To the Lumpen Mass…..or does it explode?

Did the problems of the Black Panthers come from their base in people outside of the formal economy?  Where are the borders of the working class?  Can Marx’s concept of the “lumpenproletariat” help explain conditions in the modern-day ghetto?  How can we respect the revolutionary possibilities of lumpen people, but still relate to working-class people that are often preyed upon?

Our comrade Deluche who writes at …or does it explode hit on some of the above questions, and there’s an ongoing conversation at Gathering Forces that we’ll put up here soon.  Here’s Deluche:


* lumpen= people who aren’t working class or the bourgeoisie. The lower class ie prostitutes, pimps, dboys, etc. . .

I was recently in a discussion with some friends about the lumpen proletariat and their place in the over all revolution against Capitalism. One of my friends, an activist in the homeless rights struggle was at odds with another of my friends because he diss the lumpen, claiming that they have no place in the revolution. I said the following

It’s really interesting because I agree and disagree with Huey and the Panthers on this point. Organizing oppressed communities, in particular Black and Brown ones, means your going to be dealing with the Lumpen. And I agree with Huey that they need to be placed inside of the thought of bringing about revolution under capitalism. Marx analysis was based and limited to the time he lived in, he did not project into the future and so his analysis of the lumpen follows the same way. What constitutes the lumpen now is very different and Boone is right in his aggression towards certain parts of the Lumpen. Huey himself said that certain parts of the Lumpen couldn’t be organized such as pimps. It is very difficult growing up in a place where you are surrounded by pimps, prostitutes, DBoys etc. . . I know when I was growing up I developed a hostility towards them and still harbor ill feelings (it’s hard not to when people are selling poison to their own, you know and your immediate family are victims of that) However, I am trying to always remember that I hate this system, which has produced the lumpen, more. That people are shaped by their conditions. Another interesting point that I picked up speaking to an ex panther the other day was how detrimental the Panthers being the party devoted to organizing the lumpen was. The Ex Panther was saying, and I agree, that the working class is the only class that can bring about revolution under the Capitalist system because of their relations to the ruling class and the means of production. Thus, the working class is the revolutionary class. Marx was right on this, however I agree that it is essential that we start a new pedagogy that has a place for the lumpen, they are the most effected by this Capitalist system in many ways. And if we are talking about updating the Left and making it relevant well. . .

It’s funny cause this all started with me reciting a lyric from a Digable Planets song. “To the lumpen mass. . .”

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9 responses to “To the Lumpen Mass…..or does it explode?

  1. I’m really uncomfortable with the way you formulate the lumpenproletariat in moral terms as opposed to situating it as something approximating a class (though of course it can never truly form a class for itself) in the objective relations of production. Why does the content of their parasitic activity matter? It’s parasitic not in a moral but in a structural sense, viz. itself unproductive but siphoning value from the labor of the working class. Wouldn’t much of the informal service economy, secondary market (fences for example), &co. be defined as peopled by the lumpen elements? Why focus on drug dealers and sex workers, arguably marginal as representatives of this larger milieu.

  2. This is going to be a long post, so apologies in advance. I’m really glad that you all brought this up, as it raises important issues broached in the post below on the response to the Mehserle verdict. There was a bit of dust-up with James Bliss there , who raises serious objections to the usefulness of a Marxist framework for explaining racism or “antiblackness.” Some of his objections come from Wilderson, and his essay “Gramsci’s Black Marx,” which is, I think, a really important counter not to Marxism per se but to a certain kind of Marxism (which he mistakes as indicating the failing of the Marxist analysis tout court). Much of this revolves around really problematic conceptions of the lumpenproletariat or the surplus populations, stuff which most Marxists have never adequately dealt with. I think I made some parallel objections when I pointed out, in response to Rebelde, that the “general strike” model doesn’t seem to deal with the fact that many of the most dominated people in society are not dominated by the wage, as they have no access to employment.

    First off, Wilderson claims that “the privileged subject of Marxist discourse is a subaltern who is approached by variable capital – a wage.” Now, there is no doubt that the meeting of capital and labor in the workplace is foundational for capitalism and Marxist analysis, but (and this is relevant to the lumpenproletariat, a term I dislike by the way) Wilderson should have read to the end of the book (Capital Volume I) because just as foundational for capital is the *dispossession* of people from the means of production, from their previous forms of life, and from any access to the necessaries of life except through money, the wage, and the state. This condition of dispossession affects employed and unemployed alike, and if we establish this as the foundational definition of the proletariat we see that the proletariat must be distinguished from the working class – that it contains all those who, working or not, are dispossessed. Remember that the original definition of the proletariat means those who are “without possessions.” If one looks at the end of Capital Vol. I, and reads the sections on primitive accumulation and surplus populations, one finds a much more expansive notion of the proletariat, that can’t be substituted for by the working-class. Remember that it took 200 years of direct violence against the displaced peasantry in England to get them to go into work – most preferred a life of brigandry to work in the towns (cf. Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged). This is especially important today as capitalism is fundamentally unable to incorporate surplus-populations that live in the slums of the imperial periphery, as well as in the cities and towns of the imperial core.

    The failure to distinguish between the working class and the proletariat and to substitute one for the other has had dire consequences for Marxism. Wilderson’s antagonist is not Marxism per se but the Leninist and Gramsican variant that has as its goal “ a society which does away not with category of worker, but with the imposition workers suffer under the approach of variable capital: in other words the mark of its conceptual anxiety is in its desire to democratize work and thus help keep in place, ensure the coherence of, the Reformation and Enlightenment “foundational” values of productivity and preogress. This is a crowding-out scenario for other post-revolutionary possibilities, ie idleness.” The point to be made here is that this is not the view held by many communists and Marxists, and in fact, there is, in Marx, a concept of the proletariat as self-abolition, as the abolition of all *labor* and value, one that has existed as a subterranean tradition (beginning with Paul Lafargue’s *The Right to Be Lazy*) and has extended since the 70s in many ultra-left currents. This communism/Marxism opposes a revolutionary conception that sees socialism/communism as the extension of the condition of the worker to the entirety of the society, of communism as the administration by workers of their own life as workers, a failed conception which can’t do away with surplus-value, the measuring of life according to the imperatives of abstract labor time, and which preserves capitalist domination in an embryonic form. This is, in fact, state capitalism, and not communism. Thus, there is a Marxist/communist conception of communism which, like Wilderson’s slave, “wants all production to stop; stop without recourse to its eventual democratization” and does not conceive of socialism as merely the returning of surplus value to the workers who produce it but a transformation such that neither production nor labor nor money nor exchange exist in any meaningful form. . .

    What does this have to do with the lumpenproletariat? In short, the state capitalist view, the affirmation of labor and its extension to the society at large is an outgrowth of the workers’ movement itself – and, inasmuch as the workers’ movement failed to reckon with the condition of the poor, the unemployed, the displaced peasants, etc., it was likely to succumb to this form of state capitalism. The surplus-populations, the displaced and the dispossessed, in a sense, hold the truth of the proletariat for the working-class, their need not just to make the system better for them, but to destroy the mode of production entirely and create a system in which one’s access to the necessaries of life has nothing to do with whether or not or how much one works, in which the means necessary to provide for oneself are free for the taking. It’s true that the working-class is essential to the revolution but, if it’s not to be a state capitalist revolution, just as essential are the surplus populations, who hold the thruth of subjection on the side of distribution and consumption. . .

  3. @comrade:

    I’m not sure I buy this distinction between working class and proletariat. I won’t dwell on this much here, but I think you overplay the significance of this analytic distinction. Lukács for example certainly prophecies the self-abolition of a proletariat identical to the working class without abandoning any confidence in the further advancement of the forces of production. This self-abolition of course means the annihilation classes as such, a far cry from the abolition of labor. I know a bunch of high modernist Marxists like to cite Engels’ distinction in English between work and labor here; I’m no David Harvey-style FOP fetishist by any means, but I really think there’s something to it. Even the most Hegelian readings of the early Marx require a species-being distinct from animal whose essence is in the capacity to transform the external world in accordance with one’s will — precisely Hegel’s conception of labor. The abolition of work as the obliteration of all state-generated and -imposed technologies of labor discipline, fine; the abolition of labor, really?

    Second, I would argue that in your response the truly problematic but implicit conflation is of the lumpenproletariat and the reserve army. Simply put, the very potential for the latter to join the wage labor force separates them structurally from the perpetually formally unemployed lumpen elements. This isn’t to say that the latter are not potentially revolutionary subjects as some sort of paleo-Marxist catechism, but rather that we must reformulate Marx’s proletarianization thesis in such a way that we can harness this power in accordance with something approximating an objective interest in self-annihilation — again, along the lines of Marx and Lukács, not in accordance with a nihilist/insurrectionist telling. You implicitly reference the population addressed in Planet of Slums; I couldn’t agree with you more and am thrilled to see an old SDSer-cum-Trot like Mike Davis seriously address this population as potentially revolutionary. At the same time, I’m worried that without a more comprehensive theory of what this becoming-revolutionary-subject might look like, we are left with a populist epistemology that’s patronizing/tokenizing at best.

    This criticism is of course meant in the most appreciative spirit, as I largely agree with the overall thrust of your argument. I just think it’s vital that we are extremely wary of populism, lest we fall into the kind of petit-bourgeois politics described by Marxists from the 18th Brumaire to Poulantzas on Fascism.

  4. Well, if we want to preserve some term for human activity that is self-reproducing, that’s fine. No doubt, any society must reproduce itself. I don’t have the passage from Marx ready-to-hand but I think it’s labor that he identifies as the capitalist term. . . I think all of this is dangerous, though, and that all of these terms are corrupted by our standpoint within capitalism — work, labor, production, society. These are all capitalist notions — notions that aren’t developed with their current meaning until capitalism– and if we posit some kind of transhistorical character to them, we’re likely to smuggle in some bad shit. I don’t think communism would look anything like that. Once you do away with value as the measurement of human activity in exchange, and thus the distinction between surplus time and time needed to reproduce oneself, none of these categories really exist. . .I’m pretty adamant about this — compulsory labor, exchange, value. All that shit has to go. And I realize this is a controversial stance.

    I specifically tried to move away from the discussion of lumpenproletarians in particular to a larger discussion of surplus populations, b/c I think the former term is problematic. The lumpenproletariat is one part of surplus populations, as is the industrial reserve army. If you look at those passages at the end of Capital Vol. I, it’s actually much more complex than what normally gets discussed. There are about six types of surplus population — the industrial reserve army is one, but there are also populations that are *never* reintegrated into production, that are cast out of the production process for good, due to the tendential character of capitalist production, its tendency to reduce the labor-power necessary for social reproduction. (We should add, here, a surplus population that is primitively accumulated, expelled from the countryside, but that never enters the workforce b/c of this tendential logic — most of the slumdwellers in the imperial periphery fall into this category). Today, surplus populations far exceed what would be necessary for a regulatory effect on working-class wages.

    As for the lumpen, Marxists and others have said some awful shit about this group, and I find the attribution of a *parasitic* character truly abhorrent (in this the lumpen is the inverse of the parasitic *financial aristocracy*). I think we should really take pause at this notion, given the way in which attributions of parasitism are so essential to fascism. In any case, drug dealers or sex workers our whatnot are only one part of the lumpen as such, too. There are lumpen activities that provide services in working-class communities that are actually beneficial the workers, in that these people do for really cheap what the workers might have to buy through a capitalist enterprise. No matter. . . ’cause I think lumpen, and even less illegal work, is a small part of the issue under discussion here.

    For me, proletariat is a political category — a category, if you will, of the “for-itself.” Working-class is an economic, and sometimes a sociological category — the in-itself. The working-class as labor-power is an element of capitalism, but the proletariat is antagonism toward capitalism and its dispossesions as such. I think antagonism toward capitalism, if we look at the historical record, comes from more people than those who are dominated via the wage — women who do housework, surplus populations, etc.

    Lastly, I think the distinction that I offered is important precisely because so much has changed in the capital-labor relationship since Marx’s time. There is a section/slice of labor-power that is entirely depoliticized, entirely integrated into the smooth functioning of capital, and that sees itself as one part of capital, or one wing, rather than an antagonism toward it as such. . . In Marx’s time, it was possible for labor-power to conceive of itself as an outside to capital, upon which capital was parasitic, or overlayed its form of command and extraction. I don’t think this exterior stance exists to the same scale today, and that’s why we have to distinguish between political and economic subjectification and think long and hard about the relationship between the two, w/o recourse to magical conceptions like Lukacs’s which believe that the one naturally and easily slides into the other through historical process. . .

  5. Oh yeah, I forgot to address one thing: I didn’t say anything about the petite bourgeoisie, b/c they don’t fit into my definition of proletarians. Proletarians are those who are *without possessions*, who don’t have shit — whether waged or unwaged- and small-holding merchants obviously don’t fit into that def. I think not having shit is politically powerful, for the waged and unwaged.

    Now, the 18th Brumaire does attribute to the lumpen a role in Bonaparte’s coup, but I think if we make them the subject of populism it’s a huge mistake. . .Marx’s analysis was immanent to a particular moment (a moment, I might add, when the working-class as such, dispossessed of the means of p., didn’t really exist to a large extent, since many workers were artisans). But historically, working-classes have been a part of populist/reactionary regimes, too — look at Italy and Germany between the wars. The 18th Brumaire doesn’t provide a schema for linking class to political positions.

  6. Thanks for posting this here — and thanks to Deluche for writing it.

    I’m appreciating all the analysis from Icarus and a comrade. Much to think about.

    Apart from the political-economic analysis, another current I was seeing in the original post is some attention to the lived experience of tremendous suffering that is happening in “surplus populations” within US urban ghettos, and their overlap with the working class.

    Like Deluche says, without blaming or taking out anger on individuals within surplus populations, we can see the ways that being forced to live outside of a formal, legal economy — chronically unemployed, corralled, imprisoned — would (a) foster desperation and (b) support self-medicating addictions, both of which extend a chain of violence.

    I don’t know enough about proper definitions of “lumpenproletariat” or surplus populations to comment on Icarus’ objection to an overly narrow focus on drug dealers and sex workers. But to speak just on my own experience living and working in the Tenderloin neighborhood of SF with a homeless community: criminalized addiction, exploitative sex work (amplified by transphobia), and stigmatized mental illness are definitely major factors dominating the scene around here.

    At the same time, along with this enormous suffering and harm is the potential for astonishing healing. I haven’t even been working here that long (9 months), and already I’ve seen some incredible, long-time-coming shifts. Folks choosing to move forward in addiction recovery, dealing with depression and PTSD, making beautiful art, showing great generosity to others, and getting their feet on the ground — largely because a group of people stood by them and for years showed committed care, love, and faith in the face of an entire society that tells them they’re worthless and, yes, “parasitic.”

    This kind of healing, even on an individual or small community level, is quite inspiring. Can we allow it to inform revolutionary organizing? Can we allow it to illuminate the healing work already taking place (often un-compensated and un-heralded) within the working-class itself, buttressing its power for economic and social transformation?

    Seems to me that it’s easier for folks to dis those with no labor-power leverage when we take revolution of capitalism as the sole redemptive struggle in life. In truth, revolutionaries interested in building a better society for humans, animals, and the earth might benefit from learning about the inter-related struggles and healing among the ‘lumpen.’

  7. Pingback: “To the lumpen mass…” From Deluche « Kloncke

  8. crunch_author

    ^ feeling this one ^

  9. Pingback: To the Lumpen Mass…..or does it explode? « At Home He's A Turista

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