The Civic and the Proletarian

…nothing to expect but – a hiding.
— Marx, Capital, Vol. I1

The Notion of Citizenship

The notion of citizenship is, so to speak, on the agenda. Facing crises in communal life, political scientists have proposed the solution of civic participation. Facing the hardship of economic crisis, political powers have responded by defending the privileges of citizens against dangerous immigrants. Seizing on crises in political legitimacy, activists have raised the banner of the citizenry against state and party elites. In East-Central Europe, the revolutionary ideals of 1989 hang on in an ethic of civilized dialogue, supposed to keep away uncivil populist and nationalist threats; and funding agencies support “civil society initiatives” as a hopeful guarantee of open markets and pluralistic culture. Around the world new social movements, active in civil society, are supposed to have replaced the old social movements based in labor. The opposition in Iran has been reading theories of civil society by former East-Central European dissidents, while in Ecuador a president has declared a “citizens’ revolution” for political renewal. In Mexico, Zapatistas have called for a rebirth and mobilization of civil society by arming citizens against a repressive state.

What is this notion of citizenship that reveals itself in these varied and successive appearances, as “civic” participation, “civil” society, or “civil” rights (words that are distinguished in customary usage, but which I would describe as alternate manifestations of a shared semiotic core)? The law provides us with positive definitions, defining individuals’ relationship to given states, which grant rights to participate in civil society. But such definitions conceal as much as they reveal. The full meaning of citizenship comes out only in relation to other categories which citizenship excludes. This is true not only because all categories of meaning are defined against their opposites, but also because citizenship as a specific category is characterized fundamentally by the principle of exclusion.

Citizenship, typically conceived as a bundle of rights, functions de facto as a bundle of privileges, that is to say, of rights that must be granted, rights which, in spite of universalist justifications, are always granted to some and not to others, and which are granted on the condition that right-holders renounce their claims on other rights. The non-citizen tends to become not only uncivil but also uncivilized, deprived not only of specific civil rights but also of human dignity. The citizen is civilized while the non-citizen is made barbaric. Such facts, however, are obscured as long as citizenship is understood positively, in terms of what it includes (in terms of which citizens have which rights). The facts only become apparent when we begin to view citizenship negatively, in terms of what it excludes (in terms of which people are not granted citizenship and what parts of life are left unprotected by civil rights). Once this shift in perspective is taken, it becomes apparent that the rights of citizenship are dependent on the non-rights of non-citizenship. Citizenship can be properly understood only by reference to the tramp.

Fortunately, the question has already begun to be more properly posed. A global movement of undocumented non-citizens asks what non-citizens are and what they can become. A movement of precarious multitudes asks how its condition of exclusion can be transformed into a standpoint of liberation. A movement that has claimed the voice of the vast majority asks how ninety-nine percent of us, with citizenship papers or without, have been in fact excluded from civic control over political and economic life. The notion of citizenship has been on the agenda. Will it be replaced by its heretofore hidden core, the notion of the undocumented, the precarious, the non-citizen—what we used to call the proletariat?


The other day an acquaintance told me how as a young woman she had joined the crowds gathering throughout Czechoslovakia in November, 1989. The people’s initial trepidation gave way to excitement as the crowds grew and the police declined to intervene. Excitement became confidence, and a committee of revolutionaries went to carry their demands to the leaders of the old regime. The next day the crowd assembled again, and the committee returned, shouting from a balcony, “We’ve won an end to the leading role of the Party!” Amidst the applause, the committee went off to continue its negotiations, and the following day it came to announce a further victory: “We’ve won an end to leading role of the working class!”

This second announcement is both absurd and of questionable authenticity. Few people believed that the working class had really played the leading role in the outgoing government. And available documentary evidence records no such statement having been made that day. Nevertheless it’s telling that it could etch itself so vividly into the memory of a young woman in the crowd. Even if she did not correctly remember the words, she correctly remembered one of the event’s primary meanings. The marginalization of the working class as a political figure was perhaps the defining gesture in the founding of a new regime whose leading idea would be “civil society.”

In November 1989, the revolution was not understood by its supporters as an attack on working people—and working people, including industrial workers, actually played an active role in bringing an end to Communist rule. It must have seemed only natural to do away with all of the Communist Party’s empty ideology, including its empty praise of the working class. Yet subsequent events reveal that the discursive turn away from the working class coincided with policy-changes that had tangible effects on the lives of workers. Among the first tasks of the new, post-Communist government were a series of market-liberalization policies, property restitutions, and spending cuts which brought widespread unemployment to the poorest parts of the country, social insecurity for the unemployed, and worsening labor conditions for those still at work. Still, this fact itself is not what is most telling—after all, revolutionaries are never quite prepared for the unpredictable moment after the revolution, and those who lead their country into catastrophe might be forgiven for their inexperience. What is telling is that they were so untroubled by this new state of affairs. In their accounts of the unfolding events, they hardly seemed to notice it at all.

It is true that attempts were made to mitigate the worst “extremes” of the “transition to democracy,” but these attempts were rarely advanced by the former dissidents who spoke so eloquently of “responsibility” and who might be said to have borne some responsibility for the direction their regime took. Instead of admitting apparent mistakes and changing course, most of them became, together with the circles of young intellectuals around them, the most radical champions of those free-market policies that bullied and impoverished the population—policies which, a few months before, the dissidents had rarely discussed publicly or acknowledged supporting. In most human societies, such an attitude would be called cruel. In the “civil society” that the dissidents tried so hard to build, it was the logical outcome of playing by the rules. It was not that civic leaders disliked workers; they simply were unable to see the proletarian dimension of workers’ lives.

The Revival of Civil Society

The dissidents’ most significant intellectual legacy was the revival of civil society as a normative political-theoretical concept which, in large part thanks to their work, soon became an ideal of democratic political discourse around the world. For the dissidents themselves, the concept of civil society became so powerful a figure of desire that (as was later noted by the self-critical former dissident Ivan Szelényi and his colleagues2) nearly all good things came to be contained in it: the closeness of community and universality of humanity, the bonds of tradition and the most advanced technological progress, the rationalism of public debate and the intimate aestheticism of high art, the solemn duties of political participation and the “apolitical” values of alternative and underground culture. Notably absent from this civic ideal, however, was the notion of labor.

The dissidents posited democratic civil society in opposition to the state. In this they gave new life to a line of thinking that goes back at least to Tocqueville, based on the idea that the state will become overly powerful unless counterbalanced by autonomous, extra-political association. And in the totalizing system of power that reigned in Eastern Europe before 1989, this state/civil society opposition became radicalized, with the state coming to represent all that was evil and debased, and civil society taking on all that was good and pure. Nevertheless, this anti-statism was tempered by a civic ideal, borrowed from classic republicanism, which held the private citizen’s highest duty to be a concern for public affairs. And when the state changed hands in 1989, few of the erstwhile anti-statists hesitated to support new governments, although they reserved the right to oppose untoward state intrusion into the private sphere.

Locke, after all, had already observed that the state need not be opposed to private affairs but can ensure them and protect them. Hegel went further, presenting civil society as logically completed by the state. It is the state, after all, which guarantees civil rights, provides a focus for civic engagement, and, when appropriately governed by civilized statesmen, embodies civic ideals. The structure of civil society seems to be such that its avowed enemy, the state, is also its necessary accomplice, while its true opposite, what it is practically opposed to and what practically opposes it, is what it does not allow to be noticed at all: the working class.

The beautiful ideals of civil society are founded on an ugly secret: the exclusion of the proletariat from the citizenry.3 And this is the key to understanding the blithe indifference of civic democratic movements to the social suffering they help create (a blitheness best symbolized, perhaps, by the smiley-face logo of the Czech Civic Forum and by president Václav Havel’s predilection for signing his public correspondence with a cutely drawn heart). What is excluded from the civic sphere remains, within the consciousness of civil society, at best an afterthought. At worst, it is an object available for unfettered—because unseen—expropriation.

The Logic of Separation

The exclusively bourgeois character of citizenship was perhaps the first great insight of Karl Marx. Before the young Marx wrote his now-famous reflections on alienation and ideology, an even-younger Marx focused his critical energies on law, politics, and civil society, setting out from the liberal ideals of his intellectual revolutionary contemporaries and interrogating the practical possibility of realizing these ideals. The problem was that with the separation of civil society from political society (which it was Hegel’s “keenest insight” to recognize as a contradiction4), it would be possible to achieve political emancipation (e.g. from persecution based on religion) and yet remain enslaved in civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft, bourgeois/civic society). The citizen sees civil society merely as a sphere of freedom from state intervention, while he addresses all his critical politics to the state. He is thus able to pose radical demands for civil rights without calling into question his own role in perpetuating an economy of estrangement and despair.

This narrow field of civic vision is furthermore, according to Marx, no accident, no mere defect of incomplete politicization. It is a result of political emancipation as such, which “abolished the political character of civil society5—that is to say, which consummated the separation of civil society from politics and forbade bourgeois politics from encroaching on the civic sphere. “The old civil society,” wrote Marx, “had a directly political character; that is, the elements of civil life such as property, the family, and types of occupation had been raised…to elements of political life. They determined, in this form, the relation of the individual to the state as a whole; that is, his political position, or in other words, his separation and exclusion from the other elements of society.6 The individual may have been separated from government, but this was politicized separation, in the sense that the principles of government were enmeshed with principles of economics and kinship; even the individual who had minimal power in the state could understand his (or her) powerlessness as a result of the reigning social-political organization. There was hierarchy, but this hierarchy was in plain view and was thus subject to political negotiation and rearrangement. In civil society, by contrast, the hierarchy is preserved and yet disappears. Citizens appear to one another as if they were equals—the law and ideology declare them to be equals—even while some are practically excluded from the benefits of citizenship, which others fully enjoy. This appearance of equality enshrines persisting inequality in a realm beyond the sphere of politics.

This separation between state and civil society is the first of a series of fundamental separations traced by Marx in his critiques of bourgeois society. In much the same way that civil society is cut off from political society and placed beyond the pale of critique, within civil society itself the humanistic values of creativity, community, and love are alienated from the rationalism of the marketplace, and the freedom and equality of the marketplace are absent from the sphere of labor. Then, within the sphere of labor, the process and organization of labor are placed beyond the laborer’s own reach. The primordially world-transforming activity of creation is made inaccessible to the very person who creates, who is not even able to alter the conditions of her or his own laboring.

Everything happens as if a single, overarching logic exerted its will over the social world, fractally dividing and subdividing its fractions into fractions, each more degraded than its predecessor and isolated from the one in which it is contained.7 Marx, for his part, followed this fractioning only as far as the individual being itself, where he believed to have found “the root” of human activity8—yet even there Marx noted the “schism” that civic separation generates within each individual being.9

Recognition of this fractal character can help make sense of the apparently contradictory meanings that surround civil society, which have so troubled political scientists attempting to locate civil society and explain it (and which have, moreover, led contemporary civil society advocates to shrug off Marx’s critiques of civil society, on the grounds that Marx was working with a completely different concept than theirs). At one moment civil society is opposed to politics, while at another moment it denotes precisely the political orientation of citizens; at one moment it exalts the virtues of public life, while at another moment it guards privacy and intimacy; at one moment it is opposed to the egoism and constraint of economic relations, while at another moment it finds its guiding principle in the freedom of commodity exchange, and at yet another moment it provides the economic basis of political superstructure. There is no need to choose one set of these meanings over another. They are all true, because they all emanate from the same recursive logic, according to which any given phenomenon at any given moment can be divided into an elevated civic and a degraded proletarian side. (Privacy, for example, may be construed as proletarian insofar as it denotes the hidden realm of misery and labor in contrast to the ideals of the public sphere. On the other hand, privacy itself may be a civic virtue when the dignity of intimate life is counterposed to the debased world of displaced and homeless proletarians.)

In Marxist tradition, this logic would be identified in the structure of the commodity. A part of the labor process is commodified as labor power, thus becoming inaccessible to the laborer who sells this commodity in exchange for the ability to live. Within civil society—if we take Marx’s analysis somewhat further than he took it himself—the whole of the labor process appears as the abstract form of a single aggregate commodity, as the private property of capitalists, off limits to those who enter civil society only in the role of wage slaves. But then civil society as a whole appears as the private property (a collective commodity) of the citizenry and is thus outside the reach of the state, which promises to protect it but not to intervene. At the same time, this fact of separation is also characterized by a structuring of access and prestige which moves in the opposite direction of the exclusion. Citizens have privileged access to the state. Civil society has privileged access to citizenship. Capitalists, the purchasers of labor power, have privileged access to civil society. The proletariat, having sold its labor power, has access to nothing but the labor process, which is to say—its chains.

The Humanism of the Civic Sphere

The proletariat, as Marx said, is “in” civil society but is not “of” it.10 Labor is the uncivil side of civil society. The labor process, which is a part of civil society, generates a proletarian dimension of society by separating it from a civic dimension, excluding the worker from civic life and, in so doing, alienating the worker from active participation in the being of the species. It is as if the worker, attempting to retain a feeling of essential humanity, could only behold her or his degraded, waged labor as something alien. The worker fears, avoids, suppresses, and consents to the exploitation of this labor—does anything but accept it as a part of her or himself, for this would be too terrible to bear. Labor is so dehumanized that, under prevailing conditions, one can only protect one’s humanity by participating in the alienation of one’s own labor, giving up responsibility for it for the duration of the working day, and then, when the working day is over, looking on one’s past labor and its products as things foreign and strange

In so doing, the aspiration to humanity becomes an act of self-masking, an attempt to join the citizenry, which is to say, the bourgeoisie.

Because Marx, following Hegel, analyzed the totality of civil society, including those dimensions of it that are concealed and the exploitative egoism that is a condition of this concealing, he was able to characterize bourgeois-civil society in all its brutality. It would nevertheless be imprecise to characterize bourgeois society as simply alienating and cruel. The process of alienation simultaneously degrades labor and sets up a sphere of civic freedom that is separated from and also protected from degradation, a sphere which the proletarian can only behold as a mystifying spectacle, but which the bourgeois-citizen can experience as the foundation of life itself. Outside the civic sphere, the world may be more reified, fetishized, alienated from creative reworking than it ever was before; but inside the civic sphere (or more precisely, on the civil side of civil society) it is possible to experience a fullness of life, egalitarian community, and unconstrained autonomy on a scale that is perhaps without precedent in human history

What enters the civic sphere is not reified but becomes immediately mutable, an object of debate and remaking. The history of this sphere appears as conscious history, and the human being in this sphere becomes a continual re-maker of the world. This sphere is responsible for the beauty and sublimity that Adorno and Marcuse identified in the autonomous aesthetic dimension of life11 and which Marcuse elsewhere12 called simply “culture,” that sphere of life into which bourgeois consciousness places all its heart and soul. And while it may be true that modern developments have limited the scope of this sphere, as Adorno and Habermas have noted (joined later by writers like Robert Putnam and Richard Sennett, who bemoan the eclipse of civic life by atomized, mass-mediated culture), nevertheless the civic sphere continues to structure political consciousness and determine public good in bourgeois society – and as such is constantly available for the kind of “revival” that has taken place since the civic revolutions of 1989.

No matter how much the civic sphere appears to have lost its former grandeur, within it there remains always another still-more-civic sphere, and within that sphere, another and another, each more civic, more proper, more authoritative, more autonomous, more ideal than the one it is set against, whose collapsing walls it rebuilds ever higher, albeit with shorter and shorter circumference, within the always breached but still unbroken fortress of the bourgeois civitas. Relative to the sphere of alienated labor, the sphere of “honest hard work” appears civil and human. Relative to the sphere of necessary work, the freedom of the marketplace allows us to appear more fully human. Relative to the market, we appear most human in non-monetary (“not-for-profit”) civic life. And relative to civic life, it is in public politics (in statesmanship, which is not the same as the bureaucracy of the state) that the bourgeois-citizen can achieve his greatest fame and self-realization as a leader of humanity.

By recognizing the relegation of humanity to the civic sphere, we can avoid a good deal of the debate that goes on between humanist and anti-humanist Marxists. Insofar as we are citizens, we are all human. As workers, we are all inhuman. The human being, strictly speaking, was created by the exclusion of its opposite, the proletarian. The overcoming of this contradiction is both a movement against humanism and a movement to a new mode of humanity, a humanity that encompasses society as a whole, a humanism that becomes coterminous with social-ism.

The Separation Internalized

The division of society into civic and proletarian spheres is not fundamentally altered by the fact that, in contemporary industrialized societies, most wage earners are in significant ways bourgeois. This dual participation is a necessary condition of existence in bourgeois society, where even the most outcast proletarian must enter into market relations in order to survive and is thus partially and temporarily made into a free and equal actor in the market sphere. The individual is permitted to participate in the civic sphere (that is, on the civil side of civil society), but on the condition that he become bourgeois and only to the extent that he can perform this bourgeois role. Modern developments have extended the reach of bourgeois society, expanding such mechanisms of inclusion as suffrage, purchasing power, and civic education. But the means of participation are distributed unequally, such that the less proletarian bourgeois takes perpetual precedence over the less bourgeois proletarian. Meanwhile, the proletarian element of any given life remains no less excluded from the civic element. One must leave one’s labor at the door of civic politics just as one must leave one’s civil rights at the gates of the workplace. Liberty and justice for all, insofar as all are bourgeois. Enslavement and wrong for all, insofar as all descend some day into the pits of labor. In Marx’s words, the bourgeoisie “emancipates society as a whole, but only on the condition that the whole of society is in the same situation as this class; for example, that it possesses or can easily acquire money or culture.”13

In the bourgeois public sphere, wrote Negt and Kluge, experience is “torn into two parts that are, in class terms, opposed to one another.”14 One part disdains the other; the other despises or resents or struggles against the one. If, therefore, the working class is internally divided, this reflects the divided character of society as a whole and of every worker in it. The coming-to-consciousness of the working class cannot be a self-purification, an expurgation of its bourgeois elements, because this would be impossible. What is possible is to become conscious of and to struggle against the reality of the divide.

From the Market to the Workplace

For all its complexity, the bourgeois system of separations within separations can be traced to one great separation that forms the model and practical basis for the others. Marx depicted this model nowhere more clearly than in Capital, which begins with an extended exposition of the civic marketplace, “where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men,” which is then brought into contrast with “the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face ‘No admittance except on business.’”15 (B. Traven would later give this coded inscription its proper meaning, drawing on Dante to place above his Death Ship’s quarters’ door: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.”16)

The sphere of the market, if taken in isolation, appears in fact just as it is seen by the bourgeois-citizen: as a sphere of perfect freedom and transparency, in which every actor exchanges his possessions for others of equal value, without constraint. It is a basic rule of the system that each participant is granted the equal right to trade as a free individual with others equally equal and free. If there is any inequality in the outcome of the deal between employer and employee, this inequality is concealed by the form of the contract between them, which defines their interaction as an exchange of money and commodities of equal worth. Bourgeois ideology is not, in this respect, a lie. It is an accurate portrayal of a specific aspect of bourgeois society, as seen from a specific perspective. And it is this aspect of bourgeois society, Marx suggests, that structures civic consciousness and demands for civil rights. What is mystifying (or “ideological”) about bourgeois ideology is not that it is untrue but that it universalizes its particular perspective, supposing it to apply to the whole of society (or of all human societies). It sees only this sphere of “Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham,” and it ignores what lies beyond.

That is where Marx takes his readers in the final passages of the chapter on “The Buying and Selling of Labor Power,” before moving on to “The Labor-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus Value.” The worker, who has no property to exchange but her or his own labor power, cannot remain indefinitely in this “Eden of the rights of man.” The once-equal trader of that “special commodity”17 labor-power now has nothing but the promise of a future wage and is thrown from the democracy of the marketplace into the autocracy of the workplace, “timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to the market and has nothing to expect but—a hiding.”

The Organization of Capital

Marx’s decision to begin Capital in the sphere of commodity exchange thus serves an important theoretical function, but not the function emphasized by those of Marx’s interpreters who, since Lukács, have concluded that the commodity form is the central mediating structure of social relations in capitalist society. The commodity form is one of many mediating structures in capitalist society, any of which might take center stage at a given moment, and which together form the mediating whole. Nevertheless, Marx’s authorial decision significantly affects how we should understand the functioning of capital.

First of all, the foregrounding of commodity exchange highlights the role of the commodity as a mediator between the open sphere of civil society and the hidden sphere of labor. The laborer’s sale of labor power on the market is the laborer’s connection to the civic world and is the laborer’s first claim to civic equality and to civil rights. But this exchange is, at the same time, the mechanism of the laborer’s exclusion from the civic sphere; it is the structure that legitimates the laborer’s loss of rights in the workplace, because once the laborer sells her or his labor-power, she or he thereby renounces claim to that labor for the duration of the sale. The commodity form makes this sale appear to bourgeois consciousness as a fair deal. And that deal contains within it another deal, written in fine print, by which the laborer sells workplace rights in exchange for civil rights, sells the right to control the labor process in exchange for the right to buy and sell. The commodity form determines which rights are inalienable and which must be alienated. There is no reason to attribute ontological priority to this node of mediation within the system of capital, but there may be reason to give it political priority in a struggle for the emancipation and transcendence of the proletariat.

Beyond this theoretical significance, however, Marx’s organization of Capital also serves a narrative function. It makes the separation of the civic and proletarian spheres into the structuring principle of the story we are told about the capitalist world. Capital thus speaks to us as a book of revelation, an unmasking of the world of labor that is hidden by the world of civic exchange. Marx showed that we can arrive at the world of labor through a critical analysis of commodity exchange, an analysis which aims to explain and break through the ideological masking of exploited labor. In other words, Marx can best be understood as having written against the belief that the commodity form is the sole dominant structure of capitalist social relations. Bourgeois consciousness begins from the premise that the commodity is the central mediating structure of its own free and equal society; critical consciousness looks both through and past the commodity form, and it begins to structure its sight through other mediating forms – for example, through the labor-process form, which foregrounds not freedom, equality, and humanity but constraint, autocracy, and debasement. Only by looking beyond the brightness of the commodity can the darkness of labor be seen.

The Standpoint of the Proletariat?

It is often argued that Marx arrived at his conclusions through an immanent critique of the categories of bourgeois politics and political economy. It is true that he began his analyses from the standpoint of the bourgeois citizen and, in analyzing this citizen’s own ideals, he determined that these ideals could not be realized without overcoming the bourgeois society that grounded them. Nevertheless, in the course of this critique, Marx also moved toward a new standpoint, which enabled him to embark on a transcendent critique of bourgeois ideology—which is not to say an absolutely transcendent critique from a standpoint outside of society, but a critique that from within society transcends the limited perspective of bourgeois citizenship.

In his “Theses on Feuerbach” Marx called his new standpoint the standpoint of “socialized humanity,” that is, of humanity understood not as the abstract generalization of a bourgeois individual but as “the ensemble of social relations.” The call to set forth from this standpoint, in fact, immediately precedes and justifies the better-known eleventh thesis that calls on new materialists to change the world:

Thesis IX

The highest point attained by contemplative materialism…is the contemplation of single individuals in civil society.

Thesis X

The standpoint of the old materialism is “civil” society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or socialized humanity.19

The precondition for changing the world is thus the transcendence of those civic categories that Feuerbach, among others, had immanently criticized but had not escaped. Still, where in society does one stand in order to assume such a standpoint? The new materialist critic could not reach this point through pure critical contemplation, but only – as Marx had earlier explained – through grasping human activity as practice. As the proletariat’s particular exclusion from civic life becomes universalized, the proletariat is excluded even from “life itself.” The struggle against this exclusion thus takes on a universal dimension, the perspective of the whole. When the bourgeoisie engages in political revolution, “it conceals even in its most grandiose form a narrow-mindedness of spirit”; by contrast, “however partial the uprising of industrial workers may be, it contains within itself a universal soul.”20

The standpoint of “human society, or socialized humanity” thus became the standpoint of the proletariat (as Lukács21 would later and more explicitly call it). The proletariat has only one privilege in life—the privilege of coming to consciousness of the system of capital as a whole. If the proletariat, as a result, has a special role to play in anti-capitalist revolution, this is not because as a social group it is more impoverished or more capable of collective action than other social groups; it is because proletarian consciousness is a consciousness of proletarian exclusion, and this consciousness entails a grasping of the exclusion-generating whole. It is not necessary to say flatly that the proletariat is the “universal class”; rather, the proletarian dimension is, under capitalism, the universalizing de-classifier.

The Biopolitical Blurring

A seemingly opposite line of argument has been taken by Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, and in their footsteps by Giorgio Agamben. Contrary to Marx’s observation of the privatization and depoliticization of modern life, Arendt and Foucault argued that the novelty of modernity involves a politicization of what might otherwise be considered private and personal. In their account, life and labor (animal laborans, docile bodies, bare life) are becoming increasingly and unfortunately integrated into politics. Arendt, moreover, placed part of the blame for this on Marx himself, whose politicization of labor contributed to a blurring of the line that protected public politics from contamination by private oikos. For Arendt, politics thus lost its character as a realm of freedom and became as predictable as any animal life subject to scientific law. For Foucault, it was rather life that suffered at the hands of politics, becoming subject to a disciplinary power that now extends far beyond the classic realm of the state.

This alleged blurring of political lines, however, appears only if we conflate what in fact operate as two distinct elements of modern government: civic politics, and administrative power. It is true that bare life and labor have become increasingly administered in modern society, subject to a vast structure of rules enforced by an extended network of power relations. But this system of administration lies beyond the realm of civic politics, beyond negotiation and beyond question. Life is disciplined, regulated, managed, but it is not subject to political control. The depoliticization of bare life and labor enables their efficient administration. This is why it was necessary for Foucault to “cut off the king’s head” in political theory22 in order to reveal and politicize power structures which, from the civic perspective, remain apolitical. (Hardt and Negri have indirectly recognized this ambiguity in the politics of life by distinguishing between “biopower,” administered by the sovereign, and “biopolitics,” the politicization of life against its sovereign administration.23)

It is interesting to observe the convergence of Arendt and Foucault on this point, since Arendt was in many ways a consummate republican liberal who, horrified by the threat of labor encroaching on the public sphere, eloquently defended the exclusion of uncivil “social” questions from politics, while Foucault was an unequaled de-masker of the brutalities hidden in liberalism. From two different sides, they hit upon something fundamental in modern society: the strangely divided-yet-inseparable nature of public and private life, according to which private life appears as a matter of general concern and public life is directed toward ensuring the proper conditions for private activity, even while placing the substance of private life beyond the scope of politics. Adminstration, or biopower, or what Arendt rather confusingly called “the social,” serves to mediate between this protected realm of privacy and this open but self-limiting realm of the public. Administration enshrines both the rights of privacy and the reality of privation.

Agamben, in Homo Sacer, observes that the modern inclusion of life and labor in politics is founded on a simultaneous exclusion of life (“bare life”) from civil and political rights, which can be revoked at any time by the sovereign state.24 He writes, “until a completely new politics—that is, a politics no longer founded on the exceptio of bare life—is at hand, every theory and every praxis will remain imprisoned and immobile.”25 Nevertheless, though we might agree with Agamben’s reckoning that homo laborans and biological life are brought “gradually to occupy the very center of the political scene of modernity,”26 this is only true to the extent that we understand politics as administration and understand the center as that which, by virtue of its centrality, is not seen, that which provides the vantage point, the medium, the eye itself, and therefore is located outside the sphere of vision and of calling-into-question.

The Factory as Civic Paradigm of the Camp

Agamben goes farther than Arendt or Foucault in this line of thought, linking the alleged politicization of bare, non-civic life to the widespread deprivation of human rights from human beings in and outside modern states, in a system where sovereignty implies the absolute power to grant rights and take them away. The flipside of the “rights of man,” then, is the body bereft of rights, and the concentration camp becomes the “biopolitical paradigm of the modern.”

Agamben, somewhat paradoxically, does not ground this concept of “the modern” in the specific socio-historical development of modern society. The inclusive exclusions that marked the foundation of bourgeois society are largely absent from his analysis (which, by contrast, is replete with legal debates from ancient Rome). Sovereignty, he says, has been based “from the beginning” on the exceptio of bare life, and modernity has merely generalized this logical seed planted long ago. Might we not, however, take seriously the fact that this generalization coincides historically with the rise of a capitalist economy? If the concentration camp now lurks behind all civic laws, might this not be because the factory provided a model for the camp’s construction?

Mike Davis has written of the “late Victorian holocausts” that ravaged colonial capitalist societies well before the advent of totalitarianism.27 Civil society had already naturalized the principle of proletarian exclusion, and when in some cases it became expedient to expropriate without exploitation—without keeping the expropriated alive for continued expropriation—the extraneous population could be left to mass starvation, and only faint echoes of concern would be raised in the civilized world. When civilized society came later under attack by National Socialism, all that was necessary (though many complex processes are contained in this “all”) was a reversal of the terms.

National Socialism, and in their own ways Fascism and Soviet Communism, involved a sort of inversion of the values hegemonic in bourgeois society, decrying the cold rationalism and rootlessness of cosmopolitan civil society and exalting the grounded, hard-working figures of nation and labor. The exclusion, already established in principle, could be turned against the seemingly abstract, rational, rootless civic side of life in accordance with a perspective just as narrow as that of civil society, that the productive side of life could be left to rule by itself, pure and unchanged.

The Proletariat Is Always Already Lumpen

The ideology of productivity, however, was not invented by those twentieth-century movements that held up the honor of hard-working peoples against the parasitism of the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie. The ideology of productivity has long been a part of civic consciousness as well, justifying the abandonment and proscription of worker-producers themselves at the moment they cease to work.

In gift economies, which have been forced to the margins of social life since the rise of capitalism, there exists always an excess of debt and obligation between giver and receiver. The receiver must become a counter-giver, but the counter-gift must never equal the value of the gift received. The counter-gift can be worth less or more than the original, but it must obey the chief rule of the gift system: that the debts never be fully paid, and that responsibility never be fully relieved. Relations of inequality can emerge in such a system, where the giver enjoys a superiority over the receiver of a gift; but this superiority comes with a condition: that the one who is superior be willing to give and give. The magic of the commodity form allows this relationship of responsibility to be dissolved.

Commodity exchange eliminates the excess in value that outlasts the moment of gift exchange. The social relationship that momentarily arises between buyer and seller disappears the moment the purchase is complete. When the commodity sold is labor power, the seller of labor must work for the purchaser of labor, and yet from the perspective of the commodity form, the two have nothing to do with one another. They lead independent existences, without relation. The capitalist receives, but he is absolved of all responsibility to the giver so long as the agreed-upon wage is paid. A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, and nothing more.

This absolution works both ways. Peasants were emancipated from serfdom, but also from their communities and land. Artisans were emancipated from their hierarchical guilds, but also from their corresponding systems of mutual aid. A proletariat was thrown into the fields and streets and seas, free to wander the earth hawking its meager wares. It bore a gift, the gift of creative work, but there was no one left to receive it, no one willing to bear the responsibility of counter-giving. The excess of gift economies was replaced by the excision of the proletariat.

The proletariat, born of bourgeois society’s need for productive work, depends on capital in order to be productive. Only the capitalist’s decision to hire or fire separates the diligent, productive worker from the lazy, jobless parasite. The hard-working citizen is hired and made into the laborer. The laborer is fired and made into the tramp. The lumpen is contained within the proletarian, which has given all to a society that nonetheless owes it nothing.

The rhetoric of parasitism, even when turned back upon the exploitative, non-working class, obscures the fact that for the better part of our lives we all should be parasites, lazily enjoying the fruits of our erstwhile labor. The movement to overcome proletarian exclusion should not be a movement against parasites, but a movement to universalize the right to parasitism.

Civil Society Finds Its Counterpart in Uncivilized Society

So long as the worker remains in the workplace for the day and in the home at night, civic consciousness can imagine him or her satisfactorily productive, and it needs think nothing more. The lumpen tramp, however, presents a problem, because the tramp defies the rules of civilized society by bringing the darkest side of labor into public view.

The tramp, after working the lowest jobs, is released from work and sent out on the road in search of further work. But because tramps are on the road, they can be heard and seen. Hence the creation of laws against vagrancy and loitering and even public speaking, which enable the public sphere to be purified again. The freedoms of speech and association have always begun as freedoms of civil speech and civic association. The non-civil appears as criminal and obscene. It is noteworthy that, in the diction of early-twentieth-century North American tramps, “citizen” was often synonymous with “bourgeois,” and the citizen was recognized as a stalwart adversary of the tramp.

The recognition of this dual standard in public life may help explain the stubborn Wobbly insistence that “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”28 It may be true that employees and employers live together on this earth, sharing similar human desires and similar human needs. But civil society does not permit workers to share in the common humanity that, at first glance and in the final analysis, would seem to be their due. Humanity has been defined and appropriated by the citizenry. The needs and desires of the employing class are universalized as human needs and desires, while the needs and desires of the working class can be ignored if they are not formulated in the employers’ terms. Although the employer and the employee walk the same earth, it is not the same earth for them. Their paths are kept apart. The employee cannot participate in the employer’s society, while the employer’s participation in the employee’s society necessarily takes on the character of domination and expropriation.

Workers Have No Country

The principle of separation, far from losing relevance in light of modern economic progress, is consummated today as the working class increasingly takes on the character of a collective tramp. Today’s tramp, however, has more difficulty bothering the citizenry, because it wanders over virtual, hidden, and distant roads (and the citizenry, in any case, is usually too busy driving to notice who might be loitering about the public square). Today’s collective, global tramp is only beginning to find ways to make its presence known—for example, by occupying spaces on the borderline between publicity and privacy and shouting until it cannot be ignored.

Unemployment grows, while employment grows increasingly precarious, and workers are separated from the products of their labor by increasingly complex structures of sub-contracting. Outsourcing and the reorganization of cities place the sites of labor ever farther from the sites of consumption and management. The regulation of immigration legally formalizes the withholding of citizenship from the proletariat. The proportion of capitalist production performed by illegal migrant workers is almost certainly on the rise, especially if one considers the hundreds of millions of peasant-workers in China, on whom Chinese industry depends and who nevertheless have no right to live in the place where they are employed. Meanwhile the myth of a “post-industrial” economy teaches citizens that the things around them are not produced at all. The production process is hidden on the margins of global life, in industrial parks across cheap suburban fields, or somewhere overseas.

The increasing invisibility of the proletariat is evidence not of its decline but of its deepening proletarianization. In retrospect it would seem that the erstwhile visibility of the proletarian-made-respectable-citizen, connected to the rise of corporatist governance and the welfare state, is more the exception than the rule in capitalist history, a specific response to the dangerous self-expressions of labor in the interwar and early postwar years. The disappearance of the proletariat is the consequence of a successful generation of the proletariat by capital.

The modern precariat is the proletarian dimension of bourgeois society stripped of its civic trappings. The movement of the modern precariat is the attempt to make visible its proletarian invisibility.

A Global Apartheid

The notion of “human” rights has been continually revived to address the insecurity faced by those excluded from civil society and from the civil rights associated with it. Yet human rights are modeled on civil rights, and their theoretical extension to all of humankind is continually belied by the reality that they are denied to humans who possess no citizenship. In spite of occasional talk of “global citizenship,” the increasingly global proletariat continues to be excluded from a system of national states, each of which has the authority to protect its own citizens and mistreat everyone else.

From this perspective there is no contradiction in the fact that slave societies like ancient Athens or the pre-Civil War United States could be held up as prototypes of democracy—indeed they were, for their citizens. In the same way apologists for contemporary Israel claim not to understand criticisms of “the only democracy in the Middle East,” which provides all its citizens with due process of law even while it allows non-citizens to be slaughtered with impunity. How can we expect Israel to care for its non-citizens? No state does that. Is the difference really so great between states that simply exclude and exploit foreigners, and a state that has made foreigners of the people who lived there before the Israeli citizens arrived? Is it really so significant that in some cases the line between citizens and non-citizens runs formally along national borders, while in other cases it runs between a nation-state and its occupied territories, while in still other cases it runs through every household, field, and factory, while in still other cases it cuts through the very being of the self? Apartheid should not be seen as an aberration in the development of civic democracy. Apartheid is inherent to citizenship and to all civil rights, which is to say to human rights insofar as they remain not fully human, but merely civil.

The same principle of separation enabled white South Africans and whites from the southern United States to imagine a society of justice and equality that was closed to non-whites; enabled slave-holders to sign a Declaration of Independence and Constitution declaring that “all men are created equal” but denying suffrage to women and denying humanity to Indians and slaves; enables wealthy property-owners to live in guarded, gated communities while imagining that they are only ordinary folks; enables “respectable citizens” of today’s East-Central Europe to complain that Gypsies “are violating our rights” because “…they don’t respect our property” and “…they frighten our children” when they appear on the public square; and enables post-Communist defenders of civil rights to rail against the “right to strike.” Human rights remain de facto what they have been from the start: the rights of one part of humanity; and they include the right to exploit the excluded part. As long as human rights function as citizens’ rights, proletarian rights will be suppressed in their name.

The State in the Service of Civil Society

By delimiting and guaranteeing the conditions for effective political action, the state functions to enforce the separation of the civic and proletarian spheres. The premise of pitting civil society against the state is thus founded on a basic misconstruing of the relationship between the state and civil society. The civic-bourgeois state is a protector of civil society, while civil society is always already oriented toward the state. Politics, in its circumscribed form, is the civic end of civil society, while one of the chief functions of civic-political engagement is to protect civil society from the untoward expansion of politics into the civic realm. The ideal civic activist participates in politics as a member of civil society without calling the conditions of civil society into question.

The neoliberal drive to “roll back the state” is therefore, at the same time, a strengthening of the state as guarantor of civil society. It is a purification of the state in this role, a rolling-back of the state from those areas of activity that might risk granting labor access to politics, and a rolling-forward of the police apparatus that guards the gates of civics. Neoliberalism is the move toward a system of perfect democracy within a realm so restricted that democratic decisions have minimal influence over most areas of life.

Nevertheless, the “expansion” of the state, typically posed as the opposite of neoliberalism, does not necessarily expand the political role of labor. Public ownership is not fundamentally opposed to private ownership when the public sphere is a bourgeois public sphere. Public ownership may raise the possibility of politicizing ownership as such, but if all else remains unchanged, the publicly owned enterprise merely becomes the collective private property of a bourgeois public, which controls the enterprise through a political process from which the proletariat remains excluded. For a socialization of industry through public ownership, the public itself would have to be transformed.

The possibility of transforming the public sphere would be the grounds for any non-self-contradictory idea of a radically progressive or “socialist” civil society. Socialist civil society could mark a stepping outside the state in order to face the social world from a position of relative autonomy. But this would also mean opening civil society and politics up beyond their established limits, protecting civil society from state administration, while politicizing it outside the state. It would make possible a struggle against the actual condition of civil society and the masked domination that reigns in it, which is embodied in the separation between the civic and the proletarian. Actually existing civil society supports the state administration that protects it in its established form. A socialist civil society would oppose state administration while also allowing itself to be transformed. But by this very fact the creation of a socialist civil society could not be civil society’s apotheosis, as it was conceived by its advocates (e.g. in Latin American social movements; Ivan Szelényi in his early days; Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato; Norberto Bobbio; John Keane). It could only be an abolition of civil society as such.29

Making Civil Society in East-Central Europe

In the Soviet-type societies of East-Central Europe, however, the call for civil society against the state took on a specific significance. There, unlike in the bourgeois societies of the West, civil society did not already possess exclusionary access to the state, and the state was not oriented toward protecting the exclusivity of civil society. The call for renewing civil society did not mask a status quo, and its advocates were not, strictly speaking, bourgeois. They were in fact disempowered within the political systems of their countries, and they could posit civil society as an aspirational ideal and constructive project that would empower them. Relative to the reigning system of hierarchical power, civil society appeared inclusive, and its exclusive dimensions could be overlooked. It is perhaps for this reason that it was precisely there, where bourgeois civil society did not actually exist but could be broadly re-imagined, that the ideal of civil society was most enthusiastically taken up.

It is often remarked that the “apolitical politics” advocated by the dissidents was a response to the hyper-politicization of Soviet-type society. In what sense, however, was Soviet-type society politicized? Soviet-type society was indeed founded on an inclusion of labor in the political sphere, but since this political sphere became a system of hierarchical domination, the proletariat was excluded from government even while it remained an object of public administration and political rhetoric. The proletariat was made into a citizenry, but the citizenry as a whole began to take on the character of an excluded proletariat. The hyper-politicization of society was thus also a de-politicization; all was made into an explicit object of political power, but the means of political power were removed from the reach of the citizenry-made-proletariat. In this context the first major revolts against fully developed Soviet-type domination took the form of proletarian uprisings (Berlin 1953, Hungary 1956, Poland 1980-81), in which the emancipation of the proletariat could, perhaps even more convincingly than in bourgeois society, claim to represent the emancipation of society as a whole.

The failure of these proletarian uprisings, however, cleared the way for the dissidents’ alternative approach, which can be seen, in a sense, as a project of intentional embourgeoisement. The dissidents opposed the proletarianization of society by calling for a civic sphere where individuals could feel like citizens rather than suffering proletarian exclusion. On the one hand, the dissidents and their allies idealized their exclusion as a kind of liberation from state power, embodied in “alternative” and “underground” culture. On the other hand, they refused to consider the proletarian character of exclusion, the principle by which the conditions of labor had been placed outside the political reach of workers. The dissidents’ refusal to be proletarian was less a rejection of the reality of proletarian exclusion than it was a refusal to face that reality. The depoliticization of Soviet-type society was shown its inverted image in apolitical politics.

At the same time, it was precisely the hyper-politicization of society that enabled the dissidents’ apolitical activities to take on directly political meaning. Because the political and the apolitical were not effectively separated, all forms of domination could be related to state power, and any refusal to conform to dominant modes of existence could be readily understood in public consciousness as a calling-into-question of the political order. Within Soviet-type society, apolitical dissent was thus effective in a way that civic politics in bourgeois society is not. The totalizing character of Soviet-type society placed the entirety of society up for questioning, including intimate leisure and artistic activities—areas of life which, in bourgeois society, tend to be politically closed.

In this light it is both understandable and ironic that, in dissident ideology, the very idea of addressing the whole of society was condemned as a feature of totalitarian domination. The dissidents used the wholeness of the Soviet-type political sphere in order to build the foundations of a bourgeois society with a shrunken political sphere, where the dissidents’ own apolitical methods would no longer effectively apply. The problem of domination was resolved by liberating a separate, “civil” part of society, strictly circumscribed, while bracketing and leaving intact the areas of most intense domination.

The Proletarian Public Sphere

A well-functioning bourgeois public sphere is a realm of freedom. Anyone can enter it, so long as he can present himself as a reasonable, rational, moderate, and clean bourgeois. Anything can be said, but certain things cannot be thought and will not be heard. A person can associate with anyone, but not in just any way. As Negt and Kluge have noted, workers can appear in the bourgeois public sphere as bearers of special interests (in trade unions, in labor parties); but the working class cannot appear as the bearer of a general, revolutionary demand.

If workers today enjoy certain labor rights in addition to certain civil rights, these labor rights were not won in the bourgeois public sphere. People who happen to be employees may associate in the bourgeois public sphere, but as soon as these associations go on strike—and all the worse if the strike is a general or “political” strike, such as are still against labor law in the United Statesthe civic freedom of association ends. The associating workers were not granted freedom to associate in that way. The right to strike has been won historically through strikingwhich is to say, through the formation of a proletarian public sphere.

The proletarian public sphere comes into being in many places and many ways (as Negt and Kluge have shown). It can form in those areas of life that are kept hidden from bourgeois publicity, in the workplace, in state administration, or in the family, at those moments and insofar as the strictures of privacy or secrecy break down, opening these spaces to discussion, reinterpretation, and critique. From the perspective of proletarian strategy, this is the work of organizing. But the proletarian public sphere can also form within the traditional territory of the bourgeois public, when someone who has entered the sphere uses it to demonstrate the sphere’s own limitations and, from within, to bore holes in its walls. This is the work of agitation.

Agitation brings into public what is unthinkable to civic consciousness. Because it is unthinkable, its appearance is also uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable for the well-groomed to behold dirt and squalor, for the well-fed to hear rumblings of hunger, for the Sunday stroller to think of work. In the proletarian public sphere, a soapbox may appear on any corner; a musician’s tune may interrupt the urgent business of the street; a pamphleteer may engage any passerby without being seen as an advertiser or a crank. This does not mean that proletarian society has no place for privacy. It simply means that the public part of society is made genuinely public. Only in public can the proletariat as an active, revolutionary subject be made.

Proletarian Culture

The notion of culture, like art and literature, is a product of the civic sphere. Culture (and with it art, literature, etc.) was made into a separate category of social existence because civil society formed itself as a separate category and placed culture within its realm. Culture, in other words, came into being by excluding—proletarianizing—low culture, plebeian culture, popular culture. (Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Boccaccio, for example, although they occupied positions of relative prestige in hierarchical literary spheres, were not yet cultured in their own day.) This is why the proletarian perspective, when it has manifested itself in the cultural realm (for example, in the revolutionary avant-garde), has demanded an end precisely to such things as “culture,” “literature, and “art.”

From this perspective, proletarian culture does not merely comprise works of art or literature that are about or by workers; it is the aesthetic expression of the standpoint of the proletariat, the standpoint of exclusion from civic life. Any writer or artist, including any worker, may adopt a civic standpoint, framing feelings as personal feelings (within the depoliticized civic sphere), framing economic troubles as private challenges and faults (excluding systemic considerations), framing social contradictions as clashes of individual interest (rather than showing them to be clashes between forces that run through society as a whole). This approach, for example, has become standard in high-brow North American “literary fiction,” which frequently depicts the lives of the hard-working and the down-and-out, but which has largely given up on depicting society and the mechanisms of exclusion that run through it. At the same time, any writer or artist who has some experience of proletarian existence is also capable of adopting the standpoint of the excluded and may trace the conflicts and tensions of unfolding exploitation. This can be done through social realism, by directly depicting proscribed proletarian life; or it can take the path of the surrealists and beats, expressing desires that the civic sphere represses in proletarian life; it can follow the experimental avant-garde and high modernism in disrupting formal aesthetic mechanisms in order to portray the brokenness of proletarian consciousness in a civically dominated world; or it can employ the shock-techniques of gonzo or punk to break down the borders that protect the civility of the civic sphere.

Proletarian culture is not a mirror image of civic culture, expressing the purity of working-class life as an answer to the purity of bourgeois life. Bourgeois works can be purely bourgeois, with the concerns of bourgeois life determining their action, without the slightest appearance of the world of labor. But it is very difficult to imagine a purely working-class work of art that might develop the concerns of working-class life without reference to the bourgeoisie. This is not because working-class life is inherently any less full of aesthetically compelling conflict and desire, nor because writers and artists are themselves largely bourgeois. It is because the exclusion from bourgeois society takes a central place in the proletarian consciousness, and it would be ridiculous to depict workers as if the bourgeoisie and the workers’ exclusion from it did not exist. (It would be ridiculous, and it would be bad art, because the contradictions of this exclusion provide prime material for creative work.)

Nevertheless, a distinction can be made between those works that present proletarian themes as more or less stable forms of working-class life, and those works that follow the proletarian experience through the most intense spaces of exclusion. In the former (take, for example, the less creative examples of socialist realism), a proud, workerist identity is posited, and the culture of the working class takes on a certain autonomous character, appearing relatively self-contained. In the latter, the separation inherent in bourgeois society takes center stage. It is here that the proletarian adventure narrative emerged and was mastered by Maxim Gorky, Jack London, and B. Traven. The exclusion of the hero-tramp offers an indeterminacy, an opportunity to rethink the world from a distance, to explore the excluded places of the earth, to wander along and occasionally transgress the line that divides the proletarian from the civic-bourgeois.

Identity-for-Itself, Class-for-Humanity

Abbé Sieyès wrote in 1789 that the (bourgeois) Third Estate had been, “until now,” nothing, that it asked to be “something,” and that its political inclusion would be the inclusion of “everything.”30 By the time “The Internationale” was written above the bloody streets of the defeated Paris Commune, the issue had been made clear: it was the international proletariat that “has been naught” and “shall be all.”

In the intervening years, Marx had elaborated: in the contemporary world, only the proletariat has “radical chains,” which give its aspirations “universal character because its sufferings are universal.” It “claims no traditional status but only a human status”; it represents “a total loss of humanity and which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity.” It is “a class which is the dissolution of all classes.”31 In this and only this sense—only by taking its task to be its own dissolution—can the proletariat act as a universal class: because the principle of the proletariat is the principle of exclusion; because the exclusion of this class generates the exclusion of all non-civic classes from the wealth of bourgeois culture; and because the dissolution of this principle means the opening of human society to all.

The universality of the working class does not signify a priority of the working class as a group over other groups. It simply reveals the importance of the proletarian dimension of all identity politics. This does not mean that race, gender, ethnicity, and other identities can be “reduced” to class, but rather that the exclusionary side of these identities in bourgeois society is intimately linked to the exclusion of the proletariat from the citizenry. Women’s work is exploited so readily because it is invisible as work and is removed from scope of politics. Native North Americans were made into “Indians” in the process of failed attempts to enslave them and successful attempts to expropriate their land and turn it into capital. Africans in North American were made “black” as they were made into laborers without citizenship. Much the same could be said of successive waves of immigrant groups who, upon becoming excluded workers in their new country, assumed an ethnicity that, in their countries of origin, had not been conceived as such. Likewise one can trace how ethnic status disappears as former ethnics are integrated into the dominant citizenry and, as Noel Ignatiev put it, “become white.”32 The proletarian element reveals the side of identity that should not be affirmed and identified with but should be overcome. At the same time, the shared project of overcoming proletarian exclusion offers a basis for uniting the political projects of various subject positions which, otherwise, may appear separate and self-contained.

Insofar as there can nonetheless be such a thing as a proletarian identity posed against the non-identity of the proletariat, this should be clearly distinguished from the identity of the “hard-working” citizen who is satisfied with his position and, far from recognizing the proletariat’s exclusion, holds up his own hard work as a marker of status by which to exclude those who are less hard-working than he. Properly proletarian identity would refer not to the fact of being proletarian but rather to the legacy of proletarian struggle in the face of exploitative exclusion. It is this legacy of struggle that gives a dignity to laborers which no fashionable and civilized denigration of the working class should be permitted to obscure.

The universality of the working class is thus a negative universality. The overcoming of proletarian exclusion offers an opportunity to include all people in a new society, but it does not determine the structure or content of this inclusion. The negation of the proletariat makes possible a positing of multiple, emerging social forms. If we use the word “humanity” for the multiple character of this new society, then this cannot be the humanity of traditional humanism, founded on a human nature which we already know or which will mirror and be determined by the abstract de-humanization of the proletariat. This new humanity must still be made and claimed.

The People and the Proletariat

 At a moment when the proletariat was only beginning to become conscious of its separation from the citizenry, it was the citizenry that most passionately raised the indignant cry against exclusion, laying its claim on humanity through the figure of “the people.” The people was a claim on universality from the standpoint of what lay ambiguously inside yet outside (the standpoint of what Rancière has called “the part of those who have no part,” “la part des sans-part”).33 When the new citoyens excluded the sans-culottes, the proletariat laid out its own popular counter-claim, and the people became a site of the heightening struggle between the civic and the proletarian. In the course of this struggle the people’s culture, or folk-lore, came to represent the transposition of such claims into a system of representations that could be generally shared.

The civic people is an image of the citizenry generalized, welcoming all but ignoring labor, positing the figure of a comfortable peasant, eternally self-sufficient and satisfied, as its lyrical ideal. The proletarian people is a generalized image of proletarian exclusion, inscribing the modern working class in a history of the exploited and proscribed. Its ideal has been the wanderer—the outlaw, the hobo, the rambling artisan, the family driven from its land, the youngest sibling driven into exile, the balladeer who knows no borders, the troubadour. The attraction of this image was well characterized by a Czech tramp song from the 1930s:

O tramps and pirates; O wolves with worn-out faces;
O souls stalked by desire; O proletarians of the ages!
The wild distance made us drunk with exotic clouds of steamy gold,
And our vagabond flag we hoisted on a pole.34

In this way the struggle of the modern proletariat has been made into the redemption of the wretched of the earth across the ages.

Through the misty ideals of the citizenry pierces the accusatory gaze of the proletariat. Before the proudly marching citizen we may see, slouching toward victory, the tramp.

The Proletarian Danger

The proletarian cannot be fully integrated into civil society without abolishing civil society and its mode of exploitation; and for this reason the proletariat presents the citizenry with an ever-present yet unavoidable danger. The civic sphere is governed by consensus, while the sphere of labor is ruled by autocrats, and autocracy always risks revolt. The use value of labor power is consumed by the capitalist, but the consciousness of the laborer is not fully subsumed by civic consciousness. Commodity exchange eliminates excess value, but the proletariat, as a valueless excision, outlives the moment of exchange. The proletariat cannot be saved or reinvested but must, by the very nature of its inclusion in the system, remain unstable and unruly, outside.

From the standpoint of civil society, the solution to this problem is the increased integration of workers into the citizenry, enacted in proportion to the intensity with which the problem presents itself—that is to say, in proportion to the actual unruliness of the working class. Such attempts, however, can never be entirely successful. As long as the civic system remains in place, the proletarian will remain proletarian on the un-civil shop floor.

From the standpoint of the proletariat, the solution could not be the extension of civic democracy but rather the mobilization of the proletariat’s own status as a figure both outside and beside the civic system, from which position it can face and re-shape the system. The apolitical politics of civil society would thus be opposed by the anti-politics of proletarian society, which strikes at the limits of the civic-political order, politicizing what lies outside. The citizen’s demand to remain in apolitical society is a demand to enshrine the citizen’s domination over all that is already apolitically dominated in this sphere. The proletarian’s demand for access to politics is a demand to abolish politics proper, and thus to unveil and overcome the domination of the whole.


1. The concluding words of Part II, Chapter VI in the translation by Aveling and Moore. (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, ed. Frederick Engels. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1907.)

2. Gil Eyal, Iván Szelényi, and Eleanor Townsley, Making Capitalism without Capitalists, London: Verso, 1998, 92.

3. The exclusivity of civil society has been well demonstrated with respect to civil society’s constant accomplice, the (bourgeois) public sphere. See Joan Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988; Geoff Eley, “Nations, Publics, and Political Cultures: Placing Habermas in the Nineteenth Century,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989; Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” also in Habermas and the Public Sphere. What has not yet been thoroughly examined is the civic nature of this exclusion and the proletarian nature of what is excluded, which is derived in large part from the nature of labor in capitalist society (though the question has been raised, at least, by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, trans. Peter Labanyi, Jamie Daniel, and Assenka Oksiloff, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

4. Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, ed. Joseph O’Malley, trans. Annette Jolin and Joseph O’Malley, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970, §307.

5. “On the Jewish Question,” in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., New York: Norton, 1978, 45.

6. Ibid., 44.

7. In a similar analysis, linguistic anthropologist Susan Gal has drawn attention to the fractal character of the public/private distinction in modern society, which, in the conception here advanced, overlaps with and depends on the distinction between the civic and the proletarian. See “A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13(1): 77-95 (Spring 2002).

8. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in Tucker, Marx-Engels Reader, 60.

9. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, §307.

10. Ibid., 65.

11. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedmann. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997; Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics, Boston: Beacon, 1978.

12. Herbert Marcuse, “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro, Boston: Beacon, 1968.

13. “Contribution to the Critique: Introduction,” 62.

14. Negt and Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience, 18.

15. From the third-to-last paragraph of Part II, Chapter VI, in the Moore – Aveling translation (Capital, Vol. I).

16. B. Traven, The Death Ship: A Story of An American Sailor, Brooklyn, NY: Hill, 1991.

17. The phrase “special commodity” appears in the first paragraph of Part II, Chapter VI. Other quotes here come from the last two paragraphs of that chapter.

18. Thesis VI; “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 145.

19. Ibid., 145.

20. “Critical Marginal Notes on the Article ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform,’” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 131.

21. György Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1971.

22. “Truth and Power,” in Power/Knowledge, ed. and trans. Colin Gordon, Brighton: Harvester, 1980, 121.

23. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York: Penguin, 2004.

24. “In the system of the nation-state, the so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man show themselves to lack every protection and reality at the moment in which they can no longer take the form of rights belonging to citizens of a state.” Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998, 126.

25. Ibid., 11.

26. Ibid., 3.

27. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, London: Verso, 2001.

28. The first line of the Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World.

29. Marx did suggest the possibility of a radical civil society in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. “Actual civil society,” he wrote, aims to replace “fictional civil society” by “invad[ing] the sphere of political society en masse” (§308). But in politicizing itself, “civil society must completely renounce itself as such…and assert a part of its essence which not only has nothing in common with the actual civil existence of its essence, but directly opposes it.” (§307)

30. Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, What Is the Third Estate? trans. and ed. M. Blondel, London: Pall Mall, 1963.

31. “Contribution to the Critique: Introduction,” 64.

32. How the Irish Became White, New York: Routledge, 1995.

33. Jacques Rancière, Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

34. First verse of “Tramps’ Heart,” by Géza Včelička. The original words: Hoj, trampové a piráti, hoj, staří vlci s ošlehanou tváří./ Hoj, duše štvané touhami, hoj, věční proletáři!/ Divoké dálky zpily nás exotikou zlatých par/ a vlajku naši tuláckou vztyčili jsme na stožár.

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