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The Political Ontology of Unemployment: Why No One Need Apply – Reply to Zamora

Reply to Daniel Zamora

The revolutionary vision of emancipation continued to live on only in the slanders of the counter-revolutionaries.

—Max Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State” (1940)

The idea that “unions are nothing more than an object-lesson demonstrating in a practical way the uselessness of any action other than revolutionary politics,” was an idea popular when Eduard Bernstein wrote this line in the Preconditions of Socialism (1899).1 For Bernstein, of course, unions were one of the few “indispensable organs of democracy,” but he knew this idea was controversial, especially among Marxists. By the time Max Horkheimer offered his account of “The Impotence of the Working Class” in 1927, unions had become a central target of Marxist criticism.2 As Zamora’s essay makes clear, terminal unemployment, a condition that helped define a new post-proletarian revolutionary subject position, has been a core value of Marxist criticism at least since the 1960s. Here, I want to point out a few “preconditions” of Zamora’s account of the division of the working class in the hopes of a raising a few questions about whether the utopian vision of the precariat is a necessary feature of Marxist analysis or a dispensable one, and if it is dispensable, then what version of Marxism is this. Moreover, I wonder whether these earlier formulations of what we might call “lumpen idealism”—a set of claims that emerges as the theoretical foundations for diversity politics—might alter the general historical picture of neoliberal politics. If it is already the case in 1927 that subject positions—poverty as a mode of being—define a new political reality, then how does that alter our vision of the structural relation between diversity and neoliberal economics? What does the prefiguration of contemporary ideology in the prewar period amount to, if anything? Finally, it seems that the basic problem of Marxist analysis in the later 20th century up to today has been its incapacity to deal with changing political and, especially, economic phenomena. Obviously the word “changing” here is contentious from a Marxist perspective. Fine. Nonetheless, did the tenor or practice of various consumer critics, war critics, champions of the multitude, change a jot during or since the downturn? More like double down on 2007 terms, or 1967 terms.

* * *

When Horkheimer’s “Impotence of the Working Class” appeared in Dämmerung in 1934—his first book, a collection of brief essays written between 1926 and 1931—it was by far the longest entry in the volume. Horkheimer’s text offers an analysis, and suggests revisions for, part 7, chapter 25, of Marx’s Capital, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.”3 Chapter 25 has been crucial to the work of several of us associated with nonsite because it is here that Marx explains the central function of unemployment in a capitalist economy and for that reason offers some important terms for understanding current-day economic facts, especially those associated with the economic downturn. In October of 2009, for instance, the unemployment rate in the United States reached 10% (as of today that number is around 7.3%). And while this is not quite comparable to the unemployment rates in Germany (or the US) when Horkheimer was writing—in 1929 around 1.5 million Germans were unemployed; within a year the figure had more than doubled and by early 1933 unemployment in Germany had reached a staggering six million or around 32%—his analysis provides some of the clearest terms available for understanding the theory of unemployment within Western Marxist thought.

Two things should underscored about the ongoing discourse of unemployment on the Left. First, that Horkheimer was clearly capturing or describing a “new” reality that had not received adequate attention within traditional Marxist theory. For Horkheimer, unemployment was so severe that it seemed to require a shift in the basic terms of political economy, above all a shift in the conceptualization of the so-called “subject-object of history” as Lukács defined it. Second, that the terms by which Horkheimer articulated this “new” subject of hopelessness became, as Zamora has brilliantly shown, the central ones of Leftist politics from the 1960s forward. While I will not be able to fill in the gaps between Horkheimer in 1927 and André Gorz (and Rancière, and Badiou, and Negri, and Zizek, and Butler, and Harvey, and Fraser) in the 1970s, I do want to suggest some larger continuities in the theorization of the unemployed. Once the door had been opened onto the phenomena of the chronically unemployed, it appeared there was no closing it. Which is to say, even though the intervening period—at least between 1945 and 1979—was characterized by something wildly different than rank unemployment, nothing about this fact altered the vision of revolutionary progress centered on the figure of the precariat. It would be fairer to say exactly the opposite. The “affluent society,” as Kenneth Galbraith described it in 1958, was the source of endless lament on the Left (the Right’s attitude toward the growing equality in wealth is another, but related, story).

What should strike us about Horkheimer’s analysis is at once the dissimilarity of the situation he describes and our situation, and the utter identity of the claims made against the (employed) working class throughout a period when the unions and the welfare state were making serious strides in the elimination of unemployment and the suffering associated with it. Of course, for Horkheimer and others, one of the central facts of the Nazi state was its realization of full employment. As I will show, this achievement was not viewed as a contingency, but rather spoke to the identity of capitalist and fascist efforts at eliminating unemployment (there were two forms of “state capitalism”). Moreover, if Horkheimer’s vision was to retain the revolutionary force of the unemployed against those of the owners and the employed (of any class), then, as of 2008, it has become clear that Horkheimer as well as the writers Zamora considers, have achieved their aims with unprecedented success. With one exception of course: high unemployment, low revolutionary force.

* * *

Part of Marx’s argument in chapter 25 of Capital is to show how with the increase in mechanization there is a decrease in employment. The consequence of this, according to Horkheimer, is a modification in the “reciprocal relations of the various strata of the proletariat.” It introduces a change in the “consciousness” of the “respectable employed worker,” including, or perhaps especially those with “temporary” jobs, and the consciousness of the “regularly unemployed strata.” What is at stake for Horkheimer, as it is for Zamora (and myself), is the “solidarity of the proletariat.” Horkheimer’s concern is that as the “community of shared interests [between employed and unemployed] shrinks more and more” so will the solidarity between the two groups. Horkheimer’s basic assumption is that there is a loss of shared interests among the two groups, not that there is a feeling that there is one (a feeling, one might add, that might be—or is—a product of “false consciousness”).

Horkheimer is quick to point out that there have always been various layers of the “reserve army.” In the earliest phases of capitalism there existed a lumpenproletariat—a “relatively insignificant segment from which the criminal element is recruited”—whose character was defined by “obvious qualitative contrast” with the proletariat as a whole. Excepting the lumpen, class division was formerly characterized by a “steady transition between those who worked and those who didn’t.” In the past someone who was out of work “might be hired the next day, and the man who had work was much like his unemployed colleague when he lost it.” High rates of turnover still lent themselves to common cause in the fight to eliminate the rule of capital. By 1927, the period of steady transition—high turnover—was over, and with it the solidarity of the proletariat. Unemployment occurred “from birth on” and it was increasingly tied to one’s basic self-definition.

What had changed? According to Horkheimer, the sheer “wretchedness,” the “utter hopelessness,” of contemporary life was so “unevenly” distributed that it made revolution increasingly a matter of “individual concern.” For the poor, but employed, one didn’t want to risk even the barest forms of revolutionary sentiment, and thereby risk becoming one of the unemployed. “For the employed workers whose wages and long-term membership in unions…assure a certain, albeit small, security for the future, all political acts involve the danger of a tremendous loss.” Alternately, for the unemployed, they have nothing to lose “but their chains.” This is the reason for the historically unprecedented “gulf” between the employed and not employed. The formerly unified proletariat become divided against one another as the unemployed lumpen become the revolutionary force and the employed (poor and rich) emerge as capitalists.

It should be clear that Horkheimer’s aim here is not to show the mistake that generates this vision of class interest, or how this kind of division between layers of the poor is the fulfillment of the most basic of capitalist fantasies. It is not a description at all, but an effort to introduce a shift in Marxist analysis. There is a new agent of history, one Marx could not have imagined: the wretched of the earth, one whose very existence is defined by joblessness.

At the foundations of Horkheimer’s analysis is the belief that “Work and misery no longer come together, people no longer experience both.” Here is the nub of Horkheimer’s account: those who work enjoy a degree of comforts (a tragic situation for revolutionary foment); those who do not, live a life of sheer suffering, a suffering that can only set them free in the long run. And while I will not elaborate this point here, I would argue that it is this claim that grounds the larger Frankfurt School account of political economy. It is the kind of claim Herbert Marcuse will make famous with his vision of “Liberation from the Affluent Society.”4 According to Marcuse, “The insanity of the society…is the degree to which it is capable of conquering poverty and reducing the toil of labor and the time of labor and of raising the standard of living.” It is insane to ease the lives of poor people (at least ones with jobs), or, more important, it is insane to rid society of poor people, because those formerly revolutionary (“wretched”) subjects necessarily find themselves more “integrated” (a word in obsessive circulation) into capitalist society. They won’t risk revolution, because their lives are too “comfortable.”

This is what Horkheimer means when he says (in a later piece of writing) that “Marx’s and Engel’s teaching that the struggle for higher wages and shorter hours of work would finally put an end to the prehistory of mankind is a pathetically secularized Messianism, infinitely inferior to the authentic one.”5 Marx and Engels were duped (like the employed poor) into believing that unions could save them. Beginning in 1940 Horkheimer developed a broad-ranging and influential thesis about unions, what he called “the theory of rackets.”6 In a world defined by rackets “All have become employees, and in the civilization of employees” everyone loses their “dignity.”7 As he put it in the same note on Marx and Engels, “rackets control everything more or less according to plan, the capitalists through conflicts among each other and with the unions.”8 It is important to see that Franz Neumann, at the same moment Horkheimer put forward the “racket theory” responded in detail with his account of Behemoth (1942).9 As Neumann observes in his introductory note to the book, he chose the word Behemoth to explain National Socialism because it described a “non-state, a chaos, a rule of lawlessness and anarchy,” which is to say, it was anything but in “control of everything according to plan.”

In 1927 the separation of work and misery was not yet a matter of political ontology for Horkheimer. Horkheimer still recognized the structural function of the reserve army in the depression of wages. Nonetheless, the misery of the existing order bears “ever more exclusively” on the lower segment of the working class. But there remains a key problem with the “new element” of the excluded: they have “no understanding of theory.” They waver, they are disorganized, they are young, they are violent, they are mostly dumb. They lack those “human qualities” necessary to implement socialism. Those that have a “direct interest” in socialism (the unemployed) and those with a “clear theoretical consciousness” (the employed, but struggling) are found among separate elements of the proletariat.

These separate elements find expression in competing workers’ parties: Communist and National-Socialist. Again, one finds here a root claim of Frankfurt School analysis: the poor (but unionized) found their refuge among the Nazis while the “new element” joined the Communist Party. But there’s little ultimate difference. The “theoretical” expressions of the unemployed result in the “mere repetition” (the “undialectical preservation”) of the slogans of the Communist Party. As Horkehimer explains, the Communists are theoretically bankrupt. Rather than provide reasons for their beliefs, they “refer to authority.” They, like the fascists, use “physical force to make their better informed opponents see reason.” As for the reformists—Bernstein, after all, is still alive—they are no longer aware that “human conditions cannot be effectively improved under capitalism.”

If at the beginning of his account Horkheimer describes a shift in the nature of the proletariat then by the end he is describing the difference between “social groups.” The entire “inhumanity of the capitalist production process” is laid on the unemployed—alienation, poverty, marginalization, intolerance, disenfranchisement—while the worker assumes the “positive capacities acquired through his integration in the production process.” It is the putative task of the social democrats, defined here through a set of philosophical commitments to “relativism,” to make the two groups quarrel. If the two halves of the missing whole don’t add up, it is because the social democrats don’t want them to.

Throughout the 1930s Frankfurt School political economists Friedrich Pollock, Kurt Mandelbaum10 and Gerhard Mayer developed their analyses of “state capitalism” a set of claims then popularized by Marcuse in “The Struggle Against Liberalism in the Totalitarian View of the State” (1934)11 and Horkheimer in essays like “The Authoritarian State” (1940)12 and “The End of Reason” (1941)13 and in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). As I am suggesting here, these arguments are well under way with “The Impotence of the Working Class” of 1927, even if the terms are still being worked out in the text. By the time Horkheimer comes to publish his follow up to Dämmerung, the collection called Notizen (the two were published together in 1974 and in 1978 in English), any hedging of terms has been eliminated. Horkheimer’s aim in the later text is clear: it is practical politics of any kind that is at fault. Here is Horkheimer in a note entitled “Philosophy of History, a Speculation”:

Ultimately, everything in politics…adds up to the guaranteed, secure standard of living…. And here we come to the question concerning the substance of mankind, the actual speculation about the philosophy of history. If prehistory comes to an end [as Marx suggested] because food, housing and clothing are no longer and nowhere a problem for anyone, will the higher, the real history, culture as it is called, begin, or do the movies and the stars in the countries that have arrived show the kind of regression that will then set in? I believe that mankind will only have so-called nobler needs, needs beyond the natural ones, if these natural needs remain unsatisfied…. Even the violence which inheres in education really loses its ground when everything is available and misery at an end. It seems that regression is the only goal of progress.14

The total identification of politics with the provision of comforts seals the fate of any thought of this world. True culture (not the one provided by the culture industry) requires lack, requires suffering, to remain culture. And when history begins, learning ends: the “inherency” of violence in education is no longer justified in a world made soft through (false) security.

To preserve culture, one might be tempted to enforce poverty as lack. Or at least this is what Bertolt Brecht said after attending the first “seminar on needs” at Adorno’s home in Los Angeles in June of 1942. The seminar was chaired by Adorno and attended by Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Friedrich Pollock (to say Brecht, along with Hanns Eisler, were the odd men out would be an understatement). Among other things they discussed Vice President Henry Wallace’s “The Price of Free World Victory” from earlier in the year. Wallace spoke of the capacity for capitalism, through scientific advance, to satisfy basic human needs:

Modern science, which is a by-product and an essential part of the people’s revolution, has made it technologically possible to see that all of the people of the world get enough to eat. Half in fun and half seriously, I said the other day to Madame Litvinov: “The object of this war is to make sure that everybody in the world has the privilege of drinking a quart of milk a day.” She replied: “Yes, even half a pint.” The peace must mean a better standard of living for the common man, not merely in the United States and England, but also in India, Russia, China and Latin America—not merely in the United Nations, but also in Germany and Italy and Japan.15

To say that Wallace’s vision of the “century of the common man” was not embraced by the Frankfurt School would put it mildly. It was a deceptive utopia designed by the exploiters, whose purpose was to further integrate the exploited into the system of capitalism. Here is Brecht’s report in his Arbeitsjournal: “horkheimer quotes, with some alarm, a pronouncement of vice-president wallace’s, that after this war every child in the world must get pint of milk daily.”16 What was Horkheimer alarmed about?: the state of culture in a world well fed. Brecht continues: “the institute is already addressing the question of whether it might not be a colossal threat to culture if capitalism dispenses (as it is fully capable of doing, according to the economist Pollock) so much milk (not only of human kindness).” Distribution of basic needs to the poor results in the cessation of striving for difference, for that “qualitative leap out of the dimension of progress.”17 Brecht returned for some further insults two months later, for the second “seminar on needs,” this time the subject was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The thesis of the evening was (yet again) “when physical needs have been satiated…[Wallace’s speech continues to be a theme] spiritual needs suffer.” Pollock spoke of how “capitalism can rid itself of crises simply by means of public works.” (As Brecht quips, “marx could not predict that governments would one day just build roads.”18) Brecht finally took up the question as to whether culture required suffering. Looking around the room Brecht found himself in agreement with the Frankfurt School thesis on need: “the institute need only look around to see that affluence alone does not create culture, for is there not affluence here, and is there any culture?” Then again, “suffering has been created [by this] culture; so is barbarism likely to ensue if they put a stop to suffering?” Brecht’s formula is too neat; he clearly felt provoked. Nonetheless, to say that our culture—the assorted mystics of the unemployed on the Left—creates suffering is truer than Brecht could have imagined. Suffering is the defining trait of a heroic proletariat, the Multitude, that doesn’t know itself yet, but that the Left is helping to discover themselves—by making more of them, or at least providing the theoretical justification for their existence.


1.Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions of Socialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 139.
2.Max Horkheimer, Dawn & Decline, Notes 1926-1931 and 1950-1969, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Continuum, 1978), 61-65.
3.Karl Marx, Capital: A New Abridgement, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, ed. David McLellan (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 337ff.
4.Herbert Marcuse, “Liberation from the Affluent Society,” in To Free a Generation: The Dialectics of Liberation, ed. David Cooper (New York: Collier, 1969), 175-92.
5.Horkheimer, “On the Critique of Political Economy,” Dawn & Decline, 231.
6.Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, in his editorial postscript to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, provides a useful summary of the idea and some of its political stakes:
For Horkheimer, the topical application of the racket theory was to be found in the transfer of traditional class antagonism to the field of international relations, on the one hand, and to institutionally determined antitheses within the classes themselves, on the other. In postliberal capitalism, according to this theory, new forms of conflict conceal the basic contradiction between capital and labor. With state capitalism mechanisms have come into being to mitigate the economic crises which earlier had the potential to disintegrate the system. In this way the economic “base” loses its role in supporting the social totality. National Socialism and bureaucratic socialism or, more generally, a new “integral statism,” can no longer be described only in terms of economic basic categories. Political analysis takes on greater importance to the extent that liberalism appears as an historical episode, after the downfall of which society reverts to direct methods of domination no longer mediated via the market. The fundamental economic factors leading to crisis are tending to become controllable by measures of state intervention, which can range from compensatory welfare legislation to overt terror. (Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007], 234; see 234-41.)
7.Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 123.
8.Horkheimer, Dawn & Decline, 231.
9.Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1944).
10.See, in particular, Kurt Mandelbaum’s (under the pseudonym Erich Baumann) critique of Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: “Keynes‘ Revision der liberalistischen Nationalökonomie,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung V, 3 (1936).
11.This is the lead essay in Herbert Marcuse’s Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 3-42.
12.Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1982), 95-117; on labor unions, see esp. 97-99.
13.Horkheimer, “The End of Reason,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, 26-48.
14.Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline, 189.
16.Bertolt Brecht, Journals, 1934-1955, trans. Hugh Rorrison, ed. John Willett (New York: Routledge, 1993), 239.
17.Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State,” 107. Horkheimer noted that because “no barriers exist any longer for socialized wealth” so appeared ever greater “opportunity for the continuation of modern slavery” (ibid., 109).
18.Brecht, Journals, 252.