The Withering of Civil Society

By Michael Hardt:

(Social Text, No. 45 (Winter, 1995), pp. 27-44.)

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“Claiming the decline of civil sociey, of course, does not mean that all the mechanisms of rule and organization which characterized civil society no longer exist or function. Similarly, recognizing a passage from disciplinary societies to societies of control does not mean that disciplinary deployments and the attendant potentialities of resistance have completely disappeared. Disciplinary deployments remain, as do elements of sovereignty in the regimes of control. … What is primarily at issue, though, is not simply the existence of certain apparatuses, mechanisms, or deployments, but rather their predominance within a specific paradigm of rule. Our task is to discern the salient characteristics of the social formation that succeeds civil society; the smooth spaces of the societies of control constitute our first attempt. We can formulate a second, complementary approach to this problematic by casting the passage not in Foucauldian but rather in Marxian terminology, which will highlight the contemporary change in the social organization of labor. … Marx recognized the passage from the formal to the real subsumption in nineteenth-century society as a tendency, but it seems to me that this passage has only come to be generalized in the most completely capitalist countries in our times. According to Marx, in the first of these two phases, the formal subsumption, social labor processes are subsumed under capital; that is, they are enveloped within the capitalist relations of production in such a manner that capital intervenes as the director or manager. In this arrangement, capital subsumes labor the way it finds it; capital takes over existing labor processes that were developed in previous modes of production or at any rate outside of capitalist production. …. Actually, as Hegel clearly recognized in his writings … capital cannot directly integrate concrete labor but must first abstract it from its concrete forms. The various processes of abstraction, the resistances these give rise to, and the potential lines of social conflict between concrete labor and abstract labor are thus principle characteristics of the phase of the formal subsumption. Capital tends, however, through the socialization of production and through scientific and technological innovation, to create new labor processes and to destroy old ones, transforming the situations of the various agents of production. Capital thus sets in motion a specifically capitalist mode of production. Marx calls the subsumption of labor _real_, then, when the labor processes themselves are born within capital and therefore when labor is incorporated not as an external, but an internal force, proper to capital itself. As we move to the phase of the real subsumption, Marx explains, labor processes evolve so that, first of all, production is no longer a direct and individual activitv but an immediately social activity. … In the _specifically_ capitalist mode of production, that is, in the phase of the real subsumption, productive labor – or even production in general – no longer appears as the pillar that defines and sustains capitalist social organization. Production is given an objective quality, as if the capitalist system were a machine that marched forward on its own accord, without labor, a capitalist automaton. … This is how we should understand the passage from the formal to the real subsumption. The society of the formal subsumption was characterized by the dialectic between capital and labor: as a foreign force subsumed within capital, labor had to be abstracted, recuperated, disciplined, and tamed within the productive processes. But labor nonetheless was continually recognized as the source of all social wealth. … In the society of the real subsumption this dialectic no longer holds the central role, and capital no longer needs to engage labor or represent labor at the heart of production. What is subsumed, what is accepted into the process, is no longer a potentially conflictive force but a product of the system itself; the real subsumption does not extend vertically throughout the various strata of society but rather constructs a separate plane, a simulacrum of society that excludes or marginalizes social forces foreign to the system. Social capital thus appears to reproduce itself autonomously, as if it were emancipated from the working class, and labor becomes invisible in the system.”

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