The “subjective factor” Ruthless Criticism

Translation of Ch. 6 of Das Proletariat: die grosse Karriere der lohnarbeitenden Klasse kommt an ihr gerechtes Ende, Peter Decker/Konrad Hecker. GegenStandpunkt Verlag, München, 2002.

The “subjective factor”:
On the freedom-loving self-confidence of the modern proletariat

a) And the proletariat itself?

They have found a way of not merely resigning themselves to exploitation, but of identifying with it. They have no real control over their lives – but they cultivate the illusion that they have control over everything. From morning till night they are at the beck and call of others, taking orders from employers, serving the wishes of politicians, complying with the offers and requirements of the market, etc., and they change nothing about this, they don’t take anything into their own hands – but they put on a show as if it was all their idea and under their command. Instead of using their minds to gain a correct consciousness of their situation in life and the reasons for it, they demonstrate the self-confidence of someone who is master of the situation anyway; they put up with everything, but end up with nothing. They won’t lay a finger on the conditions they are faced with, on the interests they serve as useful idiots – but they will walk over dead bodies for their pride, literally if need be. They behave as if they have always wanted to personally testify to how disgusting the social classes are in capitalism – and how bitterly needed a communist revolution is; just so that working class ladies and gentlemen finally quit acting like suckers of state and capital. *

In other words: with the character they have acquired for themselves, even the victims of the capitalist mode of production, in the end and on top of everything else, guarantee that the market economy and the class state continue to be so indestructible. That’s not the least of reasons why, to put it politely, the working class is so anathema to communists that they want to abolish all of capitalism.

(1) Proletarian “realism”

Modern wage earners are realists. They “take things as they come” without having any “illusions” about how they are “changeable” and even less in their own “potential to influence things.” They don’t deny that these “things” include all sorts of hardships for them, or that their living conditions could quite well use some serious “changes.” On the contrary, they concede that all this as perfectly natural – only to distance themselves just as fundamentally and naturally from any intention to take appropriate action, from any will to make corrections to the given reality. As if they had done everything they could to rebel against the “course of things” and had come to the realization that it all “leads nowhere” anyway; as if they had “become wiser from experience” and had come to the conclusion that, after intensive efforts, “that’s just the way things are,” despite recognizing the need to do something about it: with the derisory air of a powerlessness grown wise, completely mature, discerning, self-confident workers, who in practice have never yet raised an objection to anything, accept everything that is done to them. They don’t want to know anything about alternatives to the capitalist world in which they find themselves, or any they might have to create themselves; their “realism” forbids them from doing this – as if just the fact of wage labor were already the necessary and sufficient reason why nothing can be changed about it. They have quite simply made a decision. And by referring to “the reality,” they also make it known that they have no argument against it – but do not need one either: the fact that the world is the way it is should already be “argument” enough for it to remain the way it is and be acceptable.

The “realism” that modern proletarians have chosen as their main maxim to live by is a resolute standpoint which doesn’t have the slightest thing to do with the obvious truth that a reasonable person faces facts and is better off not orienting their plans and actions by delusions. The capitalistic facts, the really existing necessities and objective constraints of a working class existence, are precisely not taken realistically as what they are: techniques of exploitation which, thanks to state power, have become universal and ubiquitously valid social conditions of existence. Being realistic about this would mean: first, thoroughly identifying the conflict between one’s own needs and the social interests which have the rank of preconditions for all one’s own plans and actions; investigating the reason for this conflict and the equally clear as well as one-sided ranking of the social interests; reflecting on the ways and means of freeing oneself from the ruling adversarial conditions to one’s own interests; joining together with others who are equally affected and damaged ... When proclaiming themselves “realists,” modern workers mean the exact opposite and declare it to be an unavoidable given, sweepingly “recognizing” that their needs are to be treated like pious wishes that are only very conditionally valid; when they continue to pursue failed interests as a futile “dream in life” which can at best be fulfilled by “Lady Luck” at the lottery and “expect nothing” from a criticism of the fundamental realities of the market economy. Such people are bent on adapting – not the conditions of existence that are thrown at them to their reasonably determined common benefit, but all their own considerations of benefit to the ruling interests, instituted priorities, and imposed constraints. Their “realism” is a will to submit, nothing else. And by passing themselves off as only “realistic,” they also make a commitment to unconditionally reject any alternatives and any modifications.

Modern workers, however, assert this position very vehemently. Anyone who denies that the dominant conditions are based in nature and wants to investigate the reasons for them in theory doesn’t have a clue about the ways of the world in practice. Anyone who in practice wants to overthow conditions which “realistic” humanity has gotten used to is all the more foolish in his illusions; namely, about the solidity of the ruling constraints that he thinks he can overthrow. Criticism and a desire for change are simply unworldly; and anyone who does not abandon them is obviously lacking in something – not in good experiences with the world that he wants to change, but precisely in the bad experiences claimed by all those who at the same time do not want to know anything about criticism and change. The more that social realty becomes worth criticizing, the more esoteric it becomes to criticize it with a practical intention; the more it becomes necessary to object in practice to the trend of political-economic things, the crazier it becomes to want to object: the logic is totally twisted, but totally familiar – and at the same time it wants to be “so human.” Because the modern proletarian hears any objection to the wage system as nothing but an attack on himself: on his willingness to make ends meet through wage labor; and he doesn’t “need” to put up with that, does he? He would rather be exploited good and proper than be told just that. And he will have nothing to do with suggestions that he join forces with his peers in order to do something for himself: the others would never ever join in, every self-confident individual knows that best of all about himself.

So proletarians, replete with wordly wisdom, side very resolutely with precisely those conditions that they admit give them a bad time and which they have no say over. This, however, is only the beginning. No sooner do they admit their powerlessness than they strive for a lifetime of proof that within them dwells a totally autonomous subject who is completely his own master, servile to nobody and certainly not answerable to anybody, full of initiative and willingness to change. All those “things” that “realistically” can’t be changed, “like it or not,” don’t need to be changed, because what matters is “what you make of your life.” The use made of one’s own labor power by the ruling authorities and for the ruling interests is almost not worth mentioning, because the decisive thing is just beginning: one’s own quite distinctive resume, which each person builds according to their own taste. Because wage labor, in the opinion of those who do it and therefore must know, is just like concrete for the cement industry: it depends on what you make of it.

And what do they make of it?

Quite simply: the best possible. And that – whatever it may be – is in any event just a huge denial: they are anything other than what they are – wage-dependent pawns of capitalists and state rulers. Because then they would indeed be – their “realism” always includes this much insight – the chumps of the nation – and who wants to be that? Certainly not those who are. And because they do nothing about it in reality, they do even more in their imagination. Whatever is done with them, they act as if it is they who matter, for better or for worse. Instead of tangibly dealing with the fact that the material life of their society finally really bypasses them and their benefit, they act as if everything is really and ultimately about them anyway. They acquire a highly personal character – and yet they never get any further than a slightly distorted affirmative reflection of all the constraints and necessities that arise from their political-economic situation.

(2) Proletarian identity

When modern workers go to work, they of course know that they are working in the interests of the company and its balance sheet and are put to work and paid according to its calculations. But they do not see this as a clearly one-sided relationship; they reject such a disparaging view of their service. They would much rather think of the use of their labor in such a way that, firstly, they are using the business as their noble source of income in particular, and secondly, that the business needs them, them personally, because only their business experience, their ingenuity, their commitment, or some other virtue keeps the business running at all. At the same time, it is completely out of the question for them to go to the company with demands of a material nature, possibly to make an extortionate counter-calculation to its performance requirements and its wage suppression, if they consider themselves so indispensable. A modern employee carries out a conversion and offset of a different, higher kind: from the demands made on him by his bosses, he takes the importance of his own person; where he is used up and worn out, he sees himself at the center of the operational process, pleases himself with the idea that he is the real master of events. In the end, he makes the moral leap in his imagination, and some even do in practice, of “bending over backwards” for the company, which of course no one thanks him for; in return, however, he may have the good feeling of being one of the few on whom the entire company ultimately depends. So the material burden of his work already brings him a good deal of ideal compensation per se. Of course, he does not forget the material reward; on the contrary. Especially from his higher moral point of view, it is particularly important to him. The money he earns is not just for his livelihood, but – according to the motto: “Good money for good work” – for the appreciation of his service to the company, which he has a right to, and at the same time, conversely, for the illusion to which he, as a self-confident employee, attaches the greatest importance: that it is by no means only the company that uses his labor power, but at least as much he who uses the company; that he is not what he merely is, the servant of other people’s economic ends, but that he is the subject and the company his means to get money. Otherwise, he would feel like “the company’s fool” – because modern proletarians have understood and fully accepted that cleverness in this society consists of using the world as unilaterally as possible for oneself and one’s own advantage and doing well in the process. That’s why they like to lie to themselves about successes in earning money that they don’t even have, and think they are enormously clever in doing so. They reserve the role of “chump” for colleagues who work themselves to death in the shop and yet never get anywhere; conversely, they enviously admire anyone who obviously succeeds in doing the opposite. Those who are sure of their position as a big shot in the company sometimes flirt with the “fool” role; if they really have the impression they are being played especially badly, they rebel against it from the point of view that they may put up with a lot, but they will not be “taken for a fool”: To look good as a wage-earner is a question of honor. This is revealing enough because it shows that in vile material reality the relationship between work effort and earnings does not add up for wage workers – but they do not want to make a political economic dispute out of it, but rather a problem of recognition. As a man of honor, the modern proletarian insists, against all the realities, on his conviction that he is not a replaceable “cog in the machine” but, thanks to his personal skill and assertiveness, his own efficiency and cleverness, his own master in the company, and that he gets his full money’s worth – just as, conversely, the company would not get off the ground without him. If the company irrefutably proves the opposite by firing him, then he is not only deprived of his income: his self-confidence is attacked. Then some of them will make up for it with righteous indignation about unfair treatment or a totally bad opinion of the management which once again has no idea who can do what and on whom the company really depends. Sometimes, however, all that is left is a lot of misery that suffers mainly from the imagined humiliation and would therefore prefer to hide the fact of his lay off from the whole world. That’s how resolutely the modern “employee” identifies with job and company; he is really serious when he calls the capital that uses him his company.

The same wage dependent people are just as serious, of course, when they announce that job and company are not really that important to them because real life only starts afterwards anyway, after work, outside the company. In any case, they don’t live to work, they just go to work to make a nice life for themselves with the money they earn. And what a life it is! It’s not for nothing that a whole branch of industry, the advertising industry, constantly reminds them how much happiness in life modern people are entitled to. And advertising does not lie. The whole offer actually exists, a never-ending land of milk and honey for responsible employees who only have to fulfill the single condition that the unlimited possibility of enjoyment means much more to them than the very limited reality of what they can afford. If then, all too soon, they come up against the limits of their private budgets – and if they don’t dare simply leave their bills lying around in adroit ignorance ... – then, on the other hand, it helps to be convinced that most of the things that remain unattainable are just superfluous, stupid stuff that some advertising hacks wanted to talk the honest working man into buying in order to get his money. How true: with their income and their livelihood, wage workers actually remain functional elements of the capital cycle; what is paid to them and squandered by them is and remains a piece of capital destined to flow back into the coffers of the entrepreneurs. But the worldly insight into the “pitfalls” of the market economy is not meant in such a political economic way; a modern employee would not be able to do anything with it. He only wants to have noticed – again! – that it’s only important not to get shafted and “taken for an idiot.” The feeling of success, of having brought home a bargain, is therefore regularly the greater pleasure, namely of one’s own successful prudent personality, than the use of the nabbed article itself. Conversely, the enjoyment of it is all too thoroughly spoiled by the realization that it would have been available even cheaper somewhere else, that one has failed as a perceptive buyer and master of the commodity supply. This too is a clear testimony to proletarian poverty, but above all a sad document of the way it is coped with: in the proud consciousness of free self-determination. The modern proletarian confidently throws himself into the role of the money yielding consumer that the market economy intends for his kind.

Once all the challenges to the art of spending money wisely have been passed, then it’s on to the real goal in life, namely: using the acquired means to make one’s private life into a true realm of freedom. The abstraction from the “realm of necessity,” from everything that political-economically determines the wage worker’s existence: Here, in the private sphere, it comes true. Namely, it comes true by hook or by crook: In the unrelenting struggle for a compensation that pays off the efforts of their working lives, fun loving proletarians once again wear themselves out. A fan, for example, does not at all make it easy for himself to dedicate his life to the success of “his” football team: He identifies himself with the team, attaches far more importance to its goals and standing than to the bleak ups and downs of his own life, thus obtaining satisfaction beyond all the hardships of his proletarian existence, while at the same time incurring new hardships – and in this way abuses his entire little piece of freedom to make the joys and sorrows in his life dependent to a large extent on game results that he really has no control over and can’t even influence. His partisanship is displayed all the more vigorously as he makes himself a passive appendage of the team’s fate; it is worth money and emotion to him; and many a simple lad makes the transition to a hooligan who is always ready to fight for his personal right to good results in a brawl – especially when they fail to materialize. With the same seriousness, the fun in life is tackled in general: At parties or bars, self-confident experts in the good life assert their right to “get something out of life,” and the fun is played out with corresponding bitterness. Vacations, especially when they take place in faraway countries, serve the purpose of proletarian attainment like no other private pleasure: Whoever has booked it knows their way around and has the world under control, even if basically only the business calculation of a low-cost airline has them under control. Otherwise quite inconspicuous people can make a hobby their purpose in life in such a way that, as far as their social “second nature” is concerned, they are a thousand times more likely to identify with the cross-class community of, for example, motorcyclists or internet users than to any proletarian “milieu,” and not only do they seek their all-important success in life there, but even find it in the fantasy that they have taken control of the world and wrested a completely self-determined enjoyment from it. With the car, even “middle class” drivers open up a small but fine realm of freedom in the middle of their dull everyday life, and even more so on holidays: completely beyond all the competitive comparisons to which they are subjected every day, here they quite autonomously organize their very own race for success and fight at every traffic light and with every passing maneuver across all class barriers for their civic right of way – the latter in an obviously very existential sense that is at any rate anything but traffic-related. And so on. In addition to this, and above all, modern workers put a lot of effort into matters of love, sex and family life. No way is it “just” about “one thing”: no sooner have they discovered their sex drive than men and women are already attaching enormous importance to it. Such profound things as the desire for “self-affirmation” are decisively involved, as well as such lowly things as the will to have power over someone – even if it is only the power to control the image of naked bodies on the internet, another advance of civilization which has kong overtaken the bus station peep show in importance; ultimately, a pleasure of a higher kind is strived for: a happiness in life that basically and permanently compensates for all the material conditions under which it should be brought about. This does not diminish the damage suffered one bit. In return, however, he gets a meaning, and a real one at that. The beloved partner is the remuneration for which a wage worker puts up with his whole working life; he now has to make sure that the compensation of the proletarian everyday life succeeds and brings satisfaction. If, as is foreseeable, this goes wrong, there is no reflection on the political-economic circumstances which the loving couples and the family collectives so hopelessly overtax each other with in coping; rather, it suddenly becomes clear to each of the participants who is actually to blame for their “screwed up life”: they resent each other for all the frustrating consequences of their material circumstances. In this way, they fulfill the task that bourgeois society and the state’s power have planned and set up for decent couples up to the bitter end: As the “nucleus of society,” they voluntarily make it their business to fulfill all the necessities from which they seek to wrest their private happiness, and they direct their inevitable discontent against each other instead of against these necessities.

So decent people who put up with everything in their jobs and at most allow themselves to occasionally shoplift discreetly become aggressively cranky in their private lives, of all places, the sphere of freedom and pleasure. There they “get wild and party” in all freedom, if necessary violently taking action against everything that spoils their compensatory feelings of success – life partners and children, opposing fan clubs or aggressive drivers; even other people’s property is occasionally endangered – and create what is otherwise completely beyond their reach, and even more so where it would be necessary: a social problem that calls the great monopoly of violence onto the scene. It gives its brutalized underlings all kinds of freedoms. At some point, however, the highest authority uses “force against people” – which in turn will be cheered, gawked at, and affirmed as a morally edifying spectacle by those who are not affected.

What the state otherwise does with them, especially in its socio-political departments, modern proletarians take as material and as a multitude of opportunities to prove themselves as experts of a successful way of life, just like all their other living conditions. They are well familiar with all the official functions and compulsory services that their community imposes on them and handle them with corresponding confidence. For example, they won’t let go of the fact that taxes and social security contributions are deducted from their wages – but they certainly won’t get the idea of seriously investigating the reasons and purposes of the state’s access to their money. They much prefer turning the spotlight on the taxpayer who sees himself as the client and controller of the money spent by his authorities without ever having issued any order and without ever having controlled its fulfillment, and claim the right to fundamentally doubt the abilities and sense of duty of their representatives. They adopt the standpoint of contributors who are feeding shady welfare cases, as if they had personally concluded a “generational” or other pension contract with needy contemporaries and now have to make sure that they are not being ripped off by them. If necessary, i.e. if a corresponding need arises, they then easily switch into the “identity” of the social pensioner who knows and demands his rights and – here again – “won’t be taken for a fool.” An upstanding wage earner does not give up pride until the end of his life. Even as a hospital patient, he does not simply wait to get well again, but with his last ounce of strength lives out the idea that he, as a paying member of a health insurance fund, is empowered and appointed to command at least the lower levels of the service staff. Thus in every situation in life he acts as a self-confident personality and with all his subjective commitment and firm consciousness of his rights, he is nothing other than – neatly or even all in a tumble – everything that the tax authorities and social policy do with him.

Whatever other important things happen in their communities, responsible workers do not let them happen passively. They feel concerned and regard public affairs and matters of general importance to be their business – one is interested in the issue. Not exactly in the sense that one would, out of one’s own well-considered interest, take a stand on – that is, possibly against – the national and international competitive struggles that the holders of public power and the administrators of private economic power organize at the expense and to the detriment of their own as well as many foreign proletarian rank and files. But the interest of the affected “little people” in the ways of the world is not procured so realistically. They get idealistically involved in world affairs according to their whims, without ever coming to the idea that they could actually make its progress their business. Instead, they have their own original opinions which are usually delivered to them by an authorized body along with the entertainingly edited news. And they won’t let themselves be deprived of them either, certainly not by better arguments, because that would be tantamount to admitting that they haven’t thought things through beforehand. They are more likely to be persuaded by the weight that a judgment or standpoint has in bourgeois life; because then one is not mistaken if one thinks the same way. And that is the most important thing about a free opinion: to be right, to have things ideally under control. Its content is then also entirely in line with that: The “interest” that bright wage earners, like all responsible citizens, take in world events is based on adding an “I think” to everything, giving grades to everything under the sun, and not letting themselves be duped about the true abilities of political leaders, the real success proficiency of the national entrepreneurial class, the reliability of important sports greats or the genuine kindness of the international aristocracy and other celebrities. Because the proletarian experts are well aware that the good or bad impression that the rich, the powerful, and the famous create is essentially a question of image cultivation which drives them and for which there is already again a whole “industry.” But this knowledge does not bother them in how they judge, but fills them with the proud awareness that they can see through the connections and in any case do not let themselves be “fooled” so easily. They feel competent and are always ready and able to classify things and people on a sympathy scale between +5 and -5; depending on how well or badly, in their non-committal and indestructible view, things work, as well as how those responsible do their job. The imperative that everything should function and that the major powers should succeed is included as a self-evident prerequisite and unquestionably valid yardstick in the free formation of judgments. The spirit of criticism rages against “mis-managers” and other failures, and takes on the burning question of whether there can still be talk of “performance-related remuneration” if an idiotic athlete earns millions within hours.

In this way, the modern worker ideally sets himself up as a judge over the whole world of power and wealth in which he and his conditions of existence are decreed from A to Z. He reduces them to the object of his subjective taste judgement as to whether the important people are doing justice to their important positions and keeping the whole show running properly; he forms his responsible opinion about whether the state power is asserting itself adequately, the economy is growing enough, the customs in the national theme park are still bearable and the weather in the country is the way it is supposed to be. In exactly this way, he is in all subjectivity biased in principle toward all public affairs, no matter what they actually consist of; he is a patriot, regardless of whether and how enthusiastically he also explicitly commits himself to his “homeland.” All dissatisfaction with the existence that the beloved polity imposes on him only strengthens him in this bias: What bothers him, he blames on an imagined failure of those responsible; at tasks whose successful execution would actually be their office and whose correct handling he knows far better than the idiots entrusted with it. In this question, he even feels appointed to be a militant opinion leader among all decent, i.e. basically like-minded, people. And with all his patriotic self-confidence, he meticulously fulfills another function that his democratic authorities give him and want him to carry out: the ridiculous role of the politicized private person who is periodically asked by the democratic legislature which overpaid loser he would prefer not be governed by and which successful type he would prefer instead. In free and secret elections, it calls on the taste judgement of its governed citizens who are steeped in responsibility, and even in all seriousness draws practical consequences for the personnel from the fastidious vote of the majority – workers with life experience would never on their own initiative attach so much practical importance to their free opinion, let alone try to make it available. That’s why they never ever come up with the idea of quitting their honorable position as free voters and putting up resistance to the political authorities when the candidate who is wrong for their taste wins or if there is no right candidate at all to choose from. Instead, they find themselves quite well served by the right to cast an unbridled “protest vote,” i.e. recognized as ideal commissioners of the supreme force and empowered to adopt an attitude of entitlement towards their government which has no more content than the constructively critical demand that those who hold undisputed power should exercise it more effectively, successfully in the interests of what is regarded in each case as the “national cause.”

Through all the bad experiences that are then regularly caused by the “national cause,” the proletarian rank and file are only encouraged in this sense of entitlement; and the thrust is clear: It is against everyone who is suspected of hindering the success of the nation and its inhabitants. From a material point of view, this is above all the proletarian rank and file itself, albeit under various shapes: “Colleagues” from other companies or industries who damage the business location with “excessive” wage demands; social cases that contribute nothing and only cause costs; but above all: foreigners – of course not the elite who “create jobs,” but proletarians who can never do right to a native because they either “take away” a job or become a burden to him as unemployed paupers. There is no trace of “class solidarity,” let alone of “proletarian internationalism” among proletarians who think so much in terms of citizenship; on the contrary. “Solidarity” with the “cause of the nation” makes them outright opponents of their own interests as wage workers insofar as far as they contradict the recognized common good of the capital location and – at least latent – enemies of foreigners who treat their state like a means of subsistence that suffers when it is shared with strangers: into nationalists who, in the name of the greater whole, tend to a brazenness they would not so easily presume for themselves. They arrogate for themselves a decisive judgment as to who is entitled to what, and to people who are even worse off than themselves, they also deny the right purely to exist and be here; they point to nothing other than the fact that they themselves, as natives, undoubtedly belong where they are and “the others” do not; that is, solely to their capacity as natural pawns of their state power. Worse still: The experience of playing the most modest role in one’s “own” community only incites them to hostility towards anyone whom the politically responsible people describe as an element alien to the people and detrimental to the common good – and in doing so they act as if they had arrived at this attitude entirely on their own private account and by no means merely as the idiots of an official population policy. If anything, they then even become politically radical with this point of view. The living lie of bourgeois states, that all the negative effects of national rule, capitalist economic power and proletarian servitude could be cured by even more and tougher state violence, by even more effective exploitation of the national labor force and by even stricter order in the community, is so well received by them that the strong fist of the monopoly on violence can’t work violently enough for them. So they become the object of contention between right-wing extremist “rabble rousers” and a democratic “resistance” who by no means lets their lovingly apostrophized followers be so easily snatched away. In any case, the ruling democrats do not “leave” the exclusion of foreigners and the enforcement of proper conditions to the “extremists”; rather, they make it practically clear to them how perfectly they understand the partisan handling of their sovereign monopoly on the use of force. And as long as they succeed in this, the political aberrations of dissatisfied workers will also be kept within limits. On the whole, they already manage their grievances with official politics and its movers and shakers in such a way that they do not fall too far out of line; they know quite well how to distinguish between extravagant views which still make them interesting and those that rule them out. That’s why they let it be explained to them, on the one hand, that among the foreign workers there are not only those “who exploit us,” but also those “who benefit us.” On the other hand, other kind-hearted family men are quite willing to replace “Soviet Russians” with Serbian “post-communists” and “Muslim fundamentalists” as national objects of hatred after the appropriate pertinent information – and again to pretend as if they themselves had worked out their incontestable reasons for it.

This is what happens when enlightened, self-confident proletarians make the best of a reality that is real and therefore impossible to change. Their “best possible” response to the national misery is a miserable nationalism with which they make everything that is imposed on them in terms of conditions of existence into their own concern.

(3) Proletarian morality

It’s by no means the case that modern workers have given up or forgotten their material needs, i.e. their class-specific interest in wages and free time. Materially, they are not interested in anything else – only: in what way! It’s also not the case that they do not notice or are oblivious to the harsh conditions and drastic restrictions that are violently imposed on their materialism: They are constantly slaving away at nothing else – only: in what way! They have acquired their very own morality with which they fully “cope” with their existence, without attacking its objective political-economic conditions and determinations, and without even wanting to do so.

In its defensive version, this maxim is: don’t give up; but that doesn’t say anything about the offensive self-confidence with which modern workers go about their lives. From their collective experience as bossed around pawns, they collectively draw the one conclusion that they completely individually muster since their tender youths in secondary school: that it is quite obviously important to impersonate the opposite, namely to be “king of the hill” and “master of the situation” always and everywhere, in every situation in the world and in life. They are also firmly convinced that they, as recognized members of the national community, are also entitled to this sovereign position toward the world and in it. And that’s why they simply owe it to themselves to take this position and to brag that they also have a profound right to do so. What they don’t lift a finger for out of “realism” in reality, they claim for themselves as a standpoint to which they are just as entitled as everyone else: to present themselves as self-determined personalities who have full control over their lives with all its limiting conditions and side effects.

With this image of themselves, they set a rather strenuous moral life program for themselves – “moral” in the sense that they commit themselves to a way of life determined by socially recognized “norms and values.” They are not spared the practical necessity of coping with the dependencies and limitations of their material existence, and this continually determines their everyday life. including all holidays. In all of this, however, they are concerned with something else, namely making their right to authority come true and proving at every point of their proletarian existence – counterfactually and therefore never finished – that they are in the know and can’t be fooled, and thus something like important assistant directors whose commands the rest of the world has just been waiting for, but mostly doesn’t listen to, which is its own loss. They make all their material hardships material for this higher moral life struggle, tweaking and stylizing everything so that, no matter how obscure they may be or even as “victims of circumstances,” they are “somehow” the greatest.

This struggle is obviously not a matter that the individual would set for himself and his inner mental state. He wants to be perceived and appreciated – as a personality who has full control over the world in general and his life in particular. If recognition fails to materialize, then one has obviously not bothered the social environment enough or found the right schtick. Both can be changed; whether with an intensified self-presentation or with smaller and larger demonstrations of how much one is offended and pissed because an uncomprehending environment once again is failing to appreciate one of its most outstanding members. This gives rise to the absurd forms of modern working and leisure life which should be remembered from the previous section: All these self-confident workers brag like world champions and in doing so annoy each other. Whole circles of friends are held together and broken apart because the persons involved are seeking applause for their sham existences there; love and family life are especially under pressure to find a positive echo in intimate intercourse which one likes to call “appreciation.” In the workplace, responsible employees do not stick to the performance competition that their employers organize with them: This is exaggerated and subsumed in an internal culture of “mobbing,” of entrenched bad opinions that whole departments and all self-confident coworkers cultivate toward one another, of slander, of competition for a good reputation and a strong impression. This is an enormous boost to the internal competition which the company attaches great importance to, although it may occasionally disturb it, but in any case has the beneficial effect that the committed members of the company family are only too willing to do anything to get recognition from their bosses. And here “disreputable” materialism is definitely at play again: the noble rivalry for the most striking appearance, the most effective venom and the recognition of management should pay off nicely on the payroll. The modern employee himself degrades this material interest, however, to a mere ulterior motive to an event that has a completely different, decidedly anti-materialistic content: the eternal worry, “How do I come off there?” If you end up coming off stupid there because “the others” have put themselves more successfully in the limelight – professionally or privately – then the defensive maxim comes into its own: then it’s time “not to get down on yourself.” For precisely this: a lack of applause for the offensively cultivated appearance of a self-determined existence – and not merely its inadequate material endowment – is the decisive failure, the existential defeat, from which a decent proletarian must not let himself be knocked down in spite of it.

With their moral self-commitment to the lifelong credible pretense of a success story under their own direction, modern proletarians measure themselves against the class of the “higher earners.” True, the world is not completely at their disposal without much trouble. But at least they profit, both materially and morally, from a full agreement between their material interests and the institutions and constraints that dominate society: They have the means to adapt their existence to their tastes; they have it easy in the pose of sovereign arranger of their own living conditions because the political-economic institutions of society – which they also do not have under control, but do not need to have under control themselves – allows them sufficient sovereign arrangements in terms of leading a self-determined life; and they enjoy social recognition – even if never to the extent demanded, but that’s another chapter – simply because they are the ones who allocate it. The members of the “lower income” sector absolutely want to do the same for them; in the previously mentioned awareness that they, as equal native citizens, also have every right to look just as good and be recognized. And they are not at all prevented from practicing this sense of fairness for lack of means; on the contrary, they practice it all the more emphatically anyway. In this moral sense – i.e. as far as possible from any intention of actually, materially, abolishing the class antagonism between themselves and the better-off “bourgeois” minority – they make their bourgeoisification their main concern.

Of course, they can never shake what they in this way so strenuously deny with their whole way of living. On the contrary: Their whole effort to catch up with the socially binding role model of the citizen who lives in harmony with his conditions of existence and therefore also has good reason to commit himself to their continuance, and if not materially, then all the more ideally, in matters of honor, pride and recognition, is recognizable as denial. It always exposes the fact that even the most modern proletarians are just not what they would like to be seen as: They are not the holier-than-thou assholes who really can throw money around without worry or regret and who in doing so know how to get their public to applaud them, but rather lightweight imitators; they are not the cosmopolitans who go through the world and exude arrogance with the right of their financial means, their social significance and a lifestyle that testifies to their ability to pay as worthy representatives, if not as ornaments of their capitalist home country, but rather remain the vulgar copy. The private power of capitalist property to command impresses them enormously; they wish they were able to do such a thing too – and then yield it just to torment family members, friends and subordinates and be ready for a lot of fights. With their smug right to not have to listen to anybody, they become defiant – but only against those they can afford to be. And so on. They absolutely want to get out of their proletarian skin – but not in the only way in which this is really possible, namely the comparatively easier one of a communist revolution which of course would also leave nothing more of their bourgeois and civic role models, but by copying these role models, which thus become not less repugnant, but rather common. In this way, workers who are obsessed with honor let everything that is done to them take its all too predictable course in a class society, condemning themselves to remain in economic reality exactly what they are and do not want to be, namely: pawns pushed around by other people’s interests; they conduct themselves in order to deny exactly that, and don’t even realize that in the end they are cultivating exactly the kind of proletariat that they don’t want anyone to tell them about and that nobody decent is allowed to tell them about. As if they wanted to prove empirically that striving for bourgeoisification, when the necessary means are lacking, leads to brutalization and nothing else.

In at least one respect, the proletarian employees of capital are surely right if they simply do not want to admit what a dismal role they play in bourgeois society: As it is, being a proletarian is an imposition; anyone who has to endure it can’t honestly and seriously agree with it; the fact that those who do the job of proletarian take a decidedly negative stance towards it and everything else, except not wanting to be proles, is obviously part of this nice way of existence. But that’s all they are right about. The moral conclusion that the bourgeois community demands of its proletarian members already turns everything upside down: They should literally make a virtue out of a necessity and, instead of negating their class position, deny themselves and above all continue to attach no importance to their damaged materialism. Here modern workers take a huge step further in the wrong direction: they deny themselves by exaggerating themselves in their vanity and their desire for recognition, and follow the disgusting example of bourgeois arrogance, demonstrating a showy self-confidence with which they pursue their proletarian existence as if they had chosen it for themselves. This – psychological – way of negating one’s own status is only wrong; nothing is necessary about the false consciousness anymore. And this is exactly what has become the sign of the whole class: The good people who belong to it deny themselves and gain satisfaction by acting as if the bourgeoisie could still learn from them what a real bourgeois big shot is. With their proud self-confidence, they voluntarily make themselves into really powerless jokes of the exploitation that is organized with them – and they don’t even get anything out of it.

It’s about high time they stopped doing this.

b) Methodological postscript on the “necessary false consciousness” of the proletariat

Why don’t they stop doing it? Why do wage laborers put up with a society that systematically degrades them into maneuverable masses of capitalistic property and the omnipresent state force apparatus?

The answer is already given. There are no other “causes” than the bad reasons people have. But perhaps one must bring it to the attention of some remnants of the left once again.

(1) If “social being determines consciousness” …

In his criticism of the wage system and the willingness of the working class to go along with it, Marx talked of the necessary false consciousness shown by the inhabitants of the modern class state and social being determining consciousness. What Marx meant by this is that capitalistic class society – as enlightened, rational, egalitarian and materialistic as it claims to be – appears to its members as a set of peculiar, thoroughly opaque, quasi-natural laws (which are indeed very one-sided in terms of whom they benefit). He intended to show that social relations in capitalism are not grounded in more or less rational deliberations between the members of society as to what their common interests are and how to go about fulfilling them, let alone do they even come up; rather, they answer to money and the special laws of its accumulation in a completely irrational way that deserves scientific explanation; peoples’ interests, i.e. the very class specific and antagonistic interests they have in a system of exploitation, are determined for them by the economic objects that they are forced to make use of; and if wage laborers, driven by necessity, go along with this system and decide to try and cope with the “given circumstances,” then they are making a serious mistake because they subject themselves to capitalist property at their own detriment. Marx’s critical remarks on the literal madness of “free enterprise” production relations, however, were taken quite differently. Legions of interpreters of capitalism have thrown his catchwords together – leftist critics who have seen themselves as his successors exactly the same as bourgeois apologists; and they concoct from it nothing but fundamentally wrong theories about a supposedly nature-given, inevitable and, to that extent, no longer criticizable determinism of the human psyche.

It was mainly the early Social Democrats and a few communists – all the representatives of the former “real socialism” – who were very fond of the conception that “social being” – i.e. the wretched class situation of the proletariat – would completely by itself, automatically, supply the most appropriate level of revolutionary consciousness and will to revolt; so that their own campaign, the task of the workers’ party, could limit itself to, and also would have to limit itself to, “advancing” the “objective contradictions” in the society, assuring the masses that their respective “historical situation” is “progressing” properly; until then – rudimentarily – developing a subversive communist worldview and action program that must avoid one “error” above all: one was not allowed to overrate the inevitably growing “maturity” of proletarian consciousness, undertake no demands going too far for the non-proletarian “allies” of the workers’ cause and, by no means, “isolate themselves from the masses.” Failures, which could not be lacking, not only because of the strength of the opponent but also because of this screwy kind of calculating agitation, offered reasons for the appropriate “self-criticism” of having wanted too much, too soon, perhaps too little at the wrong place; then, in any case, the activists of the socialist movement – instead of agitating for the appropriation and reasonable, well-planned use of the social productive forces by the “masses,” who would then no longer have to serve as a proletariat – were mainly busy with the absurd effort of correctly estimating the “revolutionary situation,” in “social reality” as in the minds of the people.

Quite a few disappointed revolutionaries have at one time or other arrived at the conclusion that it would be possible, but that the proletariat with its difficult “consciousness” leaves a lot to be desired. And because they firmly held on to the dogma of “conditions” that would at a given time “ripen” into the “revolutionary situation,” they felt the need to supplement the theory of the quasi-natural necessity for the emergence of revolutionary consciousness from the objective class position with a determinism of the prevention of this progress in the thinking and willing of the masses.

– So some passed off an “explanation” which is characterized by a lot of moral outrage about the wage laborers’ culpability for what hopeful revolutionists awarded to them as their “historic task”: the capitalists are said to have bribed their employees – the obvious question about the origin of the means allegedly spent on it was more rejected than answered by referring to the fruits of the “especially extreme” exploitation of the people held down by force in the colonies of the imperialistic powers – or to have at least split the “revolutionary masses” by corrupting a proletarian elite in a way crucial for class warfare; and the workers are said to have allowed themselves to be bribed and split. The idea is not only political-economically inverted because it measures the exploitation of the wage laborers in the imperialistic metropolises by the desolate misery elsewhere and “estimates” the difference as a convincing reason for the wage laborers to be content, instead of merely registering the increasingly absurd contradiction between the continuously increasing productivity of labor in the centers of world capitalism and its continuing subsumption under the laws of increasing capitalistic property. It is especially fatal insofar as it quite explicitly places the materialism of the wage workers in opposition to the “socialist perspective” which one would like to commit them to; as if a communist revolution ** would be an act of moral self-denial which the capitalistically exploited masses would take upon themselves only under the pressure of extreme distress – the fact that communism and a “classless society” could have something to do with a reasonable, comfortable organization of the production relations that dominate the globe is completely lost sight of in the sheer devotion to an imagined world-historical moral duty of the proletariat; and with all the ideas about determination, which always reveal nothing but a will to manipulate other people that is not at all determined, it was no longer even possible to imagine that facilitations of proletarian life could be used, instead of by the bourgeoisie to produce deep gratitude among the happy wage workers, to properly agitate wage workers with a few upright thoughts on the principles of an economic system in which a little wage increase is supposed to lead to appreciative docility towards the conspicuously easily solvent employers.

– Other interpreters of proletarian consciousness and its surprisingly lacking revolutionary content came to the theory of a “socialization” that is less wrong than much too narrowly conceived, with filthy lucre carrying out a paralyzing of the intrinsically subversive impulses of the badly treated masses. They find that Marx, in his “economistic view,” had “neglected” consciousness of the “subjective factor”; along with a definition of the human psyche by means of “social being,” they must act against an inner determinacy by means of psychotherapy. And this can be done, of course: schooled in the relevant inventions of academic psychology, left theorists of the dissatisfactory performance of an undeveloped proletarian revolutionary will constructed the responsible “defects” and “deformations” of proletarian inner life. In contrast, their more philosophically inclined colleagues developed epistemological theories of the all too hesitant “revolutionary consciousness,” and from Marx's remarks on the irrationality of the capitalist mode of production, whose division of labor and exploitative purpose produces itself “behind the backs” of those involved and presents itself as a “social relationship between things,” they concocted the idea that the working-behind-their-backs “logic of capital” cannot be seen through by the agents who are practically caught up in this “system,” and the proletarian underdogs the same; they lacked – as opposed to the Marxist theorists, who even so get it right ... – not by any chance merely the will or time or means to understand their own exploitation, but the – virtually transcendental – conditions of possibility for it. Nothing remains any longer, in either case, of opposition to the capitalist mode of production, which after all was still contained in the faith in a virtually nature-necessary communist revolution, and a fortiori the will to agitate the affected persons to terminate their status as maneuverable masses: one substitutes for clarification and agitation the belief in the necessity of an upstream psychotherapy of the working class and lands in consequence with a criticism of capitalism that has nothing further to say about the systematic exploitation of the wage-earning majority than their postulated psychic defect of being incapable of resistance. Others explain the proletariat generally as a lost lump whose imagined total and hermetic blindness is only good for philosophical consumption, to absolve oneself from it – “negative dialectically” or something.

Normal bourgeois theorists have from the start liked the saying “social life determines consciousness,” in the opposite sense of one of Marx's criticisms. The image fits their a priori affirmative sociological worldview, the interpretation of capitalism as an ingenious systematic connection of interdependent elements, each functionally definable social ensemble making from the world an image appropriate to its function and its status; beliefs and attitudes are basically only correctly grasped as “behind their backs” results of the conscious agents’ prevailing meaning-making and integration processes. This theory never says that any of the worldviews that it investigates are wrong: all it perceives is one – limited – function, and is very satisfied with this finding.

But its all helpless: thoughts, even incorrect ones, are not products of social being; what the wage laborers themselves think about their position and deal with in their lives are also the results of the conclusions that they draw from their life situation. Therefore, when they fail, there is no other reason than the – appropriate or unfounded, good or bad – reasons that the people have, and in any event there is no socially determining reason behind their – however crazy it may be – reasoning behavior. If “social life is determinant,” it is not that some other mysteriously working power steps in the place of the thoughts of the people, even when they go to work for wages, however continuously, and then these thoughts go crazy; and indeed insofar as, from the outset, they do not critically scrutinize social reality, but accept it as a determining guideline for all their own plans and activities, they allow themselves to be determined. Not by a determinism of any kind whatsoever, but by a mistake “of consciousness”: the fact that somebody submits to his damage by ruling interests and material compulsions and has no solid reasons for it at all.

(2) … then “consciousness” makes nothing but errors!

The first and fundamental argument that the wage laborers make for the purpose of positively getting involved in and adapting to wage labor as their livelihood is the calculation to which they are compelled in practice: they have no other means; they must use their minds from the start to find work and get by on the wages earned; thus nothing else probably remains for them than to resign themselves to it and make peace with their alternativeless situation in life. This “thus” is and remains a false conclusion: if an over-powering public force with property on one side guarantees propertylessness on the other for the great majority of society, if it leaves no alternative to wage labor and endlessly takes lots of precautions to ensure that it is well performed, then this speaks against this force and not for a peaceful arrangement with its orders. The decision to submit and make peace with the systematically spruced up world of wage labor also does not become correct by the fact that the whole momentum of perfectly arranged conditions and a violence monopolist enthroned above is forced upon the affected persons and therefore appears as a practical life necessity – this is severe, but is also the whole necessity that Marx ascribes to the proletariat’s “false consciousness” about its situation and its life chances. How wrong they are, the wage earners who make their alternativelessness the argument for their willingness to adapt, they also then inevitably experience: they never get anywhere with their calculations. That’s why they stand again and again before the alternative that they always have: to grasp and theoretically comprehend the conflict of democratic free market exploitation relations with their material interests in order to tackle them in practice or to decide on invariably new calculating adaptations and use their minds and will to search for means of indemnity and compensation. The practical constraint, to adapt oneself in accordance with “social life,” is again and again the same – and the mistake, to search for happiness in this, as well.

However, it can be expanded, and modern employees have come a long way in this respect; the first part of this chapter dealt with this. What the workers’ movement of earlier days fought for in terms of relief and freedom, and what progressive governments conceded in terms of social policy, is in any case not being used to get to the bottom of the political and economic necessities of work pressure and unemployment, wage depression and “flexibilization.” The opposite stands on the agenda: the great competition to get through life without any problems until retirement, not to be told anything by anyone – except the bosses – , to feel good about it and make a good impression on the world around them. Today’s proletarians no longer merely fulfill the compulsory bourgeois program of accepting wage labor as their fate and letting the continual failure of their calculations spur them to ever more willingness to work and to sacrifice. They have thoroughly settled accounts with their class position, regarding themselves to be all sorts of things – Rhinelanders, owners of driver’s licenses, SPD voters, the life of the office, mountain climbers… – rather than proletarians, and they are renowned for all their bourgeois “identities” that are thrust upon them.

Nevertheless, they are not spared the experience that their source of income is not a pleasure and that the will to be satisfied costs them an extra effort – and therefore they are not spared the question of what the whole thing is supposed to be good for, what they are doing. That they don’t want to know anything about this simple question is certain – but what is just as certain is that this question is by no means intellectually overwhelming, and that the effort required for dealing with this question definitely isn’t greater than what is needed to convince themselves throughout their lifetimes that everything, and especially themselves, are just super. Answering this question would be a much better use of their effort.

* The authors are very well aware that it is completely incorrect to speak, firstly, so rudely and, secondly, so sweepingly about so many very different and generally decent individuals as is done here, so outraged readers don’t need to remind us that they have a completely different impression of themselves and other workers and a much higher opinion of them. Of course, everyone knows some people who don’t deal as badly with their wage dependency as is claimed here and in the following. But it would certainly be even better and ultimately not any more bearable if each specimen of the social genus we are talking about here showed all the relevant character mask attributes, even without qualifications. Resemblance to the living persons of modern history are already sufficiently numerous. Incidentally, it isn’t a refutation of a criticism of the honor-standpoint which workers cultivate in order to cope with their wage-dependent existence to side with the right to honor that in a liberal-egalitarian society is supposed to be paid to everyone and consequently even this social class of people. Anyone who would still prefer to feel insulted – whether personally or as a representative of all the “decent” proles – may take solace: employers and political rulers, the movers and shakers and the experts on psychology and social affairs, i.e. all those who have something to say in society, see modern workers as fine just the way they are, without qualification. They know what they have in their wage earners and are happy to pay every respect to the dignity of the proletarian personality that is missing in this chapter.

** Considering what these workers’ leaders were striving for, this was quite possibly true!