Dorothea Nikolaidis | The Ghost in the Machine: Notes on the Present Trajectory of the Class Struggle

By Dorothea Nikolaidis

“But he does not even mention the most vital interaction, namely the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process, let alone give it the prominence it deserves. Yet without this factor dialectics ceases to be revolutionary.”

— Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness

In The Collapse of the Second International, while expounding on his general theory of the “symptoms of a revolutionary situation” Lenin lays out the following diagnostic criterion: “it is usually insufficient for ‘the lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable to live in the old way.’”

Today, it is the political left that finds itself especially unable to live in the old way. As Alyssa Battistoni remarks in “Spadework,” we stand before a labor movement “which has mostly already crumbled.” Yet, we must admit that sometimes we are tempted to long for the old way anyway. In a separate article, “Labor Without Love,” Battistoni identifies this longing as persistent temptation. She notes the ways in which the two left historians of the Fordist Compromise she reviews, Benanav and Jaffe, are at pains to avoid “resorting to the frequently expressed nostalgia for the bygone days when real men made real things.” Both historians nonetheless acknowledge the period as a high watermark in American labor power against which they and Battistoni compare current labor politics.

Deindustrialization and its concomitant social effects are not local developments restricted to the American or developed economies. As Battistoni stresses, these trends are global in scope. Even as many industrial jobs relocate to developing countries these same developing countries are undergoing deindustrialization or projected to do so in the near future. On Benanav’s account, such developments portend drastic changes in the structure of class struggles. Yet, as Battistoni notes, Benanav’s account of the “new logic” of class struggles remains underdeveloped.

In this third session of the Utopia 13/13 series, we heard from a number of union organizers as they recounted their experiences in a new labor movement. These accounts prove an invaluable guide in understanding the subjective experience of class struggles in the United States today. In what follows, I examine the shifts in these struggles in terms of what Battistoni describes as the mutual interrelation and polarity between human agency and the structural historical conditions in which that agency is bound. In particular, I draw on Meszaros’ concept of a “structural crisis” of capitalism and corresponding “historical actuality of the socialist movement” to elucidate the new logic of class struggles evidenced in our guest speaker’s experiences of unionization. I begin by discussing socialist struggles prior to the onset of the structural crisis before moving to a discussion of the shape of struggles in our present political moment.


Over the course of our guest speaker’s reflections, a number of them spoke about the various ways in which, by engaging in union organizing today, they came up against certain historical features of the American labor movement as something alien to or even hostile to their aims. 

During the seminar, Helen Zhao, an organizer for the Columbia Student Union spoke about her experience working with the pre-existing union organization at Columbia. She described this union as a structure dominated by experts and alienated from the general body of workers it represented. In this period of the union’s operation, she explains “there were a couple grad students [who] told the rest of us what to do… and anyone who was pro-union just did it.” As Zhao notes, experiences with labor organizing of this kind are not uncommon.

Even in an industry like academic work, where the legacy of old labor movements does not seem to run as deep, organizers face the challenge of building a union which integrated the rank and file into itself rather than treating them, even benefitting them, as external passive subjects. In fact, Zhao suggests that this dominant outlook runs much deeper than would a mere popular prejudice, even infecting the grammar with which we speak about unions. She suggests that we reconceptualize union as a verb, an action we perform, not a noun, an entity we interact with.

Such a reconceptualization at the mass level of a union requires organizers to effect major changes in the practice of and relation to work in their workplace. In a capitalist workplace such shifts tend to meet with stubborn resistance from all sides including those of the workers. Battistoni for example, found that even in simply bringing the union into existence she came up against the scandal of demanding more from her fellow workers than mere declarations of support. To involve graduate students, a group already overworked and preoccupied with their own career goals, in organizing required a mass reconfiguration of attitudes toward and priorities in work across the student worker body. Zhao describes this process of integrating the rank and file’s activity into the union as requiring, among other things, that “our coworkers lead and think for themselves and building a community of genuine care [as well as] refusing the culture of competition that’s rampant… in all workplaces.” As Zhao notes, this is not the only successful model for organizing. 

Historically unions have often built power without such a comprehensive challenge to typical capitalist workplace relations. In the postwar period, that high watermark of worker political power in the United States, workers and organizers managed to carve out a number of privileges and protections for themselves within a capitalist system without mounting such a comprehensive challenge to it. At this time, the global capitalist system in general and American business interests in particular, far from being vulnerable to attack, enjoyed a relative peak in prosperity and opportunities for growth. Whatever their intentions, union workers and organizers within the United States did not, and indeed could not mount a comprehensive challenge to the system in this phase of capital’s history. Indeed, historian Eric Hobsbawm argues that such labor movement efforts came to depend on the prosperity of this particular mode of capitalist accumulation. To the extent that growth within this mode of accumulation slowed in the latter part of the twentieth century, and the global capitalist system underwent a further reorganization, a number of social and economic shifts including deindustrialization drastically undermined these labor movement strategies. In this way, American unions, which staked out a defensive position in resistance to a limited set of forces under a given regime of accumulation, became ever more closely intertwined with this regime of accumulation.

The American labor union shared this progression with a number of anti-capitalist movements. Social Democratic movements working from within the tradition of the Second International became so closely intertwined with the fortunes of capitalist states and economies as to depend on capitalist growth for their own political success. As Meszaros explains, “the postwar period of capitalist expansion … found its most enthusiastic spokesmen and administrators in this pseudo-socialist movement of social democratic capitulation.” When this growth slowed, these parties were left with no viable paths for political resistance to new dominant capitalist trends.

Further afield, a very different left tradition, the Third International and its descendants followed a closely analogous progression. At the end of the October Revolution the revolutionaries found, against expectations and intentions of many of them, that the progress of revolution had more or less stopped at the Russian border. They were now a state under socialist party control, encircled by a global capitalist economy. Internally, socialist organizations were equally bound on all sides by feudal and early capitalist relations. This encirclement was not merely external, but permeated into the structures of socialist political and economic organizations as well. Meszaros and Soviet historian Charles Bettelheim both write about political and economic structures that socialist partisans brought about in defense against both internal and external threats. Both note the alienated and hierarchical features of various state-led sectors of the economy.

Across this array of socialist movements, we therefore find a common progression from partial and defensive forms of resistance to full integration, by various means into the capitalist system. For Meszaros this is not a coincidence. He puts forward an interpretation of capital as a vicious cycle in which a partial preservation of non-communist norms tends to result in the gradual rearticulation of a complete capital-dominated system. The preservation of capitalist relations, and especially forms of subordination, though unavoidable in some circumstances, is not a mere matter of political expediency, but a point of vulnerability for a socialist struggle. 


In recounting these events my aim is not to put forward a comprehensive history of left-wing organizing and its pitfalls. I have restricted myself to a limited set of features which these episodes share in common and which Meszaros describes as their “defensive” posture. The scope of this identification of common trends should not be exaggerated. Leaving aside political differences between the Bolsheviks and American labor, the Russian revolution happened decades before and half a world away from the American Fordist compromise. The former occurred in a period of global war and general economic strife, while the latter occurred in, and indeed depended on, relative capitalist prosperity. However, each of these strategic orientations arose in periods where the vitality of the capitalist system, if not always guaranteed, could at least be restored by a more efficient reconfiguration.

I aim to highlight some of the ways in which the precise contours of a number of recurring questions in left-organizing, over ends and means, party organization, room for maneuver under existing capitalist conditions, among others, are historically constituted. Whatever their differences, the aforementioned movements confronted these questions while the global capitalist system had paths for reorganization and continued expansion, however problematic and crisis-ridden, left untrod.

I argue that these historical conditions no longer hold. Now that capital has conquered, dominated, shaped, and reshaped the world in its image, its prospects for growth are more limited. There are no reconfigurations sufficient to revitalize an already global and thoroughly streamlined regime of accumulation. Instead, capital faces the prospect of permanent if gradual decline with no economic miracles, no hidden untapped continents on the other end. Istvan Meszaros refers to this permanent condition of slowing growth as a “structural crisis of capital.” If the sicknesses of nineteenth and early twentieth century capital were acute, this is a chronic illness, though that does not exclude the sudden onset of additional complications at intermittent intervals. 

As compared to the hegemony-based analysis which Battistoni puts forward in “Spadework” my position places greater stress on economic developments as structural factors. Nonetheless, it does not fall victim to the illusion of an economic deus ex machina which Battistoni rightly cautions against. The structural crisis of capital does not describe the automatic production of a revolutionary consciousness. It rather describes a state in which the continued operation of capitalist relations becomes increasingly strained, or even unstable as the available margin of action within such relations becomes increasingly narrow.

In this context, defensive strategies are not only no longer necessary but no longer viable. A global capitalist system stretched increasingly thin no longer has the flexibility needed to accommodate partial and sectoral relaxations of such vital conditions as labor discipline and economic integration. The increasingly antagonistic and unstable nature of capitalist relations places especially harsh pressure on those defensive institutions which are thoroughly encircled and permeated by capital. In America, for example, global trends of deindustrialization, casualization of labor, and partial diminution of imperialist labor privileges in particular undercut the American labor movement’s industrial union-based strategy. Meanwhile, the combined slowed growth and global integration of the capitalist system totally forecloses any possibility of reclaiming the relative prosperity and social power of the kind enjoyed in the postwar period for the mass of American workers in a capitalist framework.

At this point, the challenge which organized labor poses to capital can and must be more direct and comprehensive. If capital cannot accommodate humanity, why should humanity accommodate it? The possibility of a very different form of mass subjectivity forms in opposition to the inhumanity of the present stage of capital accumulation. The dissolution of capitalist relations comes not from a deus ex machina but a ghost in the machine.


The possibility of a comprehensive challenge to capitalist relations is most evident in our guest speakers’ vivid descriptions of the establishment of new relations of care in the workplace. These relations stand in direct opposition to the fracturing of labor under capital.

The fracturing of labor is an essential feature of capitalist production. Capital employs labor and not vice versa. From the perspective of the capitalist each worker enters into a workplace by entering into a wage-labor contract with the capitalist directly. In capitalist terms, I relate to my coworkers as a part of my workplace, that is, indirectly through the capital that hires me. This mode of organization already implies a direct relationship control between worker and capital and a degree of alienation between workers.

The articulation of these relationships of control and alienation may vary greatly from time to time, region to region, and firm to firm. The crucial factor, however, is capital’s ability, in the last instance, to assert control over the labor power which it purchased on the market. For example, Dominic Walker, organizer for Columbia graduate student workers, and Dominik Herold a visiting scholar to the Center for Contemporary Critical Though speak about the use of the language of debt for this purpose. Debt has an individualizing affect. The debtor/creditor relation isolates a debtor, making them individually responsible to the creditor. Capital declares “I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond” and the only thing that satisfies it is a pound of its debtor’s flesh. By means such as these, capital can convert its purchase of labor-power into a deeply felt compulsion on the part of the laborer.

These relationships, variable as they are, lend themselves to being obscured. Jocelyn Chiquillanqui, a union organizer at Starbucks and Battistoni speak of their management personnel’s deployment of analogies between the capitalist firm and a family. In the capitalist family, everyone’s closest relative is capital. But capital is no ordinary relative. It may look human. It always acts through human representatives, but the thing they represent has no heart in its breast. Perhaps you might come to think of your workplace as your family, but if one day your employer finds it expedient to dispense with you, he will turn skyward and ask “am I my brother’s keeper?” When confronted with the ideology of the capitalist family, or any such attempt to reduce capital to its personal representatives we ought to respond as Chiquillanqui did: “this was nothing personal… it was something against the system itself.”

In the capital’s neoliberal phase, however, the inhumanity of capitalist workplace relations rarely hides itself for long. The ever-narrowing margin of action left to us under its grip progressively excludes even the semblance of workplace solidarity previously achievable within capital’s bounds.

We therefore do not have to venture very far to find ourselves relating to one another outside these bounds. As Zhao remarks “today we’re so fractured divided lonely and asocial under forces of capital that literally just talking to each other about rent, about our medical bills, about childcare visas, student debt is a way of relating to each other that’s subversive and fugitive.” That is, these everyday relationships, actively discouraged by capital raise the possibility of a form of relating to one another which bypasses capital’s mediation

These acts alone are not sufficient to circumvent our relationship to capital. Rather what is needed is a form of relationality which can resist capital’s assertion of control, relationships which sustain workers as capital’s polar opposite in the struggle over labor time. As Battistoni describes it, paraphrasing Vivian Gornick, what is needed are relationships which “[make] us accountable to one another.” These can be intense and often very taxing forms of mutual obligation, as Battistoni describes elsewhere, but to serve their purpose, they must not be allowed to degenerate into capitalist forms of control. These are not relations of superior and subordinate, or creditor and debtor. They are mutual relations of care which form among a collective body insofar as the activity of each part implicates every other in its common task: in this case, a political struggle.

Each of the guest speakers describes how these ties of accountability, of mutual implication appear first of all in the form of expressions of need and corresponding relationships of attentiveness and support. It appears as a form of relation in which my subjectivity is not something private to me, but a way in which I relate to others. Battistoni remarks that “organizing conversations allowed you to air grievances long suppressed in the name of politeness or professionalism, to create a space for politics where it wasn’t meant to be.”

It equally creates a space in which ties of care and work form on a very different pattern from that of the capitalist firm. We might see in this new pattern of relating, the intimation of another world, one in which society inscribes across its banners “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The pattern of relations does not intimate this truth as an “end” to which it relates as a mere “means” as did modes of organization in a previous cycle of struggle. Rather, it already partially does away with capitalist relations in its process of coming to be and so partially instantiates this future in the present.

Here once again we should not let ourselves exaggerate. As long as these relations remain restricted to a partial set of workers, they remain subject to stagnation, cooptation and decay. In this context the boundary between relations of accountability and ties of subordination can be permeable or even non-existent. Relations of care between workers might easily give way to patriarchal ties of emotional labor and gendered care, for example. Organization restricted to a single set of workers in a single firm might give way to chauvinist attitudes toward less privileged workers. Accountability requires space for criticism of accountability’s abuse. The institutional mechanisms by which this self-criticism might be accomplished, by which workers as a whole are bound together in common struggle are as yet underdeveloped. The movement toward another society exists as yet only in embryo.

I have put forward Meszaros’ concept of a structural crisis of capitalism and corresponding phases of struggle as an interpretation of our guest speakers’ union work. I intend for this interpretation to navigate Battistoni’s antinomy between agency and structural conditions. In turning to developments in capitalist accumulation, this reading of the present phase of struggle might appear to place greater stress on the “structural,” side of the antinomy than do Battistoni’s accounts of the same events in “Spadework” and “Labor Without Love.” In doing so, however, I do not aim to devalue the power of human agency but to show how it articulates itself under present historical conditions. The movement of capital, though it appears independent of us, is never a purely objective process. It is one which, animated by our agency, seems to move on its own. The machinery of capital comes alive “as though its body were by love possessed.” It sputters along as if animated by a dreadful apparition. It goes on in fits and starts until it can hardly go on any longer. But this machinery cannot lay itself to rest until out of its depths, this mysterious motive power emerges, finally reveals itself and makes itself known for what it truly is: that old villain, the specter of communism.