Reading notes on the book Capital as Power

mars 2016, Jacques Wajnsztejn

Traduit par : Corentin Debailleul

Titre original : Notes de lecture sur le livre « Le capital comme pouvoir »

Toutes les versions de cet article : [français] [français]

There are many sim­i­lar­i­ties between the theses of Nitzan and Bichler and those of Temps Critiques so we deemed it appro­priate to examine their book2 fur­ther.

First of all a critique of the law of value…

This is quite log­ical since they too rely on Castoriadis during his 1960-1965 period (under the nick­name ‘Cardan’) as a basis for crit­i­cizing Marx’ economism and his theory of value. I will not write more on this cri­tique since such ref­er­ences are known, either from Castoriadis, Nitzan-Bichler, Temps Critiques or from our book L’évanes­cence de la valeur [The Evanescence of Value]. However, in rela­tion to the ques­tion of value, some­thing struck me while reading Capital as power: their approach to the labour issue.

…that fails to tackle the labour issue and the necessity of its critique…

The two authors develop a Castoriadis-inspired posi­tion, namely that some forms of con­crete labour can be autonomous from abstract labour. The former would allow a leeway for the smooth run­ning of a com­pany and for the worker’s psy­cho­log­ical and intel­lec­tual well-being;3 on the other hand, the latter would be nothing but pure undif­fer­en­ti­ated social activity within modern cap­i­talism. But how do things actu­ally stand? The main­stream vision in soci­ology of work, at least in France, recog­nises a ten­dency to grad­u­ally or dras­ti­cally reduce any com­plex labour to unskilled labour. This is also what Braverman shows in the US in his studies on the ques­tion, which are largely taken over by soci­ol­o­gists of work in France, such as Freyssenet and Coriat.

What do Nitzan and Bichler have to say against this posi­tion?

– First, the ‘system’ cannot rely on purely auto­mated indi­vid­uals (see the con­tra­dic­tion between pas­sivity and activity, cf. Chatel 1964: 26-30);

– Second, qual­i­fied labour – hence dif­fer­en­ti­ated – is devel­oping in the ICT sector and lives on in crafts;

– Third, most prod­ucts con­tain skilled labour.4 This would legit­i­mate, at the the­o­ret­ical level, their cri­tique of value theory, as all forms of con­crete labour cannot be assim­i­lated to abstract labour. Not all labour is unskilled, hence we cannot quan­tify values without the units to mea­sure them. But that would also legit­i­mate, at the polit­ical level, the upholding of a Castoridian per­spec­tive of ‘workers self-man­age­ment,’ under the con­di­tion of its exten­sion to the entirety of wage earners. This posi­tion can then com­bine with the Gorzian view of a residue of heteronomous labour which cannot be reduced and has to be shared among all.


This per­spec­tive over­looks a range of facts:

– First, the rev­o­lu­tion of cap­ital induces, by its own dynamics, an anthro­po­log­ical rev­o­lu­tion. This dis­rup­tion of man as a generic being had already been men­tioned by Pasolini in 1975,5 but also by Castoriadis him­self when he wrote that the dynamics of cap­ital had liq­ui­dated the old archetypal fig­ures (Weber) leading to cap­i­talist matu­rity. Those fig­ures are out­dated: the Weberian bureau­crats, the Schumpeterian entrepreneurs… the Marxist or anarcho-syn­di­calist ‘good workers’ whom you can trust for the post-rev­o­lu­tion.6 This model of the worker-craftsman is nowhere to be found any­more, except in the dete­ri­o­rated form of the ‘Polish plumber’;

– Second, it makes no sense to restore the pri­macy of an ide­alised con­crete labour that would not be cap­i­talist thanks to a minority of highly skilled workers who would be irre­ducible to dom­i­na­tion. A few par­tic­ular work prac­tices cannot chal­lenge the very nature of labour in gen­eral, i.e. an alien­ated form of men and women’s generic activity. The many exec­u­tives who get fired or burnout these days bring evi­dence for it.

By focusing on the cri­tique of the workers’ alien­ation in the man­ager/sub­or­di­nate divi­sion rather than on the exploita­tion through the law of value, Castoriadis wanted to rein­tro­duce pol­i­tics in a theory that he saw as too deter­min­istic and objec­tivist. But this crit­ical ‘pro­gress’ was blocked by an anthro­po­log­ical vision of labour. Castoriadis crit­i­cises the law of value and the labour theory of value but not work as a value.7 As this work is per­formed within the com­pany, this place is per­ceived as some sort of sanc­tuary which takes autonomy from cap­ital as soon as the crit­ical anal­ysis focuses on work and on the expe­ri­ence of the labour com­mu­nity. It iso­lates the labour pro­cess from the pro­duc­tion pro­cess and sep­a­rates labour from cap­ital as if the latter was an out­side, an extra that could be avoided. The work­place is the place of the ‘pro­le­tarian expe­ri­ence’ related both to pro­fes­sion­alism (which is an extremely dated view as the pro­duc­tion pro­cess never stops sup­pressing pro­fes­sions and qual­i­fi­ca­tions to replace them with the vague notion of skills8) and to col­lec­tive strug­gles in fac­to­ries. By this stan­dard, it is dif­fi­cult to under­stand the dynamics of cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion which always pushes to sub­sti­tute fixed cap­ital for labour (‘the dead seize the living’). Otherwise it is nec­es­sary to acknowl­edge that the labour pro­cess is part of some­thing that over­comes it, i.e. a pro­duc­tion pro­cess and all it implies in terms of per­spec­tives: workers self-man­age­ment (broadly defined, as the working class com­po­si­tion evolved) would only sub­sti­tute a cap­i­talist man­age­ment but would not bring a change in the essence of the ‘system’.9 Labour would remain pre­scribed by its dom­i­nated posi­tion under the dom­i­nant posi­tion of fixed cap­ital and under an unal­tered and imposed pro­duc­tion that should not be ‘man­aged.’ The fac­tory is per­ceived as a neu­tral ter­ri­tory to be con­quered.10 This per­spec­tive seems weak to me as com­pared to the one drawn by the Italian operaists of the Quaderni rossi at the same time, with Panzieri’s theses on the cap­i­talist nature of the ongoing tech­no­log­ical rev­o­lu­tion. Yet the two groups main­tained rela­tions through Danilo Montaldi who used to ani­mate Unità Proletaria in Cremona.

… as the ‘proletarian experience’ has become negative.

The point of view of Socialisme ou Barbarie (SouB) was still the affir­ma­tion of labour even though it was no longer the affir­ma­tion of a class, the pro­le­tariat. The workers’ expe­ri­ence was largely pre­sented as a pos­i­tive basis and con­tent for the socialism to come, even though the exact term used in the no. 11 of 1952 is ‘pro­le­tarian expe­ri­ence.’ Indeed, for SouB, there is no dif­fer­ence between workers expe­ri­ence or pro­le­tarian expe­ri­ence, as the latter can only come from the former, which is cen­tral for the ‘con­struc­tion of socialism.’11 Yet, if the work­place can be a field of struggle, it does not mean that it is the place of a com­mu­nity of struggle. It is the place of a com­mu­nity of work that ties man­agers and sub­or­di­nates in a rela­tion of mutual depen­dency. However, a com­mu­nity of struggle expresses a high level of antag­o­nism when it takes dis­tance from this com­mu­nity of work, and when this unity takes shape, it also con­sti­tutes the limit of the struggle.

This is what hap­pened during the huge strike at LIP in 1973. This strike is remark­able pre­cisely because it marks the end of a period during which this unity could still be thought and realised. The catch­phrase les Lip (‘the Lips,’ to des­ig­nate the workers of the com­pany) – a mix of self-des­ig­na­tion and media impo­si­tion – sum­marises both the inten­sity of a fac­tory struggle focused on labour, and a field (the com­pany) that escapes it. This shifting of ter­rain has been only ampli­fied since the restruc­turing of pro­duc­tion places, the dis­man­tling of ‘workers fortresses,’ the net­working of com­pa­nies, their off­shoring and glob­al­i­sa­tion.

Workers expe­ri­ence has become neg­a­tive since the end of the 1960s and during the 1970s. We have wit­nessed it in the strug­gles of the working-class youth in France and par­tic­u­larly in Italy where we could already find a gen­uine aver­sion for this fac­tory expe­ri­ence and for work in gen­eral. Today, the same aver­sion inhabits even more the young gen­er­a­tions of the lower classes who cannot even serve the indus­trial reserve army. Consequently, they easily adopt the posi­tion of the old ‘dan­gerous classes.’12

This neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence is con­firmed by the kinds of struggle that spo­rad­i­cally burst out here and there. The des­per­ados strikes at the turn of the 2000’s (Cellatex, Kronenbourg, Bertrand-Faure) or more recently at Continental, take vio­lent forms or break up with the workers tra­di­tion because they do not rep­re­sent a refusal of poor working con­di­tions, of the exploita­tion by infernal paces, of low wages, but of an expul­sion of the work­force from the pro­duc­tion pro­cess. In that way, even if they still take a col­lec­tive form, they do not prop­erly give shape to struggle com­mu­ni­ties. They mainly express the end of any com­mu­nity under the con­di­tions of the cap­i­talised society.

These working con­di­tions can of course still rep­re­sent real con­di­tions, but it is no longer an issue. Wage earners directly expe­ri­ence the pro­cess of inessen­tial­i­sa­tion of the work­force in the val­ori­sa­tion, the loss of labour cen­trality in the cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion, or the loss of cen­trality of the pro­duc­tive place in its tra­di­tional meaning when they get sur­prised that a profit-making com­pany can actu­ally shut down.


[I would like to make a digres­sion here on the ques­tion of the ‘pro­le­tarian expe­ri­ence.’ This notion has a strange his­tory and if it makes sense to address it as one of SouB theses, it was nonethe­less a source of con­flicts within the journal. Indeed, the term was coined by Claude Lefort for whom class cannot be objec­tively defined (for soci­ol­o­gists, Marx’ class per se is a social cat­e­gory) and even less so in an essen­tialist way (the rev­o­lu­tionary mis­sion of the class: ‘the working class is rev­o­lu­tionary or it is nothing’). For Lefort, it can only exist through its labour activity and more broadly through its rela­tion to the world. Class is then a gen­uine sub­ject which needs no pre­de­fined pro­gram nor avant-garde organ­i­sa­tion. Everything will start from the ‘workers expe­ri­ence.’

Castoriadis (Chaulieu) opposes to Lefort the theses of 1949 on the neces­sity of a rev­o­lu­tionary party.13 A posi­tion that he still defended in 1954 in his polemic with Pannekoek around the issue of the workers coun­cils But at that time, Lefort’s posi­tion on workers expe­ri­ence was still strong because his sub­jec­tivism objec­tivises itself in the devel­op­ment of the working class as a cat­e­gory of cap­ital – if not as a rev­o­lu­tionary force – and because the pro­duc­tion pro­cess remains classic and essen­tially char­ac­terised by the pro­gres­sive exten­sion of the sci­en­tific organ­i­sa­tion of work and Fordism in the 1920s-1930s. On the con­trary, Chaulieu’s posi­tion is entirely the­o­ret­ical and remains at the level of beg­ging the ques­tion. There is no rev­o­lu­tionary party and anyway its time has not yet come. The arrival of D. Mothé, worker at Renault – who takes part in the fac­tory journal Tribune Ouvrière [Workers Platform] with other oppo­nents to the union’s Stalinist line – rein­forces the idea of the workers expe­ri­ence but does not fully sat­isfy the group, which finds appro­priate to create the monthly Pouvoir ouvrier (1958), as a sort of a syn­thesis between a fac­tory journal and a polit­ical journal.

If the idea of workers expe­ri­ence per­sists at least until the 1958 split with the depar­ture of the ten­dency Lefort-Simon, it seems that the idea dis­ap­pears after­wards… until Castoriadis (Cardan) takes it back on his behalf in the no. 31 of 1961 and his article ‘Le mou­ve­ment révolu­tion­naire sous le cap­i­tal­isme mod­erne’ [The rev­o­lu­tionary move­ment under modern cap­i­talism, p. 52-53]. In this text, Castoriadis writes that the con­tra­dic­tion does not lie between cap­ital and labour, but between pro­duc­tion and labour, as if pro­duc­tion was not cap­ital. In reality, his new posi­tion comes from his aban­doning of the value theory as quan­ti­ta­tivist anal­ysis of wealth repar­ti­tion. Hence the cap­ital/labour con­tra­dic­tion can be over­come by the advent of the con­sump­tion society, which allows to over­come the cap­i­talist crises and avoid a final crisis. On the con­trary, the con­tra­dic­tion between cap­i­talist dom­i­na­tion and its need to channel labour at its ben­efit cannot be removed by any other means than a rev­o­lu­tion leading to workers’ self-man­age­ment. This last con­cept includes tech­ni­cians and employees as shown in the arti­cles by S. Chatel in the last issues of the journal.

Castoriadis’ redis­covery of an old idea can seem to insure a the­o­ret­ical con­ti­nuity under changing con­di­tions. The pro­duc­tion pro­cess partly trans­formed, as well as the cat­e­gories of workers and wage earners. The inte­gra­tion of techno­science in the pro­duc­tion pro­cess brings the ques­tion of its ‘retriev­ability.’ Castoriadis’ dis­course still remains indus­tri­alist and pro­gres­sist.]

There is no labour or utility outside capital.

Let us return to our two authors and their book Capital as Power.

Their posi­tion seems to be linked to their uni­lat­eral def­i­ni­tion of abstract labour as phys­i­o­log­ical labour or labour in gen­eral, which pro­duces exchange value (neg­a­tive charge) as opposed to a con­crete labour (be it skilled or unskilled) that pro­duces use value (pos­i­tive charge). This posi­tion then leaves out the second aspect of Marx’ def­i­ni­tion of abstract labour: its specific socialised char­acter in the col­lec­tive worker of cap­i­talism.

What appears poorly unpacked is what Marx meant by phys­i­o­log­ical labour, i.e. a human moment – despite every­thing – within alien­ation… Physiological labour could allow to over­come and even abolish labour as a sep­a­ra­tion between human activity and dom­i­na­tion. Failing to see fur­ther than use values leads to an impasse, as the real dom­i­na­tion of cap­ital14 has wiped away the dis­tinc­tion between use value and exchange value and turned vain any dis­cus­sion about the utility of this or that labour.15

If the mis­take of the Marxists – even ‘the best’ among them – is to reduce con­crete labour to abstract labour, the inverse would be just as bad a mis­take. Labour socialised by cap­ital is both abstract and con­crete labour. This – truly cap­i­talist – double nature of labour allows to under­stand the abstraïsation pro­cess, that is, a supe­rior form of social­i­sa­tion – for example in the General intel­lect – but which escapes even fur­ther workers’ con­trol, as this col­lec­tive intel­li­gence takes refuge in fixed cap­ital.16

Contrarily to what the neo-operaists around Negri might think, seizing con­trol of the com­manding of the General intel­lect would not be enough. This col­lec­tive intel­li­gence is not usable as such. It is not only the pro­duct of a sep­a­ra­tion between rulers and ruled, it is also the pro­duct of the dom­i­na­tion of a social and polit­ical rela­tion.

A process of totalising capital…

Nitzan and Bichler also affirm a pro­cess of total­ising cap­ital, which makes inad­e­quate the old divi­sion between opposing frac­tions of cap­ital. A bank or a finan­cial market can with­draw their con­fi­dence in a com­pany, but how could a holding with­draw its con­fi­dence in the pro­duc­tion units it super­vises? This total­ising pro­cess out­dates the dis­tinc­tions between nom­inal cap­ital and fic­ti­tious cap­ital, between pro­duc­tive cap­ital/pro­duc­tive labour on one hand and unpro­duc­tive cap­ital/unpro­duc­tive labour on the other hand.

Nitzan-Bichler also crit­i­cise Braudel and Castoriadis for their strict dis­tinc­tion between market economy and cap­i­talism, as if the two con­cepts were anti­thet­ical. Their cri­tique of Braudel (p. 306-307) covers the exact same area as ours (cf. Temps cri­tiques, no. 15, p. 15). Braudel’s mis­take is under­stand­able con­sid­ering his efforts to syn­the­sise the moments of the orig­inal dynamics of cap­i­talism in three levels. This led him to split these levels because the his­tor­ical period that he studied was char­ac­terised by a very uneven devel­op­ment of the dif­ferent areas. But it is sur­prising to read under the plume of Castoriadis: ‘where there is cap­i­talism, there is no market; and where there is a market, there cannot be cap­i­talism’17 when writing about ‘modern cap­i­talism’ (the title of his article in no. 31 indi­cates it very clearly).18

…which aims at capitalisation and power…

An impor­tant con­cept is also devel­oped in this book, that of ‘cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion.’ This con­cept does not bother so much about an hypo­thet­ical origin of cap­ital nes­tled in labour, in value or in profit but for a result and for a goal, i.e. finan­cial flows. Capitalisation is the ability for a ‘system’ to trans­form any­thing into mon­e­tary or finan­cial flows. Marx already said it: ‘The for­ma­tion of a fic­ti­tious cap­ital is called cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion. Every peri­odic income is cap­i­talised by cal­cu­lating it on the basis of the average rate of interest, as an income which would be realised by a cap­ital loaned at this rate of interest.’ (Capital, Vol. III, Chap. 29). Nitzan and Bichler show how Marx, from there, ques­tions the pos­si­bility of a self-fruc­ti­fying cap­ital and how he even­tu­ally asks the fun­da­mental ques­tion for the cur­rent crisis: Is this plethora of cap­ital (interest-bearing cap­ital and money cap­ital) a par­tic­ular way to for­mu­late the indus­trial over­pro­duc­tion crisis (as seem­ingly argued nowa­days by Marxist economist F. Chesnais) or is it, next to this crisis, a par­tic­ular phe­nomenon?

Marx gives no answer. Nitzan, Bichler, and myself lean toward the second pos­si­bility. But we do not bal­ance it with the first one as the very notion of over­pro­duc­tion in its clas­sical meaning seems no longer valu­able to us within the frame­work of ‘dif­fer­en­tial accu­mu­la­tion’ (as coined by Nitzan and Bichler). This ‘dif­fer­en­tial accu­mu­la­tion’ leads large com­pa­nies to self-reg­u­la­tion as they do not exploit their full capac­i­ties; the same goes for the frame­work that I call the ‘con­tracted repro­duc­tion’ sit­u­a­tion.

Let me give you two exam­ples of this ‘con­tracted repro­duc­tion:’ first, the mode of growth by mergers and acqui­si­tion, which has become dom­i­nant as com­pared to the one based on invest­ments and new cap­i­tals; and second, the new inno­va­tions (surely fun­da­mental on the short term but periph­eral on the long run), and par­tic­u­larly in the ICT sector. The resulting pro­duc­tivity gains are neg­li­gible in com­par­ison to those of the second indus­trial rev­o­lu­tion. The first point is exten­sively devel­oped by Nitzan-Bichler, the second by the article ‘Quelque chose : quelques thèses sur la société cap­i­tal­iste néo-mod­erne’ [Something: some theses on the neo-modern cap­i­talist society] by Ricardo d’Este in Temps cri­tiques, no. 8 (1995).

Another obstacle to the over­pro­duc­tion ten­dency is the larger devel­op­ment of the sector of con­sump­tion means as com­pared to the sector of pro­duc­tion goods. This point was devel­oped by Loren Goldner in Temps cri­tiques, no. 15 (in our dialog with him on the crisis and fic­ti­tious cap­ital, pp. 65-74).

A last phe­nomenon that also con­traries the expanded repro­duc­tion is the pow­erful flow of liq­uidi­ties from emerging coun­tries (cf. Temps cri­tiques, no. 15, ‘Le cours chao­tique du cap­ital’ [Capital’s chaotic course], pp. 94-95). This flow cor­re­sponds to the plethora (or over­ac­cu­mu­la­tion) of interest-bearing cap­ital and money cap­ital that Marx addressed. The expanded repro­duc­tion would neces­si­tate these sums to trans­form into tra­di­tional invest­ments while they are actu­ally used to sponge debts (American ones for example) or to finance sump­tuary pro­jects. Contracted repro­duc­tion we say, again and again.

‘This cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion is not “con­nected” to reality; it is the reality’ (p. 182) argue the two authors. This claim sub­stan­ti­ates our notion of ‘cap­i­talised society.’ However, I per­ceive a dif­fer­ence of approach as they locate the source of cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion – defined as cap­ital’s capacity to trans­form every­thing into finan­cial flows – in the accounting tech­nique of ‘actu­al­i­sa­tion.’ According to the prin­ci­ples of this tech­nique, cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion has to be based on the search for new poten­tial income in place of ‘real costs’19 eval­u­a­tion. This then allows to take con­trol over wealth. I rather start from the dom­i­na­tion pro­cess that allows this har­nessing and finds all along cap­ital’s his­tory its appro­priate means: yes­terday the letter of credit and royal loans, the fic­ti­tious cap­ital of the first stock com­pa­nies, today the finan­cial leverage, hedge funds, ven­ture cap­ital and deriva­tives.

… through the new role of the state

Nitzan and Bichler’s posi­tion on the rela­tion between state and cap­ital is very close to ours. They argue for a ‘state of cap­ital’ that con­tra­dicts the lib­eral view and its oppo­si­tion between cap­ital (max­imal freedom) and state (min­imal), as well as the Marxist view and its com­ple­men­tarity and in fine, sub­mis­sion of state to cap­ital (cap­ital’s state).

For my part, I prefer to describe the rela­tion between cap­ital and modern state as an ‘inher­ence.’ A nuance nonethe­less: when the two authors talk about the state, the feeling arouses that this state is time­less. Its role and forms are not spec­i­fied nor dis­tin­guished. We can sup­pose that they talk about the state in its modern form, from the 16th or 17th cen­tury onwards, hence the one anal­ysed by Braudel. But there are strong dif­fer­ences between a. the city-states back in the time, which were the pioneers-adven­turers of cap­ital, very open towards the exte­rior; b. the har­nessing organ­ised by the fol­lowing large nation-states with a market-ori­ented mas­sive pro­duc­tion – which how­ever did not pre­vent impe­ri­alism; cf. today’s states, which are struc­tured within glob­alised net­works. If all those forms have accom­pa­nied cap­ital’s devel­op­ments, they were not all in the same rela­tion to it.

We have seen our over­lap­pings with the two authors, but we also have a few dif­ferent inter­pre­ta­tions and oppo­si­tions.

a. They tend to perceive capital from two angles only:

A sym­bolic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of power on the one side, a social mega-machine on the other. Actually, cap­ital also oper­ates by accu­mu­la­tion of com­modi­ties, con­sti­tutes a form of social rela­tion between cap­ital and labour, and deploys itself as a ‘mate­rial civil­i­sa­tion’ (Braudel) of indi­vid­uals of the cap­i­talised society.

For Nitzan and Bichler, sym­bolic rep­re­sen­ta­tion, if any, seems to be cen­tred on the notion of ‘value’ rather than on the one of ‘cap­ital,’ thanks to the first term’s pol­y­semy. Their omis­sion of the social rela­tion appears even more dis­turbing as it then makes it dif­fi­cult to pic­ture how the dynamics of cap­ital takes place and how its inherent force rela­tions operate. In place of a rela­tion of depen­dent reciprocity between classes, groups, indi­vid­uals, cap­ital appears as a pure dom­i­na­tion force. Actually, indi­vid­uals are not only active/pas­sive at work, they are so in all their actions within cap­i­talised society. This is what allows to under­stand dom­i­na­tion and over­come the duality between dis­ci­plinary sub­mis­sion and vol­un­tary sub­mis­sion.

b. Their political views are imperceptible

The authors speak about a ‘polit­ical rationale’ of cap­ital, refer­ring to Marx, but we cannot see from which polit­ical point of view they speak. This problem fre­quently occurs when one insists on the notion of ruling class… but silences the rela­tions between rulers and ruled… and the strug­gles. There might be some Castoriadis in those authors, but a ‘depoliti­cised’ Castoriadis.20

This notion of ‘ruling class’ is not clearly dis­tin­guished from their other notion of ‘dom­i­nant cap­ital.’ This dom­i­nant cap­ital would be com­posed of large cor­po­ra­tions, gov­ern­ments, some inter­na­tional insti­tu­tions, what some authors call hyper-cap­i­talism (Dockès, Attali) or top-level cap­i­talism (Braudel) and that we have char­ac­terised as the first level of cap­i­talised society. This level is not a class nor has it a uni­fied and strategic vision, even though some common con­cepts flourish there, such as ‘gov­er­nance’ or ‘sus­tain­able devel­op­ment.’ It is very dif­fi­cult to force a Russian oli­garch, a high member of the Chinese com­mu­nist party, a Fed or IMF top-man­ager, the baron Seillière, Bill Gates, the Bundesbank, F. Chérèque and N. Notat21 and large NGOs22 into a same class!

Their (often cor­rect) crit­i­cism of some bases of Marxist cri­tique of polit­ical economy seems to rely on weak ele­ments, i.e. K. Popper’s theory con­cerning the pos­si­bility of refu­ta­tion.23 This leads our authors to favour what is mea­sur­able (prices) while they crit­i­cise quan­ti­ta­tive and sub­stan­tial con­cep­tions of value. It seems that here lies an awk­ward influ­ence of the neo-clas­sical school and above all of the cur­rent func­tioning of the main­stream Anglo-Saxon eco­nomic sciences.24

We favour today an anal­ysis in terms of prices, not for they are mea­sur­able and ‘real,’ but for they allow to unveil value and con­sti­tute weapons in view of strug­gles.

c. This absence of clear political positioning seemingly takes its source in a confusion

While they talk about the uni­fi­ca­tion of cap­ital and the impos­si­bility of main­taining strictly delim­ited camps between cap­ital frac­tions, their insis­tence on the notion of ‘absentee own­er­ship’ (Veblen) leads them to see an oppo­si­tion between man­agers and absentee owners (pen­sion funds, share­holders, insti­tu­tional investors, stock option ben­e­fi­cia­ries). The latter even­tu­ally organise an indus­trial sab­o­tage – here, again, the idea comes from Veblen… i.e. from a totally dif­ferent period, which our authors some­times seem to forget – to give rise not to a gen­eral accu­mu­la­tion or growth, but to a dif­fer­en­tial cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion. We are then nearly falling back into the oppo­si­tion between wealth pro­ducers on the one side, and a power lim­ited to finance har­nessing on the other side, appar­ently in con­tra­dic­tion with the gen­eral posi­tion of the authors.


1 – Spring 2014 for the paper ver­sion in Temps Critiques no. 17. Available at: http://temp­s­cri­­cle311. A first ver­sion had been pub­lished in December 2012, directly on the web­site of Temps Critiques [trans­lator’s note].

2 – Nitzan, Jonathan and Shimshon Bichler. 2009. Capital as power. A study of Order and Creorder. London and New York: Routledge, Ripe Series in Global Political Economy.

3 – This is an impor­tant issue for the new direc­tion that the journal adopted since their split with Pouvoir ouvrier [Workers’ Power]. See S. Chatel: ‘Hiérar­chie et ges­tion col­lec­tive’ [Hierarchy and Collective Management], no. 38, pp. 26-43(1964).

4 – I have already had this dis­cus­sion with Claude O. and Daniel S-J within the Soubis net­work (avail­able on demand). The dif­fi­culty lies in the method: should pro­por­tions be taken into account or not? Do we talk in terms of pro­por­tions? etc.

5 – See Scritti cor­sari [Corsair Writings] and Lettere luterane [Lutheran Letters].

6 – The ques­tion is not to deny the plea­sure that can arise from the pas­sion for the activity of highly-skilled tasks or well done jobs in gen­eral. But the search for a ‘good worker’ for post-rev­o­lu­tion future times sounds like an ide­ology, a work­erist ide­ology surely, but an ide­ology nonethe­less. Anyways, it pro­vides its par­ti­sans with many woes. An enlight­ening his­tor­ical example is offered by Michael Seidman in his booklet Workers Against Work; Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts, University of California Press, 1990.

7 – This posi­tion is well syn­the­sised in the cited article of Chatel, p. 37.

8 – I do not deny that there still are highly skilled pro­fes­sions and qual­i­fi­ca­tions; I only seek to bring out the gen­eral sense.

9 – Daniel Mothé pushed this logic till its end: first as worker at Renault, then as an offi­cial of CFDT, and even­tu­ally a member of the joint man­age­ment-labour council.

10 – Could that be a dis­tant influ­ence from Trotsky who believed the white army might turn red?

11 – It is very dif­ferent from Tronti’s per­spec­tive who, in Ouvriers et cap­ital (1967), makes of the pro­le­tarian char­acter and of wage earners the centre, in com­par­ison to labour, where the wage earner can be nothing but a frac­tion of cap­ital, a ‘vari­able cap­ital’.

12 – On this neg­a­tive workers’ expe­ri­ence, cf. Après la révolu­tion du cap­ital [After the Revolution of Capital], pp. 224-225 and note 125; and ‘Jeunes en rébel­lion’ [Youth in Rebellion] in Temps cri­tiques, no. 13. SouB and the Situationist International had well per­ceived the sub­ver­sive poten­tial of this rebel­lious youth since the begin­ning of the 1960s.

13 – The debate took place in Socialisme ou Barbarie, no. 10 (1952), under the title ‘Le prolétariat et le problème de la direc­tion révolu­tion­naire’ [The Proletariat and the Issue of the Revolutionary Direction]. It should be noted that this debate was biased as it focused on the ques­tion of organ­i­sa­tion and acces­so­rily on the ques­tion of con­scious­ness but not specif­i­cally on the pre­cise point of pro­le­tarian expe­ri­ence.

14 – For a def­i­ni­tion of the formal dom­i­na­tion and real dom­i­na­tion of cap­ital, see Marx, The sixth unpub­lished chapter of the cap­ital, and for a sim­pli­fied and sum­marised ver­sion of our inter­pre­ta­tion, see Temps cri­tiques, no. 15, note 71, p. 49. Available on the journal’s web­site:

15 – This dis­cus­sion on use­ful­ness is a cream pie which has become a dis­cus­sion topic in the café du com­merce stylein which are expressed all sorts of judg­ments on the reality of others’ labour and its ‘utility.’ It is an old rem­i­nis­cence of the ide­ology of labour and specif­i­cally pro­duc­tive labour. However, today, there is no utility but for cap­ital, be it from the point of view of demand (con­sump­tion and dis­tinc­tion abil­i­ties) or supply (cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion power).

16 – It is not so easy for ITC as it is dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish between dead labour and living labour, between pro­ducer and con­sumer, in this sector; e.g. what is an app? It is a com­bi­na­tion of both hard and soft.

17 – What Democracy? 1990. In Figures of the Thinkable. http://www.not­ p. 227

18 – On the rela­tions between ‘market economy’ and cap­i­talism, see my article ‘L’économie de marché ne représente pas une nou­velle for­ma­tion sociale’ [Market economy does not con­sti­tute a new social form] in Noir et Rouge, no. 30, (1993) and for a more com­plete ver­sion L’indi­vidu et la com­mu­nauté humaine, first volume of the anthology of Temps cri­tiques, L’Harmattan, 1998, pp. 320-331. This text is not avail­able on the web­site and to say the truth, I should review it and inte­grate it in my last devel­op­ments pub­lished in Après la révolu­tion du cap­ital (L’Harmattan, 2007) and in the no. 15 and 16 of the journal.

19 – An example of an actu­al­i­sa­tion tech­nique man­i­fests itself in the banks’ bal­ance sheets. When bankers lend money to a com­pany, they note the amount of the loan as an active whereas the eco­nomic logics would sug­gest that they should con­sider it as a pas­sive. What the bank takes into account here, is its future income only. All this was the­o­rised by Irving Fisher at the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tury but such an heresy shook the eco­nomic dogmas of the time too hardly to be imme­di­ately recog­nised as a basis for the new dynamics of the real dom­i­na­tion of cap­ital.

20 – In any case, force rela­tions, con­flicts and strug­gles are nowhere to be found in this very aca­dem­i­cally crafted book.

21 – F. Chérèque is an ex trade union leader, cur­rently a senior offi­cial and think tank director. The same goes for N. Notat, who com­bines those with a CEO posi­tion [trans­lator’s note].

22 – What we call the level I com­prises a set of power cen­tres whose inter­ests some­times differ strongly even though many of its man­agers are trained and shaped after a same tem­plate. Paul Jorion, in a column in the daily news­paper Le Monde (October 9th 2012) shows three exam­ples of those diverging inter­ests: a Washington court has can­celled a deci­sion of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to avoid too high expo­sure to risks; the International Organisation of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) had to back off in front of OPEC and major oil com­pa­nies; last, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had to drop mea­sures to avoid a col­lapse of the mar­kets on the short term, after the oppo­si­tion of a member – closely linked to the finan­cial sector – of its steering com­mittee. Conversely, alliances are con­tin­u­ously weaved between these cen­tres of power, as those linking Western states and their ‘sys­temic banks,’ whose solv­ability is insured in case of hard blow as it then becomes a matter of ‘gen­eral interest!’

23 – On this issue, see the polemic between Adorno and Popper on the ‘method’ in The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, 1976.

24 – This is some­times apparent in a few remarks. In note 1, p. 26, Nitzan-Bichler men­tion Polanyi’s cri­tique of Marx and his char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of labour force as a com­modity. For Polanyi, the labour force is no com­modity as it is not specif­i­cally pro­duced to be pur­chased in the market. It is only a fic­ti­tious com­modity or a quasi-com­modity. I took this up to under­stand the dynamics of cap­ital, the devel­op­ment of the wel­fare state, of social income, in short of the ‘con­sumer society’; and, in par­allel, to expose the absur­dity of the Marxist ‘beliefs’ in a ten­dency towards abso­lute pau­peri­sa­tion or the iron law of wages. Though, what can be read in this note? That Polanyi’s point is now ground­less as many par­ents cal­cu­late their chil­dren’s future prof­itability on the labour market. Admittedly, we cannot pre­vent them from thinking of it, but this argu­ment comes straight out of Anglo-Saxon socio-eco­nomic models that reduce all soci­o­log­ical behaviours to mere eco­nomic inter­ests cal­cu­la­tions. It is but a small detail, which can be useful though, to grasp the authors’ con­text of writing, their the­o­ret­ical frame­work. However, the most impor­tant, in my view, is their ability to rise well above that, in just one sen­tence, for example when they claim that the cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion pro­cess is far broader and thus encom­passes the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion pro­cess. I fully agree with this state­ment… which, as a result, solves the issue of the true char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of the labour force. The essen­tial becomes that it is now cap­i­talised; thus it does not need to be put down at other com­modi­ties’ level, while on the whole, what is cap­i­talised is no longer the labour force but ‘human resources.’