The Serpent of Their Agonies

Photograph Source: Metro Centric – CC BY 2.0

“For protection against ‘the serpent of their agonies,’ the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death”

-Karl Marx, Capital (1867)

One of the world’s most brilliant analysts of our present Neo-liberal world, Wolfgang Streeck, penetrates laser-sharp into the internal logic of this new form of capitalism (How will capitalism end? [2016]. Most of us need all the help we can get to understand this serpent that would commodify everything in its pathway as it deeply erodes social regimes everywhere in the world to maximize its profits for the very few. Karl Polyani thought that the governing logic of capitalism was to be self-regulating. That’s capitalism’s utopia.

But, paradoxically, Polyani maintains, that “society” must offer constraints on capitalism’s thirst to turn land, labour and money into commodities pure and simple. Constraining capitalism—or keeping the Mighty Python at bay—requires the state’s authority. And that is precisely what has diminished (or disappeared): the lovely word, “governance,” is unable and unwilling to “keep capitalism from going too far.” Democracy has decoupled itself from capitalism. “Market interest” has squeezed the air out of “social justice interest.” Unlike Marx’s day, when the British employers believed that their “satanic mills” would consume their labourers if things kept on, and thus passed the Factory Act of 1833, today’s globalized employers have done no such thing. The Mighty Python is gorged to the fullest.

Marx’s analysis is still pertinent. But the sweatshops of Manchester, discovered by the factory inspectors and Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century, have shifted to the capitalist periphery. They are out of the sight of the labour aristocracy “inhabiting the centres of the contemporary capitalist production system.” Streeck observes that the middle-class workers in “advanced” capitalist countries and those sweated workers in the periphery are separated spatially and never meet. They never “experience together the community and solidarity deriving from their joint collective action. Those exposed to the very exploitation that workers in ‘the West’ are told has been eradicated by capitalist progress are becoming objects of charity at best, while the consumerist lifestyle of the Western middle-class, and also of large parts of its working class, depends on the low wages and barbaric working conditions in the ‘developing’ world.”

In his day, Marx moved inside the realm of factory production and exposed its inner workings and acute suffering of those caught in the serpent’s coils. Today, in contrast, the realm of globalized production is blanketed in darkness. The ideal of non-alienated work has been cast into history’s dust bins. Socialism has been ousted from history’s playing fields. Now, you take what work is on offer by the guileful Neo-liberal Serpent. Neo-liberal ideology welcomes open borders (in the name of human rights and personal liberty) because the receiver countries gain an “unlimited labour supply.” Docile immigrant workers, looking over the shoulders for possible deportation, keep quiet, very quiet. No militant action. None. In low-income occupations, Streeck comments, immigration makes the “collective organization of workers” difficult.

Post-war national labour regimes have unravelled before our eyes in the last few decades. Worker protection, gained through collective struggle in the 1960s and 70s, has been “subverted by international competition, labour markets in leading capitalist countries are changing to precarious employment, zero hours jobs, freelancing and standby work, not just in small local but also and often in large global firms.” The workers themselves are commodified objects to be used at the employer’s whim. Uber of the so-called “sharing economy,” for example, uses new communications technologies to function without its own workforce. Of the 160,000 American workers who depend on Uber for their livelihood, only 4,000 have “regular worker” status.

Streeck elaborates on the “profound transformation of the world of work,” particularly since the financial crisis of 2008. In the “rich” capitalist countries, “low-wage and low-conditions employment have proliferated, and low wages have become even lower.” Even where employment appears to have returned after the crisis, “better jobs have more often than not been replaced with bad jobs, which workers had no choice but to accept.”

Unlike daily life in the old Fordist era, the mantra of “flexibility” has ripped apart family life, pressing parents to find the financial resources to fund child care and keep themselves afloat. Moreover, Streeck comments, trend-setting corporations such as Amazon and Google, free of all constraints, developed human resource practices that intensified work, squeezed maximum effort out of workers, including huge amounts of unpaid labour. In Canada, with housing costs skyrocketing beyond available means, stress and anxiety ripple through neighbourhoods where people earning not much above poverty level carry huge debts. Daily life under Neo-liberal conditions is a big scramble. Can anyone identify any form of work which has not been intensified? Does anyone out there feel secure?

What bothers Streeck is that the Uber-paradigm has become widespread: employment has become radically unstable and precarious in more and more workplaces. The serpent’s coils wrap around the labour-aristocratic middle-class and the underpaid labour force of domestic servants and child-minders, who are mainly immigrants. “With employers under global competitive pressures and workers fearing for their jobs, trade unions are losing power or never come into existence in new industries and firms. As a result, no political capacity is available to soften the impact of technological change, which proceeds faster than ever to reorganize work …” Indeed, these days unions are just as likely to force their workers not to strike than they are to resist the whims of employers.

The debasement of work is at the heart of the matter facing those who desire a successor to the Neo-liberal world. Streeck thinks—and I agree wholeheartedly—that the uprooting of regulations that blocked the complete commodification of labour signals a crisis of capitalism and not just of its workers. Richard Sennett, who has written several perceptive books on the culture of the new capitalism, argues that ever-increasing “flexibility” requirements are “incompatible with the development of capacities for productive work as vested in stable professional identities.”

Even public servants, university professors, teachers and nurses (who usually think of themselves as professionals) face ever-deepening pressure to accept part-time work and do more than they get paid for just to stay employed. The enabling conditions for the development of professional capacities have eroded under Neo-liberal work conditions. Work has been fragmented, destabilized and debased. Our heads gaze forlornly at the ground; our mouths are shut; we are dumb before the Mighty Serpent.

Streeck also points out that the excessive commodification and flexibilization of work precludes the “formulation of a coherent oppositional project, like socialism, aspiring to separate what is progressive from what is reactionary in capitalism and preserve it.” This oppositional project, we can surmise, yearns for an “utopia of modern life” beyond the current “dictatorship of the market.” While challenging existing society, this oppositional project desires to legitimize a “transitional stage” to movement to a new economic and social order. Eco-fashion, products lasting a lifetime, green enterprises–here we come!

However, Streeck splashes cold water on this fantasy. The global working class is widely dispersed. It is divided by language and ethnicity. Consumption, production and reproduction depends on “imported labour from and exported jobs to the periphery.” And the “deterioration of class solidarity into charity make for a social structure that confounds rather than supports class consciousness and collective action, leaving capitalism, not just without an alternative, but also without a prospect for progress.” To exist without going insane in Neo-liberal conditions, insecure workers must learn to convert their anxieties to become obedient workers who then must learn to be confident consumers. They must not complain; rather, seize opportunities to demonstrate resilience in the face of come what may.

This is the lesson plan designed by that sly and malevolent Big Serpent for life under Neo-liberal conditions.


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.