The Incorporation of the Proletarian Body

This post was triggered by one by Andrew, reflecting on the Peter Linebaugh talk at the Struggles in Common conference organised by the Provisional University. Specifically this bit:

“Austerity has been used as the reason to transform the way tax is gathered. In Ireland as elsewhere while a significant part of tax has always been flat rate, levied regardless of income, that proportion has soared. The introduction of the so called 'property tax' (actually a home tax), the introduction of bin charges and soon to come water charges mean that we know need to find a couple of thousand euro to pay these taxes regardless of our income. The effect is that of the enclosures, if we had found ways to subsist without waged labour or keeping it to a minimum this is now eroded as we have to find the cash money to pay these taxes. Before you might perhaps have been able to live frugally without selling your labour through cultivation of a large suburban garden or allotment, exchanging labour with others and the occasional odd job. That is a 'good life' fantasy extreme that few could actually live under (but some did) but at a lesser level many could exchange living frugally for working fewer hours.”


Here Andrew is focusing on the role of austerity in the re-imposition of work, in line with the theme he’s developing in that post (i.e. the absurdity of lengthening work hours as a solution to unemployment). Note however that the re-imposition of work is understood as labour provided in exchange for money, in a general sense, i.e not restricted to formal waged labour, but including the self-employed labour of the ubiquitous Dublin taxi driver and others, or even the cash-in hand work of the grey or black economy.

It is this latter aspect that I’m interested in, not so much in the frame of enclosure, or the re-imposition of labour market discipline in general, but in the particular form of that market discipline.

Labour power: from commodity to asset to corporation

In a previous post, I talked about the neoliberal phenomena of the becoming-asset of labour. Roughly, the idea that under neoliberalism the tendential form of labour market discipline was shifting from engaging labour power as a commodity, in the “spot market” so to speak, to a more financial asset model - typified by the lifetime indenture of the student loan. The idea here is that the worker, the fleshy vessel of labour power, is objectified now not so much as a commodity - portions of its labour power to be bought on the margin for its immediate contribution to capital’s valorisation - but rather as a financial asset, like a future or swap, whose value is calculated not only on the basis of its current spot price, but including a risk-assessed estimate of future earnings over a given term, up to working lifetime. In a recent piece on debt I wrote about the figure of the “Securitised Worker”: 

“But the details [of how securitisation works] don’t matter so much as the overall picture of how securitisation helped fuel the consumer credit boom, by turning private household debts, whether for mortgages, car loans, student loans, etc, into a tradable financial asset class. What matters is to look closely at what exactly is being securitised. In line with the fetishism of commodities, we routinely talk of the objects as being the subject of the loan - the house is mortgaged, the car is on hire purchase, and so on. But in fact, in every case, the real “object” of securitisation is not the commodity or service (in the case of a university education, for e.g.) being purchased, but the person to whom the debt is being attached. It is the mortgagee not the house that is mortgaged. Bricks and mortar never owed anybody anything. From the perspective of the expansion of consumer credit that accompanied its rise, we could call neoliberalism the age of the Securitised Worker, with the associated process of the becoming-asset of labour.”

Of course, as it turned out in so many other things, neoliberalism’s actual ability to properly calculate risk-assessed estimates of future earnings turned out to be radically less competent than it supposed. Hence the current crisis in student securitised debt, based on future earnings crashing into the reality of “graduates without a future” with no immediate prospects of any employment, never mind of a level sufficient to pay back massive loans with a healthy interest. And yet the general direction has not yet been reversed, even if it is currently in crisis.

Now I want to push this development to its extreme - the idea that labour is not just being transformed from commodity into asset, but that it’s financialisation is a corollary of an underlying process of transforming living labour into micro-corporations. To make real Thatcher’s totalitarian vision of “there’s no such thing as society” by transforming the whole of social intercourse into pure market relations between a multitude of corporations. We see elements of this in the enthusiasm of some of the Right for a Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI) as a precursor for the liquidation of all remaining aspects of the welfare state and replacement with purely market based provision.

In a sense this neoliberal utopia of “the entrepreneurial society” - where self-maximising economically rational agents would interact on a purely commercial basis, where the distinction between households and firms would be dissolved and, for the most utopian of these capitalist-bolsheviks, the famous “withering away of the state” would finally be achieved - was explicitly present from the very beginning. It’s just that no-one else took their ravings seriously at the time. Perhaps now its time we should give their delirious vision more serious consideration, not in order to realise it, but to combat it.

Households Inc.

What does it mean to treat living labour as if it were a corporation, business or firm? In the most obvious aspect, it means to deprive it of its dual character of being both a political citizen and economic agent. As a political body, living labour can intervene on the body politic so as to acquire entitlements to the fulfillment of its bodily needs “by right”. Corporations can do no such thing. Corporations need to pay the market price for all its inputs, outputs and required services - water, electricity, food, rubbish collection, training, health services. The ability of the corporation to pay the market rate for those overheads is not taken into account. There are no entitlements for corporations, if their cashflow cannot cover their costs, then they go out of business, they are liquidated. There is no right to life for a corporation, the liquidation of failing corporations is part of the competitive logic that gives market forces its social darwinian bite. ‘Devil take the hindmost’ is the watchword of corporate life.

Here we start to see the contradictions involved in trying to incorporate living labour into the economy on the model of the capitalist corporation - a fictional, non-corporeal legal entity, originally created for the purposes of owning private property separately from individual human capitalists. We will return to this in a bit. 


Before we delve more deeply into the concept and contradictions of the incorporation of labour, I want to look at other possible ways of looking at the reversion to hearth and head (poll) taxes as means of extracting surplus value from labour, outside of what classical Marxism calls “the immediate process of production”.

One way be be to see this as a reversion to earlier social forms from pre-capitalist history. A kind of New Feudalism with a reversion to the State - as factor or bailiff for the bankers, etc - collecting money from the peasantry directly, through new versions of the hearth and poll taxes of the mediaeval era.

But perhaps a more persuasive analogy would be the example of the use of these nominally feudal forms of exploitation by European colonisers in Africa. For example the monstrous King Leopold of Belgium instituted a poll tax on the inhabitants of the Congo in order to force these non-money using subsistence producers into providing their labour to the colonial rubber-tapping industry in order to earn the money to pay the tax. Here we are back, in some ways, to the frame of enclosure that Andrew touched on in his text. We are also raising the vexed question of the impositions of Frankfurt onto the eurozone periphery as a new form of retro-colonialism. And certainly in the context of the core-periphery struggle within the current compositional crisis of the eurozone, the question of a resurgence of some colonial dynamics is one that bears further examination.

However it seems to me that the dynamics we are talking about are not restricted to the Eurozone and its problems, but are in play also in non-Eurozone European states like the UK, as well as the USA (where it is perhaps even further advanced).

Corporation tax? If only!

So, if we are to be treated like corporations, how come we’re paying way more than Ireland’s infamous 12.5% corporation tax? In fact, why is it clear that the increase in taxation on the proletariat is precisely to reduce the taxation on “real” corporations? What is the meaning of this contradiction between certain similarities of form and very real contrasts in content? Can understanding these contradictions merely the vacuous, contingent and irrelevant product of symbolic and propagandistic hypocrisies, or do they point to real structural fault-lines that can inform new strategies of resistance? Is the concept of the incorporation of the proletarian body just an intellectual curiosity or can it be weaponised?

The taxation of real corporations, by contrast to the flat rate “charges for services” model of the new domestic taxation of households, is based on ability to pay. That is real corporations are taxed only in proportion to their income - and not even that, only to the part of that income that is considered to be taxable income - which turns out, as the cases of Apple, Google, Amazon, Starbucks & co have recently demonstrated - to be a vanishingly small part of actual revenue. Can we make any use of this glaring disparity that goes beyond the merely consciousness-raising and propagandistic?

The Lord of Misrule?

In the mediaeval period the “Lord of Misrule” was a commoner or serf appointed around Christmas or New Year to rule over the Feast of Fools, a descendent of the Roman Saturnalia when the ordinary order was turned upside down and figures of authority made fun of, lewd, lascivious or obscene behaviour. This temporary period of the “world upside down” had an ambiguous role as both safety valve, to relieve pressures built up through the year, and a dangerously subversive custom that continually threatened to get out of hand and inflict harm on church authority and rulers. In the period leading up to the Reformation and the gradual transition to a becoming-capitalist culture, the Lord of Misrule and the Feast of Fools was eventually stamped out, albeit not without serious difficulty in the teeth of protracted popular resistance.

Today certain strands of left thinking may be tempted to think that the real reason that the practice of the Lord of Misrule has been stamped out, is that capital cannot tolerate any such temporary inversions of its order. Even further, that capital itself is a usurping Lord of Misrule, that capitalism is a world permanently upside down, where foul is fair and fair is foul. Karl Polanyi alleged that capitalism was an unnatural order, where market relations had hypostatized, like a cancer, through the social body and falsely commodified things like land and labour, that should never have been commodified, thus producing the rule of unreason of capitalism.

It is tempting to see the continuing inversion between the becoming-real of the needs of capital's fictional, corporate bodies and the becoming-fictional of the needs of labour's real, fleshy bodies, in this light. i.e. as a disturbance of the natural order which could be cured, simply by rowing back from these latest, perverse developments.

But we have to see that these developments are simply a progressive unfolding of the basic logic of the conflict between labour’s needs for reproduction and capital’s drive for limitless self-expansion that were already contained within the capital-wage labour relation from the very beginning. There is no “natural order” that capital has turned upside down, capital is not the lord of misrule, but both the structuring principle and the very origin of the existing social order.

Post-Biopolitics: The liquidation of the Welfare State

If the welfare state of the Rooseveltian New Deal and the post-war Keynesian mixed economy was an institutionalisation of biopolitics in the hands of the state, then the incorporation of the body is not a further development of biopolitics, but a reaction against it. A counter-biopolitics if you like. If the origin of the capitalist corporation was the creation of a fictional, non-corporeal person for the purely proprietarian purposes of possessing property, bank accounts and being the counterparty in transactions and contracts, then as a result the process of capitalist incorporation removes any ontological reference to any biological corporeality. In the process of being reflected back onto labouring humanity, the reframing of the economic actor that possesses the labour power factor of production, is likewise divested of its corporeal reality and needs, as we have seen. In other words, the contradiction behind the seemingly tautological notion of the incorporation of the body, is that this is an incorporation of the body that renders it incorporeal, that is, it is the ontological production of body in the mode of being denied.

The double failure of neoliberalism, both geopolitical and biofinancial, raises the spectre of a regressive counter-biopolitics, a potential thanatopolitics.

The geopolitical failure of neoliberalism is its failure as a strategy by the US-led “free world” to defend and reproduce the  global economic and political hegemony of the West. While the political and military hegemony is weakened, but not yet overcome, the numbering of the days of unchallenged Western economic dominance are visible to all. In the new geopolitical conditions of no longer being able to secure a lions share of global natural resources, while exporting the unemployment and other contradictions of the development of capitalist productivity to a dependent subaltern periphery, the West is faced with a period of rising unemployment and falling share of global surplus value appropriation.

The biofinancial failure is the bursting of the myth that a post-Fordist, post-industrial West, having exported its industry to the East and other emerging economies, could extract surplus value directly from the productive life of the “immaterial worker”, without passing through the crucible of wage-labour and the immediate process of production. This by means of the financialisation of everyday life and the reproductive sphere of living labour, through home mortgages, consumer credit, student loans and the whole panoply of biofinance.

As it turns out, the crisis has revealed that masses of unemployed youth, no matter how well-educated or full of artistic and creative vitality, stubbornly “refuse” to become profit centres in a new horizontal, gravity-defying cooperative economy. Penniless people just don’t produce that much profit.

This is not necessarily to say that value is and can only ever be created within the immediate process of production and the wage-labour relationship. Rather that even if value can be created by productive activity outside of the wage relation, it appears to be currently still tied to aggregate wages in a kind of “multiplier” relation, rather than being capable of producing value independently. In other words, if aggregate social wages are cut, no amount of unwaged production can compensate to prevent collective welfare levels of the class as a whole from dropping. At least that seems to be the experience at the moment in Ireland and very visibly in Spain, Portugal and Greece.

In light of this double failure, the spectre is raised that the nullification of the proletarian body that its capitalist incorporation effects symbolically, may become a physical liquidation of a surplus proletariat that capital currently has no profitable use for. The seeds of a 21st century Auschwitz lie here, if at the moment, in germ only.

Strategic Implications

If the current conjuncture in the West threatens a long term buyers market in a labour pool chronically affected by relative oversupply, then there is a distinct possibility that the traditional locus of the class struggle - within the workplace, via the weapon of withdrawal of labour - may be substantially weakened for an extended period. But if the perspective of the incorporation of the proletarian body means a regime of care that in practice denies the physiological and corporeal needs of the class, then recomposition may need to take place around the “domestic” sphere of defending our basic reproductive needs. 


Dear Mr Troll. You seem to be

Dear Mr Troll. You seem to be under the impression that this blog post and/or this site in some way supports orthodox Marxist state socialism of the Maoist, Stalinist, Castroist, etc type. I can thus only assume that your ideological blinkers are affecting your reading vision. The clue is in name, i.e. the "anarchism" part at the start of the URL. As you clearly don't seem to know what that refers to, luckily for you Anarcho has compiled a handy but comprehensive Anarchist FAQ, available on this site, so you can remedy your ignorance. Have a nice day now...

IN germ only? Don't any of

IN germ only?

Don't any of the tens of millions of peasants murdered in terror-famines by Marxist run state-capitalism mean anything to you?

Since 1918 there has been various Holodomors, The Great Leap forward, Cambodia Year Zero and the DPRK today.

Do you know what Marxist state-capitalism has done and is still doing?

Its sure doesn't sound like it to me.

professor rat pro2rat @twitter and etc


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