In his recent re-reading of Marx’s Capital, Fredric Jameson identifies the inherent contradiction of the world market: that it is the very success of capitalism (higher productivity, and so forth) which produces unemployment (renders more and more workers useless), and thus that what should be a blessing (less hard labour required) becomes a curse.
As Jameson puts it, the world market is thus “a space in which everyone has once been a productive laborer, and in which labor has everywhere begun to price itself out of the system.” That is to say, in the ongoing process of capitalist globalization, the category of the unemployed acquires a new dimension beyond the classic notion of the “reserve army of labor,” and should now include
“those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, ‘dropped out of history’, who have been deliberately excluded from the modernizing projects of First World capitalism and written off as hopeless or terminal cases.”
We should thus include among the unemployed those so-called “failed states” (like Congo and Somalia), victims of famine or ecological disasters, those trapped in pseudo-archaic “ethnic hatreds,” objects of philanthropy or (often the same people) of the “war on terror.”
The category of the unemployed should thus be expanded to encompass a wide range of the global population, from the temporary unemployed, through the no-longer employable and permanently unemployed, up to people living in slums and other types of ghettos (that is, all those often dismissed by Marx himself as “lumpen-proletarians”) and, finally, all those areas, populations or states excluded from the global capitalist process, like blank spaces in ancient maps.
Does not this extension of the circle of the “unemployed” point to the fact that what once lay in the inert background of History becomes a potential agent of emancipatory struggle? Just recall Marx’s dismissive characterization of the French peasants in his Eighteenth Brumaire:
“the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes … Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.”
In the great twentieth-century revolutionary mobilizations of peasants (from China to Bolivia), these “sacks of potatoes” excluded from the historical process began actively to represent themselves.
[Extract. Appeared in ABC on May 25th 2012.]