Recentering the Lumpen Question Today

Understanding Lumpenization and Bonapartism

March 4, 2021

To name a class “lumpenproletariat” is to reveal something that would otherwise prefer to stay hidden. The lumpenproletariat is not merely defined by its non-relation to production, which is the most common definition of the term in Marxist thought, nor is lumpenization reserved only to a process that occurs within the proletariat. Lumpenization is a process of active decomposition, a verb, not merely an analytic or descriptive category.

But before we describe this more active process, we must make account of the controversial status of the concept within Marxist thought, given it is most often construed as an exclusively reactionary formation. More precisely, the lumpenproletariat is typically invoked to describe a reactionary class formation that occurs at crisis points within the capitalist system. It is said to make its appearance on the political scene through a particular alliance between dispossessed former laboring classes and the petite-bourgeoisie in solidarity with a particularly parasitic wing of the finance aristocracy.

It is this alliance that led Marx to analyze the lumpenproletariat as a central actor in the rise of Louis Bonaparte III in his famous political tract, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which describes the lumpenproletariat’s role in bringing Bonaparte to power amidst one of the most seismic worker uprisings of the time, in 1848. This ascription of reactionary politics to the lumpenproletariat and its particular class formation leads Clyde Barrow in his new book, The Dangerous Class: On the Concept of the Lumpenproletariat (University of Michigan Press, 2020), to link Trumpism to the lumpenproletariat just as Marx linked Bonaparte.

Yet the lumpenproletariat is not only a “bribed tool of reactionary intrigue” as Marx and Engels discuss them in the Communist Manifesto. To the contrary, the lumpenproletariat is invoked widely in Marx and Engels’s writings and has been a constant in subsequent Marxist theory from Lenin, Mao, and Fanon to the Black Panthers as a crucial vector of proletarian organization and strategy. The Black Panther militant Eldridge Cleaver predicted a coming “lumpenization of humanity” as he witnessed the rise of mid-1970s automation and financialization.

The Panthers, along with Cleaver, advanced a theory of revolution that placed lumpen demands at the very center of their theory of revolution, and the lumpenproletariat was centered in this fashion due to the influence of Frantz Fanons lumpen-centered theory of anti-colonial praxis. Cleaver even predicted the rise of Trumpism by arguing back in the late 1970s that it was only a matter of time until automation would lumpenize the white working class. Given the historical significance of the lumpen question, it should thus be a priority for Marxists to identify ways to engage the wider “lumpen question” today, specifically to discover ways to organize lumpen populations in concert with proletarian goals.

Barrow’s book offers a comprehensive analysis and genealogy of the lumpenproletariat from its very first introduction in the German Ideology (1846), to the central place the lumpenproletariat played in post-colonial Marxist struggles, up to the more recent “post-Marxist” analysis of the lumpenproletariat. Barrow suggests that the lumpenproletariat is an economic, cultural, and political category, proposing an expansive definition of the concept in Marxist thought. Economically, the lumpenproletariat designates the excess effects of accumulation cycles as well as a particular class formation that comes about amid capitalist crises.

Importantly, if the economic emergence of the lumpenproletariat is structural, as Marx argued, then this means we can reasonably rely on the emergence and reemergence of the lumpenproletariat in history. Barrow finds support for this claim in Capital, Volume I, Chapter 25, wherein Marx reveals the conditions—capital’s accumulation and valuation cycles—for the possible existence of the lumpenproletariat as a surplus population. In its economic definition, the lumpenproletariat is defined by its “non-relation to productive labor,” and this is what distinguishes the lumpen from the proletariat, who are generally defined by their dependence on wages, and therefore, productive labor.

While the lumpenproletariat is a vital political figure in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire; Engels also identifies the lumpenproletariat in pre-capitalist social formations stretching as far back as the Roman Empire. As a political class or, more precisely, as a “non-class” or “decomposed class,” the lumpenproletariat is curiously referred to by Marx and Engels as a moral category—lumpen have one foot in labor (or a certain proximity to productive labor), which involves less potential for parasitic alliances with the finance aristocracy and less of a tendency to develop into a fascistic bloc.

These “honest lumpens” or “working lumpenproletariat,” as Marx describes them, help us begin to think of a possible alliance between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat. Marx invokes this moral distinction within the lumpenproletariat in “Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy,” where he observes, “from the harlot to the Pope there is a mass of such rabble. But the honest and ‘working’ lumpenproletariat, too, belongs to this category, e.g., the large mob of casual day-labourers, etc., in ports, etc.” The honest lumpens or “working lumpenproletariat” are casual day laborers with a marginal attachment to the labor market. As Barrow notes, Marx and Engels independently both single out London’s East End dockworkers as exemplars of this honest and working segment of the lumpenproletariat.

Lumpenization is a process of active decomposition, a verb, not merely an analytic or descriptive category.

The title “honest lumpen” helps us shrug off the pejorative and demeaning associations that the lumpenproletariat otherwise carries with it across much of Marxist thought, given that they are often described as scum, criminals, and knaves. I argue, however, that “honest” lumpenproletariat is not useful as a rhetorical label, but instead is helpful as an analytic category, as it helps us identify a bloc of lumpen support and solidarity with proletarian goals, specifically those goals that are tied to labor and struggles at sites of production.

The title “honest lumpen” also helps us to avoid dismissing the entirety of lumpens as reactionary or as exclusively prone to becoming “bribed tools of reactionary intrigue,” as Marx referred to them. To the contrary, by better understanding the emergence and tendencies of lumpens, we will come to see that they present a crucial vector for proletarian organizing today and, in particular, for forming and navigating the sphere of the state. It is, after all, far more precise to refer to the huge surplus populations—the contingent labourers, the structurally unemployed, the wide swaths of service sector employees with tenuous contracts, the bloated retiree populations living in state-supported poverty programs—as the “honest lumpenproletariat” or “working lumpenproletariat” then it is to call these populations simply proletarians or surplus populations because of their unique partial relation to productive labor.

Without this moral distinction, how could we differentiate between the scoundrels and the honest amongst the lumpen? How could we locate the way in which lumpenization leads to reaction and to fascism? Yet, the use of the term “honest lumpen” still poses a problem in popular discourse because it dredges up a much shallower sense of moralism that I think worth avoiding. As an analytic category, however, I want to tease out this distinction of the two predominant types of lumpen, so as to better understand the limitations “honest lumpens” present to political discourse in general, especially to socialist political demands, before better gauging the means by which we might forge solidarity with them.

As Barrow writes in chapter 6—titled “The Lumpenproletariat: Communism or Dystopia?”—the honest lumpen is fundamentally bound up with surplus populations, specifically by their partial relation to productive labor. As a result, the honest lumpen poses a more subtle and confused threat to proletarian political goals because they do not define their political interests via labor-based ends and goals. Rather, they are more prone to construing politics in terms of gender, age, race, nationality, ethnicity, locality, sexuality, and lifestyle categories, and less so as “workers.” In each of these expressions, political claims are advanced from social locations that are uncoupled from class positions and other identities defined by participation in the labor market.1Clyde Barrow, The Dangerous Class: The Concept of the Lumpenproletariat (Ann Arbor: Michigan Univerity Press, 2020), 123.

Barrow points out that the cleavages opened by the dynamics of these identity movements are not negotiable within a distributive framework, precisely because these social identities are not defined by distributive positions within the labor market or by places within the social relations of production. This means that appeals to welfare or to state support, which the honest lumpen already receives (albeit through minimal and austerity-dictated social handouts), become very appealing sites of emancipation—but most important, these are demands that are state-governed areas of life and are not necessarily contingent on labor organization. It is important, then, that we do not forget that even the working day is modified within the state and is not merely an economic law, which means that state policy and state power is a primary vector for fulfilling honest lumpen and working class demands more generally.

This fact—that hugely important areas of proletarian struggle, e.g., the working day, are defined and limited by the state and not by the labor market—makes the honest lumpen a crucial partner to any proletarian politics. But these surplus populations, the wide swaths of honest lumpens, have only an implicit demand for greater leisure time and less work; they tend not to have explicit labor-related demands in any way that might achieve such a demand from the state. Explicit anti-work demands are absent because work itself is a rarity, and the condition of the honest lumpen is what Tiqqun calls the “needy opportunist.2Tiqqun, Now (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2017). The lumpen is forced into conditions of needy opportunism, which make the lumpen’s relation to labor completely hollowed out in terms of negotiation, bargaining, or contestation of wage rates.

Barrow also points out that for post-Marxists such as André Gorz, these bloated surplus populations imply that the only viable path to something resembling a communist revolution can be forged within the welfare state, wherein communism would then get gradually absorbed into the state apparatus through crisis: the surplus populations’ growing need for greater and greater support for survival and basic sustenance. Because the place they occupy within the social division of labor and consumption is determined by policy rather than economics, Claus Offe similarly describes the surplus population of honest lumpens as “policy-takers.” Gorz adds that they have “no transcendent unity or mission, and hence no overall conception of history and society,” and that their disconnection from labor renders the very contours of postindustrial socialism into libertarianism. The honest lumpen thus makes socialism libertarian and policy-focused. For example, a massive sector of the honest lumpen is the elderly populations that are forced to pauperize themselves in old age so that they may properly qualify for Medicare and Medicaid. These honest lumpens are then permitted, after pauperization, to exit the workforce and enjoy a precarious and hellish retirement in a decayed and often privatized assisted living home.

The title “honest lumpen” helps us shrug off the pejorative and demeaning associations that the lumpenproletariat otherwise carries with it across much of Marxist thought, given that they are often described as scum, criminals, and knaves.

The honest lumpen is a very different tendency of lumpen than the reactionary lumpen, whom Marx and Engels called the lumpenproletariat of “knaves and scoundrels.” These reactionary lumpens are marked by a particular nostalgia for petit-bourgeois lifestyles. It is this nostalgia for petit-bourgeois small business ownership and the general petit bourgeois lifestyle that has become out of reach that creates the conditions which are ripe for the lumpenproletariat to form a reactionary coalition. This nostalgia for restoring a petit-bourgeois lifestyle is a common feature of the reactionary lumpenproletariat formation which was present in Louis Bonaparte’s time as well as in Trump’s coalition. When the petit-bourgeois form of social life has disintegrated, or become out of reach, the reactionary lumpenproletariat coalition will wax nostalgic for restoring it, which was emblematized in Trump’s “Make American Great Again” branding. It is the petit-bourgeois element within the wider lumpenproletarian coalition that Barrow calls the active “clown show” dimension of Trumpism: by virtue of their non-relation to production, they have a tendency to form an alliance with the parasitic finance aristocracy within the bourgeoisie who also have a non-relation to production. It is this alliance that is most crucial for any possible Bonapartism, soft or hard, to emerge.

The petite bourgeoisie are a kind of clown show within the lumpenproletariat due to the fact that many are former proletarians. And we see this with Trumpism, much of which is composed of former industrial proletarians, i.e. the Hard Hat Nixonian” coalition that lives on in vampire form. Trumpism, and especially Bannonism in its early 2016 days, displayed an aggressive nostalgia for bringing about the mythical Jeffersonian state of small business owners, fetishizing the figure of the libertarian entrepreneur. Barrow further suggests that the white proletariat has undergone a process of lumpenization in which they’ve experienced a split between the petit-bourgeois clown show and the more dangerous fascistic white nationalists – the latter of which tend to represent more static lumpen conditions of non-relation to labor and work.


Lumpenization and Bonapartism Revisited

Lumpenization refers to this reactionary formation of the lumpenproletariat wherein the lumpen form an alliance with the petite-bourgeoise and the parasitic finance aristocracy. This is a particular cross-class alliance. But there is a more general form of lumpenization that refers to the process of intra-class dissolution that occurs when members of a class operate as individual interest seekers and act outside of the collective goals of preserving the social and political interests of the wider class. The honest lumpen can dissolve the proletariat as much as the reactionary lumpen by abandoning its form of labor-oriented solidarity in favor of appeals to other categories of moral concern (e.g., gender, race, or other particular affiliations). Similarly, within the bourgeoisie, the parasitic finance aristocrat often dissolves the collective interests of the globalist G-8 finance financial elite, undoing the very cohesion of the wider bourgeois class and its interests by operating as an active parasitic agent within the class.

In The Philosopher and His Poor (1983), Jacques Rancière theorizes the historical emergence of lumpenization and this more general process of decomposition and intra-class fragmentation. Rancière locates this process beginning in Europe during the reign of Louis Bonaparte as a reaction to the great worker uprisings of 1848. He argues that a particular form of lumpenization emerged not out of the proletariat but out of the bourgeoisie following Louis Bonaparte III’s seizure of power in the late 1840s. It is this active lumpenizing process that has come to shape the very way class struggle is thought and treated in Marxist thought according to Rancière. He theorizes a theory of lumpenization which is more general, not merely endemic to the bourgeoisie, writing: “every class insofar as it defends its own social interest is virtually its own lumpen to itself.”3Jacques Rancière, The Philosopher and His Poor, ed. Andrew Parker (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 97.

Lumpenization represents a process of decomposition endemic to any class; it is what happens to a class as it undergoes decomposition from a coherent class with distinct political and social interests to the point where that class is fragmented into a sack of potatoes, i.e., exposed as atomized individuals. While it is the peasantry that foreclose solidarity with the proletariat and tend to exist like a “sack of potatoes” as Marx argued, such a process of atomization is endemic to each class. Lumpenization is a process of fracturing and atomizing that makes it impossible for the ruling class to continue under conditions of lumpenization or what Barrow refers to as the “lumpen state.” As we explore below, a lumpen state is brought into power by a specific sort of political figure, namely a Bonapartist, and while in power a lumpen state elevates the parasitic finance aristocracy within the bourgeois ruling order and these elements of the bourgeoisie, if left unchecked, threaten the very stability of the capitalist system as such.

A sign of the internal lumpenization of today’s ruling class was evident this last spring when Trumps Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell embraced the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in spring of 2020. Although he was appointed by Trump’s administration, which was openly hostile to the Movement for Black Lives, Powell instead advocated that corporate elites and financial groups adopt a proactive corporate affirmative action program in order to symbolically respond to the seriousness of the Black Lives Matter rebellion. In other words, Powell recognized that the parasitic element of the ruling class is incapable of quelling popular unrest and rebellion. This symbolic and corporate shift coincided with millions of dollars donated to Black Lives Matter and a quick and earnest campaign to win over the discourse of youthful demands that were kicked up by the largest protest movement in American history amid the most far-flung pandemic in a century. What this indicates is a countertendency on behalf of a certain wing of the finance aristocracy within the bourgeoisie—what Marx and Engels called the Party of Order—that turned against the parasitic class of Trumps lumpenized finance aristocrats. The fact that this happened while Trump was still in power before the election indicates that the ruling class perhaps already intended Biden as president.

There is a more general form of lumpenization that refers to the process of intra-class dissolution that occurs when members of a class operate as individual interest seekers and act outside of the collective goals of preserving the social and political interests of the wider class.

Rancière argues that the effects of the 1848 quelling of the workers movements across Europe, which witnessed the rise of Louis Bonaparte III, brought about a crisis of lumpenization across each of the various classes. But the result of this crisis was that it successfully made the entire world bourgeois because it ended with the bourgeoisie gaining ascendancy through Bonaparte’s rule. The secret to Bonaparte restoring a bourgeois dominated social order was that he plugged a hole in the wider crisis of the representative status of the parliamentary political order.

Bonaparte, similar to Trump in his early 2016 campaign days, was a figure who was effectively not representable politically or ideologically with any one bloc of the political spectrum. He identified as a conservative at heart, a Saint-Simonist socialist, and had the affect of a bourgeois bohemian artist. Trump, similarly, occupied a nebulous ideological position running for president on a platform that galvanized former industrial proletarians with an anti-globalization platform mixed with white nationalism and a derisory attitude towards the ruling elites. Trump gained the support of a wide swath of formerly nonvoters, independents and swing voters, in part due to this ideological incoherence of his platform, just like Bonaparte.

As we examined above, the Bonapartist figure has a logical connection with the lumpenproletariat, but it is unclear just what distinguishes a Bonapartist even though the figure of the Bonapartist has returned again and again since 1848. In Louis Bonaparte III and Donald Trump there are obvious overlapping similarities, yet Marxist thinkers have associated Bonapartism with the rise of fascist leaders as well. In Kojin Karatanis discussion of the lumpenproletariat in Marxs Eighteenth Brumaire, he writes that the lumpenproletariat emerged as a “non-class” founded on a “contentless discourse.”4Kojin Karatani, Repetition and History, ed. Seiji M. Lippit (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). For Karatani, the lumpenproletariat kicks off a crisis within the very class stability of the wider democratic and parliamentary system and comes about to plug the “hole” in the system of representation to restore order, just as the Bonapartist figure does. Karatani writes: “the (representative) system created in modern times contains a hole that can never be filled, one that exists quite apart from the actual, visible king, president, or emperor; furthermore, it is precisely this hole that is repeated as the “return of the repressed.”

Lumpenization is thus a structural feature that mirrors the rise of the Bonapartist figure, and both work to resolve the attendant crisis of democracy. Both the Bonapartist leader and the lumpen plug the hole in the system and enable it to continue with bourgeois dominance. The Bonapartist and the lumpen are thus general figures of repetition in any capitalist social order, but their “plugging” of the hole in representation does not resolve the crisis of representation. Rather, it forestalls it.

The Bonapartist figure is not to be understood, therefore, as a figure who comes from outside the 2 ruling class parties, offering a separate solution to the crisis. This was Engelss proposal. Rather, the Bonapartist figure, in Karatani’s view, works within both parties to ameliorate the crisis of representation and re-stabilize the bourgeois social order. This means that the Bonapartist figure can include Bonaparte himself, F.D.R. or Margaret Thatcher. Soft Bonapartist figures seize a moment of crisis to forge a consensus that simultaneously breaks all the laws of the 2 ruling parties in order to sustain the bourgeois order. The soft Bonapartist enacts otherwise impossible policy changes that will enable the bourgeoisie to remain intact even after they have lumpenized themselves.

Karatani writes: “Louis Bonaparte presented himself as a conservative at heart who in practice was a Saint-Simonist. In other words, he emerged as a figure that promised to erase or mediate this serious opposition.” F.D.R.s ability to convince the 2-party system to appeal to the nascent socialistic elements within the labor movement indicates that he arose within that system and was not an aberration to it, even if the policies he enacted were very much impossible before he took power.

The other form of Bonapartism, aside from the more common “soft” variant, is what Gramsci called “Caesarism” or what Domenico Losurdo calls “hard Bonapartism.” In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci observes that

a social form “always” has marginal possibilities for further development and organizational improvement, and in particular can count on the relative weakness of the rival progressive force as a result of its specific character and way of life. It is necessary for the dominant social form to preserve this weakness: this is why it has been asserted that modern Caesarism is more a police than a military system.5Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (1971), 222

What makes Bonapartism soft instead of hard or fascistic, in Gramsci’s view, is determined by the preservation of the weakness of the social form of the bourgeois ruling order. The softness of the Bonapartist figure is thus due to the softness of the progressive bloc within the ruling liberal order. The softer the liberal order, the more the Bonapartist will remain within representative structures and restore the crisis, albeit temporarily. The Bonapartist thus wields a normative transformation amid the crisis of representation, which is also a crisis in the very legitimacy and efficacy of the ideology and values of the bourgeois order.

Karatanis analysis helps us see that a progressive liberal bloc within the ruling order tempers the softness or hardness of the Bonapartist figure. The hard Bonapartist, on the other hand, handles the crisis of representation in such a way that they aim to push the leader to the limit, insisting as Heidegger did with Hitler, that he be a “master”—an emperor before whom one bows down. What are we to make of this observation? One way to extrapolate the insight that the presence of a strong socialist party within a crisis moment means that hard Bonapartism will likely emerge. Yet another interpretation of hard Bonapartism would be that it emerges not when socialism is weak but when the normative order of the bourgeois order has lost democratic legitimacy, although this remains an open question and important area of further study.

What does it mean that the restoration of liberal democratic norms is brought about by their total farcification? What does this say about liberal political norms more generally?

Concluding Points

We have suggested that the moral distinction within the lumpenproletariat, between honest and scoundrel lumpens, opens an important political discussion about socialist and communist political organizing outside the labor movement. This moral distinction helps us to identify a bloc within a wider lumpenized population that offers a vector for socialist and communist organizing, albeit one which is likely more attracted to state policy dispensations as opposed to labor-based solidarity. While the analytic value of this distinction remains useful for political organizing, we still face a challenge of definition of the proletariat in this context.

If honest lumpens have a massive influence on potential socialist organizing, how do we then define the proletariat in relation to the honest lumpens? One possibility is to moralize the proletariat as a non-contradictory class or as a class that is impervious to lumpenization. This conception of the proletariat, however, risks thinking about class politics as a form of purity politics. In short, we maintain that retaining the honest lumpen and proletariat distinction is helpful because it helps to account for a disjunction in shared goals and frameworks and encourages more labor-based, as well as state-centered, tactics and strategies of proletarian political organizing.

Working with Marx and Engels’s idea that the lumpenproletariat is defined by their non-relation to production, we demonstrated how this non-relation also allows the lumpenproletariat to plug the “hole” in representation by forming a parasitic alliance with the finance aristocracy, who share a non-relation to production. It is this linkage that gives birth to and creates the grounds for the emergence of a Bonapartist political figure such as Louis Bonaparte III, F.D.R., Margaret Thatcher, or Donald Trump. The Bonapartist emerges under conditions of pervasive lumpenization, and based on Karatani’s discussion of Bonapartism, we have pointed to a new way of periodizing the phenomenon.

The hard vs. soft forms of Bonapartism we have elaborated help us to consider a broader periodization of the way crisis situations lead to the rise of a Bonapartist restoration and the crucial role that lumpenization plays in the rise of the Bonapartist figure. Yet the status of the hard vs. soft distinction of Bonapartism is still ambiguous. For example, is Biden more of a Bonapartist figure in the sense that he is unifying and restoring—at least at a symbolic level—the ruling bourgeois order amid the current COVID-19 pandemic more so than Trump did? Or will the Biden administration’s policies fail to exceed the limits of neoliberal governance, thereby effectively failing to restore legitimacy to the bourgeois order? The emergence of the soft Bonapartist is characterized by a restoration of bourgeois governing power despite the erosion of the cultural and social dynamics that are attendant to the wider crisis of representation. This distinction invites a more focused study on a proper genealogy of Bonapartist figures from the time of Louis Bonaparte III up to Joe Biden.

Furthermore, we have suggested that one problematic outcome of this theory of hard vs. soft Bonapartism, while it offers a helpful account for the emergence of fascism, it seems that the key variable for the rise of a hard Bonapartist is the presence of socialist or communist parties within the wider parliamentary system. We have also suggested that greater attention and further study needs to be made on the precise genealogy of hard and soft Bonapartism, specifically, which elements within the crisis of representation accelerate a hard Bonapartist turn, and which elements temper it. Hard Bonapartism does not describe just any dictatorial leader. For example, Putin is not a Bonapartist leader. Rather, the Bonapartist figure, either hard or soft, emerges within the hegemonic blocs of the liberal capital-nation-state order, and responds to its unique crisis with an aim to maintain and restore its norms.

What does it mean that the restoration of liberal democratic norms is brought about by their total farcification? What does this say about liberal political norms more generally? With these questions in mind, does it not make more sense to think of Hegels “first as tragedy then as farce” as reversed: first as farce (soft Bonapartism) then as tragedy (hard Bonapartism, i.e., fascism)?

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