Oxana Timopheeva (O.T.): Your book “The Uprising of the Middle Class” is a great example how a thorough socio-economic analysis of contemporary globalized capitalism can be combined with the proof of its poor chances for survival
Boris Kagarlitsky (B.K.): The conclusions drawn in this book are very simple: the core of resistance in our time is not to be found in the hungry masses, but in the middle class. I attempt to show that there are, in fact, neither losers nor winners. The system constantly reconfigures its social and professional structures. A person who makes a lot of money is also a victim of exploitation, sometimes even more so than somebody who is poorly paid.
O.T. As far as I understand, your book talks about the fact that we are witnessing a systemic crisis. The old industrial relationships of global capitalism come into conflict with the new forces of production, developing through the advent of high technology.
B.K. I am sure that in this case, one can apply the universal Marxian paradigm. Each epoch creates its own high technologies. There’s nothing new about hi-tech. In comparison to the invention of the book, the internet is nothing more than a tiny improvement. Each technological breakthrough engenders its own myths, but also has its own political-economical side. As new technologies arise, new markets open up and the profit norm grows vigorously. Anybody who is in contact with these technologies will, at some point, find him-herself in a profitable position. Then, however, the profit norm will tend to fall back, which is when people realize that they are actually simple a part of a hired work force. Privileged populations are especially sensitive to the system’s injustice, once one tries to take their privileges away.
O.T. In contrast to the traditional proletariat, they have something to lose.
B.K. Yes, and objectively, this privilege is something that they can’t hold on to. This painful moment came toward the end of the 1990s and clearly corresponded to the appearance of the anti-globalist movement. There are two main reactions to this. The first reaction is the reaction of the potential loser: you desperately cling to privileges that you can’t really hold on to. Ignoring reality, you torture yourself in trying to associate with the winners. Through liberal values, you adjoin yourself to the world of wealth and success. The other reaction is radical. There is a certain social experience in which any other reaction is impossible. An entire generation of radicalized people is on the rise.
O.T. In “Empire”, Toni Negri writes of the “empire” of global capitalism and of its opposition, the “multitude”. However, he emphasizes that the multitude is not a social class in the conventional sense. Instead, it is a mass of coexisting singularities that can resist the system from a number of angles. How do you see this theory?
B.K. Very critically. In Negri’s work, there is the idea of our epoch’s total novelty, the network empire that is nowhere and everywhere, whose opposition is also nowhere and everywhere. But first of all, every material activity has its own locus, its own point of concentration. The best answer to Toni Negri was the war in Iraq, which was a classical colonial conflict. What we actually see is a completely different empire, an empire with a very concrete geographical location, which is upheld by organized violence. Violence cannot take the form of a network, as can, for an instance, manipulation and control. But even manipulative activity starts from a certain point with a hierarchical locality. The same thing can be applied to the multitudes, which are concrete social phenomena.
I distinguish between three groups, three hotbeds of dissent: the proletariat, the middle class, and the outsiders. These three groups are very different from another, and it is this difference that provides the effect of the multitude. Then again, the working class itself was also not of one, unified origin. It only developed a culture of unity (of common roots) as a defensive reaction against the conditions of the factory. It takes quite a bit of time and common activity until a multitude develops the consciousness of a class with a common interest. The vector that begins at the multitude does not lead to a common origin, nor does it aim at unity. Instead, it brings about a certain kind of social synthesis.
O.T. You say that the criterion of belonging to the middle class is not industrial production, as it would be for the proletariat, but access to consumer goods and a certain level of consumption. Does its historical perspective lie in its self-recognition as a hired work-force, as opposed to the consumer?
B.K. Despite the arbitrary nature of its position in the hierarchy of production and the division of labour, the middle class has a certain degree of self-consciousness, but this self-consciousness is largely related to consumption, not to production. But consumption is secondary, and in recognizing this, the middle class reorients itself, discarding consumerist consciousness in favour of self-consciousness within the framework of labour relations and capital.
O.T. Within this system, where would you locate people who work in “intellectual labour”? You note that they experience alienation to the fullest degree, since their work does not provide for any clear boundary between working hours and free time.
B.K. The most extreme kind of exploitation takes advantage of the personality, rather that simply of working force. I personally do not make any difference between free time and working hours, because I can’t simply turn off my mind. The industrial worker was able to leave the production process by shutting himself off; the remaining 8 hours of free time and 8 hours of sleep were his and his alone. By dividing his life into three distinct spheres, by keeping time in which he was left to himself, the worker was able to counteract the effect of industry on the personality, at least partially. Whereas the intellectual cannot hold on to this privilege, once he has been swallowed up by the capitalist meat-grinder. Managers are exploited in the same way. However, the dissolution of the boundary between free time and work is a double-edged sword. Free time begins to expand back into working hours, using guerrilla tactics. The classical example for this is the expansion of computer gaming in the workplace.
O.T. Putting this kind of partisan warfare in the workplace aside, where do you see a space for liberated creative labour?
B.K. When Marx spoke of overcoming alienation, he meant something very concrete, namely that people should take the sphere of production, command and control into their own hands, replacing external, hierarchical controls with a collective, self-regulating, democratic process, in which people set their own goals. This is the essence of socialism. It is impossible to achieve this goal without breaking capitalism’s stranglehold. By themselves, network technologies are not capable of changing property relations. However, they can call the terms of alienated and non-alienated property into fundamental question, when, for an example, the battle against piracy loses its significance. Network technologies lead to a dissolution of the basic categories upon which capitalism and all bourgeois order is built, but they do not allow us to get beyond this order.
O.T. They simply make the crisis obvious?
B.K. Yes, and what’s more, they make it obvious that it is possible to conceive of other relationships and other categories. This does not concern property as much as it concern a life without property. Without a radical change in society, all hotbeds of the new remain as nothing more than hotbeds. While we may be able to formulate certain intellectual and emotional convictions, we will still be locked into a ghetto, where, in the end, capital can reach us. If we don’t begin expanding by ourselves, they will always say “So we will come to you”, and they will come, with or without their detergents and their fabric softeners.