Posted on Leave a comment

The alienated telework

“By its very nature, [wage] labour is an unfree, inhuman and unsocial activity, conditioned by private property and creating private property. The abolition of private property will not become a reality until it is conceived as the abolition of labour”.

Karl Marx, On Friedrich List’s book ‘The National System of Political Economy’, 1845

“Under the conditions of private property [work] is alienation from life, for I work to live, to make a living. My work is not life.”

Karl Marx, Notebooks of Paris, 1844.

Submitted to Enough 14. Originally published by Vamos hacia la vida. Translated by Enough 14.

I

In recent decades, as a result of the development of automation and microelectronics, teleworking has been increasingly announced as the form of work par excellence of a future that seemed distant, but which today appears in the form of an increasingly catastrophic present. Indeed, the global coronavirus pandemic – a particular symptom of the global ecological debacle currently underway – has put millions of human beings into telework. This process of artificialization, unprecedented in the history of alienated work, should not be taken as an exceptional measure that will soon be abandoned once “normality” has returned. In the first place, because this normality will never return – the neologism “new normality” is already emerging in all the states of the Western world as the reference par excellence to the militarization of society and distant work – and, secondly, because the generalization of telework was a process that was progressively developing since at least a decade ago, and which has received a boost today due to the context of global crisis. There is nothing abnormal about teleworking, but it is part of a historical trend that is immanent in capitalist production: the replacement of living labour with machinery, a historical trend of capital that makes human labour a less and less decisive element in material production alongside the development of science and technology that domesticate natural forces.

In teleworking we see a sharpening of all the characteristics of market production[1]: 1) the degradation of the entire objective and historical human world to abstraction, the reduction of all the products of human activity, and human activity itself, to value. 2) The physical, the material and the sensitive, as the wrapping of the suprasensitive and, consequently, the inversion of the reality: the human species as a slave of its own creations. 3) The private work, detached from the community and carried out, therefore, without having the satisfaction of human needs as an objective but the production of value, appears and presents itself as directly social work. In short: the merchandise as universal organizer of society under the consummate form of money and capital, that is, of the value that valorizes itself. In our time, the material community of capital has been empirically realized on a planetary scale, and already preparing to cross the border that separates the planet earth from the nearest planets, satellites and asteroids in the coming decades. The principle of the fetishism of the merchandise, that turns human beings into simple things, and that ends up humanizing the merchandise, finds its full realization in a society in which an increasing number of activities can be carried out “at a distance”.

If all the technical forces of the capitalist economy are to be understood as operating in separations, in the case of telework it is the very administration of the separate as separate. The integration of teleworkers and employees into the system must bring back individuals as isolated individuals as a whole. In telework, the inhuman principle that governs this society – the subjection of real social life to the despotic logic of value – reaches a new degree of degradation of human life with the strengthening of the atomisation and separation of individuals inherent in the capitalist division of labour. Some see in work only the precarization of life, the truth is that it is the increasingly consummate triumph of the proletarianization of the world, which commodity production potentially carried in its entrails and which has empirically constituted itself into a planetary material community since the middle of the last century. In fact, teleworking – like “face to face” wage labour – is the modern realization of the uninterrupted task that safeguards class power: the maintenance of the atomization of the workers that the capitalist conditions of production regroup around the valorization nuclei of the big cities. The October revolt in the Chilean region, which was inserted in a global context of proletarian revolts in different continents, showed that the social isolation in the midst of the big crowds typical of life in the megacities of capital dangerously contains the germ of rebellion, especially as the continuous scientific-technological revolutions of capital considerably increase the masses of surplus humanity -of superfluous and unemployable proletarians- that are grouped in the peripheries of all the big cities on the planet.

However, the generalization of wage-based teleworking is in no way a conspiracy secretly led by the capitalists in order to further isolate human beings, but is a concrete necessity for the realization of the valorization of capital in our times: it is, as we said above, a necessary consequence of the incessant scientific and technological revolution of the specifically capitalist mode of production and, therefore, of the increasingly scientific character that production in general takes on. It is only from this perspective, insofar as it further reinforces competition and subjects proletarianised humanity to even harsher conditions of survival, that teleworking becomes a tool of class domination. In other words, telework is nothing but the necessary consequence of the logic of wage labour in the epoch of the cybernetic organisation of capitalist production. It is, said in Hegelian terms, the historical coincidence of the essence of wage labour with the phenomenon of sentience, the materialization of the very concept of alienated labour that inherently contained the distancing of human beings from the product of their labour, and the isolation and estrangement of human beings from each other.

II

Capital, as a mode of social production, historically reaches its real domination when it manages to replace all previous social and natural premises with its own particular forms of organization, which now mediate the submission of the whole physical and social life to the real needs of valorization. From there comes the apparent inertia of the capitalist production process, which is a consequence of the generalization of the commodity production as a universal organizer of social life, which submits all human and natural life to the imperative of the incessant valorization of capital. The inability of the October revolt in the Chilean region to effectively subvert the society it criticized was the clearest manifestation of this “hidden power of capital” that results from the social automatism inherent in the value form of the commodity, and from the subjugation of humanity as a whole to the mediation of the commodity for the effective production of its life.

In short, to give the social metabolism of the species a scientific character, which is the historical tendency of capitalist production. However, at a time when humanity has long since surpassed the productive potential to turn hunger and death from curable diseases into remnants of an obsolete past, the old miseries of the human species are being revived on a new basis, the basis of expanded survival. Indeed, the enslaving and alienating potential of teleworking – and of the necessary non-virtual work – is so much stronger than 19th century Fordist assembly line work or factory work, and the reason for this is that, in our time, particularly with the replacement of human labour by the automatic system of machinery, the commodity has also broken down the barriers of our homes and enslaved the worker in the totality of his or her privacy. There is no longer an outside of productivity: the commodity is still, almost 200 years after the Communist Manifesto, that artillery which breaks down all Chinese walls, and which today ends up breaking down the increasingly diffuse barrier between private life and working time which was empirically realized with the proletarianization of the majority of the human species in the last 100 years. Thus, teleworking ends up consummating that tendency to convert leisure time into productive time, which was already a reality with vacations and with the generalization of the consumption of goods as an essential element in life in modern capitalist society.

In the first place, teleworking is sold as an advantage for workers, because it allows them to work “from home” in close proximity to family and/or loved ones, but the reality is far from as complimentary to workers. Indeed, teleworking produces miracles and enormous organizational advantages for the rich, but misery for teleworkers. It produces reports, calculations, education and drone deliveries for those who can afford it [2], but it also produces anxiety, fatigue and stress for teleworkers. As Marx noted over 150 years ago: “[wage labour] replaces work with machines, but it throws one part of the workers into barbaric work and turns the other part into machines. It produces spirit, but creates stupidity and cretinism in the worker.” This is precisely the reality of those who telework, being part of a dispersed organic metabolism that takes place behind their backs, anonymously, to their lives: they work at a distance, and have lost physical contact with the object of their work. Not only is the product of his or her work alienated, but his or her activity itself acquires a virtual character. The height of this servitude is that only as a teleworker can he or she maintain himself/herself as a physical subject and that he or she only exists as a physical subject to the extent that he or she exists as a teleworker. It goes without saying that this is precisely the reality of proletarianized humanity since the very dawn of capitalist production, but here we analyze precisely what is new about the phenomenon of labor that is found in this sharpening of the alienation contained in the logic of wage labor and that is carried out in teleworking.

The production itself becomes here the active alienation, the alienation of the activity and the activity of the alienation. Telework does not allow escape, distraction – or rather it only exists as a moment within telework – since it is embedded within the life time of the teleworker. Those who are confined, working at home, have lost the ability to manage their own lives, because they have to carry the burden of reproducing themselves as teleworkers, while teleworking becomes an increasingly diffuse working day that far exceeds the limits of face-to-face work. It knows no limits or, rather, its limits are the little rest it allows and the availability of connection. As it already happened with wage labour in its “face-to-face” format, the activity of those who telework belongs to others, is the loss of themselves.

There is also a distortion of time as a result of the effective extension of the working day, since neither day nor night nor tiredness are no longer barriers to the performance of paid work. There is a continuity here and a break with the capitalist labour organization typical of previous eras of production. On the one hand, there is a continuity in the measure that the tendency to turn night into day, or rather the tendency of capital to make use of 24 hours of the earth’s day, is a reality from the moment factory work is constituted. Chapter VII of The Capital is abundant in examples about the miseries of wage labor in times when machinery was massively introduced in industry, and about the intensive and prolonged exploitation of children that was typical of this historical moment of capitalist production. However, as the capitalist mode of production increasingly subsumes more and more spheres of social life, subjugating science and technology as powerful social powers in the service of the valorization of capital, we see a progression in the dehumanization of wage labor, in the limits of the working day and productive time are effectively extended with the accelerated development of industry and the development of new sources of energy. As Robert Kurz warned in Lights of Progress: “Capitalism tends to convert the active and solar side into the whole, occupying the entire astronomical day. The night side is a hindrance to that trend. The production, circulation and distribution of goods must function at all times without interruption. Therefore, the rupture lies in that which teleworking possesses as unprecedented, and is the effective virtualization of human labor, which we can understand as the historical production of the organization and form of waged labor that is typical of capitalist society in one of its highest phases of development.

As a result, the city, as a technical organization of isolation and social life in view of the valorization of capital, effectively converges with the development of machinery shaped by the imperatives of valorization. It is true that, at least since the 19th century in Western Europe, the machinery subsumed by capital behaves as a means for the absorption of living labor, as instruments in the absorption of other people’s labor and, therefore, key elements in the development of the specific capitalist mode of production by endowing it with the technical and material budgets for the most effective production of surplus value with the exploitation of human labor of proletarianized humanity. However, in this 21st century that sees the beginning of the generalization of teleworking, proletarian housing effectively realizes the urbanistic nightmare of being a “machine to live in”, since now a growing army of teleworkers has a machine in their own home that absorbs their work, that extends the working day to the biological limits and often crosses them, and that, in sum, has become an instrument for the suction of surplus labor.

On the other hand, we should not forget that the overall capital that a society puts into motion day by day, can be considered as a single working day. Given a certain length of this working day, the mass of surplus value can only be increased if the number of proletarians is increased, the population limit here being the mathematical limit for the production of surplus value by total stock capital. And vice versa. Given the size of the population, this limit is made up of the possible extension of the working day. In an epoch like ours that knows the miseries characteristic of a generalized crisis of value, of a growing difficulty of capital to value human work, we see that precisely the counterrevolution of our time adopts, among other factors, the form of the prolongation of the working day by work virtualization and, therefore, empirically abolishing the astronomical day as reference of temporality, and substituting this by the abstract temporality of the exploitation of human work that knows hours, minutes and seconds, but at the same time lacks temporal limits.

The alienation of the vital activity is consumed in teleworking, in which the human being has lost all reality, and his or her productive activity is reduced to a truly abstract activity, disconnected from any concrete character. In teleworking, workers are limited to produce for their own survival, which was already essentially waged labour, but it has added the feature that they never leave their jobs. Thus, in a completely new way, the system of warm beds[3] is revived – or rather extended – in the 21st century by teleworking that can be done from one’s own bed or while eating breakfast. Those who have criticized political economy for more than a century as the final triumph of the negation of the human being were not wrong: happiness as castration, this is the ultimate achievement of modern capitalist industry, which in the first decades of the 21st century has managed to effectively convert human beings into atoms of valorization at every moment of their life cycle.

III

The flip side of teleworking is the barbaric on-site work, especially work that is done by hand. Although we mentioned that telework and its expansion are the result of the scientific development of capitalist production, this same scientific development tends, in turn, to increasingly devalue human work. This translates into the increasing precarization of the ever more extensive mass working conditions of unskilled workers. In the same movement and because of the same need for valorization, capital can confine millions of proletarians to their homes while keeping them working and, at the same time, throw billions more onto the streets to do the most harmful and superfluous jobs; precisely those jobs in which capital considers it cheaper to rent out surplus proletariat than to introduce machinery. Thus, the so-called “essential workers” are at the same time the accomplished expression of the inessentiality of the human being in this society, since they are disposable and quickly replaceable. It is absurd: society has never been so much a labour society as at a time when work is becoming increasingly unnecessary in material terms. In this way, the humanity left over to capital must surrender to the crudest, most barbaric competition in order to survive. Meanwhile, crime is on the rise, led by the mafias and the police who, in one way or another, are constantly threatening the lives of the proletariat, either because of the militarization of society, or because going out into the streets of the cities at night is an increasingly dangerous act insofar as police or criminals are increasingly risking their lives. The facts prove it: in almost all the countries around the world, most of which are democratic, there are more people in prison than in any military dictatorship [4]. And in the midst of a global pandemic, the death squads of the market economy kill more children and poor people every day than the opponents in the worst moments of political repression. In the Chilean region, almost 40 people died in the police and military repression of the proletarian revolt, but the corporate administration of death has already claimed more than 7,000 victims.

In this way, the effectively revolutionary character of capital has become evident in our century – the radical critique of this society has long understood that it is not only the proletariat that makes revolutions – while it has effectively demolished the natural limits of the working day and turned the entire planet into a field of exploitation of labour and nature. “Arbeit mach frei”[5], the infamous slogan on the Auschwitz gate, could be written today on the artificial satellite belt that surrounds planet earth. However, at the same time, this process entails a growing difficulty for capital to valorize human labour, which is the product of the same technological and scientific development that has generated the expansion of teleworking. Labour itself is becoming increasingly obsolete, which gives real headaches to capitalists all over the world when the introduction of new technologies threatens to put tens of millions of proletarians out of work. The spectre of communist revolution and global warming looms like a sword of Damocles over the world bourgeoisie – and over the human species as a whole – especially since this obsolescence of labour itself only makes it increasingly clear that communism is produced spontaneously by the catastrophic development of the value form of the commodity to its ultimate consequences. The complex and terrible development of class struggles up to our days has led the revolutionary project to visibly become what it essentially already was: communism is a plan of life for the human species.

From all this the left “identity” is lost and its progressive supporters of today, who in their natural ignorance and in the repeating of empty phrases from the most rancid academic production, see in teleworking a “privilege”, so they urge this horde of unhappy teleworkers to feel guilty or, better still, happy, since they have the unhealthy privilege of no longer having to leave their homes to enter the space of labor exploitation, while the rest of the proletariat – it goes without saying that the identity-based left rejects this and other concepts – must go out to work, risking their lives in the midst of a health crisis. At the same time, while the catastrophe is already here for the entire human species, they advocate accelerating the transition from current capitalism to more ecological forms and, of course, they blame the current misfortune on these proletarians who are so passive towards the existing order that, instead of eating healthier and more ecological food, they still continue to eat fast food, meat and take long showers en masse. So, in the absence of any real practical critique, i.e. collective action that tends to really subvert the capitalist society, the left is content to launch its neo-sermons through the internet, and in the process take advantage of celebrating that thanks to their “struggle” the mega-corporations Calvin Klein and Coca-Cola are including models and logos of the LGBTQI+ community in their advertising battery. In this way, they have lost all the innovation that the revolts of the last decade have had, and even more so, they see a triumph where in reality capital has found the weak point of the precursory signs of the radical negation movement that this era of disasters is making mature in its heart.

IV

Who are the capitalists, but those people who make our lives impossible? Millions of people every day get up from their beds to fry their eyes in front of computers, or to risk their health and lives in crowded transport wagons. We don’t know each other yet, but we all share the same tiredness, the same anxiety, the same misfortune of living in a body and in a world that doesn’t belong to us, but that we daily create without rest as a strange power that becomes more and more threatening to our survival. In other words, in our homes or on the street, working from home or delivering food on motorcycles, we have in common that our lives are pulled by the invisible threads of money, the inhuman power of capital. And that is why the capitalists see in us nothing more than numbers, graphics, impersonal statistics with which one can do what one wants, unessential beings waiting to die from this pandemic or the next in order to decongest public assistance and free capital for big business. They don’t know us, they don’t know our names, but they manage our lives as entrepreneurs and, therefore, they are the concrete architects of our misery. In this sense, we can affirm that their control over our existence has always been “teleworking”, insofar as all of our daily life and our movements are conditioned at a distance by the material need to work for them to survive. Wage labour has always been, by essence, not only the creation of their wealth, but also the active creation of our own misery.

However, as can be seen from the analysis above, although capitalists are not usually known for their love of humanity and the well-being of nature, this is due not to a “natural evil” in them, but to their condition of being personifications of an abstract logic that makes the capitalist appear to be subject to exactly the same servitude with respect to the relationship of capital, of the logic of valorization, although in a different way, than the proletariat. In any case, radical critique allows us to see that the narcissistic characteristics necessary for the success of market competition, which are today generalized to members of all classes, are accentuated in the capitalists and their armed servants to the point of reaching what today’s “psychology”[6] calls psychopathy. However, just like Marx in his time, we must avoid resorting to psychologism, and therefore morality, to explain social and historical reality. Capitalism is not a conspiracy of a group of powerful people, but a social and historical system that alienates the social metabolism of the species, and that makes value and its constant increase the driving principle of the entire society, from which derives the terrible consequences that its development entails for humanity and the earth.

However, every time that Piñera, Trump, López-Obrador, Sánchez or Bolsonaro transmit the numbers of the dead accumulated by the capitalist management of the crisis, it is certain that in millions of proletarians a vengeful fury, a nameless rage, runs through their veins, especially when death comes to their own homes. However, one thing is clear: while the capitalists and their hitmen deserve to be hung out in a public square to be objects of popular mockery, our emancipation is not simply a matter of physically exterminating our class enemies – the self-emancipation of the human species is not a matter of revenge – but of emancipating ourselves from the social relations that allow the emergence and domination of the capitalists. In other words, to abolish ourselves as proletarians, to abolish creative activity as the creator of capital and private property. As long as we [tele] work to purchase our life, as long as we must [tele] work to live, and live to pay for life it will never really be our life.

V

“Capital, by its nature, tends to overcome every space barrier. Consequently, the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of means of communication and transport – becomes for it, and to an entirely different extent, a necessity: the annulment of space by time”

Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Notebook III (1857-1858).

“No social formation disappears before all the productive forces within it are developed, and no new and higher relations of production ever appear before the material conditions for its existence have matured within the old society itself.”

Karl Marx, Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859

All of the above has practical consequences for the radical negation movement within this society, since we are entering an epoch of world capitalist restructuring where the fourth industrial revolution – whose technological advances will accelerate the expansion of telework – atomization, isolation and hyper-surveillance will go hand in hand with the destruction of proletarians and machines. Since 2008, it has become increasingly difficult for world capital to recover from crises, and it has only been able to do so by resorting to the development of fictional capital. Given that it is impossible to establish market mechanisms that compensate for the declining production of value, the crisis of fictional capitalism leads us to a historical period characterized by two major possibilities: the collapse of capitalism resulting from the self-emancipation of proletarian humanity, or the effective roll-out of counter-revolution and the overcoming of “space frontier” capital. We are experiencing deep transformations in the socially alienated metabolism of the species, and in this new historical scenario the generalization of teleworking and the degradation to the aberration of face-to-face wage-labor will be a historical trend within the context of the current needs of capital, which will be carried out, evidently, at the cost of sacrificing of millions of people. It is a necessary task of the proletariat to clearly elucidate the real character of the counter-revolution of our time, and to foresee the trends of the immediate future. The starting point of that radical critique will be the clarification of the historical moment that currently contains us -a task to which this text intends to contribute-, and the relentless criticism of the weaknesses and limits of the proletarian revolt that began in October 2019 in the Chilean region and, consequently, of the cycle of world revolts in which it was inserted.

Marx was a radical revolutionary who went beyond the limits of his times by taking the dialectic of capital – the phenomenology of the total movement of capital as a social relation – to its ultimate consequences: the civilization founded on value, that is, on the exploitation of proletarianized humanity, cannot be brought down until it has developed all the possibilities of material and social development that are potentially included within this social and historical relation. Collapse theorists forget that Marx gave a series of possible alternatives by which capital could skip the successive crises to which the value-based mode of social production is condemned, and that the irreducibility of the earth’s nature (the theory of the rent of the earth) can be circumvented by the colonialization of space. The possibility of the end of prehistory, of the barbarism that is the domination of the human species by the human species itself, will be developed in the midst of a historical scenario marked by the simultaneous convergence of the technological revolution that will give planetary capital the capacity to go beyond the terrestrial limits (this is, the industrialization of nearby space), the sharpening of the ecological and natural disaster currently underway, the war between the world economic powers and the maturation of the proletarian movement and the radical criticism that is immanent in a historical theater marked by catastrophe.

The revolts of recent times have shown, despite the limits that must be relentlessly criticized, that the world already has the dream of a time, which conscience it now possesses in order to really live. The radical criticism of this society and its summary condemnation already exists in our time, together with its criticism in acts. Both have converged in space and time, but still remain separate in the collective consciousness. The conscious convergence of both moments of the overcoming negation of this society will mark the preface of the establishment of the proletarian class in organic unity and, then, of the effective takeover of social reality.

Vamos Hacia la Vida, July 8, 2020

Notes

[1] The characteristics listed below are typical for wage labour and are characteristic for capitalist society in the last 200 years. The novelty of teleworking lies in the sharpening of these characteristics, and in the fact that capitalist society increasingly tends to be a world where things really become autonomous to the point of acquiring movement of their own or being managed at a distance.

[2] For some time now, the Amazon corporation, owned by the world’s first trillionaire (Jeff Bezzos), has established drone delivery and work automation as the hallmark of its business. This, which is a reality only in some parts of the world, will soon be a general rule within companies in the same field and, a fortiori, in the circulation of goods in the near future.

[3] The “hot bed system” is a widespread form of labour exploitation in Asia and Latin America where workers live, work and sleep where they are exploited for many hours. They are called “hot beds” because when a worker finishes his shift he is immediately replaced by another worker who gives up his bed for him to rest until the cycle restarts.

[4] According to data from 2013 there are two million prisoners in the US, which is about 25% of the total number of prisoners in the world.

[5] “Work makes you free.”

[6] In quotes, because a deep knowledge of the psyche of the human species understood in its historical character is something that, until today, is not a real fact. Today psychology is a “social science” that collaborates profoundly with the pathologization of normal nervous responses to this inhuman society.



Support Enough 14!

Donation for our work in the Enough 14 info-café (More needed than ever before in times of the coronavirus) and our independent reporting on our blog and social media channels. Even 1€ can make a difference.

€1.00


Keep the Enough 14 blog and the Enough 14 Info-Café going. You can do that with a donation here, or by ordering stickers, posters, t-shirts , hoodies or one of the other items here or click at the image below.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.