Capitalist Discipline and American Politics

Published online 5 May 2009.

This is, of course, a revisitation of an earlier diary of mine — with hopefully a more indepth discussion of what capitalist discipline is, how it relates to American politics, and why it’s important to a theoretical understanding of the political and economic situation we’re in today.

So what is capitalist discipline?  In its core definition, capitalist discipline is work discipline.  It’s the train of habits which glues the working class to their jobs.  So you wake up when the alarm clock hits 6, get up, make some coffee, drink coffee, prepare for work, and go on the morning commute to the office, where you do whatever it is you do.  Capitalist discipline is, in short, labor discipline, and this is the way the term is used in texts such as Aihwa Ong’s brilliant ethnography Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline.

But capitalist discipline is also important in a wider view of political economy, as a force subordinating the individual worker to a profit-making machine, for the sake of the greater prosperity of a national economy governed by rules of property and money.  Capitalist discipline is the coercive social glue that keeps people working in a capitalist economy.  (Oh, sure, everyone is PAID to work; but those work habits are not formed in a day.)  Capitalist discipline may not be the determinant of national prosperity, as such: of course the relative economic and political power of nations determines whether they will do well or poorly in what the mainstream media calls the “global market.”  (See M. Shahid Alam’s book Poverty from the Wealth of Nations for further analysis of why more power means more prosperity for individual nations.) But capitalist discipline is nevertheless a prerequisite for national prosperity, which explains why even the so-called “Communist” nations adopted some form of capitalist discipline in the 20th century.

Capitalist discipline is agnostic as to what it produces – thus the production of artists and craftspeople is not centrally part of capitalist discipline (except insofar as they themselves are tied to profit-making).     This also goes for “professionals,” though what a “professional” is, is often determined not by what people do but by how much schooling they have to go through to get paid to do it, and by how much they get paid.

Why is capitalist discipline politically important?

Issues of capitalist discipline attained political importance amidst the “fall of communism.”  What the marxists discovered, amidst the fall of the first nation-state to consider Marx to be worth a read, was that there was no common “class interest” among the working class.

Thus capitalist discipline, as a sort of “motor” of the capitalist system, offers us an explanation for why the dream of global socialism (as it shines throughout Marx’s work) did not turn out as planned.  There may be a capitalist discipline motivating the capitalist system; yet there is no socialist discipline motivating socialism.  (This, to a certain extent, explains why the Soviets and Chinese gave up on “socialism”: having adopted much of capitalist life already, and having given up on the motivating force of “war communism,” they discovered that they could increase production by adopting orthodox methods of capitalist exploitation.)

What the old socialists relied upon to motivate workers to be socialists was a notion of “class interest.”  The old conception of the working class’s “class interest” was that the main obstacles to revolution were those of informing the working class of its “class interest” and of bringing the working class together in a powerful manner.  If those things could be accomplished, it was imagined, a socialist revolution would ensue, and the owning class would discover that it was vastly outnumbered, and surrender its privileges after the revolution.  From the Communist Manifesto:

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

The assumption taken for granted here, of course, is that the “revolutionary combination, due to association” of workers will be enough to spark the revolution, since everyone knows her interest beforehand.  The problem with this formulation, of course, is that “interest” does not form as a natural response to conditions.  “Interest” is itself constructed.  Capitalist discipline molds our class interests, so that we imagine more capitalism to be in our “class interests.”

As capitalism becomes more normal, it has been forcefully argued, the working class “class interest” loses its utopian flavor, and becomes a matter of social democracy, capitalism “with benefits,” capitalism on the Swedish model.  Capitalist discipline inures people to participation in capitalism.  The working class may just vote to keep the old system, but with higher wages and benefits.  One important example to note: In the second volume of Julius Braunthal’s three-volume History of the International discusses how, after World War I, Lenin got the various Communist Parties of western Europe to sign on to the Twenty-One Points, which forbade reformists membership privileges.  This move resulted in a steep decline in Party memberships.  (A synopsis of this history is given on

Craig Calhoun (The Question of Class Struggle) suggests that, as the working class becomes more acclimatized to capitalist production, it more clearly tends to endorse social democracy, rather than socialism, as a compromise solution to the problem of class struggle.  The primary force motivating this acclimation was, and is, capitalist discipline.

Capitalist discipline, then, imposes a sort of “ceiling” upon the political aspirations of working people.  People get used to capitalism, and it limits their expressions of frustration at being ripped off by its worst aspects, as well as their abilities to imagine how things could be otherwise.  This is why you see politicians now, in the wake of last year’s severe economic downturn, promising to bring back “jobs” to the economy.  This is the most we can expect from mainstream politicians today.

But are we really supposed to expect to work, indefinitely, for some ecologically and socially malignant corporate order?  A more imaginative political system would actually entertain debates as to whether or not working people should actually have control over the processes of production, or whether everyone should have the right to live off of the land, through direct access to the means of subsistence.  (What I am suggesting, for the record, is that the US develop the sort of political creativity which the Zapatistas have attempted to inject into the Mexican political process.)

Now, as for the matter of the “class interest,” the owning class understands its own “class interest” (in marxist terms) quite well: corporate profit to the skies, and forget everything else.  Neoliberalism is the result when you have a political system in which the wealthiest participants actually “get” Marx’s idea of class struggle.  The working class gave up on class struggle long before the Republicans did.

The Republicans, whose love of the class struggle was made most obvious in Rush Limbaugh’s citation of Gramsci in See, I Told You So, have used the last twenty-eight years of their rise to power to write political insurance policies against the possibility of the rest of us coming back to claim America from its owning class.  Oh, sure, everyone knows now that Republicanism was a fraud and a cult, so you’d hope that it would just be swept away as a result.  Obama’s in power, the Democrats control Congress, so you’d think we’d stop obsessing over Republicans and get to the business of proper governance.  In the real world, the problems which festered under the Bush administration (eg health care, education, abrupt climate change) are not even close to being solved.

We can blame a sort of homogeneous elite rule for this situation.  The Democratic Party is part of this: the Democratic Party has traditionally been the party of old wealth, of funders secure enough in their social position to endorse basic guarantees in social welfare.  (See G. William Domhoff’s Fat Cats and Democrats for a historical discussion of this tradition.)  By contrast, the Republican Party has, since Goldwater lost in ’64, become an anti-humanistic party of wannabe millionaires with religious perversions and an anti-tax obsession.  Both parties feed into the ruling practices that would be typical of a society with great disparities in wealth, by representing different fractions of capital.

But we can also see that capitalist discipline itself keeps American politics in this fixed pattern.  American history is capitalist history: the American Revolution was one of the two great bourgeois revolutions, the French Revolution being the other, and the post-revolutionary pride of American politics is to a certain extent an entrepreneurial spirit, a belief in the notions that “early to bed and early to rise/ makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” and “a penny saved is a penny earned” (to quote a text of one of the Founding Fathers).

Eugene Debs notwithstanding, the US has also never been much of a place for the promotion of socialism.  The presence of the “frontier” in American history was part of the persistence of American capitalism: if one hit bad luck in capitalist business, there was always somewhere to move to.  After the closure of the frontier, to be sure, there were two successful anti-communist campaigns: the “Red Scare” of the 1920s and the McCarthy era of the 1950s.  The class struggle in the US was then for the most part bounded by the struggle for social democracy, thus allowing capitalist discipline to “sink in” here to an extent not seen elsewhere.  In America’s reigning political ideology, happiness is predicated upon prosperity, and prosperity upon jobs.

Most importantly, though, the US role after World War II was that of the most important core nation, the nation representing capital as a whole, in struggle against the Soviet Union in the “Cold War” during the heyday of the capitalist system as a whole (1948-1971).  Thus the United States, as the premier example of a core nation, is the one nation upon which the capitalist emblem is most distinctly inscribed.

Capitalist discipline has shaped us, from our working hours to our recreational pastimes to our educational practices, so that we are workers and consumers.  Perhaps this explains why so many of our political solutions presume that society’s problems will be cured by imposing more capitalist discipline upon them.  Our schools are not productive, so their students must produce higher test scores.  Our economy is lagging, so manufacturing must be reintroduced into it.  Everyone needs health insurance, so the employers must provide it (since everyone also needs “a job”) and it must “make a profit” (thus no public option).  Abrupt climate change threatens our environment, so we need to produce more alternative energy.

To be sure, the cultural revolution of the 1960s created spaces outside of capitalist discipline, spaces in which social life could have been reinvented.  But no alternative society came out of these spaces; rather, from our present-day perspective the ‘60s and ‘70s suggest a temporary “Woodstock” of festive culture which has yet to produce any whole-grain, large-scale change in our way of life.

Conclusion: Good Old American Know-How

The Communist Manifesto, as we saw above, was wrong to assume that the working class “class interest,” put together with the “revolutionary combination” of workers, would lead to capitalism’s overthrow.  The bourgeoisie, then, are not their own gravediggers — at least not in the sense of the “progress of industry” leading to any socialist revolution.

However, as Kees van der Pijl points out in his book Transnational Classes and International Relations, capitalist discipline tends to spread into every sphere of life, because capital typically moves to exhaust society and nature with its demands for discipline (and its desire to rip off the world by skimming profit off of the work processes created with this discipline):

Capital is in constant quest for unpaid labour in its social substratum, and once a major ‘deposit’ is found and incorporated, it seeks to raise the rate of exploitation in the actual labour process; until at some point the social and natural substratum on which capital accumulation feeds, which it penetrates and transforms, begins to show signs of exhaustion.  (36)

Thus capital will exploit the world to death at some point, and it is in this way, and not the revolutionary one, which the capitalist system undercuts itself.  What I’ve suggested, in conversation with van der Pijl and with others, is that in order to resist capitalist discipline, what we need is some counter-version of discipline.

What America, and the world, needs, then, is not more capitalist discipline, but rather a different type of discipline, a discipline which would be oriented to keeping the ecosystems of planet Earth alive and healthy and supporting human life.  This is what I call “ecological discipline.”

Capitalist discipline will not substitute for ecological discipline because the problem of creating a sustainable society is not one of insufficient productivity.  Rather, out-of-control production is itself the problem.  Nature already produces; what’s important is that we nurture disciplines (e.g. agroecology, permaculture) which realign human production with natural production (while preserving what is best about our present-day world society).

Ecological discipline, however, is not at present associated with social power.  Rather, the burning of fossil fuels (which at this point has become an ecologically dangerous practice) is itself a facet of social power.  What we need at this point is some sort of emergency exercise of social power (a general strike perhaps?) in which social power can itself be re-configured.


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