Splendors and miseries of producerism

Over five months ago, the German politician Alexander Gauland — known as a figurehead of the newly-ascendant Alternative für Deutschland party — gave a speech to a fully-packed Reichstag. By then Gauland certainly was no stranger to controversy. He recently was caught lifting passages from a 1932 Hitler speech, riddled with antisemitic references, at the same time as he was comfortably castigating different leaders of the German Republic as “exponents of the Third Reich.” What Gauland did in June of 2018, however, was less provocative, and more revealing of a tendency that has returned with a dogged vengeance in the last ten years: producerism. According to Gauland, the reason German society was such a “wonder” was that it relied on one specific stratum of citizens — “tax-paying citizens.” As he put it:

Germany has 83 million inhabitants. Of these, 44 million are employed, however broadly that notion is conceived. 27 million pay taxes, and everybody else lives from these taxes. Take away from this number those who pay taxes, but whose salaries are funded by taxes — civil servants, soldiers, politicians, teachers — and we are left with 15 million genuine taxpayers. This small group funds the development of our society and funds the chancellor’s budget. Unfortunately this group is growing ever smaller… and we are being replaced by “unproductives.”

Expectedly, Gauland continued his rant with a reference to the recent influx of refugees into the country, which were there to leech off the treasury and despoil hard-working Germans. He finished off his banausic eulogy to the German Mittelstand by invoking one of the deadliest clichés of the last ten years of specialist writing — the return to a “productive” (as opposed to a “parasitic”) capitalism.

It is tempting to dismiss Gauland’s ravings as the product of a sad passion, the death-rattle of the dying middle class. Yet this becomes more difficult when one compares his perorations to the panoply of calls for a “productive” capitalism which have been voiced in recent weeks Gauland’s “producerism,” as it has been called, has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in leftish quarters as well, with left-populists like Sahra Wagenknecht and Jean-Luc Mélenchon calling for a return to a more “dynamic” capitalism, undone of its rent-seeking elements. The intent of this essay, in turn, is to ask the question whether “producerism” has any place on the Marxist left, and whether it actually measures up to its descriptive and political ambitions.

Gauland’s producerism also has an old history. Historians have traced back its tendencies to ancient Stoicism to the small “artisan democracy” of democratic Athens, in which the economic independence of the craftsman was said to buttress their claim to an independent political will. This view of “democracy” as undergirded by a strong “work ethic,” in which the economic independence of the artisan worker buttressed their political independence, continued to inform radical visions throughout the early modern period, ranging from James Harrington’s paean to “agrarian law” in Oceana (1656) to Thomas Paine’s eulogy of the “producer” in his Agrarian Justice (1797). As it stands, the so-called “producers’ ethic” has been a cornerstone of radical thought since at least the English revolutionary era, with groups such as  Levelers and the Diggers rallying the popular classes against aristocratic rentiers and usurious landlords.

In capitalist society, though, “producerism” has also always fulfilled a curious function. In many ways, it still remains an essentially transitional ideology, flourishing in the crevices between two different epochs when one class has to take over from another and is gathering its ideological wares to justify this takeover. Harrington’s paean to the “small yeoman,” for instance, occurred in the aftermath of the mass expropriation of the British peasantry, which created a class of landless proletarians. In 1656, a degree of stratification was already becoming visible in this new class. On one side one found rural laborers, clinging to their customary rights, while on the other a group of were wealthier yeomen, also ex-tenants, employed wage labor on the lands they leased from the aristocracy. As Ellen Meiksins Wood notes, Harrington’s bucolic vision of a republic of small landowners was a snapshot of a transitory moment in English history, when the yeomanry was young and the aristocracy hadn’t yet subdued its lessees — and industrial slavery was a distant prospect.

History would also quickly catch up with it. Thirty years later, for instance, the most talented defender of the British gentry — philosopher John Locke — in the late seventeenth-century began to adopt Harrington’s language of the “producer” to defend the “productive” side of the land owning class against its idle counterpart  (also known as the Country-Court debate). Once Locke’s gentry completed its transition to agrarian capitalism, “producerism” again crossed the aisle toward the industrial camp in the 1790s, when political economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo used it in their anti-Corn Law agitation and defended an up-and-coming industrial bourgeoisie against an aging aristocracy. This is not to say there were no popular producerists, either. Figures such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Spence, William Cobbett, and Thomas Jefferson all centered their vision of the agrarian republic around the figure of the producer. Yet they often left unresolved as to who was to count as a producer in the first place. In the case of Jefferson this ambiguity was particularly noxious: to him, both slave-owners and yeomen qualified for inclusion in the producers’ republic, while slaves, women and wage workers did not.

One should not be naïve about the pervasiveness of this rhetoric on the Left as well. Left-wing idols such as Proudhon, Fourier, O’Brien, and Dühring were also known to use language extolling the productive citizen, handed down to them by Jacobin and revolutionary precedents — a sentiment that not rarely slipped into antisemitic stereotyping. Nineteenth-century socialism was heavily indebted to a plebeian workerism which cast the proletariat as the “making class” without which the “precipice of industrial civilization would collapse in a second.” This producerism found its way into many twentieth century Marxist movements as well, from the interwar KPD to the vintage Italian operaismo of Negri and Tronti. Each time in these workerisms, the vibrant and life-giving nature of labor was affirmed against the stagnant nature of capital, which was diametrically opposed to the former.1

It requires little imagination to see how “producerism” can easily slide into reactionary stances. The French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s celebration of a “France that gets up early” in 2008, British PM David Cameron’s distasteful defense of “working families,” or the obscene “right to work” laws that have swept Republican legislatures in the last decade serve as a case in point. The 1940 slogan of Vichy France — “Work, Family, Homeland” [Travail, famille, patrie] — indicates a longstanding willingness on behalf of conservatives to mobilize the “dignity of work” to statements socialist forces as somehow promoting profligacy. The most perverse instance of this right-wing workerism is the Nazi distinction between “shaping” [schaffendes] and “taking” capital [raffendes], itself a pale derivative of Henry Ford’s dichotomy between “takers” and “getters”: the former identified with “international Jewry,” the latter equated with Ford’s Waspish “captains of industry.”

Ford’s own producerist doctrine deserves to be revisited, mainly because it indicates the dangers of Marxists adapting its vocabulary. Since his translation of the International Jew in 1922 (a book hugely popular with Nazi ideologues), Ford had thought that the main problem in industrial society was business’ dependence on an unproductive caste of financiers. Because Jewish bankers kept a firm hand on the money supply, controlled the instruments of credit, and insisted on the payment of dividends, Ford claimed that the dynamism of the American economy was hampered by a parasitical increment. If one could truly eliminate the middleman and let currency flow freely, thereby delivering the “productive” side of capital from the “parasitic,” balance would finally be restored.2 To Ford, no surplus extraction could take place in his Detroit factory. Only when his cars entered the market did usurers skim off the rightful gains to the product. The depraved metastasis of his workerism was the slogan emblazoned on the Auschwitz-concentration camp — Arbeit Macht Frei. In the Nazi death factory, “producerism” was nothing but a pretext for extermination.

Visibly, such a sketch highlights the intrinsic instability of producerist discourse. The problem with the recurrent language of the producer is that is both too broad and too narrow at the same time. Too broad, since it does not allow for any cogent prescriptions as to where the boundary between “producer” and “parasite” is to be drawn. Does it include the yeoman, the enterprising gentry, the salaried worker, the potent manager, or all of these? Does it exclude or include financiers? Do the unemployed qualify for the label?

At the same time, producerism is also too narrow, since it inevitably shuts out sections of the proletariat that are not in employment, and naturalized the existence of cleavages within the waged class. The essentially transitional nature of producerist ideology means it all too often operates as an alibi for capitalist expansion; in the last thirty years, with growth-rates stagnating and Western capitalism in a state of decadence, producerists call upon the virtues of the hardworking citizen to prop up employers’ profit margins.

Yet still our age cannot rid itself of the producerist temptation. As noted by Gavin Mueller, a producerist narrative has made a comeback in the internet age with the specter of the so-called “sharing economy.” Here, hacktivists and digital entrepreneurs are being retarded by the monopolistic practices of behemoths like Google and Facebook. References to “crony capitalism” and to “corporate corruption” are rife in this literature, with Bitcoin-enthusiasts advertising their monetary racket as the tool to sidestep the malicious central banks. The senility of this tactic is not only exposed in the epic plunge the cryptocurrency market has experienced in the last couple of weeks. It is also patent in the essential continuity that exists between the innovative, “frontier phase” of the internet in the 1990s and the rise of the corporate tech-industry in the late 2000s — i.e., the same Steve Jobs who ran a company in his garage later presided over the Apple empire. This attitude survives in an update version of Negrite workerism, adapted to the online age, where we are all supposedly “content-producers” by scrolling through our newsfeeds on and liking our friends’ holiday pics. No matter how hopeless it seems, producerism dies hard.

The problem with producerism is not only that it is politically odious. It is also descriptively wrong. In its one-sided affirmation of “labor” against idleness, producerists obscure their notion of labor’s implication with the creation of heteronomous and impersonal structures in capitalist society. Conceived as the concrete activity of a geographically-rooted community, producerists forget that capitalist “concrete” labor (i.e., work) cannot exist without “abstract” labor (i.e., employment). By sidelining and misjudging the value-constituting nature of this concrete labor, producerism erases the very factors which make concrete labor untenable in capitalism in the first place. Its celebration of yeomen against large corporate structures forgets that the property of one inevitably leads to dispossession of another — i.e., that monopoly and competition are two sides of the same coin — a charge Marx often leveled at Proudhon.

The same holds for Gauland’s idea that there are somehow only eight million “working” citizens amongst the German population. By relegating part of the state sector to “unproductive labor,” Gauland neatly forgets the fact that the roads, trains, cars his shopkeeper uses are themselves the products of public rather than private capital, already upending his treasured distinction between “producers” and “nonproducers.” At the same time, of the fourteen million hardworking citizens Gauland celebrates, a portion would be chartered corporations, whose artificial agency can hardly be likened to the middling class he celebrates. Employees of a corporation are in essence the servants of an impersonal entity which deals with a form of “labor” that is essentially social rather than private, whatever Proudhonist fantasizing one engages in.3

Echoes of producerist rhetoric are also audible in calls for a renewed market socialism, which has made a bit of a comeback in the post-2008 era. The idea here is that since workers produce the actual source of material through their labor (and not through value), socialists ought to dispense with the expropriating class altogether and opt for self-management instead. By creating sovereign wealth funds, worker-owned companies and codetermined boardrooms, socialists can purportedly “reclaim” production from the capitalist class and “run the factories themselves.” This vision of capitalists as a mere fetter on production — whether in its corporate or its family-firm form — is particularly prone to obscuring the degree to which competitive pressure will persist even with worker-run firms. Although such a tactic might indeed eliminate the “personal” dependency of workers  in the workplace (and thereby alleviate a lot of suffering), it does little to address people’s “impersonal” dependency on markets, which can only be solved through the installation of central planning. Although producerism’s roots in the republican tradition — which adheres to a vision of liberty as “independence” rather than liberal “noninterference” — offers a powerful critique of this “despotism in the workshop,” as Engels himself put it, it is at pains to explain capital’s status as a “self-moving substance,” an entity to which the producer’s “labor” itself is imparted. Once the worker realizes that his employer is nothing but a “slave of slaves,” as William Clare Roberts puts it, and realizes that the fruits of his cooperative will also be sacrificed to the god of the market, producerism enters into terminal crisis.

This not to say that Marxists should altogether shun the language of the “producer.” Communism’s aim will remain the unfettering production and unpeg it from its debilitating marriage with the profit motive, where only those products that meet the benchmark of solvency qualify for production in the first place. Yet it ought be clear that the “producer” it talks about is not a individualist yeoman or full-time salaried worker, with all the exclusionary and sexist implications this brings with it. Neither should we accept the idea that the heteronomous experience of production can somehow be remedied by an acceleration in consumption rates or “free time” (André Gorz). Capitalist consumerism will always remain a pale derivative of its producerist predecessor, offering succor once the sphere of production has been abandoned.

Rather, Marxists should insist that its “producer” comprises humanity as a whole — a “producer” which, although estranged from its actual productive potential, remains the unconscious source of all the wealth that capitalism secretes on our planet. This can be compared to Marx and Engels’ notion of a communist humanity as a “collective author” coming into its own, in which the “real history” written by individuals would not be the anarchic sketch we witness today, but rather product of conscious and coordinated planning. Even for the growing “permanent surplus population,” such a mass producerism would offer a vision that does not naturalize and moralize on the basis of capitalist assumptions and does not unnecessarily divide workers against one another. Instead, we should refuse the binary blackmail of “producerism” versus “consumerism” and insist on shattering this opposition altogether, making “production for need” a reality rather than a fortunate byproduct of our current economy. As the German theorist Bini Adamczak has argued, such a communism requires nothing less than “the collective transformation of all social spheres so that the need to escape — into ‘leisure’ time, the mall, or television — is overwhelmingly minimized,” while acknowledging “the specific nature of capitalist labor” and its “fixation on growth as surplus production.”4 Instead of pitting different sections of the class against each other, or rallying them against a parasitical finance caste, Marxists should insist on today’s humanity as the devolved author of its own destiny, standing on the brink of a society which, as the man himself put it, would “be as all-sided in its production as its consumption.”

Anton Jäger
Brussels, Belgium
October 2018


1 It is not unreasonable to ascribe the tenacity of this producer-ism in the twentieth century to a certain sense of “cultural lag,” whereby the persistence of the ancien régime and its personal modes of appropriation (mainly state offices) informed a vision of capitalism as mainly relying on concrete (political) rather than abstract (economic) power. Although riddled with inconsistencies even in its own time, this vision possesses little to no viability today, where the global peasantry has been effaced and generalized market dependency is a social fact.
2 It was for this precise reason that Adorno and Horkheimer typified modern antisemitism as an attempt to cognitively “rid” the sphere of production of its “dominating elements” and relegate it exclusively to the sphere of circulation — that of the Jews.
3 Additionally, Gauland blatantly shoves aside the role the unemployed or underemployed play in keeping competition in smooth water by providing a reservoir of exploitable laborers and willing consumers (nor does he see how the hard work of his companies is itself constitutive of the flood of refugees currently streaming into the country, mainly through imperialism).
4 Needless to say, the term “growth” is little more than a journalistic synonym for capital accumulation.