living, labor, living labor

In the essay “1968 and After,” Katja Diefenbach outlines the post-60s arc of minor politics by pointing to its “attribut[ing] too much significance to the de-territorializing, unleashing, progressive element of capitalism” and to its “merging [with the] cadre model of discipline, [which] led to a mobilization of life at every level.” This “demand to see everything in political terms …, especially when it [took] on disciplinary and moral characteristics,” led to the regimentation of minor politics and its ultimate failure. In the process of tracing the reasons for this failure, she writes:

In order to identify these points of transition and thresholds between modes of resistance and modes of power, it is necessary to address the problematic issue of how the different movements of the Left have politicized life not just since the 1960s, but even before that: through the influence of the Lebensreform movements of the turn of the century; through the avant-garde movements with their mission to do away with the separation between art and life; or, still earlier, through the vitalist and anthropological content in Marx’s thinking, as it appears in the concept of living labour as a form-giving fire and constituent potentiality of the generic human being.

Jason Read, in The Micropolitics of Capital, shows how for the later Marx living labor is indeed opposed to abstract labor and represents the worker’s demand for expanded needs:

Living labor is labor power defined in opposition, or better, in antagonistic relation to, capital. If the capitalist mode of production is founded on valorization, the increase of surplus value, then living labor is self-valorization. As capital seeks to reduce necessary labor and increase surplus value, living labor seeks to increase necessary labor and thus increase the effectivity of needs and desire.

But while Diefenbach sees in Marx a timeless living labor that is autonomous from an abstract labor specific to the rule of capital, Read notes that for Marx living labor is not so easily divorced from capital’s movement toward abstraction:

For the tendency to increase the sphere of need to be realized, or actualized, struggle and conflict from the side of living labor is necessary. This struggle is made possible by the fact that in capital the worker does not simply work for the specific and determinate conditions of reproduction, as in slavery or feudalism, but for the wage — the abstract conditions of reproduction.

Living labor is invested with the worker’s desire, but the ground on which the fight over this desire is waged is the abstract terrain preferred by capital; the fulfillment of expanded needs and desire is mediated by money, specifically money in the form of a wage. While, as Read says, “[l]iving labor confronts abstract labor as its internal condition and its constitutive outside,” that is not the same as saying that living labor is free to create just as it pleases; it must operate within the social form of wealth:

Of course the worker’s share of this abstract wealth is limited. More important, it is from the ground of this abstract potential that the worker asserts his or her particular desires, a particular form of life.

For Read, then, any “vitalist and anthropological content” in Marx’s concept of living labor is muted by the process in which it must operate. Living labor is distinct from abstract labor, but it is not separable from it.

In some ways, it is Diefenbach that seems to be formulating an “anthropological foundation” in the easy (though unelaborated) separation she makes between life and politics. While I share her skepticism, and think the questions she asks in the final paragraph of her essay are very good ones, I wonder if it is at all useful, not to mention logically and philosophically consistent, to posit a thing called life that is autonomous from, and should remain unsullied by, politics. How is it possible to describe life as something separable from and superable over politics without invoking a paradise lost?


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