When thinking about revolutionary agency, I move away from the traditional Marxian concept of the “proletariat,” a particular class which is most able to generate revolutionary resistance, in favor of a more general conception of whosever happens to fall through the cracks of capitalist subjectivation.1 I am interested in those whose thoughts, behaviors, and projects, for whatever reason, remain relatively undisciplined by the normalizing and neutralizing tendencies inherent in contemporary society. Is someone’s life very consistent with what the status quo expects of them, or is it very inconsistent. What proportion of someone’s thoughts and behaviors are systematic (predictable) and what proportion are in the statistical error term?
This would be consistent with, but more general than, the classical conception. Immiseration of the “workers” as in the Marxian eschatology would become only a special case of such falling through the cracks. Capitalism grinds the workers to the bottom of its barrel and the revolutionary mechanism in the Marxian view is essentially that, eventually, the workers are pushed through the barrel itself, they see the system from its outside (class consciousness), and therefore are finally free to smash the barrel. But metaphors for the “system” are just metaphors, and however we wish to model the system, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be many conceivable pathways where individuals could find themselves (intentionally or randomly) having dodged the social conditioning which normalizes individuals into identification with the system. This would explain why and how intellectuals are disproportionately inclined to revolutionary conversion: they fall through the cracks by a totally different path, via the leisure of education, study, and creative intellectual work. But the essential logic which makes workers radical in the Marxian view could thus be unified with the same logic that makes intellectuals revolutionary. And then it would be a matter of identifying through theoretical and empirical research the necessary and sufficient conditions for individuals to escape the grid which so thoroughly shapes most individuals.
Capitalist subjectivation requires a layered process of ideological conditioning; the typical lifespan of a human being in the modern world is a complete archeology of layered ideological conditioning processes that would be dangerously obvious if they were not so effective: the family, where life itself begins as emotional and physical indentured servitude and continues as a process of paying back the father and mother until death; the school, where the cost of food for the social intellect is not just cultivating a taste for obedience to arbitrary authority, but contributing to its legitimacy insofar as the students’ presence constitutes that legitimacy; the workplace, where the price paid for survival outside of the family is just more uncritical submission to whatever institution which takes its place; and finally the re-production of the family itself, which is not actually a successful egress from this inherited chain of uninterrupted submissions that constitute everyday life (however much modern weddings pretend it is), it is actually just passing the buck to the next generation. Having children is merely a debt-swap in which the creditor (society) allows the indentured servant (the young adult) to escape its unpaid and unpayable debt on the condition that it produce a new person who will pay it with interest (the child). The stress, self-sacrifice, and perpetual ethical castration of raising a child today is akin to an exorbitant transaction fee for this debt-swap.2 Yea, OK, we’ll let you pass the debt on to a new person but don’t think you get freedom instantly: if you don’t pay the transaction fee that saps whatever desire might remain in you, then you will be unbearably stigmatized and ostracized as a “bad parent.” Notice that, for better or worse, the most famoulsy radical and effective intellectuals have historically been awful parents, effectively defaulting on this debt altogether.
To measure this concept of proletariat, we would highlight Marx’s main variable of material degradation but also intellectual and spiritual degradation, without necessarily privileging one or the other. Thus, a general formula would understand all individuals as characterized by three variable terms work, ideology, capital and different values under which an individual breaks from identification with the system. Thus a worker’s interest in the system is increasing in ideology and income but decreasing in work:
u = ideology + income - work,
The traditional Marxian theory of the individual-level revolutionary mechanism is that workers are invested in the system by ideology but the hold of ideology breaks as their labor is increasingly alienating while their income is decreasing. According to Marx, a worker becomes revolutionary when work increases and income decreases enough to outweigh the investments from ideology.
But Marx and so many of his followers never really took seriously the revolutionary positions of bourgeois intellectuals. What this reconceptualization suggests, though, is that the revolutionary defection of bourgeois intellectuals is according to the same essential conception of human beings as the theory of worker defection, only from different movements of the same variables. The defecting bourgeois intellectual receives relatively high income for relatively little work but dis-identifies with the system through decreasing ideological investment. This is simply because true education is the depletion of ideology. This also explains why as anyone’s true education increases, status quo institutions either increase their income, decrease their work, and/or dilute their ability to think and speak freely.
Of course, in reality, a multitude of other, additional institutional investments enter into the equation, such as family investments or racial, gendered, or nationalist investments. All of these institutional investments provide individuals with perceived utility from the system and therefore increase their attachment to the system, and decrease the probability of a revolutionary break. And theoretical and empirical research would have to pursue as an open question the degree to which these different investments account for the inertia of the status quo, and the conditions under which they decrease or increase their hold on individuals.
As for strategy, two thoughts suggest themselves. The first is to search for and find all those who for any reason have fallen through the cracks and to organize around the simple criterion of minimal investment in the status quo.3 The second is that statistical probabilities are essentially scientific maps for how not to think and behave. Statistics allow us to map with extreme precision the paths of resistance. This is because statistical distributions of thought and behavior across the status quo are exact measurements of what the system desires. Thus, I would make the case that the inversion of empirical statistical likelihoods is revolutionary political ethics. Randomness, along the lines of vulgar faux-Situationism or faux-Dada is not sufficient, for capitalism has an extraordinarily high tolerance for randomness. What is necessary is to produce systematically unlikely social outcomes. Notions of “affirmative action” and even more radical variants on that theme are correct to move in this direction, but they typically fail to take seriously that producing unlikely outcomes is far more difficult a challenge than switching some seats at status quo tables. It requires that we have a far more sophisticated theoretical and empirically defensible model of how macro-structures actually respond to low-level individual or group behavior, and it requires that we orchestrate our individual and group behavior according to what are likely far more complicated and sophisticated strategic requirements.
This Marxian schema of the proletariat still looms behind radical identity politics today in that a special revolutionary agency is now simply associated with various different groups other than the Marxian worker. Even where the concept of intersectionality is highlighted, implicitly or explicitly there is very often the notion that certain intersections of identity uniquely prime certain groups to certain aspects of revolutionary struggle. ↩
For instance, it’s EITHER feed one’s children disgustingly shitty food in solidarity with the masses or naturalize them into hideously bourgeois food privilege, or intellectualized self-loathing privilege, OR… ↩
As a side note, it’s interesting how the internet at once enables this organization and has so quickly supplied its own institutional brakes, as radicals find themselves on the internet but they’re only allowed to find themselves so long as their theoretical and communicative frameworks are adequately consistent with the status quo. See my piece on media choice, the internet, and what has happened to leftist communication. ↩
Share this post:
Murphy, Justin. 2013. "Remodeling revolutionary agency," https://jmrphy.net/blog/2013/11/17/remodeling-revolutionary-agency/ (September 9, 2018).