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The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie

Slavoj iek
How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to
do with Microsoft producing good software at lower prices than its competitors,
or exploiting its workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual worke
rs a relatively high salary). Millions of people still buy Microsoft software be
cause Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically
monopolising the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the general intelle
ct, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to prac
tical knowhow. Gates effectively privatised part of the general intellect and be
came rich by appropriating the rent that followed.
The possibility of the privatisation of the general intellect was something Marx
never envisaged in his writings about capitalism (largely because he overlooked
its social dimension). Yet this is at the core of todays struggles over intellec
tual property: as the role of the general intellect based on collective knowledg
e and social co-operation increases in post-industrial capitalism, so wealth acc
umulates out of all proportion to the labour expended in its production. The res
ult is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism,
but the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of la
bour into rent appropriated through the privatisation of knowledge.
The same is true of natural resources, the exploitation of which is one of the w
orlds main sources of rent. There is a permanent struggle over who gets this rent
: citizens of the Third World or Western corporations. Its ironic that in explain
ing the difference between labour (which in its use produces surplus value) and
other commodities (which consume all their value in their use), Marx gives oil a
s an example of an ordinary commodity. Any attempt now to link the rise and fall i
n the price of oil to the rise or fall in production costs or the price of explo
ited labour would be meaningless: production costs are negligible as a proportio
n of the price we pay for oil, a price which is really the rent the resources own
ers can command thanks to its limited supply.
A consequence of the rise in productivity brought about by the exponentially gro
wing impact of collective knowledge is a change in the role of unemployment. It
is the very success of capitalism (greater efficiency, raised productivity etc)
which produces unemployment, rendering more and more workers useless: what shoul
d be a blessing less hard labour needed becomes a curse. Or, to put it different
ly, the chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privil
ege. The world market, as Fredric Jameson has put it, is a space in which everyon
e has once been a productive labourer, and in which labour has everywhere begun
to price itself out of the system. In the ongoing process of capitalist globalisa
tion, the category of the unemployed is no longer confined to Marxs reserve army o
f labour; it also includes, as Jameson notes, those massive populations around the
world who have, as it were, dropped out of history, who have been deliberately ex
cluded from the modernising projects of First World capitalism and written off a
s hopeless or terminal cases: so-called failed states (Congo, Somalia), victims o
f famine or ecological disaster, those trapped by pseudo-archaic ethnic hatreds, o
bjects of philanthropy and NGOs or targets of the war on terror. The category of
the unemployed has thus expanded to encompass vast ranges of people, from the t
emporarily unemployed, the no longer employable and permanently unemployed, to t
he inhabitants of ghettos and slums (all those often dismissed by Marx himself a
s lumpen-proletarians), and finally to the whole populations and states excluded f
rom the global capitalist process, like the blank spaces on ancient maps.
Some say that this new form of capitalism provides new possibilities for emancip
ation. This at any rate is the thesis of Hardt and Negris Multitude, which tries

to radicalise Marx, who held that if we just cut the head off capitalism wed get
socialism. Marx, as they see it, was historically constrained: he thought in ter
ms of centralised, automated and hierarchically organised industrial labour, wit
h the result that he understood general intellect as something rather like a centr
al planning agency; it is only today, with the rise of immaterial labour, that a r
evolutionary reversal has become objectively possible. This immaterial labour exte
nds between two poles: from intellectual labour (the production of ideas, texts,
computer programs etc) to affective labour (carried out by doctors, babysitters
and flight attendants). Today, immaterial labour is hegemonic in the sense in w
hich Marx proclaimed that, in 19th-century capitalism, large industrial producti
on was hegemonic: it imposes itself not through force of numbers but by playing
the key, emblematic structural role. What emerges is a vast new domain called th
e common: shared knowledge and new forms of communication and co-operation. The pr
oducts of immaterial production arent objects but new social or interpersonal rel
ations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.
Hardt and Negri are here describing the process that the ideologists of todays pos
tmodern capitalism celebrate as the passage from material to symbolic production,
from centralist-hierarchical logic to the logic of self-organisation and multicentred co-operation. The difference is that Hardt and Negri are faithful to Mar
x: they are trying to prove that he was right, that the rise of the general inte
llect is in the long term incompatible with capitalism. The ideologists of postm
odern capitalism are making exactly the opposite claim: Marxist theory (and prac
tice), they argue, remains within the constraints of the hierarchical logic of c
entralised state control and so cant cope with the social effects of the informat
ion revolution. There are good empirical reasons for this claim: what effectivel
y ruined the Communist regimes was their inability to accommodate to the new soc
ial logic sustained by the information revolution. They tried to steer the revol
ution, to make it yet another large-scale centralised state-planning project. Th
e paradox is that what Hardt and Negri celebrate as the unique chance to overcom
e capitalism is celebrated by the ideologists of the information revolution as t
he rise of a new, frictionless capitalism.
Hardt and Negris analysis has some weak points, which help us understand how capi
talism has been able to survive what should have been (in classic Marxist terms)
a new organisation of production that rendered it obsolete. They underestimate
the extent to which todays capitalism has successfully (in the short term at leas
t) privatised the general intellect itself, as well as the extent to which, more
than the bourgeoisie, workers themselves are becoming superfluous (with greater
and greater numbers becoming not just temporarily unemployed but structurally u
If the old capitalism ideally involved an entrepreneur who invested (his own or
borrowed) money into production that he organised and ran, and then reaped the p
rofit from it, a new ideal type is emerging today: no longer the entrepreneur wh
o owns his company, but the expert manager (or a managerial board presided over
by a CEO) who runs a company owned by banks (also run by managers who dont own th
e bank) or dispersed investors. In this new ideal type of capitalism, the old bo
urgeoisie, rendered non-functional, is refunctionalised as salaried management:
the members of the new bourgeoisie get wages, and even if they own part of their
company, earn stocks as part of their remuneration (bonuses for their success).
This new bourgeoisie still appropriates surplus value, but in the (mystified) fo
rm of what has been called surplus wage: they are paid rather more than the prolet
arian minimum wage (an often mythic point of reference whose only real example in
todays global economy is the wage of a sweatshop worker in China or Indonesia), a
nd it is this distinction from common proletarians which determines their status
. The bourgeoisie in the classic sense thus tends to disappear: capitalists reap
pear as a subset of salaried workers, as managers who are qualified to earn more
by virtue of their competence (which is why pseudo-scientific evaluation is cruci

al: it legitimises disparities). Far from being limited to managers, the categor
y of workers earning a surplus wage extends to all sorts of experts, administrat
ors, public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and artists.
The surplus takes two forms: more money (for managers etc), but also less work a
nd more free time (for some intellectuals, but also for state administrators etc
The evaluative procedure used to decide which workers receive a surplus wage is
an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual com
petence; the surplus wage exists not for economic but for political reasons: to
maintain a middle class for the purpose of social stability. The arbitrariness of
social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness o
f evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. V
iolence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the socia
l space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency. In La Marque du sacr, JeanPierre Dupuy conceives hierarchy as one of four procedures (dispositifs symboliqu
es) whose function is to make the relationship of superiority non-humiliating: hi
erarchy itself (an externally imposed order that allows me to experience my lowe
r social status as independent of my inherent value); demystification (the ideol
ogical procedure which demonstrates that society is not a meritocracy but the pr
oduct of objective social struggles, enabling me to avoid the painful conclusion
that someone elses superiority is the result of his merit and achievements); con
tingency (a similar mechanism, by which we come to understand that our position
on the social scale depends on a natural and social lottery; the lucky ones are
those born with the right genes in rich families); and complexity (uncontrollabl
e forces have unpredictable consequences; for instance, the invisible hand of th
e market may lead to my failure and my neighbours success, even if I work much ha
rder and am much more intelligent). Contrary to appearances, these mechanisms do
nt contest or threaten hierarchy, but make it palatable, since what triggers the t
urmoil of envy is the idea that the other deserves his good luck and not the opp
osite idea which is the only one that can be openly expressed. Dupuy draws from t
his premise the conclusion that it is a great mistake to think that a reasonably
just society which also perceives itself as just will be free of resentment: on
the contrary, it is in such societies that those who occupy inferior positions
will find an outlet for their hurt pride in violent outbursts of resentment.
Connected to this is the impasse faced by todays China: the ideal goal of Dengs re
forms was to introduce capitalism without a bourgeoisie (since it would form the
new ruling class); now, however, Chinas leaders are making the painful discovery
that capitalism without the settled hierarchy enabled by the existence of a bou
rgeoisie generates permanent instability. So what path will China take? Former C
ommunists generally are emerging as the most efficient managers of capitalism be
cause their historical enmity towards the bourgeoisie as a class perfectly fits
the tendency of todays capitalism to become a managerial capitalism without a bou
rgeoisie in both cases, as Stalin put it long ago, cadres decide everything. (An i
nteresting difference between todays China and Russia: in Russia, university teac
hers are ridiculously underpaid they are de facto already part of the proletaria
t while in China they are provided with a comfortable surplus wage to guarantee
their docility.)
The notion of surplus wage also throws new light on the continuing anti-capitalis
t protests. In times of crisis, the obvious candidates for belt-tightening are the
lower levels of the salaried bourgeoisie: political protest is their only recour
se if they are to avoid joining the proletariat. Although their protests are nom
inally directed against the brutal logic of the market, they are in effect prote
sting about the gradual erosion of their (politically) privileged economic place
. Ayn Rand has a fantasy in Atlas Shrugged of striking creative capitalists, a fan
tasy that finds its perverted realisation in todays strikes, most of which are he
ld by a salaried bourgeoisie driven by fear of losing their surplus wage. These ar
e not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to

proletarians. Who dares strike today, when having a permanent job is itself a pr
ivilege? Not low-paid workers in (what remains of) the textile industry etc, but
those privileged workers who have guaranteed jobs (teachers, public transport w
orkers, police). This also accounts for the wave of student protests: their main
motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee
them a surplus wage in later life.
At the same time it is clear that the huge revival of protest over the past year
, from the Arab Spring to Western Europe, from Occupy Wall Street to China, from
Spain to Greece, should not be dismissed merely as a revolt of the salaried bou
rgeoisie. Each case should be taken on its own merits. The student protests agai
nst university reform in the UK were clearly different from Augusts riots, which
were a consumerist carnival of destruction, a true outburst of the excluded. One
could argue that the uprisings in Egypt began in part as a revolt of the salari
ed bourgeoisie (with educated young people protesting about their lack of prospe
cts), but this was only one aspect of a larger protest against an oppressive reg
ime. On the other hand, the protest didnt really mobilise poor workers and peasan
ts and the Islamists electoral victory makes clear the narrow social base of the
original secular protest. Greece is a special case: in the last decades, a new s
alaried bourgeoisie (especially in the over-extended state administration) was c
reated thanks to EU financial help, and the protests were motivated in large par
t by the threat of an end to this.
The proletarianisation of the lower salaried bourgeoisie is matched at the oppos
ite extreme by the irrationally high remuneration of top managers and bankers (i
rrational since, as investigations have demonstrated in the US, it tends to be i
nversely proportional to a companys success). Rather than submit these trends to
moralising criticism, we should read them as signs that the capitalist system is
no longer capable of self-regulated stability it threatens, in other words, to
run out of control.
Vol. 34 No. 2 26 January 2012 Slavoj iek The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie
pages 9-10 | 2422 words