What Have the Bourgeoisie Done for us Lately?
January 27, 2023
I’m losing faith in the bourgeoisie. For serious Marxists, this might not come as much of a surprise. Marx gave to the bourgeoisie a vast task: not only to destroy all previous ways of doing things, to remove all crowned heads, to remove all halos, but also to continually renovate the mode of production in some way as to prepare for Socialism. Today, it’s not really clear they’re doing anything.
Despite being faced with an energy crisis, we are not seeing the vast force of capitalism deploy its toxic smokestacks or its demonic nuclear energy to transform the world. We have instead seen pretty much nothing at all. We are expected to tighten our belts, and in the meantime our states pay through the nose to rob the third world of its gas (and if necessary its grain). Instead of tearing up the earth, the word that increasingly bounces around bourgeois circles is ‘degrowth’.
Goethe dreamed of the Suez canal being a triumph of globalisation, but what we get today is a silly pleasure from seeing it blocked by user error. Our grand bourgeoisie promises to throw out the railway and the bus, and to revolutionise mass transit with strange tunnels. They promise that they won’t just beat NASA to the Moon, they’ll get a human on Mars, and then the dates slip away into forever. Instead of grand innovations they mark out how lowly they are, how close they are to you and I, by replying to Jacobin articles on Twitter.
Many of the 'amazing' innovations of the present seem to be straightforward repetitions: vegan food, electric cars, and so on. These things are literally nothing new. They are intended to be nothing other than the thing they ape, against which they are judged, recreated to cope with a changing world. Here the bourgeoisie are the ones reacting to a changing world, rather than being the ones to change it. They are trying to keep their range of products the same, as the world around them shifts, both in moral attitude, and in more concrete realities around the availability of certain resources. Otherwise, what do we have? A little tabletop convection oven which can be used to imitate deep frying, without all the mess, and with less of a threat to the environment?
The bourgeoisie are the ones reacting to a changing world, rather than being the ones to change it.
Perhaps there are some little improvements today that cannot be neglected in the form of AI. We can now call upon a program on our screens that, via free opensource software, can produce a picture of whatever we desire. One has to have a certain sorcerer like capacity to input the magic words which make it output pictures which aren't terrible (because of course plenty of the pictures in its training model are), but it seems these things might pass (if the image on this article is anything to go by!).
Similarly, the real promise of the Tesla, rather than the boring repetition of producing the same thing which runs on a different energy source, is its self-driving feature. Though presently overhyped and underdeveloped, there is little reason to think that these things cannot be overcome. The OpenAI chatbot is the current main object of inane overhyping, but it can produce Reddit level comments fairly impressviely.
Of course in some very significant sense, these things are repetitions. They are not an attempt to do something new but simply to remove the human element from the process. This is most true in the case of the self-driving car: it has no greater velocity than the human driven car, it gets you to the same place in the same time. This works slower than a human on average in fact, because it obeys traffic laws to the letter, but in AI 'art' there is real velocity, uncapturable by a human.
So now the artist, the taxi driver and the email-focussed admin role is under threat. Perhaps this is where we can see a real wave of capitalist innovation in that it threatens a part of the working class with significant destruction.
But AI innovations have a special place in the history of capital and of decisively threatening the role of the bourgeoisie in various ways. The steam pump abolished a certain function of the working class, i.e. to manually pump water from mines and similar locations, but it did nothing to abolish any function of the bourgeoisie (apart from in the banal sense that they no longer had to manage such workers).
AI innovations are different. They threaten the position of the bourgeoisie vis capitalism. If there are more efficient agents out there that manage companies, plan long term, manage interaction with other representatives of capital, combat labour, organised or otherwise, calculate the exact point of wages that allow workers to just barely reproduce themselves, then the bourgeoisie as an actual agent within capital will be removed and replaced, perhaps by a smiling chatbot. In other words, if the secretary's cute little email job is being replaced by a robot, then the bourgeois should not smile for profit unspent but tremble in fear of AI knocking at his door.
If the secretary's cute little email job is being replaced by a robot, the bourgeois should not smile for profit unspent but tremble in fear of AI knocking at his door.
Of course, being dispossessed from the actual management of capital does not present the same sort of threat to the bourgeoisie as displacement from the actual production of capital does to workers. Displacement of this kind for the bourgeoisie is but a gentle retirement onto the estate, but such a retirement marks the end of anything significant in terms of the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary force in the world.
But what does this mark for the rest of us? Is it the case then, as Nick Land said, that ‘nothing human will make it out of the near future’? Or is it exactly the possibility of AI economic management that offers to free us? And what would this freedom look like?
To return again to the bourgeoisie, can we imagine the heights of demonic nihilism they would wander into if they were ‘freed’ in this way? Can we imagine what these people would do, already vast disgusting wastes of human capacity who accomplish nothing of any note with endless resources, if they were freed from the actual management of our enslavement? Everything Qanon claims they do, they might start doing. Perhaps underneath a thousand pizzerias, a thousand child sex slave dungeons would blossom.
Perhaps underneath a thousand pizzerias, a thousand child sex slave dungeons would blossom.
As we look upon the degenerate and exhausted bourgeoisie, all out of ideas, all out of capacity to do anything interesting, so closely tied by the necessity of profit making, pushed entirely out of the productive realm, the question we should think about is: what will become of us?
We can imagine various answers along the lines of ‘communist nihilism’: the most lacking, and the least communist, is the future constructed around a capitalist UBI, where we are in a very technical sense freed from the regime of work, but still live in a society totally consumed by the regime of commodities. If we are content to live on the breadline, we might produce outside of commodities, but who wants to live on the breadline? There is also the future hinted towards here, where we do have a real sort of communism, but all meaningful activity is performed by intelligent machines, and we are left to take Heroin 2, and ‘jack in’ into virtual worlds where there is something meaningful to do. But - opposed to these two futures - might we also imagine a communist nihilism bursting forth from the more ‘traditional’ ideas of Communism Marx proposed? Might it not be that we find that after our two hours of work in the factory, and one hour of street sweeping for the public good, we have no real interest in creating anything of significance. Why would be bother, if there is to be no material reward for it?
Just as the bourgeois who would be right to worry about the loss of his secretary to a robot, we should not delight when we see that the bourgeoisie are all out of ideas and all out of capacity to change the world. In this, they are not so different from us, and their exhaustion is a warning of our own exhaustion. It might seem silly to worry about having nothing to do under Communism, when our present condition is having far too much to do in capitalism, but nihilism is a problem which confronts us and if the greatest utopia we can think of is one where we are freed from work only to rot on the vine, then we are truly lost.