s subjective demands include off time activities, like retirement. Given this, Schwab and Thomas are pretty confident that the objective embodiment of the subjective demands of the workers are about to meet a proposal they can’t turn down – a very sweet ROI, a fattening of those pensions, and the ability of the producer to become a non-producer (and a fisherman and a wearer of Bermuda shorts) on good terms. All that is required is to damn the ties that bind one to the old class enemy with a simple change in investment strategy. And so it went in the late 90s, when union pension fund managers, like day traders and software geeks, plunged into a bubble market, helping to shift money to those enterprises willing to create leaner and meaner structures, and to fire en masse for the up tick of the stock price. Of course, in many ways Schwab and Thomas are the two blind mice here – for the interests of the shareholders, at this time, were bound over in a much heralded pact that bribed the upper management to pay attention to what they were doing with immense awards of equity.
This story isn’t a happy story – the bubble, as we know, collapsed, and the leaner and meaner enterprises, after putting out the villainous middle managers, started going lean and mean on what remained of the manufacturing sector in the U.S. And this last year the shoe has dropped about those pensions, as the newest new management has decided to unload those pensions (as is the way of all hardcore free marketers) on the state. A preview of coming attractions, given the fact that almost every state employee in America is being promised retirement benefits that he or she will almost surely not receive.
This story is, of course, incomprehensible if labor is a composite of members of the laboring class – if the same expropriation of labor’s private property that went on in creation of the factory system that Marx observed simply proceeded to do the same thing over and over again. Poorhouse pittances for aged coalminers were never a major source of capital for the Victorians But labor's successes generated new roles for the laboring class; it strikes me that those roles are hidden behind the factory as a fantasy site, much as the market is a fantasy site for neo-classical economics and its ideological fans.
Now, I am not surprised by the rhetorical afterlife of the factory, or the way in which the objective embodiment of the subjective desires of a class can turn against it. I used to ride in from New Haven to New York in the nineties, looking at all the dead factories and feeling like the route was a sort of anti-theme park. At that time, I was a temp secretary for a multi-national construction company, and then I got lucky and got a job as a secretary for an architectural firm. The afterlife of the factory culture was a lot stronger in Connecticut than from where I come from – it was up and down West Haven, in every bar I went into, and every party I went to at Milford, and it waitered and clerked and went to college and toked up and down the Boston Post Road. It impressed me with a feeling that somewhere on the outskirts something enormous had broken, and nobody understood it.
I don’t either. But these are the doubts I have about a strategy of refusal that is, to my mind, so unclear about what in the system is being refused; so opposed to the conditions of production and in the same gesture so mired in an classical economics of production; and one that is finally enamored of being the one to say no -- the position of resistance that, frankly, I'm sick of, since I feel like it has lead to, well, mass laziness -- a dependency, for one thing, on the party system to do all the oppositional work, a refusal to seize opportunities, a posturing boldness that, at the same time as it makes me the man, gives me an alibi for the cops -- after all, if you are resisting, you aren't attacking. From the IWW on down, attackers haven't fared well from the cops. Not that I want to commit cop suicide myself, but I am not sick of dressing this fear in the rhetoric of "resisting." Nihilistic criticisms all, I grant you. But they do express my feeling that the "strategies" of the left are in almost terminal paralysis.
So okay, smartypants, what do you propose? Well, for one thing, I propose yet another framework for looking at who pays for the costs of the system that is about the costs of the system -- not about labor, or about supply and demand. Simply about who pays, and in what currency, for the system's total costs. Or I guess subsystems. The costs seem to me both spread out internally, among the people within the system, and then externally, among not only the people outside the system -- all the dead Iraqis -- but also the unrepresented. The unrepresented aren't subjects at all. They are territories.
In the first case, it is a question of forms of property, for one thing. We are so often told that the free enterprise system depends on private property that we forget that it depends on seizing and using property, and encroaching with more and more ferocity on private property the more diminutive that private property is -- until, when we reach the body, there is no limit to the shit they can put in us, for free. Tronti's factory workers no doubt breathed in asbestos, just as any car mechanic working on brakes does. Factory workers across the world from the 40s to the 80s breathed in a variety of shit such as would astonish the world even of the nineteenth century. In my cells, no doubt many a pesticide molecule is grilling up the steaks. The crossed and rich textures of the world that was made around us, and which we would generally be unhappy to be without, required a lot of free lodging for better chemistry.
Outside the system, there are of course the usual tv images. (or teevee... no, I'm not going there). The wars this country bumps into, accidentally and like clockwork, spending its 300 billion a year on the military. And then there is the unrepresented. On a larger scale, it seems to me that we are seeing the end of the conquistador era, finally, as the last planetary properties are seized: the ozone layer. The climate. The temperature and composition of the oceans. This is no different than the typical conquistador business of the 15th century -- a motley group comes in a takes possession of "vacant" territory. doesn't seem to occur to anyone that this is a seizure of territory no different, really, than the seizure of the Andean system by the Spanish -- an uncompensated plundering. At the moment, these are the sites that interest me much more, and I want some more, uh, interactive (a gross term, I admit it, but the one that occurs to me at the moment) notion than resistance.