Revolt of the abstract capitalist

Courtesy Jesse at

In his latest essay at the London Review of Books site, Slavoj Žižek covers a lot of ground ranging from class in China, Marx and the general intellect, and introducing “surplus wage” earners as the transformed bourgeois. The last item was particularly challenging, especially as it leads him to his critique of assumptions about the titular political protests.

His description of the salaried bourgeoisie is informed by some wertkritik insights into post-Marx marxism, and posits what could become part of a critical class analysis (bold added for emphasis -DC):

This new bourgeoisie still appropriates surplus value, but in the (mystified) form of what has been called ‘surplus wage’: they are paid rather more than the proletarian ‘minimum wage’ (an often mythic point of reference whose only real example in today’s global economy is the wage of a sweatshop worker in China or Indonesia), and it is this distinction from common proletarians which determines their status. The bourgeoisie in the classic sense thus tends to disappear: capitalists reappear as a subset of salaried workers, as managers who are qualified to earn more by virtue of their competence (which is why pseudo-scientific ‘evaluation’ is crucial: it legitimises disparities in earnings). Far from being limited to managers, the category of workers earning a surplus wage extends to all sorts of experts, administrators, public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and artists. The surplus they get takes two forms: more money (for managers etc), but also less work and more free time (for – some – intellectuals, but also for state administrators etc).

Working his way towards a fresh perspective on a tiring topic (what else would be the point of opinion commentaries like his blog at LRB?) he overturns the dominant understanding of the anti-capitalist nature of the protests. I agree that “anti-capitalist” protests like OWS aren’t always anti-capitalist (it’s not about greed or the 1%!), but Žižek sees the defense of middle-class privilege:

Although their protests are nominally directed at the brutal logic of the market, they are in effect protesting against the gradual erosion of their (politically) privileged economic place.

Ayn Rand has a fantasy in Atlas Shrugged of striking ‘creative’ capitalists, a fantasy that finds its perverted realisation in today’s strikes, which are mostly strikes on the part of a ‘salaried bourgeoisie’ driven by fear of losing their privilege (their surplus over the minimum wage). These are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians. Who dares strike today, when having a permanent job has itself become a privilege? Not low-paid workers in (what remains of) the textile industry etc, but those privileged workers with guaranteed jobs (teachers, public transport workers, police). This also accounts for the wave of student protests: their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus wage in later life.

This might be reaching, Žižek. I guess there’s some truth in this critique, yet it neglects that 1) the minimum wage (and even a surplus over the minimum wage) is not a living wage — for the first time in American history a subsequent generation is expected to do worse than a previous one; 2) even strikes of the salaried bourgeoisie (who Žižek cites as teachers, transit workers, and police!), though they might not be proletarian, affect minor reforms in capitalism (for what that’s worth); 3) at a basic level the strikes and protests resist new austerity; and, 4) at their best, today’s strikes open up the possibility for increased agitation among all workers. Just because the middle class acts as part of the abstract capitalist does not mean that any action they take reinforces capitalism.

About D C

Robot anarchist View all posts by D C

One response to “Revolt of the abstract capitalist

  • D C

    A member of a listserv I follow comments that Žižek is “not dismissing things like Occupy, he’s just saying that we have to acknowledge the bourgeois element of it and that we have to make sense of this element intelligently. After all, how many right wing villains out there said that Occupy was just a bunch of rich kids bitching about student loan debts they were privileged to drowning in, jealous of their more successful peers, acting out their frustrations that they all studied the humanities instead of finance. That’s unintelligent. But what is intelligent is to acknowledge the bourgeois dimension of Occupy and to show how this dimension is not just about resentment and envy but highlights a dramatic, ongoing change in the structure of the capitalist hierarchy and the nature of exploitation itself. The term ‘revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie’ ultimately does not have the merely sarcastic, negative connotation that it seems to at the beginning of the article. Instead the phrase illustrates both the internal limits of Occupy and what is insightful about it.”
    …it’s a very sympathetic reading of Žižek’s article and perhaps glosses over the provocative juxtaposition of occupy wall street and Ayn Rand.

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