Here’s something I would like to study but probably won’t in any serious way, or that I wish someone else would study and write a book about so I can read it:

metaphors of the body and physicality used in discussions of the working class, and of mind and intellect. This thought struck me tonight while reading Laurence Friedman’s mammoth History of American Law. Friedman writes that “the labor movement made great headway in the last decades of the [nineteenth] century. (…) Not all their victories were won by sheer muscle. Labor showed strength in the legislatures, too.” (558.) The reference to muscle refers to the immediately preceding discussion of strikes, boycotts, pickets, and the response of courts to these tactics (mostly injunctions and contempt of court, with a short but interesting thumbnail sketch of the development over time of these responses). Now I know I’m over-reading this passage and I know it will sound hostile. I like Friedman and I’m not actually objecting but the reference to muscle here is I think interesting and indicative of a common type of treatment of workers.

The quote treats strikes and other economic conflict as a matter of muscle. This is reasonable, in that the issue here is force against force. On the other hand, the passage links strikes with muscle (“sheer muscle”) and other victories as involving more than that – some sort of finesse or charm or brains. More specifically, this something else which is not muscle or is not reducible to muscle is associated with legislative routes to change. Brains and government, that’s one way to say the pairing involved here. That pair isn’t stated but I think it’s deducible in that it’s opposite, sheer muscle and those who are generally removed from government, is discussed here.

Again, as metaphor for the conflict involved, I have no issue with “muscle” (though “will” might do better). At the same time, it’s hard for me not to read (I know, over-read) this as involving something like the following:

muscles are intellectually uncomplicated. They exert or they don’t. Strikes being “sheer muscle” removes the great deal of intelligence and conversation (much of the stuff that goes under the heading ‘immaterial labor’ or ‘affective labor’) involved in making strikes happen. The companies who sought labor injunctions recognized these traits, decrying the “arguments, persuasion and personal appeals” used to “entice” workers to strike. (Friedman, 557.)

Like I said, I probably won’t seriously do work on this. At a minimum not for a very long time. I wish someone else would, on the history of the definition of the working class as the not-thinking class or the merely-bodily class. This is implied in the idea of the working class as proletarii, and in the term ‘manual labor’ as if those jobs involve only the hands and no mental capacity at all (not to sing the praises of deadly boring jobs but just to note that those jobs are not literally only manual, obviously, and not only corporeal in a narrow sense. All of this also reminds me that I’d really like to know when the term ‘proletariat’ first came back into use and when it took on the basic sense given to it by Marx and other somewhat similar writers). Another way to say this would that someone should explore the links between the appropriation and normalization of bodies and the rhetorical reduction of some humans to being only or primarily bodies rather than considering them as having mental capacities as well. And how has this reduction operated in and shaped works in labor history, political economy, the broad left tradition etc (shaping assumptions and framing questions, and in what ways have some people gotten away from this at least to some degree at some times)?


(Incidentally, this is part of why I’m no longer excited about the idea of the general intellect and work which makes much of it. I think many of the claims made to the novelty of the present moment by that work rest in large part on occluding a long history of the combination of workers of head and hand. I think that work can be read as involving a pairing like the one I mentioned above, that of brains and government. Let me put this quite uncharitably. There’s a series involving logical leaps and implied caricatures of previous eras. First an epochal claim or implication along the lines of “the valorization process now involves workers’ brains.” Second a claim or implication along the lines of “workers use their brains on the clock so they have the power to use their brains off the clock.” Third the triumphal claim that workers are ready for government, at least in the sense of running their own lives. They have brains, they can govern. It’s the myth of the metals.

This reminds me of this snarky, tremendously uncharitable, and really excellent Ranciere quote from the time of his break from Althusserianism: “Althusser’s casual treatment of Plato or Descartes seems quite pardonable compared with his nonchalant endorsement of the official histort of the labour movement (both social-democratic and revisionist), which adds the weight of its falsifications to the firing squads and prison sentences of the bourgeoisie.” The issue is how much people in the past were capable of doing more than one thing.

I prefer this point from Braverman – the separation of conception and execution, which, Braverman notes, is a better name than the ’separation of mental and manual labor’. The point being that its decision making power, control over the shopfloor, that is at stake. Not thought. Workers can think, management doesn’t care, so long as they don’t have power.

It’d be interesting to tie this to criticisms of Marx and explorations of his metaphors and terminologies of the national, military [notes on the latter here, here, and here], and the idea of the proletariat’s gravedigger role [note to self, revisit Ranciere on this metaphor in The Philosopher And His Poor] being itself the product of capitalism – the proletariat united and disciplined by capitalism.)