Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Origins of Bourgeois Individualism - Part 3

The "separation" or "alienation" of living labour from the means of its own pro-duction, of its inter-action with the world, at the hands of the capitalist and its reduction to "absolute poverty" determine the isolation of living labour, which was formerly united with the means of production by the process of production (for example, the land in feudalism) into "individual" workers who have no political bonds with those means of production but live in absolute poverty or the constant "threat" of it and can reproduce themselves only through the monetary medium of the individual wage that, as we saw, artificially "divides" the labour process into "individual labours". The capitalist obsession with "individualism" finds its origins in this easily understood process. From its beginnings out of the ashes of feudalism, capital has used the monetary medium as the most powerful "solvent" of social relations - of all forms of human social solidarity. To be sure, we must be careful not to see this as a "univocal" process. In actual fact, the most remarkable fact about the rise of capitalism in the transition from feudalism is precisely this: - that the feudal servants themselves were the most ardent and vigorous combatants against the oppressive "solidarity" of feudal laws and social institutions that they perceived as a yoke and that severely curtailed and hampered their "productive potential". It is an indisputable fact, that the initial class of capitalists emerged most prepotently precisely out of the ranks of former feudal laborers who gradually took over the management of the land from the declining and obsolescent feudal class of landlords. (The two great studies in this connection are Marc Bloch's "The Original Characters of French Feudalism" and Maurice Dobb's "Studies in the Development of Capitalism" - two historical masterpieces that deserve close reading.)

It is money and commerce that initially "dissolve" the old bonds of feudalism. But in exchange money leads to the concentration of social resources - most importantly, land for cultivation - in very few hands with the formation of a "landed gentry" that gradually evicts the feudal servants from the land by enclosing it and abolishing "the commons", and then pushes these landless feudal servants and peasants into industrial towns. The consequent improvement of agricultural production allows the expansion and explosion of the population in the shape of an "industrial proletariat" made up of "individual workers" with few social ties or other forms of solidarity between them. Now it is the capitalist, through the ownership of the means of production, that provides the only social link between workers! The essential interdependence of human beings through the division of what is ineluctably "social labour" now comes to appear as an actual "property of capital" (!), not of living labour but of the means of production that bring the "individual" wage labourers together under one roof and in a factory! The bourgeois obsession with "individualism" is all here: it consists of the reduction of "living labour" to "labour power", that is to say, to a brutal, bestial "quantifiable physical entity" that will become the "engine" of capitalist accumulation - the accumulation of command over living labour.

"Money" becomes "money capital" at the precise point when it can be paid as wages to destitute living labour in exchange for its "valourisation" of the means of production through the production of goods and services that can then be "exchanged" for fresh living labour in an ever-expanding spiral of subjugation of living labour. It is the antagonism at the centre of the wage relation between living labour and the capitalist as the owner of the means of production that determines the level of wages - that is, the exchange of dead objectified labour (in the form of wages) for living labour. But the fundamental "party" to this exchange remains "the individual worker" entirely "alienated" from the means of production by the capitalist who "owns" them. It is this political and institutional reality that constitutes both the essence of capitalism and its necessary "obsession" with individualism. And yet, as we have seen, individualism itself is the expression of the antagonism of living labour to the wage relation. In the next intervention we shall see how this aspect of "individualism" combines with the interdependence of social labour to undermine capitalism itself and to point the way out of this monstrous "social system".

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