The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Rupturing the Dialectic: Harry Cleaver on continuing class struggle against the imposition of work.

In his latest book Rupturing the Dialectic: The Struggle against Work, Money and Financialization (Chico/CA: AK Press, 2017), Harry Cleaver makes an emphatic case for the importance of a continuing focus on class struggle and here in particular the role of the working class rather than capital. Building on his seminal work Reading Capital Politically (1979), he re-asserts the key role of agency in our understanding of resistance against capitalist exploitation. In this blog post, I will assess the fundamental contributions of this volume. 

In this important book, Cleaver counsels against treating capital as this overpowering force, determining our lives. ‘Instead of always portraying capitalism as the driving force of history – a story in which we appear only as victims or sometime as merely annoying irritants – let us see capitalism and the efforts of capitalists as unacceptable constraints on our efforts to live free and reshape the world to our liking’ (Cleaver 2017: 5). Conceptualising the labour theory of value as a theory of the value of labour to capital, he emphasises the significance of resisting the imposition of work in order to create alternative, non-capitalist spaces (Cleaver 2017: 65-7).

Rupturing the Dialectic, thus, makes a number of key contributions. First, it provides a focus on workers’ agency driving developments, rather than on capital or the capitalist system. Financialisation in this reading is, for example, not a novel strategy of capital to continue the accumulation of surplus value, but is necessitated by workers’ successful struggles for wage increases and welfare states after World War II, eating into capitalist profits. ‘We can analyse capitalism in terms of our struggles – against what its functionaries try to impose on us and for alternatives – in ways that re-center our agency and struggles’ (Cleaver 2017: 206).

Importantly, he avoids a specific focus on trade unions, which often excludes the unemployed, housewives and students from working-class struggle, simply because they do not receive a wage (Cleaver 2017: 112). Cleaver’s understanding of working class goes beyond the narrow focus on wage labour and class struggle goes beyond the sphere of production including the sphere of social reproduction. ‘Both homework and its enforcement is work-for-capital’ (Cleaver 2017: 81). It is in moments of class struggle against the imposition of work that the working class is being constituted by all those participating in this struggle. ‘When we engage in collective sabotage or strikes, we redefine ourselves as not just part of the working class in-itself, but as part of the class-for-itself’ (Cleaver 2017: 117). It is these moments of class struggle, in which workers can overcome differences in race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or age, which ‘have all been used by capital to divide those it has put to work’ (Cleaver 2017: 123).   

Second, he provides a way of allowing us to understand services as productive labour. ‘To the degree that financial institutions provide services, their workers must be seen as generating value and, at least potentially surplus value and profit, just like those in agriculture, mining, manufacturing, and transportation’ (Cleaver 2017: 173). While other Marxists often reject service workers as productive workers and, therefore, do not consider them as key actors of resistance against capitalist exploitation, Cleaver helps us to define agency of resistance more broadly than being simply confined to manufacturing.

Third, Cleaver outlines the importance of ongoing resistance in everyday life. Any moment workers do other things than contributing to capitalist accumulation during the working day, they are considered to engage in acts of resistance. ‘When office workers use their computers to browse the Internet instead of processing their spreadsheets, they steal time from their bosses, momentarily rupturing the process of production’ (Cleaver 2017: 85). Resistance is, thus, not only expressed in large-scale strikes, mass demonstrations or popular uprisings, but equally in daily refusals of an increasing imposition of work.

Fourth, Cleaver usefully distinguishes between reform and revolution, by linking the former to social democratic inside struggles and the latter to autonomous outside struggles. It is these autonomous outside struggles, which directly undermine the capitalist social relations of production and include a transformational dimension. It is these outside struggles, which are revolutionary in that ‘they strengthen the commons and expand de-commodified relationships and spaces’ (Cleaver 2017: 274). The very profit maximisation rational and set-up of capitalism is questioned in this process.

As I have written elsewhere, I am sceptical about this almost exclusive focus on the power of agency of resistance in Marxist autonomists’ work including Cleaver as well as other approaches (see Bieler 2018). In order to understand why certain strategies of resistance are successful in one particular instance, while others have failed at a particular moment in time, we need to unravel the internal relations between agency and structure and understand these strategies in relation to the structuring conditions of the moment (Bieler and Morton 2018: 27-50). Moreover, I am not convinced that students in classrooms ignoring their teachers (Cleaver 2017: 85) or cheating in school exams (Cleaver 2017: 103) are good examples for resistance against capitalism. Nonetheless, this criticism should not distract from the enormous contribution by Harry Cleaver to our understanding of the possibilities of resistance against the capitalist imposition of work. I strongly recommend this book for reading!

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

20 September 2018

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