The austerity question: Work, welfare, and post-family life

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What is austerity, and how is it to be combatted? Should it be combatted at all? 

We who oppose austerity find ourselves in an impossible bind: by protesting the cuts, we unwittingly prolong the hegemony of the wage relation, validating the promise of patriarchal domesticity, liberal democracy, and all the other sad fictions of postwar capitalism. Yet the misery of austerity is real and present; for many of us, death is already the condition of life – witness the slow frittering of the Greek proletariat, for example (or that of East Oakland, or North Philly). Only a fool – a bourgeois – would welcome further cuts. The question is rather this: with what reality-image should we oppose the dream-image of a capitalist future? If not the wage relation, then what?

What is austerity, and how is it to be combatted? Should it be combatted at all?

Recently, certain comrades have floated an anti-state argument for sequestration: that the state being Evil, therefore cuts are desirable – the better to speed anarchy. In other words, praise be the sequester, bringing us closer to the collapse of government. As evidence, one could gesture at the Department of Homeland Security’s ongoing release of undocumented immigrants from ICE detention centers in Florida – 2,000 detainees have already been freed, with some 3,000 more promised for March. It would seem indisputable that a poorer DHS and ICE would be better for immigrant communities and other oppressed populations; anti-statists would have every reason to gloat over the prison-industrial complex’s apparent self-castration. “Apparent” is the operative term, however: stacked against a total detainee population of 429,000 immigrants, five thousand fewer is hardly a victory. Considered globally, the positive aspects of sequestration pale in comparison with the negative impact of lost jobs and cuts to social services.

Austerity means class war, but this statement needs to be qualified: austerity is first and foremost the manifestation of a crisis in the reproduction of capital and labor – or rather, a crisis of the reproduction of the wage relation. We’ll not be able to understand the ongoing assault on social welfare without understanding that welfare and wages are inseparably linked: the stagnation of wages and restructuring of work in the past four decades tracks the withdrawal of social services and the transformation of welfare into a meager supplement for the wage. To be even more precise, we should add that the term “supplement” here doesn’t designate a shift in the relation of labor to capital, but rather a shift in the means by which the wage relation is prolonged. To put it simply, the replacement of wages with entitlement benefits keeps the paradigm of the wage relation intact even as wages continue to stagnate and fall, and as capital sheds workers in greater numbers. Yes, welfare has served to emancipate workers from certain burdens associated with workers’ self-reproduction, principally healthcare, education, social insurance (unemployment), and old-age care. But it has also reinforced the dependency of workers on capital, maintains the proletariat’s position as proletariat when all forces tend to push it towards redundancy – the status of a surplus population. It is this status that austerity forces us to confront, and, politically, to seek to overcome.

I don’t claim to have generated this argument ex nihilo; the broad outline of my analysis is derived from Théorie Communiste, whose recent work (the following quotation is from “The Present Moment,” 2011; this and other translations modified from the original) offers an indispensable account of the convergence and overlapping of welfare and the wage-relation, beginning with the invention of social entitlements in the wake of the Second World War:

In the previous phase of the capitalist mode of production, up until the end of the 1960s, exploitation produced its own conditions of realization – conditions which at the time were optimal from the point of view of the valorization of capital itself. This included everything that made the reproduction of the proletariat a determinant of the reproduction of capital: public services, the delimitation of accumulation within national arenas, creeping inflation ‘erasing’ the indexing of wages, ‘the sharing of gains in productivity.’ These conditions made it possible for the proletariat to be legitimately constructed and recognized inside the capitalist mode of production as a national interlocutor (both socially and politically), from the point of view of capital. Hence workers’ identity [l’identité ouvrière] modulated between social democracy and councilism.

The phrase “from the point of view of capital” is the key to understanding TC’s position on the welfare state. The victory of labor in securing social welfare was always phyrric; after all, they note, the safety net operated like an apparatus of capture, abetting not only the reproduction of capital but also the reproduction of the working class within capital – or rather, the reproduction of the wage relation. The Fordist/Keynesian compromise of the 1930s yielded nearly full employment in America and Western Europe during the boom years of the 1950s and ’60s; in turn, and concomitantly, the reproduction of proletarian labor-power was organized entirely by and for the wage relation, augmented by entitlement programs that were, in effect, the repositories of proletarian savings (e.g. Social Security). High wages were the fundamental premise of this grand bargain: rather than replacing earned income, welfare was implemented to buttress the hegemony of the wage relation, ensuring that a lifetime of work would be rewarded with social benefits and infrastructural development (maintenance of roads, utilities, etc.). The point was never to emancipate workers, but rather to keep them in hock to capital even outside the workplace and beyond the age of mandatory retirement – until death do us part!

As TC has recently suggested in “Response to the Americans on Gender” (2011), the postwar nexus of productive and reproductive forces was knotted together at the site of the nuclear family, combining the ideal male wage-earner with the ideal reproductive laborer, the stay-at-home mom. Since the early 1970s, however, capitalist restructuring has effectively undone this knot, delinking production from reproduction and scrambling the codes of family life almost beyond recognition:

The collapse of the model of the full-time male breadwinner tied to a consistent firm or workplace is accompanied by the increase of female workers, of part-time work (female workers and part-time work tend to be associated with one another), of temporary work, of outsourcing, of subcontracting, in other words, of a proliferation of intermediary situations. The accumulation of capital no longer being confined to the national sphere, each State can therefore no longer consider the wage “as an investment” according to the Fordist formula. The use and valuation of labor-power becomes an adjustable variable in external competition; any politics oriented towards economic stimulus or social welfare for the unemployed is condemned. This is the epoch of Barre, Thatcher, and Reagan. All the social models, all the dynamic modalities of the exploitation and reproduction of labor-power deployed pretty much everywhere in the developed capitalist world during the 30s and in the period immediately following the war, henceforth disappear.

In the wake of the neoliberal turn, proletarian self-reproduction is no longer knotted, or “coagulated,” at the site of the family; this is not to say, however, that the wage relation no longer governs the survival and subsistence of the working class. “Segmentation” is the key term here: as each member of the family unit is now captured by the wage relationseparately, TC argue, the family can no longer serve as the primary organ of reproduction. Husband, wife, and children are henceforth responsible for their own self-reproduction; everyone goes to, trains for, or seeks out work, often on vastly different timetables and entailing distinct self-reproductive needs. The family that once ate dinner together now scrambles to eat at separate times and in disparate locations. Likewise, families no longer pool resources from the earnings of a single (male) breadwinner, out of which “allowances” are paid to wife and kids; the extension of credit and the normalization of part-time and temporary work ensure that all family members have access to the wage relation, if not actually, then latently:

In this re-internalization of welfare as part of structural logic of labor, the family no longer furnishes a site for the application of the externalized “social”; hence the pregnant American teenager has nothing to do but work… or pretend to work. The family is permitted to shatter, or to present itself in all manner of more or less ephemeral forms, because it is no longer the site of a coagulation of the social reproduction of labor-power; instead, it becomes a space where individualized segments of this reproduction merely coexist (simple addition): one child at school, another in temporary work, an adult unemployed, a woman working part-time, a welfare recipient, a salaried, full-time worker—each of these positions has its own logic; the ensemble is no longer organized around a central figure [the male worker] for whose sake reproduction unfolds; there is no longer any ensemble to speak of.

The restructured family is part and parcel of a substantially restructured economy in which “[a]ll individual labor-powers become independent,” cut adrift from one another, all circulation between labor and capital becoming ruthlessly segmented. Yet segmentation (i.e. division, atomization, personalization) doesn’t mean that the hegemony of the wage relation has worn thin – not in the least. We have reached a point, TC argue, where ”[t]he purchase of labor power by capital is now total,” meaning that workers now live entirely within the wage relation: absent any other means of subsistence than the sale of one’s labor-power (absent even the paternalistic “allowance”), workers are treated as if the sale of their labor-power to capital has already been achieved, no matter whether any such transaction actually occurs. Prior to a student’s matriculation from school to the “professional” workforce (an increasingly remote possibility for the vast majority of workers), she will already have been interpellated as a larval worker a thousand times over; not only do all her expectations, and all expectations of her, cohere around her independent pursuit of a wage – towards which she may accrue a lifetime’s worth of debt – but there is literally no way of her living otherwise. Somehow, usually through a combination of part-time and/or informal jobs, she will find a way to pay for her flat, her meals, her cellphone, and her access to the means of urban sociability (drink, entertainment), all of which are coordinated according to the temporality of the weekly wage or monthly salary. Needless to say, credit plays a larger and larger part in this absurd compact between worker and capital, to the point that basic questions of trustworthiness are vetted with a credit report. Life outside the wage relation becomes strictly unthinkable; even those who cannot find work are interpellated – ingested might be a better word – as labor-power.

The “total purchase” of labor by capital combines extreme precarity with extreme dependency: workers have a harder and harder time reproducing themselves within the wage system, yet they need capital more than ever. Depression is certainly one outcome of this infernal bargain, the flip-side of a pervasive (and oft-maligned) ethos of entitlement, according to which wages occupy the same place as welfare; both are “entitlements,” so to speak – a formulation perverted by the so-called Right to Work movement. As TC puts it, “[t]here is a tendency towards the equalization of income from wages (revenues du travail) and income from unemployment benefits (revenus d’inactivité), and an institutional contagion between the two.” We can observe a shift in the temporality of self-reproduction underlying this trend: in the restructured economy, work is increasingly posited in the future tense, along with its payoffs and benefits; although the nuclear family has largely collapsed, it remains a governing fiction, uniting the diverse sectors of the proletariat in subservience to a dream-image of 1950s-era domesticity, a paradise of regularized employment and patriarchal order. As indicated by Communiqué from an Absent Future (2009) and similar tracts, the time of labor has become a time of waiting, in which the evanescent hope of a “return to normal” alone justifies the hardships and disappointments of the ongoing crisis. A student will take out loans to pay for a professional degree, a laid-off engineer shuffles through part-time jobs in anticipation of better times, an immigrant searches for work in a foreign city, far from his wife and children… and so on. As the promise of a decent standard of living (or any living at all) is further delayed, the workforce grows dependent on substitutes – credit and welfare – to the point that it no longer matters how one makes a living; every day, we meet the crisis of self-reproduction headlong, and every night we wonder how life will be possible next week, next month, or next year.

But these nightly traumas are everywhere contradicted by the verities of the waking world. If employment is a universal right, then our abjection can only be a temporary condition; wait long enough and a job will come, and with it, a happy family – even if we don’t believe this fantasy, we find it legitimated at the spatial level, the urban sphere having been restructured as part and parcel of the capitalist mode of production, transforming zones of low-cost housing, shops, parks, and pubs into a pseudo-bourgeois theme park of shopping and leisure. Far from extending the Lebensraum of the bourgeoisie, who remain largely ensconced in their suburban enclaves (largely though not entirely: witness Manhattan under Mayor Bloomberg), urban development and gentrification plays the more pernicious role of reinforcing the wage relation in its moment of crisis – forcing the proletariat to the temp agency door, in other words. She who does not intend – or pretend – to work shall not live, nor shall she afford organic produce. Acting in concert, urban revivalists and petit-bourgeois shopkeepers have cement the wage relation into the fabric of the city itself. At every turn, the contemporary metropolis interpellates its users (a more appropriate term than “inhabitant”) as fully-employed professionals – an absurdity, since most of the work available in cities today is part-time or temporary. Those few workers who can claim to fit the mold of the middle-class professional likely reside in the suburbs, where the city confronts them as a foreign territory; meanwhile, we who continue to depend on the city as an aid to our self-reproduction take to imitating the chimeric yuppie in dress and manner: a smartphone and dark-rimmed glasses suffice to conjure the image of professional busyness. In reality, we are all wageless and under-waged; our portable laptops and hand-grown vegetables are poor stand-ins for the homes we will never own and the families we will never afford to feed.

Remarkably, the near-total embourgeoisement of urban agglomerations coincides with the final emptying-out of rural society. As Mike Davis and others have noted, the past several decades have seen the majority of the world’s population relocate farm to city; one would therefore expect the urban infrastructure to yield to the needs of landless peasants and underemployed workers, but the reverse is true: at no other time in recent history has the bourgeoisie’s grip on the city been more firmly secured. The reality of work and welfare, then, is the reality of urban life. As the dream-image of middle-class domesticity recedes further into the future, the proletariat acclimatizes to ways of living that deviate sharply from the family-form, inhabiting communal apartments, splitting rent with housemates or roommates, and sacrificing most vestiges of privacy IRL for the micro-privacy of email accounts and online avatars. For the majority of recently urbanized workers, communal living is the only affordable means of survival; statistics collected in 2007 show 75-80% of Chinese migrant workers living in dormitories, with each room housing an average of twelve persons. In America and Western Europe, students’ dormitory living frequently bleeds into extended flat-sharing arrangements, thanks both to hikes in urban property values and rental markets (in California, for example, a minimum-wage worker would need to work 130 hours per week in order to meet rent on a two-bedroom apartment; statewide average rent is $1,353) and, more importantly, to the ongoing deficit of jobs. Increasingly, the family itself resembles a sort of coercive flat-sharing arrangement, with individuals coming and going autonomously, tied not to one another but to online social networks comprising peers, workmates, and semi-anonymous soulmates.

Where does this leave the enemies of austerity? In theory, austerity means the withdrawal of state-sponsored social reproduction, but in practice, we confront austerity as the absolute impoverishment of future life – the promise of the wage relation dialed down almost to zero. The cuts hamper our ability to reproduce ourselves, not so much immediately (only for laid-off workers do budget cuts resemble the impact of a plant closure) as in the medium and long term. With the closure of after-school programs under sequestration, for example, parents will see their children’s future employability wither and fade; the defunding of public health programs, such as HIV testing, will eat away at the medical condition of the poor and uninsured; workers seeking jobs with the military will be laid off or turned away – and yet we will continue to eke out a living from day to day, our expectations “managed” with one or another form of anti-depressant, our future ground down to a miserable nub. After decades of welfare reform, zero-tolerance policing, and the defunding of public education and social services, proletarian America suffers in a state of living death: condemned to protest on behalf of our future selves, our energies are diverted from the here-and-now to the might-be and the not-quite-yet. This is austerity’s most sinister aspect: that it perverts the temporality of crisis and collapse, leaving us alive but immiserated, fighting to preserve what we will never have.

We who oppose austerity find ourselves in an impossible bind: by protesting the cuts, we unwittingly prolong the hegemony of the wage relation, validating the promise of patriarchal domesticity, liberal democracy, and all the other sad fictions of postwar capitalism. Yet the misery of austerity is real and present; for many of us, death is already the condition of life – witness the slow frittering of the Greek proletariat, for example (or that of East Oakland, or North Philly). Only a fool – a bourgeois – would welcome further cuts. The question is rather this: with what reality-image should we oppose the dream-image of a capitalist future? If not the wage relation, then what?

Perhaps the contours of this other future – this reality, I should say – are less mysterious than we have been led to believe. In seeking a counter-image to the Norman Rockwell family, we might gesture to the present state of the proletarian life-world, to our shared dormitories and apartments, our extended families and expansive friendship circles, and to the activity for which the absence of work has so well prepared us: socializing. After all, no generation in recent history has devoted more time and attention to the complexities of social life than ours, nor has any generation so thoroughly divested itself of the need for privacy; in this sense, we are already larval communards, requiring little training for a propertyless world. Rather than posit communist society as an impossible future – a horizon as unthinkable as the nuclear family – we should recognize that the basic conditions of communism already exist. We are the commune, and the family is our enemy.

There remains, as TC rightly point out, the problem of production, a “glass floor” against which struggles in the realm of social reproduction inevitably collide. In rallying against the nuclear family, the point cannot simply be to claim autonomy for every expanded household – tying the red flag to the dormitory weathervane, in other words (thought this would be a laudable act in itself). We propose going further, aggregating the segmented lines of self-reproduction in any social group or neighborhood so that they coagulate in the form of a commune; and, simultaneously, expropriating the means of satisfying these needs as a commune (rather than as isolated segments of a global workforce). This horizon is immanent to the capitalist mode of production as it presently exists: capital has already thrown us into communal life, which it delimits as a temporary period of extra-familial sociability – the precarious preface to a middle-class existence yet to come. But the longer we wait together in purgatory, the flimsier these fables of heaven and hell seem to us. Isn’t this world – this so-called purgatory, this precarious life – enough? When we bemoan the passing of Occupy, isn’t it the explosion of sociability that we miss above all – the activity of being together made an end in itself? What else should communism mean, if not the proclamation of social life as the only purpose worth struggling for?

The fight against austerity can only go in one direction: towards supplying ourselves with the materials and tools necessary for living together, reproducing ourselves as an ensemble: a commune. At the very least, we might start by rejecting the model of the nuclear family tout court – personally, but also politically (in this sense, queer theory and communization theory align on the question of the family). Patriarchy is at issue here, but is not the only issue; the persistence of the family-form has long served to atomize and contain proletarian communities, branding the inclination to socialize as a leisure activity without political standing and applying the mold of the nuclear family as a means of disciplining the poor, preventing extended families and expanded societies from acquiring economic validity. It is therefore not enough to merely laud promiscuity or polyamory; we must also seek to demolish the economic basis of the family-form, replacing it with the commune-form. This means politicizing the decision to separate into isolated families, agitating to subvert the reproductive importance of the heterosexual couple. Practices of communist child-rearing are in order, and also of communist sexuality; we will not find them in utopian experiments, however, but rather in political activity contra capital. There can be no avoidance of anti-austerity struggles, in other words; but only when we refuse austerity in the name of no futurewill emancipation be possible in the here and now.

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