I’ve written before about the differences between historical capitalism and theoretical capitalism, and a bit about historical and theoretical marxism. In this post I want to lay out some thoughts on class struggle along these same lines – historical and theoretical class struggle.

First, a general point or two here about historical or actually existing vs theoretical. It seems to me that all interpretations have to leave something out – actuality is always bigger than our ability to describe it (to put it another way, the world overflows all descriptions of the world) – so “you left something out” on its own is not a worthwhile criticism, it has to be something important for some reason that was left out. I find Badiou worthwhile here when he says something along the lines of “being is neither multiple nor singular, rather we make a decision to treat it as one or the other.” I’m thinking also here of Marx’s term “rational abstraction” — some abstractions are useful. I think models of capitalism like the one Marx puts out in v1 of Capital are examples of rational abstractions, it’s just important to be aware that they’re models. (I’m making a distinction here that I didn’t make explicitly – I implied that all interpretations are in a way abstractions, which means that “historical vs theoretical” is actually a matter of types of abstractions; I think both are rational abstractions, just different forms of rational abstraction.)

(Note to self go back to that Badiou essay where he talks about a bowl with slugs and fruit and flowers in it; I think that image gets it power because of the particular vocabulary its posed in, I think it wouldn’t work if posed in more general terms, in part because at a more general level all of the elements could be said to have more in common — similarity and difference are partly a matter of the vocabularity and the closeness/distance [the level of magnification, so to speak] that we use.)

(Another note to self, class struggle as a sort of game like Wittgenstein talks about — the autonomist perspective is right in a way that all individualized activity etc is part of class struggle, but wrong in another way.)

Within the models of v1 of Capital and similar understandings it’s easy to get one sense of class struggle, and that’s important, that’s what I mean by theoretical class struggle – class struggle in general. Historical class struggle is different, though, of course.

My hunch is that at different moments in time there are sort of implicit agreements – rules of engagement, if you will – that order (or which are an order imminent to) class struggle, though perhaps that term is too broad and should be made more specific for industries and geography. Anyway, at different moments there’s a range of expectations on both sides. We can identify what is an escalation, for example, and what a de-escalation, and what seems surprising or unsurprising. A round of firings in response to a sickout, for example, is an escalation but not a surprise. A round of murders, in much of the world anyway, would be a surprising response to a sickout. These norms are partially set by law and legislation and partly law and legislation codify these norms, and these norms (and law and policy) change. There’s conflict within a set of norms – attempt at sickout, attempt at retaliatory firing – and there’s attempt to change those norms. Those attempts to change the norms can involve lobbying and lawsuits and so on, and they can involve other efforts. I think around wage theft we’ve seen that the norms really have begun to change on the employers’ side, and fights against wage theft are a response to that. The recent attacks on collective bargaining are an attempt at another such change in the US (and on the other side the Employee Free Choice Act was an attempt to change the rules too), though it’s important I think to note that employers have broadly fought this for a while in practice. I need to run in a minute, this is mostly stuff to think more about, for now, for lack of better terms I’m going to refer to stuff like my sickout vs firing examples as about playing a game (game winner, game loser) and the other stuff as game changers — not in the sense of shifting who wins a particular engagement but rather changing what game is played and how, like if in baseball one team suddenly decided they get four strikes, and managed to enforce that whenever they played. A gamechanging move doesn’t necessarily mean a gamewinning move especially not when it’s early in attempts to change the game.

I also think that different sorts of moves have different meaning and importance in different historical moments. I think we’re unlikely to see full unionization in the US. I also think that under the current arrangement an aggressive and moderately successful push for full unionization would cause big problems for currently existing capitalism, because currently the game or one the games doesn’t involve unionization. This sort of big problem would mean a change in the game (I’ve shifted registers here to now talk about ‘game’ at the level of a larger scale thing like the US economy whereas before I was trying to be a bit more localized). That said, while that would be a big problem for actually existing capitalism given current institutional arrangements, it’s not at all clear that there couldn’t be innovations that made for a new capitalism with new institutional arrangements such that unionization wouldn’t pose the same type of challenge. I think that in certain moments some efforts have a short term conflict potential due to their incompatibility with the current institutional forms of capitalism, once institutional forms change in response to challenge, the conflict potential declines. There’s a sort of trajectory to this I think. The challenge something poses to currently existing capitalism is very important but we should also be careful about not overestimating the degree to which a challenge to current capitalism is a challenge to capitalism as such and makes contributions to building a new society.