The aspiration to the state of Do It Yourself activity has never resembled a Marie Antoinette style play village more than in Marx’s version of it:
...while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.
But the question he doesn’t answer is how do workers learn the skills for communist life when their bodies and minds are
dominated by capitalist technique? How would the
proletarianized workers of the factories, who he defines as ‘a
special class of workmen habituated to machinery’ then break
free from what he calls this ‘torture’ and then summon up the
memory of the skills that would enable any given person to
become accomplished in ‘any branch he wishes’? The question of supercession is first of all a matter of practicality. And proletarianization, that is habituation to machinery, is predicated upon the forgetting of skills and the loss of what Marx calls, ‘the whole of a man’s working capacity’.
Machinery produces the same effects, but upon a much larger scale. It supplants skilled laborers by unskilled, men by women, adults by children; where newly introduced, it throws workers upon the streets in great masses; and as it becomes more highly developed and more productive it discards them in additional though smaller numbers.
Marx, Wage Labour and Capital, Chapter 9
DIY as a cultural undertaking in capitalist society is reproducedas a compensatory response to the mass deskilling (that is dehumanization) implied by factory production, ‘The lifelong specialty of handling one and the same tool, now becomes the lifelong specialty of serving one and the same machine.’ In response, millions of workers have nurtured capacities outside of the productive realm, and undertake DIY activities as a hobby which returns something to themselves that is otherwise lost in production.
However, DIY cultures are progressively supplanted by the culture of the commodity as the domination of production over life advances and accelerates. The spectacular character of
commodity based culture dominates subjective consciousness by delivering a series of ‘shocks’ to the individual’s perceptual apparatus, the regularity of which causes the subject to become both accepting of such shocks (that is accepting of the noise and movement of machines) and also dependent on them (that is, the individual becomes disorientated and threatened when the machines are turned off).
The more readily consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely are they to have a traumatic effect... The acceptances of shocks is facilitated by training in coping... The greater the share of the shock factor in particular impressions, the more constantly consciousness has to be alert as a screen against stimuli... Thus technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training... What the Fun Fair achieves with its Dodgem cars and other similar amusements is nothing but a taste of the drill to which the unskilled labourer is subjected in the factory.
Walter Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire
The essence of the proletariat’s dependence on factory
production is simply stated: the money that is earned as wages is used to buy the means of existence which were once produced autonomously, ‘not only are the expenses of his reproduction considerably lessened, but at the same time his helpless dependence upon the factory as a whole, and therefore upon the capitalist, is rendered complete.’ To the uncertainty of autonomous subsistence is proposed the constant pitch of dehumanization in return for guaranteed reproduction.
The exchange between capital and labour has been represented by some communists (Camatte et al) as the domestication of the proletariat. The wage earners of previous eras had the economic freedom to withdraw their labour and retreat to a subsistence level where they could directly utilize their skills as a means of producing their lives. But under state mediated capitalism,this withdrawal from employment has become increasingly unrealistic because the psychological means necessary for an individual to impose a different circumstance upon his/her life has been erased: “it is not the worker who makes use of the conditions of his work, but the conditions of work that make use of the worker.’
At the same time that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity. The lightening of the labour, even, becomes a sort of torture, since the machine does not free the labourer from work, but deprives the work of all interest.
Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 15
The deskilling of the proletariat, amongst other factors, and thus the reduction of proletarianized individuals to the status of machine appendages, has increased the dependency of those individuals upon factory production to the point where ‘going back to land’ has become inconceivable. At the level of ‘the whole of a man’s working capacity’ the ‘collective labourer’ is very far now, and much further than when he wrote the German Ideology, from being able to utilize the necessary skills and knowledge that Marx saw (and quoted above) as the basic activities in communist society.
The practical knowledge and life-skills of peasant life,
what Marx calls ‘activity’, that is the genuine material basis
for a communist society (materiality in the sense of relations,
skills, knowledge rather than than productive technology)
have long since been lost from large numbers of proletarianised individuals as they are molded into the productive apparatus.
The proletariat as historical subject and object has fallen prey to the ‘Peter Principle’ and has ‘risen to the level of its incompetence.’ From the point of singularity where it has been unable to collectively comprehend productive forces of which it is a component, it has also lost its capacity to direct them. In other words, the proletariat has been promoted beyond its revolutionary authority, which is properly situated at the level of mechanised productive technologies. Since the historical appearance of communication and digital technologies, the proletariat has become the locus for
an irredeemable historical decline in human beings, and the dissipation of their abilities.
The technical subordination of the workman to the uniform motion of the instruments of labour, and the peculiar composition of the body of workpeople, consisting as it does of individuals of both sexes and of all ages, give rise to a barrack discipline, which is elaborated into a complete system in the factory, and which fully develops the before mentioned labour of overlooking, thereby dividing the workpeople into operatives and overlookers, into private soldiers and sergeants of an industrial army.
Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 15
DIY appears in human activity as the ghost of a memory of
peasant autonomy, a trace capacity that is all but lost amongst the din of industrial discipline. Inside father’s shed – it is for me, as a representative of the first wholly deskilled generation, to remember the ones who went before, the last of the of practical men. We are the first generation who see no point in activity as Marx conceives it, and are not at all motivate, not by guilt, not by aspiration. We are the first who want no hand in the reproduction of our conditions.
Surveyed briefly, his place: the lathe, the slowly tarnishing tools on the racks, the tobacco boxes of nails and screws, the stacks of wood. Run a finger through old sawdust. Look out at a flock of goldfinches on the birdfeeders he’d made. The factory bus left the corner at half six, six mornings a week and passed, by some roundabout route, through the surrounding villages on its way to the factory. It returned about ten to five in the afternoon. Some winter mornings looked out at the men in the dark, on the corner, and watched them waiting. Each thrust into the company of the others by their alarm clock. Their duffle bags on their shoulders, joking or silent. And on Sunday mornings, no console-gaming for them; they’d be making birdfeeders, just to fill the time. Work was real, the source of it all, and they longed to be there just as much as they also hated it to the very dregs of Friday afternoon. Work was that aspect of their being which they could not see beyond.
The question of productive activity outside of the wage relation (DIY) brings to the fore a number of contradictions within communist thought, and in particular the contradictions between the theoretical functions of objective ‘criteria’ and subjective capacity.
It is an unfortunate fact for those looking for signs of a
communist future that all genuinely proletarian revolutionary
attempts have been undertaken by populations only recently
proletarianized. That is, all revolutionary attempts (from the
perspective of the workers) have been conducted in terms of
the workers’ own sense of priorities, capacities and scale which they have carried over from their peasant existence and which in turn facilitated the perception that their interest was/is in direct contradiction to the priorities, capacities and scale imposed by capital. As access to these revolts is progressively hedged off so the proletariat has become increasingly ‘dependent’ on and ‘habituated’ to factory production, and thus more inclined to choose the option of reproducing itself within the capitalist frame – the positive aspects of revolt became increasingly referent-less and more abstract.
It is the immediately felt distance from factory production that
suffuses the clear self-interest of newly proletarianized
populations and it is this sense of distance that grounds their
hostility towards capitalism, and substantiates their practical
critique. The distance between what they are confronted with for the first time, their experiencing themselves as a function of the production line, and what they remember they are capable of from their previous circumstances supplies the energy for, and a positive pole to, their revolt.
Proletarianization is experienced as loss of unmediated human capacity, and human scale,compounded by the progressive forgetting of all forms of activity other than that imposed within the productive relation – loss of memory in this case supposes a loss of distance between worker and work which in turn supposes a loss of capacity to revolt against work.
Some crippling of body and mind is inseparable even from division of labour in society as a whole. Since, however, manufacture carries this social separation of branches of labour much further, and also, by its peculiar division, attacks the individual at the very roots of his life, it is the first to afford the materials for, and to give a start to, industrial pathology.
Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 14
In other words, from the perspective of the early proletariat,
their antagonism with capitalist production existed (and exists
now where populations are newly recruited into factory process) at the level of practical consciousness, or what we call ‘DIY-skills’, and the incompatibility of these skills with the progressive habituation process that is necessary for the reproduction of abstract labour.
I have written, ‘from the perspective of the workers’ above
because the situating of this antagonistic perspective at the
beginning of the process of proletarianization flatly contradicts
the perspective of ‘history’ as it is described by those
communists who see the factory form, proletarianization, and
capitalism itself as being objectively enabling of and progressive in human history.
There is discordancy between the actual experience of workers and the theoretical assumptions of those who would speak for Historical process. Whilst it is no doubt true that capitalism, through the historical development of productive forces has accumulated an abundance that might serve as the objective material conditions for communism, there
has been a corresponding regression over the same period in the subjective capacity of the proletariat to make revolution. The longer a population of workers has been employed over time within the factory system, the greater its habituation to the system, and the more alienated it becomes from a skills-base that might supply it with a realistic practical revolutionary consciousness.
From the perspective of ‘history’, factory production has
liberated the capacities of human society at the level of the
satisfaction of needs, but from the perspective of the workers it has progressively stupefied and reduced us. In the past, when brought abruptly to each succeeding threshold in the process of deskilling, and to the further inclusion of the worker within the operations of the automaton, the proletarian revolted in terms of defending that which remained to him of his humanity, i.e. his capacity to exist independently of generalised production. In contrast, our present existence is defined by our habituation to that process, and we have become progressively less able to revolt because we are so lacking in practical skills – this is a result of the
progressive inclusion of the proletariat within capitalist process.
Capital has run away from human and natural barriers; human
beings have been domesticated: this is their decadence. The
revolutionary solution cannot be found in the context of a
dialectic of productive forces where the individual would be an
element of the contradiction. (Camatte, The Wandering of
It seems that the historical opportunity for a communist
movement has long since passed, the continued objective
development of the forces of production has cancelled out the
historical role of the proletariat as revolutionary subject. The capacity of the proletariat to overthrow capitalism occurred relatively early on, when it was still able to access skills and capacities belonging to another time. Revolutions occur at the end of a moment, they are an aperture created by social structures through which build-ups of otherwise unemployed energy are expelled. Revolutions relax social forces and then disperse them. Far from involving acts of expropriation by the future, revolution expresses a fundamental relinquishment of what has gone before.
Negating forces can only arise outside of capital. Since capital has absorbed all the old contradictions, the revolutionary movement has to reject the entire product of the development of class societies. This is the crux of its struggle against domestication, against the decadence of the human species. This is the essential moment of the process of formation of revolutionaries, absolutely necessary for the production of revolution.
Camatte, The Wandering of Humanity
Camatte, as so many others, was certainly over-enthusiastic in his definition of a revolutionary ‘movement’ which in reality
turned out to be only a widespread but superficial disturbance
as it played out in the relation between production and mass
culture set within a context of a crisis of control. However, the
idea that revolutionary change must come from outside of, rather than within as proposed by marxists, the process of history is a crucial insight which leads us in a similar (if less optimistic) direction to Camatte. If the proletariat has become cut off from history and the historical process that is driven by capital accumulation, and as human alienation from capacity continues to accelerate within this movement, then it follows that eventually the capacity to undertake any autonomous practical activity (DIY) at all will be lost from whole populations as they become indistinguishable from machines (an event termed ‘singularity’). Marx refers to the conflict that occurs between labour and capital as production progressively intensifies:
It is self-evident, that in proportion as the use of machinery spreads, and the experience of a special class of workmen habituated to machinery accumulates, the rapidity and intensity of labour increase as a natural consequence. Thus in England, during half a century, lengthening of the working day went hand in hand with increasing intensity of factory labour. Nevertheless the reader will clearly see, that where we have labour, not carried on by fits and starts, but repeated day after day with unvarying uniformity, a point must inevitably be reached, where extension of the working-day and intensity of the labour mutually exclude one another, in such a way that lengthening of the working-day becomes compatible only with a lower degree of intensity, and a higher degree of intensity, only with a shortening of the working-day.
This will be compensated for within the factory process to some extent, through the expected development of forces of
production (a domestication of the rising organic composition of capital) during what is currently predicted to be the ‘next
industrial revolution’ at the level of biotechnological DNA
If the prosthesis is commonly an artifact that supplements a failing organ, or the instrumental extension of a body, then the DNA molecule, which contains all information relative to a body, is the prosthesis par excellence, the one that will allow for the indefinite extension of this body by the body itself - this body itself being nothing but an indefinite series of prostheses.
Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation
However, this will inevitably induce a subjective crisis at the level of activity, and consciousness of activity. It is precisely at the juncture of proposed total incorporation of human DNA within the productive process that we are confronted with an
irresolvable contradiction: we cannot be both workers and
human beings. At that moment, one or the other will be lost
Or, perhaps not. To quickly sketch another outcome: the
acceleration of alienation will cause the proletariat to become so incapable of engaging itself within the productive process as the proletariat and thus will become so inactive (i.e. its reproduction so energy expensive) that it will find itself in a position where it is unable even to fulfill the role of machine functions. Lassitude and disengagement must reach a critical mass and the resultant quantity of subjective incapacity (a locatable subjectivity defined by its unproductive labour), the corollary of the production of life through the mechanisms of dead labour, must eventually overwhelm production through its dead-weight dependency. This subjective crisis will occur in the absence of a recomposition of an active subjective (which has hitherto retired the concept of useful labour) and thus head off all reference to the totem of heroic ‘activity’ that was deployed ideologically by previous communist forms.
2008, published in Letters Journal 2