Slavoj Zizek has a new piece in the LRB arguing that the recent waves of protests around the world are “not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians.” The unrest he identifies comes at least partially from the group he calls the salaried bourgeois, educated protesters seeking to maintain their privilege from the managers and bankers who are taking home an increasing share of global surpluses. The salaried bourgeois are professionals, emplyees with benefits and bargaining power, anyone who derives surplus value for their work over the minimum amount that capitalists can get away with paying completely debased wage slaves like sweatshop employees in China.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say about his position. It was pointed out in an online reading group I’ve been following that it’s overly simplistic and that the absence of debt considerations is a glaring flaw in his account. Another is that our currently configured economy appears incapable of producing all the jobs that would allow people to attain the status of salaried bourgeois or even that of a wage laborer. In other words, these protests might be a recognition that the current economic system, for whatever combination of reasons, makes a handfull of people obscenely rich but cannot provide jobs to a large segment of the population, educated or otherwise.
In an effort to do a bit more blogging on this site, I’m just going to post what I emailed the listserv earlier today.
I love Zizek, but there’s this unfortunate tendency even on the left to reduce management to high-paid-but-still-just-salaried employees. I know Zizek is more interested in getting at the idea that CEOs don’t really earn their surpluses (which is true) but he fails to recognize the role they have in cutting their own pie. Yglesias did the same thing here incidentally. But this distinction is one that salaried bourgeois should care a lot about. Peter Frase had a good response to the Yglesias piece, where he said “the point isn’t just ‘what you take home’, nor is it even how your income is classified for accounting purposes; rather, it’s where you’re positioned in the system of capital accumulation.”
I think there are at least two major things that make executives structurally different from salaried workers (and if workers had these things our capitalism would be a very different capitalism). One is that managers are paid at least partially in equity (i.e. stock or options) so when the company is worth more they are worth more. Stock compensation for employees is not just a “bonus” as Zizek says; it’s a way to maintain a property right in whatever excess wealth your company produces. While it looks like higher pay, this is really a kind of proportional ownership, and it’s a very different relationship to production than the rents that salaried employees bring home. The second big difference between CEOs and employees is that managers make decisions that affect their compensation and those of everyone below them. Formally managers don’t have votes on the board, but they get to influence the composition of the board and hence affect votes that way, and managers make all kinds of spending and other decisions that often come back to benefit them directly. Whereas workers are treated like a labor input and increasingly can’t even pressure management or directors through collective bargaining.
So while I’m in agreement with Zizek that some of the protests are about a salaried bourgeois afraid of having their privileges and salaries gradually taken away, I don’t think this is about protecting the right to a salary. Or at least not only that. Even if you make a decent salaried living, being an employee means being in a mostly powerless position where you are decided upon. And people are starting to see that having no power in this system is a gradual path toward less pay, fewer jobs, and more wealth being extracted upwards. I like to think that the protests were about employees, temps, students, etc recognizing their powerlessness in this structure and not just about transferring surplus profits from CEOs to workers.