Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 13 October 2011

Individualism and Freedom - Origins Part 6

The “reduction” of living labour to abstract labour, to bare “labour power”, can become “real” only by means of political violence, only through the com-pulsion – literally, through the co-ercion (Greek, ergon, work) – of living labour on the part of the capitalist. But in capitalism this com-pulsion and co-ercion can occur in a seemingly “spontaneous” manner by simply “separating” or alienating living labour from the “means” of its re-production – from the means of production; in short, through the “expropriation” of living labour. Once living labour is separated forcefully from the means of production and social labour, it is then a fairly straightforward process to regard each worker – destitute and alienated from the means of production and the co-operation of social labour – as an “individual” who can be remunerated for his or her “individual labour”. The entire notion of “the division of labour” is all here.

And the money wage is another institution that ensures that the “individual labour” of each worker remains “separate” and unrelated by any social bond either to the means of production or to social labour other than by the “fact”, the “reality” that it is in “reality” part and parcel of social labour, were it not for the compulsion and coercion of the capitalist who enforces the money wage “payment” for use of the “labour power”.

The worker therefore, as destitute living labour, is “free” in two senses: “free” form the bonds (social, legal, institutional and cultural) that may “link” him to the means of production and also from the “bonds” to other workers whose co-operation is essential in what is ineluctably “social labour”. And the worker is also “free” to spend the money wage in whichever way he chooses – so long as the product is produced by another capitalist! The only place where the worker is not “free”, of course, is in the workplace – in the factory or the office. We have therefore a “dictatorship of the workplace, and a democratic marketplace”. We have the compulsion of production and the “freedom” of consumption – with the ironic proviso that the worker’s “choice” of consumption is itself determined by the capitalist who compels his living labour as “individual labour” (!) and decides what gets produced, when and how. The ownership of the means of production also allows the capitalist to determine – subject to the need for the worker to reproduce himself – “what” the worker receives in wages.

The origins of bourgeois “individualism” and “freedom” are absolutely evident in this presentation. But this “individualism” and this “freedom” are in fact and quite evidently founded upon the compulsion and coercion to which living labour is subjected so as to be forced “to sell” itself as “labour power”, as “individual labours”. It is this “compulsion and coercion” that can then allow the capitalist and his loyal servant, the economist, to present the operation of “the market economy” as a “scientific process” subject to “economic laws”! To be sure, living labour is “free” to wallow in absolute poverty and “free” to buy goods and services produced with the living labour of coerced workers: but this does not deter our capitalists and economists from maintaining at one and the same time the “scientific” necessity of economic laws of the market and the “free labour and consumer choice” of that same market (the labour market and the market for goods)!

By reflex, given that the aim of capital is to disguise the compulsion, the sheer violence of the capitalist process of production, it is essential for the bourgeoisie to represent that the market “mechanism” can operate properly – be in “equilibrium” – only if its participants – employers and employees, producers and consumers – behave in accordance with its “economic laws”. It is when living labour refuses to play by those “rules and laws” that the capitalist reserves the right not to make the means of production available for the reproduction of living labour. This is the “freedom” of the capitalist. But note that “the capitalist” here – unlike living labour – does not have to be made up of “individual capitalists”. Indeed, capital is entirely free to associate into corporations and conglomerates – and is forced to do so by the antagonism of workers – so that workers can be beaten into submission and social labour be maintained under the false guise of “individual labours”.

We will see next how this social antagonism of the wage relation leads both to capitalist concentration as well as to inter-capitalist rivalry. For the moment, we can reflect on this wonderful bourgeois antinomy between individualism and compulsion, freedom and coercion.

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