The Limits of Mental Labor: Class & Politics Today

Michael Bray


Despite its intermittent recurrence in Marxist debates over class and transitions to socialism, the division between mental and manual labor retains an ambiguous status. If, as Sohn-Rethel suggested, that division is “another aspect of the same class antagonism” defined by exploitation, its status and effects remain unclear. Is it one amongst many ideological divisions fragmenting the working class? Or does it have a unique status, defining a “new petty bourgeoisie” or “professional-managerial” class? Or is it, as Jacques Bidet argues, a different factor of class, based in “organization,” rather than “the market”?

This paper defends three claims in relation to these debates, to then sketch their political implications in “knowledge societies” where most new jobs are precarious and “unskilled” and the surplus population is expanding: 1) The division between mental and manual labor is a distinctive, constitutive aspect of class antagonism. It defines the political core of capitalist class relations in labor processes directed towards increasing relative surplus value. This hierarchical core is embodied in the state and increasingly shapes struggles over social reproduction; 2) It does not define or delimit class groups within capitalist society; rather, it brings into question any project of “objectively” delimiting such groups at a general level, while articulating a principle of division spread across the social division of labor, crystallizing into specific institutional forms in a perpetually revised process. Class formations take shape politically in relation to that process; 3) Mental labor operates, like the political sphere it shapes, with a degree of autonomy, but is not a separable principle of class power. “Intellect” remains dependent upon capital: control over the latter – and over labor power and the reproduction of the working class under capital – grounds its powers.

Intellectuals are not thereby foredoomed to be ideologues. The political economy of working class social reproduction provides a potential basis for alternative practices of thinking. But every practice of mental labor not positioned consciously in relation to this division takes an unconscious side in the increasingly central political split between (privatized) “technocracy” and “populism.” Today, a renewed conception of and strategy regarding the latter is requisite.

Mental and Manual Labor - Sohn-Rethel - Jacques Bidet - Populism - Class