Over the weekend there was a bit of a debate in the lefty-politico blogosphere concerning whether or not CEOs and other lavishly payed individuals can be accurately labeled as “workers” without obscuring something about their connection to capital. Matt Yglesias started it by arguing that according to the classical Marxist conception, CEOs are technically wage slaves, and Doug Henwood and Peter Frase countered it respectively. It was Frase’s post, however, that I found most interesting since he dealt with some of the underlying issues of political economy that Yglesias’s post neglected. In short, it’s not so much that the means of production have been taken away from the fat-cats and given to shareholders in a sort of compromise with the worker’s movements of the 20th century, but that the binary relationship between capital and labor remains unchanged even while the exploitative relationship between bourgeois and proletarian remains.
It is possible, at least in principle, to have a society that is just as capitalist as ours, but where everyone is really a “worker” in a meaningful sense… the opposition between capital and labor is not the same as the opposition between capitalists and workers, and you can’t always cleanly align the two relations on top of each other.
The point is that the capital/labor split is the fundamental one – it is the transcendental set of categories. The back and forth negotiations between actually-existing capitalists and workers doesn’t have to perfectly co-align with the form in which capital affects labor, or the fact that people are still forced to sell their labor-power for sustenance. The only difference between the Marxist conception and our current setting is found in the relationships among the actors of capital, and not in the capital/labor network itself.
What’s most interesting about this is in how the changes in the bourgeois/proletarian relations can be seen to shed light on the possibilities of change in the transcendental category of capital/labor. Marx once remarked how the fact that the capitalists might be willing to sell stock in their company to outside interests proved once and for all that ownership of the means of production by the hands-on entrepreneurial capitalist was not a fundamental truth of modernity: if this is possible, then why not allow the workers, who are just as incentivized to grow their business and profit as much as stockholders but also happen to be hands-on and knowledgeable about the industry in which they work, to in a sense “hold the stock”? It’s the best of both worlds: the knowledge and aptitude of the entrepreneur with the incentive of the stockholder, just without the bourgeoisie.