Working-Class Pride and Authorization — Işık Barış Fidaner

In this key passage, Marxist thinker Fredric Jameson clearly articulates a working-class pride:

In our utopian system, full employment is the highest social priority and an absolute presupposition of social organization, and everything must be planned in order to secure it, even when the job in question is not particularly productive. Full employment is far more important than productivity, and I will remind us that in the earliest years of the Chinese revolution, in a period of heady socialist enthusiasm and optimism, even the very elderly and the infirm were given minimal tasks, such as sweeping the sidewalk in the morning, so that the entire society was active in this unimaginably complex set of simultaneities and relationships which make up a functioning social totality. Or, putting it the other way around, in the utopian psychological system we are about to propose, the most damaging pathology is that of unemployment as such. (American Utopia)

Let’s first briefly turn to Marxism and Marx before coming back to the issue about the “damaging pathology” of unemployment.

“Workers of the world, unite!”

Working-class pride is the unacknowledged secret ingredient of Marxism, in which the “workers of the world” are celebrated and elevated as the “sole source” of “surplus-value”. In the ideological expression “workers of the world”, the word “worker” stands for a specifically Marxist ideal ego (other ideal egos like “communist” or “militant” guarantees the unity of the plural egos of the workers), and the phrase “the world” stands for a specifically Marxist ego ideal (other ego ideals like “the people” or “the party” guarantees the unity of “the world”). The central role of “surplus-value” is objectively undeniable because it’s at the heart of the hegemonic bourgeois world-view. On the other hand, the essential role of workers and their labor in creating value is structurally denied and repressed, because the workers’ efforts are supposed to be covered by payments. In capitalism, workers are paid wages, through which the workers access the markets that must mediate their relation to their products. (In communism, the workers’ relation to their products take on a much more ideological mediation through “the party”) Thus, the essential message of Marxism is a call for the workers to “unite” around an ideological working-class pride of being the “sole source” of everything considered valuable in the world. The ideological identification with being the “sole source” is the fundamental fantasy of Marxism which functions just like e.g. a nationalist “origin story”.

In fact, Marx acknowledged that labor is not the sole source of value. He likened labor to a father and credited Nature as the mother, which together create the value:

The use values, coat, linen, &c., i.e., the bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements – matter and labour. If we take away the useful labour expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature without the help of man. The latter can work only as Nature does, that is by changing the form of matter. Nay more, in this work of changing the form he is constantly helped by natural forces. We see, then, that labour is not the only source of material wealth, of use values produced by labour. As William Petty puts it, labour is its father and the earth its mother. (Capital Volume One)

Notice that labor, which interacts with nature, is also likened to nature. The “labor – nature” relation must be associated with the “abstract labor – concrete labor” relation:

At first sight a commodity presented itself to us as a complex of two things – use value and exchange value. Later on, we saw also that labour, too, possesses the same two-fold nature; for, so far as it finds expression in value, it does not possess the same characteristics that belong to it as a creator of use values. I was the first to point out and to examine critically this two-fold nature of the labour contained in commodities.

On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically, an expenditure of human labour power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is the expenditure of human labour power in a special form and with a definite aim, and in this, its character of concrete useful labour, it produces use values. (Capital Volume One)

In referring to “useful labor” in the passage above about the labor’s interaction with Nature, Marx defines a “concrete labor – nature” relation, which means that the puzzle pieces should be combined in the following triad:

abstract labor – concrete labor – nature

Marcuse points out that Marx identified abstract labor to be the real source of value:

[Marx’s] distinction between concrete and abstract labor allows him insights to which the conceptual apparatus of classical political economy was necessarily blind. The classical economists designated ‘labor’ as the sole source of all social wealth, and overlooked the fact that it is only abstract, universal labor that creates value in a commodity-producing society, while concrete particular labor merely preserves and transfers already existing values. (Reason and Revolution)

In Footnote 16 of Capital Volume One, Friedrich Engels suggests that the English word “Work” sufficiently designates the notion of concrete labor. In a previous piece, [1] I proposed the word “effort” to designate “engaged labor-power” which is somehow close to Marx’s notion of concrete labor. This leads us to two similar triads:

labor – work – nature

labor – effort – nature

To understand these triads, we must remember that Marx calls “concrete labor” the “useful labor which produces use-values”. So Marx defines concreteness of labor by its usefulness. One should ask the Leninist question here: Useful for whom?

This question leads us to a contradiction: Concrete labor is useful both for the capitalist (because it brings profit) and the worker (because it brings wages, also pride) for different and somehow contradictory reasons. It may also be useful for the consumer (because the commodity it produces can be used in a certain context of the consumer’s life). The capitalist economy works precisely by making these possibly contradictory “uses” work together.

Another question: What happens when concrete labor ceases to be useful? It becomes reduced to a mere “expenditure of human labor power” without any use. In other words, it thereby becomes “abstract labor”. Thus, in Marx, the notion of “abstract labor” functions as a reference-point, a zero-point with respect to which concrete labor is able to become “useful”: Concrete labor becomes concrete-useful in opposition to abstract labor, whose only concrete example could be a useless labor. In its distinction from concrete labor, abstract labor also functions as the determiner of the usefulness of concrete labor, just like death as the negation of life functions like a determiner of the meaning of mortal life.

In Engels’ terms, work is labor made useful. In my terms, effort is engaged labor-power, and “abstract labor” stands for the mere engagement of an effort abstracted from its productive labor-power. This brings us back to Jameson’s discussion in the beginning.

When Jameson says “Everybody should be employed even if the work’s useless”, he seems to refer to a universal usefulness of working (for the worker and his/her society) abstracted from the work’s particular usefulnesses (for the capitalist, for the consumer, etc.). I called this “universal usefulness of working” the working-class pride: It is a certain Marxist notion of “abstract labor” as the source of all new value.

On the other hand, Jameson’s utopia of full employment reminds of Pekka Himanen’s discussion of the changed notion of Heaven after the advent of the Protestant work ethic:

When work became an end in itself on earth, the clerics found it difficult to imagine Heaven as a place for mere time-wasting leisure, and work could no longer be seen as infernal punishment. Thus, reformed eighteenth-century cleric Johann Kasper Lavater explained that even in Heaven “we cannot be blessed without having occupations. To have an occupation means to have a calling, an office, a special, particular task to do.” Baptist William Clarke Ulyat put it in a nutshell when he described Heaven at the beginning of the twentieth century: “practically it is a workshop.” (Hacker Ethic)

I think a better formula for what Jameson means to say is “Everybody should be engaged in an effort”. But in that case unemployment would simply mean disengagement, why should disengagement be a “damaging pathology”? Why is Jameson “psychologically” so afraid of disengagement?

I think the answer lies in the concept of authorization. As we said, “abstract labor” can only be exemplified by a useless labor (like the example of Sisyphus repeatedly mentioned by Himanen). But at the same time, abstract labor should stand for the notion of usefulness as such (just like the notion of mortality exemplified by dead people should stand for the meaning of life as such). In a formula: Abstract labor authorizes concrete labor. In communism, “the party” makes this authorization by employing the workers. In capitalism, it is “the company” that employs the workers. Unemployment is a “damaging pathology” for Jameson and Marxists in general, because it indicates a crack in the authority of the party. It is a disengagement from the central authority, and potentially a political break.

In my view, there is a fundamental separation between authorization and embodiment [2]. Humans are embodied in their natural bodies, but they can be authorized in a symbolic sense “only from without” (as Lenin put it: “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without” (What Is To Be Done?)). In “society”, this fundamental separation and contingent relation between authorization and embodiment is covered over by ideological alienating fetishes. Jameson’s communist utopia of employing all of the population is such an example of a alienating fetishization. Another example of such alienating fetishization is given by what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”. When we recognize the separation of authorization from embodiment, we also recognize the engagement of an effort. Engagement means self-authorization, which means that disengagement is always a possibility. When disengagement is a possibility, we are dealing with the will behind the self-authorization. We can truly interact with the system that embodies us (“nature”) only through our engaged will that authorizes us. The Žižekian-Lacanian “separation” beyond alienation is the separation of authorization from embodiment.

Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD from Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler, Editor of Žižekian Analysis, Curator of Görce Writings. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


[1] See “Effort is engaged labor-power”

[2] See “The Separation of Authorization (Symbolic Suture) from Embodiment (Real Suture)”


  1. Thanks for this. How does this relate to Marx’s “socially necessary labour time”, concept I had trouble with when reading Marx many moons ago?


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