- Category: Theory
- Created on Sunday, 02 March 2014 23:24
- Written by Doug Enaa
I just finished the book Revolt and Crisis in Greece which was written in the aftermath of the 2008 revolt and as the austerity measures were put into place. The book is written from an spontaneity anarchist perspective, the essays are very intelligent and thoughtful. I recommend that all comrades take the time to read and engage with the work. Yet I have a major problem with the final essay which discusses insurrection, civil war, and social war. The essay is an impassioned argument for overthrowing the state and the author says that we should take the methods of insurrection seriously. Yet the essay constantly shrinks away from practicing what it preaches, and in fact shows the inherent dead end of anarchism as a form of revolutionary practice. It argues in many places that insurrection is synonymous with occupy style assemblies (the squares movement in Greece) and extending non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian structures, but shrinks back from discussing what it actually means to take on the capitalist state and how to win. I'm sorry, but the words insurrection and war have very particular meanings. A strike is not necessarily a war. Nor is holding a massive general assembly in a public square (even if many people are opened to radical politics via the experience). An insurrection or war means an armed struggle. It means a chain of command, discipline, courage, audacity, and the development of counterhegemony (establishing a revolutionary state and liberated zone supported by the masses). These are conceptions which are foreign to anarchism's theory and practice in regards to armed struggle and revolution. Please don't repeat platitudes about the greatness of horizontalism and refusing to establish a revolutionary state because you are so pure. So if you are serious about insurrection and war, then actually talk about it, otherwise you are just throwing words around.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Sunday, 15 December 2013 23:59
- Written by Joe Ramsey
The following is an except of an article that appears in the recently published, November 2013 issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy, “Re-Imagining the Place and Time of Communism Today: Between Hardt's “New Love” and Jameson's “Citizen Army”, Socialism and Democracy, 27:3, 54-82.
A Pdf of the full article ,which includes a discussion of recent ideas put forth by Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, can be found online here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2013.832955
We are sharing this piece on Kasama because we feel that Michael Hardt’s speech, here criticized by J. Ramsey, concentrates a number of ideas and approaches that are quite pervasive on the left, in various registers, quite apart from whether or not these forces have read or been influenced by Hardt himself (with or without his critical partner, Antonio Negri).
The author welcomes direct replies at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Re-Imagining the Place and Time of Communism Today: Between Hardt’s “New Love” and Jameson’s “Citizen Army”
Joseph G. Ramsey
This year’s summer Institute on Culture and Society, the spirited annual gathering of the Marxist Literary Group (MLG), featured an intensive week of intellectual exchange and political engagement, bringing together radical scholars and critics, students, teachers, and activists, from across the United States, Canada, and beyond. Founded in 1969, the MLG is a member organization of the Modern Language Association (MLA), and is committed to supporting and expanding the reach of Marxist theory within the disciplines of literary and cultural studies, and in the humanities more generally. While not as overtly devoted to activism as the MLA’s Radical Caucus, the MLG maintains a lively and supportive email list, and since 1976 has hosted its summer gathering, sometimes affectionately described as “commie camp.”1 The MLG also produces the journal Mediations.2
Among the many fine features of the MLG’s summer Institute is that there are no concurrent panel sessions. This allows for a continuity of discussion that is rare at academic conferences, and facilitates the development of intellectual as well as personal connections between scholars of different disciplines, fields, and generations. Sociologists and geographers sit next to literary scholars who sit next to philosophers and historians; emeritus professors drink beers and debate openly with graduate students late into the night. Six to eight hours of panel sessions surround midday reading groups which delve into classic Marx texts as well as more contemporary theory and scholar- ship, from Communization Theory3 to Kevin Anderson’s recent book Marx at the Margins.
The wealth of insight and the energy of debate, not to mention the warm bonds of friendship and comradeship that characterized this year’s Institute (held at Ohio State University), extend well beyond what this article can hope to capture. I attempt here to engage just one small snapshot of the event: the last two evening lectures. These spoke, however, to core issues that many Marxists – academics and activists alike – are struggling with. The two hour-long talks came from high-profile American Marxist intellectuals, Michael Hardt (on Thursday night) and Fredric Jameson (on Friday night, to close the conference).4 Both are authors of many books and countless articles, and have exerted a significant influence on radical thought both within the academy and beyond it.5
Capping the week of lively panel presentations and ongoing discussions, each speaker offered something of a “big picture” proposal and provocation regarding a question that was on the minds of many: how to conceive communism, and/or revolutionary subjectivity for our times – how to link our understandings of where things are, with where we want them to go, with the question of who or what can take them there.6 Quite apart from the content of these closing presentations, which we shall turn to shortly, it seems to me a promising sign that issues of communism (and revolutionary subjectivity more broadly) are on the tongues of so many radical intellectuals in the US today, from so many different disciplines and regions – by which I mean not just the likes of Hardt and Jameson, but the eighty or so people who attended this year’s Institute, many of whom I am proud to call comrades.7
“The ABCs of Communism” with Michael Hardt
For those familiar with his work, Michael Hardt’s MLG talk did not appear to offer much that was new. Nonetheless, the clarity of his presentation makes the speech he gave a useful entry point into analyzing some of his main ideas, ideas which have had significant influence both within and beyond radical academic circles.8 Hardt entitled his talk “The ABCs of Communism” (an allusion to Bukharin’s handbook from the 1920s) and prefaced it as an attempt to explain what he means by the term communism. He positioned his paper against the current of increasingly widespread “talk about communism,” which often, he said, leaves the end goal itself only vaguely defined. In contrast, Hardt argued for understanding communism as an “economic, social, and political proposal” and proceeded to outline his particular conception as consisting of the abolition of four major interrelated institutions of modern life: the abolition of property, the abolition of work, the abolition of the state, and the abolition of the family. Apart from the content of his talk, it was for me a promising sign that a radical thinker such as Hardt was making an attempt to frame his core concepts in a more popular, digestible form. Listening to his lecture, I felt that his discourse was one that most people could grasp and engage, without the need for some specialized training. This cannot always – cannot often – be said of radical theory in the United States today.
Hardt framed his approach to these “4 Abolitions” by emphasizing two more general points of orientation. The first was that while it is all well and good to speak of communism and revolution as “beautiful,” such utopian talk can be one-sided. It is important, he insisted, not to ignore the ways communism may well appear quite “monstrous” to us, at least insofar as we have been formed by and through capitalist society. Communism, he insisted, will mean giving up some of what “we” hold most dear, what gives people today their sense of identity.9
Hardt’s second framing point was that, far from being impossible utopian proposals, each of his four calls for abolition is in fact feasible, in that the “basis” for it “is present already” in contemporary capitalist society. Hardt asserted – and has argued elsewhere, for years – that capitalism is immanently building the basis for communism in its very forms and fibers, creating the foundation for a new society, not just despite itself, but out of its own capitalist logic.
At the outset, it is interesting to compare what we might call Hardt’s “4 Abolitions” with what are sometimes called the “4 Alls” of Communism. According to the Dictionary of Revolutionary Marxism (maintained by Scott Harrison at http://www.massline. org/Dictionary/):
“FOUR ALLS” is the name given by the Chinese during the Mao era to the fol- lowing four points which concisely and powerfully sum up the essence and meaning of communist revolution:
1) The abolition of class distinctions generally.
2) The abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest.
3) The abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production.
4) The revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.10
It is worth noting the differences, as well as the overlap, between these two conceptions of what communism means and strives for.
For starters, the “4 Alls” makes the primary target of abolition – the one from which all the others follow – the abolition of “all class distinctions.” It’s a heady notion. Here we can intuit the need to abolish and/or radically transform quite a number of social relations (inside and outside of production): the capital–labor relation (including but not limited to the boss–worker relation), the landlord–peasant (or landlord–tenant) relation, as well as the inequities that are inherent in patriarchal relations and in the realm of imperialism, including national or racial oppression. It is at root a maxim of human equality, of broad applicability.
In contrast, Hardt’s primary target of abolition (from which his other targets follow) is defined as “property.” Not just private property, he emphasized, but property in general. The very notion of property, Hardt claimed, even for instance public property, carries the logic of private property within it: it still hinges on granting a monopoly of force that serves to lock people out and away from access to a particular substance or space. Thus, Hardt opposed what he called (following Marx) “crude communism” that would ‘merely’ shift control over property from private individuals to the state or some other collective “owning” body. Does Hardt’s placing the accent on property rather than, say, class matter, and how so? What is lost or gained in this reframing?
Hardt challenged listeners to consider the depths to which property logic has permeated our thinking and even experience of individuality and self-hood. He suggested that “Private property makes us stupid,” making us feel that “a thing isn’t ours unless we own it.” One of our challenges in creating communism, he argued, will be to take up theoretically and practically the question, “How can things be ours without our owning them?” Here Hardt usefully echoed the early Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, emphasizing the need for a total re-education of the senses in order to shed the stupidity and selfishness that private property has bred in human beings.11
Still, juxtaposing Hardt’s “4 Abolitions” with the Maoist “4 Alls” in this way immediately raises a number of questions:
On the one hand, is human equality (the abolition of class) incompatible with the continued existence of property as such?12 Or only incompatible with certain types of property, such as say, capital, or exclusive ownership of fertile land, i.e., property that gives one party power over another, allowing the former to exploit the latter in ways that will accentuate inequalities, empowering some at the expense of others?
On the other hand, is an abolition of property (and “its logic”) as such adequate to the abolition of class inequalities, understood in all their many manifestations?13 Or are social inequalities produced by capitalism-imperialism embedded in other forms that are related but not reducible to property relations? (To get a bit ahead of ourselves, would communizing or collectivizing property and economic decision-making within the existing structures and places where they now stand be adequate to creating communism, understood as the worldwide abolition of class distinctions? Or, over and above immanent communization, is there a need for a deliberate restructuring of global social relations (and reallocation of resources) in such a way as to fundamentally re-work the parts in relationship to the whole? How, for example, should the historic imbalances produced between global North and South be addressed by a truly communist movement?)
Hardt’s resistance to drawing a line between private property and property per se led one MLG questioner to ask about his shirt, and whether or not he would have an exclusive right to it under communism, as Hardt had described it. Would and should communism allow for (and offer defense of) personal property in the form of possessions, clothes, objects, even a home, etc?14 And how would such a right be maintained? Didn’t Marx himself make the point (albeit polemically, in the Manifesto, with Engels) that it was capitalism not communism that threatened to appropriate from the great majority of people what small bits of property they had acquired through their lifelong toil? Hardt appeared rather unclear on this point, perhaps because he is reluctant to admit, or uncertain of how to conceptualize, the body or authority that might enforce such exclusive rights, however “personal.” As we have noted, Hardt calls for the abolition of the state, understood as a coercive entity standing apart from and over society.
As the alternative to both state and market, both public and private property, Hardt proposes the “common,” as a mode of organizing social life that depends, for him, on two criteria: “open and equal access to all” and “democratic collective self-management.” He referred to recent developments in Gezi Park and Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, as well as to the Occupy Wall Street movement, as expressions of an actually existing “aspiration to the common” that is resistant to both state and market forms, “anti-neoliberal, and yet not pro-state.” Admitting the weaknesses and frustrations (as well as the beauty) of experiments such as Occupy, Hardt emphasized their value as learning experiences aimed at discovering and developing the methods and forms by which people can exercise democratic self-management. In this view, those struggling to find the best methods of facilitating General Assemblies might be seen as a kind of vanguard of the movement for the commons. Fair enough.
But with Occupy still spinning in my head, the big question for me as Hardt spoke was: Can this notion of the commons be scaled up beyond the local? Don’t we need to attend to the roll-back and break-up of Occupy as well as its spectacular moment of growth?15 As someone who dove into this event, who brought clothes, food, and books down to Occupy Boston, and who sought to work with and through the General Assembly and in working-groups in all sorts of ways, I still must ask: Is it conceptually valid, let alone logistically feasible, to manage entire societies, up to the national and the international level, as commons in this immediate sense? Without the support and supplement of something like large state structures?16 Without delegating at least temporary authority to some sort of elected leadership? Without even a centrally coordinated transition (call it ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat,’ ‘socialism,’ the ‘first stage of communism,’ or something else altogether)?17
Complicating the matter further is the fact that Hardt argues that political “representation” itself is a suspect, “property-based concept,” whereby the political will of one person is transferred to another (as if it were currency). Hardt didn’t quite call for the “abolition” of the idea of political representation, but he seemed to be leaning in that direction. It’s interesting to reflect on such commonplace notions, but it’s also risky to problematize them as such insofar as “representation” is a term that can stand for any number of ways and means of representing people, their decisions, their interests, preferences, desires, and ideas. For example, just looking at current and mainstream political practices, it is not only common for the transfer of group authority to be made temporary (from term limits on elected officials, to one convention only delegations), but it is also possible (and not uncommon) for elected “representatives” to be recalled by their constituents. Similarly, it is possible to subject representatives’ decisions to popular vetoes in the form of referenda, before they are implemented.18
Admittedly, Hardt does here point out a real cultural trend (and danger) of treating political will as an alienable property; such a notion of consent as transferrable currency certainly can be (and has been) exploited by leaders who are on their way to becoming a detached, bureaucratic elite. In our present ‘mainstream’ environment of cynical voter-resignation, in particular, we do need to insist that no amount of having voted for a politician or a party can deprive the people of their right to have a further say in their situation, even and especially when it means challenging those who officially ‘represent’ them; people cannot delegate away their political will. (Similarly, people ought not to feel bound to obey laws that are unjust and oppressive, just because they are formally legitimate.)
But valuable as it may be as a means of disrupting or delegitimizing the existing electoral-capitalist complacency, is this anti-representational principle fit to structure the realm of revolutionary politics? Does it apply to the realm of communism, where presumably the dictatorship of capital (or, as Hardt would put it, property) is overcome? One could raise a similar question regarding some of the autonomist modes of workers organizing against or without managers: Is the logic of resistance co-extensive with the necessities of revolutionary struggle? Or do these two form a more diagonal, at times contradictory mix, requiring serious mediation? (We will return to this below.) More immediately, how useful is such an anti-concept in this moment where radical forces are struggling to coalesce into a more substantial and effective political body? It seems to me that an outright hostility to the very concept of political representation (to even temporary and provisional delegations of collective political will) can become a debilitating bias indeed – unless it is replaced with another concept that does the work of representation in a new and better – more accountable, more organically mass-responsive – way.19
Those who experienced the General Assemblies (GA) of Occupy for an extended period likely got to see first-hand not just the prefigurative beauty of an aspiration for the common, but also what Jodi Dean (among others) has criticized as a reluctance or inability to confront and to work through its own internal political divisions.20 Interestingly, at least in Boston, Occupy’s horizontal processes appeared to function best in moments when there was a clear and present danger against which to unite: especially the imminent threat of police attack. Nonetheless, based on the Occupy experience, I believe that we should be skeptical of the notion that a revolutionary movement, or a new communist society, can do without some forms of representation and/or strategic delegation of authority, to facilitate decision-making in times of sudden and unforeseen crisis, to help the collective keep focus during lull phases, to push the group to work through its own internal contradictions in a non-antagonistic way, to facilitate coordination with other communes or occupations elsewhere, as well as to help work through the contradictions and challenges immanent to the movement and moment. To hypothesize bluntly: If every major Occupation had elected a team of (temporary! recallable!) delegates – say one month in, in October, 2011 – we very well might have been able to raise our movement to a higher level, for instance by organizing a representative national convergence that could have brought focus, visibility, and sustainability to the historic upsurge, coordinating actions across cities and regions, drawing new forces into the national movement, while also providing a clear platform for the open struggle between contending political views and approaches. This might have been a significant step forward for the Occupy movement, creating new opportunities, as well as – of course! – challenges, and yes, new dangers, too.
That this didn’t happen was not primarily because of police repression: anti-representational biases played a role in stymying the coalescence, concentration, and self-clarification and expansion, of the Occupy movement.21
Of course, it goes without saying – but still must be said – that to keep such representatives and leaders responsive, accountable, and connected to the needs and wants of the people needs to be an ongoing priority of any movement for radical change; similarly all such official representations remain subject to amendment and critique. Part of this task involves the cultivation of new leaders – quite apart from whether they hold officially “representative” positions or not – so that the movement does not become vulnerable (whether to distortion or to repression) in its over-reliance and dependence on particular individuals. Indeed, one of the best criteria for judging the effectiveness of revolutionary leadership – or of a mode of movement representation – should be the extent to which a particular representative (or representative mode) is able to cultivate and to raise up the consciousness and confidence of others. In a sense such leadership ought to strive to make itself obsolete, by spreading whatever skills and knowledge and methods it once had privileged access to, and by helping to cultivate the space and support for new and needed voices and views to come forward.
It is obvious that we need to be exploring and testing new forms of leadership and new ways of manifesting and concentrating the best ideas and practices of the people, on an ongoing basis. But does dispensing with “representation” as such (as Hardt suggested we might) help us to make progress on such problems, problems that are themselves, in part, matters of representation? How do we conceive of leadership (or popular will, or sovereignty) here if not in terms of representation? What can and what will be the mode of leadership and organization through which the rule of the common can be generalized beyond the local and the immediate? Perhaps what we need is a more dynamic, dialectical, and supple understanding of what it means to represent others politically in a communist way, rather than a hostility or resistance to the concept of representation as such.
Lacking answers here, it seems to me that Hardt’s anti-representationalism is symptomatic of a broader tendency (on the Left and perhaps elsewhere) to seek out a novel form of political organization or expression, as if said form could be somehow sealed off in advance from the danger of co-optation, corruption, elitist detachment, or bureaucratic abuse. As if the selection of form can get us around the need for an all-sided and ongoing struggle over content.22 As if even the commune too couldn’t make bad decisions, take wrong stances, pursue incorrect paths.
Communism with no place for the State. . .or Strategy
As for how the commoning of economic relations and the abolition of property (private or public) will be accomplished, Hardt tended to avoid the question of strategy. He did emphasize two points relevant to the question of communist transition. But both of these points were not just non- but anti-strategic, gravitating against the need for carving out a definitive revolutionary strategy, or even making the space for one.
First, Hardt argued that the transition to communism is already immanent within contemporary capitalism, which, he argued, is increasingly characterized by common and collective forms of production. “It is more efficient to give workers autonomy,” Hardt argued, and so capitalists’ own drive for profit is leading them to expand autonomy, creating the material basis for the common, and rendering capitalists more external to the actual process of production.
Second, he pointed out that his theory of communist transition is less a matter of “cataclysmic change” than of what he called “an accumulation of anomalies,” a gradual production of “beachheads” within capitalism that will aggregate until “quantitative change turns into qualitative change.” This more or less spontaneous communism by enclave, Hardt quickly added, need not be understood as ruling out the possibility of more “cataclysmic” events; indeed, the growing commons might even help provide support for such breakthroughs. And yet, despite this important qualification, Hardt’s approach tends to downplay and to put off the need for strategic thinking and organization – whether proactive or defensive. His presentation risked sounding like a call to tail the spontaneous emergence of the common as immanent to capital.23
Hardt did not, for instance, encourage us, as strategically oriented communists, to approach the accumulated anomalies and enclaves in light of the opportunity for – or even the political-logical necessity of – revolutionary “cataclysms,” or for that matter, of assault from counter-revolutionaries. He did not insist that we think strategically when creating or selecting which commons to expand or prioritize, depending on where the enemy is weak or strong. Though he never exactly said it (at least not in this talk), one could be forgiven for interpreting Hardt as suggesting that the logic of capitalism, and the flowering of democratic self-management in those common spaces that capital is itself creating, will take care of this transitional process on its own.
But from a strategic standpoint, wouldn’t it make sense to cluster one’s “beachheads” with an eye to where the enemy guns are? And to strategize how to defend and reconfigure the “anomalies” in light of the likelihood of counter-revolutionary attack? Whether or not we accept Hardt’s political economic assumptions, such a strategic approach to the revealed terrain would appear necessary for communists, no?24
It seems possible that Hardt’s focus on property rather than class as the primary target for abolition, may encourage this eliding of strategy. It was as if abolishing property, and going right to the commune form, would do away with the need to struggle with and among the people, consciously exposing and transforming the particular social relations and contradictions that have been built up in the world system by capitalist and imperialist domination, not to mention the need to actively defend communist enclaves from the repressive force of capital and the state. In a way, Hardt thus defers a whole host of tough questions to the democratic decision-making of the emergent and future common, rather than insisting on the need for communists to be preparing now to take on various manifestations of class inequalities, such as educational hierarchies, divisions between mental and manual labor, divisions between country and city within countries, as well parasitism and lopsidedness between countries resulting from centuries of colonialism and imperialism. The danger for Hardt’s property-based proposal is, like the danger of a certain brand of anarchism, that its very sweeping “radicalism” ignores the political particularities of transition and transformation that will be essential to any viable communist revolutionary project. In short, the entire problematic of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” of the need to lay the basis for higher forms of communism and to defeat and suppress the oppressors, does not appear.25
“What are the people doing?”. . .and “what is to be done?”
Neither communists, nor anyone else, of course, can conjure the resistant or revolutionary practice of the people into being through a sheer act of will (coupled with correct analysis + strategic utterances). Thus perhaps the single most useful point and phrase that I took away from Hardt’s “ABCs of Communism” talk was his insistence that rather than simply obsessing over “What is to be done?” communists need to take seriously the question “What are people doing?” As a provocation both for a certain Leninist left that tends to marginalize itself with its insistence on abstract and historically enervated notions of the “correct” way forward, and for an economistic Marxism that in its exploration of tectonic capital shifts tends to lose sight of the actually existing practices of actual people, Hardt’s emphasis on investigating the concrete doings of the people was valuable.
But despite the importance of taking seriously the changes in the work life and the social life of the people, Hardt’s maxim risked being one-sided in the other direction. He risked leaping from a dogmatism of the orthodox abstract to a tailism of the spontaneously emergent.
The challenge, it seems to me, is precisely to derive a strategy of what is to be done, in relationship to what people are doing (as well as to what is coming down the pike courtesy of contemporary capitalism and its various attendant internal and external conflicts). This needs to be understood not as a mechanical operation, where one aspect (“What is to be done” or “What people are doing”) is fully formed “in advance,” and then acts upon the other aspect, but as a process of mutual transformation of both poles of the opposition, of both revolutionaries and (the rest of) the people, whereby what people are doing is changed in relation to growing awareness about what is to be done, and where our sense of what is to be, can be, and must be done is revised and filled out by a deepening and concretized sense not just of what the people are doing, but of what they are willing and able and wanting to do (which may often be different from what they are at present doing). The latter itself needs to be understood as a dynamic, dialectically determined subjective will – for what people are willing and thus able do has a way of changing, sometimes drastically and radically, in relation to what they understand others to be doing, to be thinking, to be wanting and willing. (“From the masses, to the masses,” as the Maoist “mass line” would put it, needs to be understood as a mutually transformative process.) Investigation into the practices, conditions, and attitudes of the people is absolutely fundamental, but this is not a strictly sociological or positivist matter of “knowledge”: such investigation needs to be conducted, and then translated and tested through practice, in light of a broader view of the strategic situation, a view which includes subjective political factors, as well as overall tectonic alignments of capital that are beyond the people’s immediate control. Such a truly radical investigation changes the object as well as the subject.26
Our question thus shifts again: Not just What is to be done? or What is being done? But what can be done? And how can this collective sense of possibility itself be transformed?
Of New Love. . .and communist monstrosities
At the end of his talk on “The ABCs of Communism,” as if to replace the newly abolished Family, Michael Hardt referenced the need for a “New Love” or a “Love of the Common.” He did not provide much in the way of content to fill out this idea (perhaps due to time constraints), but it would seem that this notion must be read dialectically in response to what, in his account, communism threatens to strip from people. The “new love” then would be a kind of communal cultural production that is outside the logic of Property, Work, State, and Family but that can provide the sense of security and belonging that communism, as abolition of these realms, jeopardizes. (I was reminded of Jodi Dean’s notion of communism as “the collective desire for collectivity” or the “collective desire for collective desiring” which seems to be emphasizing a similar sort of need, a kind of libidinal drive to maintain – and expand – the very space of collective being and decision, though Hardt made no mention of Dean’s work in his talk.)
What would be the form, the contents, the methods of producing and reproducing this “new love of the common”? Is this too something that – like Hardt’s “beachheads” of the common – can be understood as immanent to capitalist production, or is it something that can only come into being through an act of collective will, a type of communist cultural revolution?
Certainly this communist need to create a sense of security and belonging is a real one. How will we hold together a society that can no longer depend on greed, fear, nationalism, or narrowly understood “self-interest” as its (toxic) glue? What will serve as the driver of social production and reproduction once the imperative of profit and the disciplinary mechanism of the world market are abolished? Often communists – along with other anti-capitalist radicals – focus primarily on exposing the criminal doings and structural underpinnings of the present system, on what needs to be criticized or even dismantled, rather than what can and will replace it. But how in fact would we, could we, should we operate the system that will come after this one? We can certainly do a lot worse than to call for the cultivation of a kind of communist love – the treatment of others as ends in themselves, a loving practical recognition that “the free development of each provides the condition for the free development of all,” etc.
And yet, listening to Hardt, I could not help but wonder: can “love” do the job without the benefit of some organized force? A force that can, when it is necessary, bring to bear violence or the threat of violence in order to defend or extend communist gains and to deal with the residual and emergent elements of class domination or exploitation, as well as other anti-social forces?35 Isn’t it conceivable that part of what can (or maybe even must) bond a new communist social subject is precisely the necessity of suppressing its former or would-be oppressors and exploiters? Dialectically speaking – and here I think of Sartre’s notion of “the Third,” the Other whose threaten- ing “look” forces two subjects who were formerly independent of (or even antagonistic to) one another to fuse into a Group – is it not in part the need to confront the common enemy that compels working- class people to recognizing themselves as a proletariat in the first place?
Indeed, in this talk about the “monstrosity” of communist revolution, I was struck by the lack of discussion of anything like the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”36 Asked to address this longstanding communist concept during the Q and A, Hardt responded by acknowledging a certain space for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” understood narrowly (as he said Lenin understood it) as the “teaching of new habits” to the people. This is certainly an interesting and useful way to think about – one aspect of – the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet it seems to remain again somewhat mired in the immediacy of micro-level interpersonal relations.
Again: What of the need for strategy? For restructuring the social totality in line with a rational and egalitarian plan? For dealing with antagonistic contradictions, between the communizing people and those determined to restore capitalist relations, whether they are associated with the displaced ruling class, or with new elements immanent to the post-revolutionary society who seek consciously to develop and consolidate new forms of class distinction, oppression, and/or exploitation? What to do with those who refuse to accept the “teachings” of communization, who insist on resisting by force or arms? Does Hardt’s “new love” include tough love, modeled on the parent who uses her authority to force a child to learn (and to enact) the difference between right and wrong? Though I would of course agree that communists ought to strive to win people to a love of the common through appeal to their best selves, through the experience of cooperation and common struggle, as well as through arguments (and cultural productions) aimed at expanding their sense of “self-interest” to incorporate the needs of others, it seems to me that there is no getting around the need for an organized force that is capable of generating not only love, but also, frankly, fear.
The complete article, which includes an extended discussion of Fredric Jameson’s discussion of the idea of a “Citizen’s Army,” as well as a fuller discussion of Hardt’s call to “abolish the Family,” can be found online at Socialism and Democracy, here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08854300.2013.832955
A brief history of the MLG can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxist_ Literary_Group
2. Mediations: a journal of the Marxist Literary Group is available at www. mediationsjournal.org .
For an introduction to Communization theory and its critics, see Communization and Its Discontents, edited by Benjamin Noys, which is available online.
See www.MLG2013.wordpress.com for the full program. There was also a lecture given by the perhaps lesser known, but increasingly prominent Bruno Bosteels, author of the insightful new book, The Actuality of Communism (London: Verso, 2012), which I highly recommend. I will be dealing with the work of Bosteels at some length in a later essay; however, as his MLG talk was more historical than theoretical (it dealt with the history of the commune form in Mexico), I will limit my present discussion to Hardt and Jameson.
Hardt recently finished (with Antonio Negri) a major trilogy, encompassing Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth. Among Fredric Jameson’s major works are: Marxism and Form, The Political Unconscious, Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, A Singular Modernity, Valences of the Dialectic, and, most recently, Reading Capital.
At this year’s Institute, this perennial Marxist question was weighted by a week of reading, which, in the form of the recently translated German Wertkritik (or “Value Theory”), as well as what has become known as Communization Theory, delved into questions related to the organic composition of capital and the Falling Rate of Profit, as well as what Marx in Capital terms the “absolute general tendency of capitalist accumulation,” that is, capital’s tendency to produce an absolutely “surplus” population, characterized by permanent unemployment. In other words: how to conceive of a revolutionary social subject in an age of terminal crisis, characterized by mass unemployment and precarious underemployment.
This is the appropriate place to thank a number of MLG comrades for helpful comments on this essay and/or on the talks in question: Kanishka Chowdhury, Rich Daniels, Ariane Fischer, Kevin Floyd, George Snedeker, and Robert Tally.
These ideas have been elaborated in many other places, including “The Common in Communism,” Hardt’s contribution to the volume The Idea of Communism (London: Verso, 2010), as well as his above-cited co-authored trilogy, of which the Commonwealth volume is particularly important for our present purposes. I should add that my present discussion does not purport to be a full or adequate critical survey of Hardt’s (and Negri’s) ambitious critical project, though I do hope to raise here some questions about that project which can be engaged further elsewhere.
9. Of course, the “we” and the “us” here were not particularly clear: Was Hardt imagining his audience as a privileged class of tenured and soon-to-be-tenured professors? A class of property-owners whose identities are wrapped up in their possessions? A class of increasingly precarious academic workers struggling to achieve a living wage while drowning in six figures of debt?
10. As Harrison notes, though popularized during the Chinese revolutionary process, “These four points are taken verbatim from a passage in Marx’s pamphlet, The Class Struggles in France (1850), MECW 10:127.
See Hardt, “The Common in Communism” (note 8), as well as Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
Of course it could also be asked whether or not the abolition of class alone is adequate to the achievement of human equality. As indicated above, I here take class to encompass without cancelling other unequal and self-replicating power relations involving for instance gender, race, and national inequalities.
I should add here that, as a comrade recently reminded me, Hardt and Negri do call for the abolition of the class relationship within production in their broader work. For instance, they write, evocatively: “Revolutionary class politics must destroy the structures and institutions of worker subordination and thus abolish the identity of worker itself, setting in motion the production of subjectivity and a process of social and institutional innovation. A revolutionary class politics also does not aim at workers taking power as the new ruling class, and thereby continuing the long history of one social class replacing another in the seat of power. Nor can it aim at creating social equality by universalizing one of the existing class identities, making either everyone bourgeois or everyone proletarian. Each of these non-revo- lutionary projects leaves worker identity intact, whereas a revolutionary process must abolish it” (Hardt & Negri, Commonwealth, 333).
I am thankful to fellow S&D editor Suren Moodliar for pointing out that indeed one can imagine circumstances when one ought not to be entitled to an absolute prop- erty right over one’s own shirt: imagine a situation where one person is bleeding and needs another’s shirt for a tourniquet.
My own extended critical reflections on the strengths, weakness, and prospects of Occupy were laid out in “Revolution Underground: Critical Reflections on the Prospect of Renewing Occupation,” Socialism and Democracy 60 (vol. 26, no. 3, November 2012). See also Jan Rehman, “Occupy Wall Street and the Question of Hegemony: A Gramscian Analysis,” S&D 61 (vol. 27, no. 1, March 2013).
More workable (and dialectical) might be the formulations of David Harvey, who in his recent book, Rebel Cities, argues for a more inter-penetrative relationship between state structures of maintaining public spaces and rights, and grassroots structures committed to “communing.”
As noted above, a discussion of the work of MLG’s other guest speaker, Bruno Bosteels, is beyond the scope of this essay. (It is in production.) That said, I will note here in passing that one of the important features of Bosteels’s recent work, for instance in The Actuality of Communism, is his methodological and political insistence that we study the relationship between communist movement and socialist state with more rigor (and internationalism) than has become customary on the anti- statist/communist left.
We should add that each of these “checks and balances” on representatives’ authority can be and has been used for ill as well as for good; consider for instance various anti-gay or anti-immigrant referenda that have swept regions of the country in recent years. Greater limitation on authority does not always mean greater liberation for the people.
Here we might consider Hardt and Negri’s treatment of the concept of sovereignty, a concept which did not come up in this MLG talk.
See the last chapter of Dean’s book, The Communist Horizon; also, my article on and interview with Dean in Socialism and Democracy 62 (vol. 27, no. 2).
In Boston I saw first-hand how the suspicion of representation held up the process of expanding the movement. In the very first week of the Occupation at Dewey Square, I was involved with several others in crafting a formal “Declaration of Occupation.” Written by a small committee, but based on dozens if not hundreds of conversations with other occupiers, the Declaration was concise but comprehensive, and consisted of a compilation of principles and grievances, as well as a welcoming call for other people in the Greater Boston area to participate in the movement, in whatever ways they could. We were convinced that if we passed such a statement through the GA we would be able to get it picked up in the local papers, The Boston Globe, The Boston Metro, The Boston Herald, etc. We sought to strike while the iron was hot. The Declaration was stopped twice at General Assembly, not because of particular concerns with its contents – almost everyone appeared to agree with it and found it well written, and the small changes proposed could have been easily implemented. Rather it was blocked because some – very few – in the Assembly expressed concerns: (1) that the authors of the statement were not (demographically) representative of the people as a whole; (2) that we should not issue a statement that claimed to be representative (of the 99%) when we, the occupation, were still only a tiny fraction of that 99%. Thus, I would contend, tens perhaps hundreds of thousands of Bostonians who might have been able to get a clear and direct, concise, coherent, and perhaps even moving “official” statement from Occupy Boston did not get one, because a small minority of Occupiers were essentially hostile to the idea of anything akin to formal representation.
[Note added by author: 12/14/13: Over one month later, when faced with the prospect of immanent police eviction, a small group of activists would successfully push through the General Assembly of Occupy Boston a “Statement of Occupation,” one containing many of the features of the early proposed Draft statement. Again, it was the sense of urgency created by a threat of outside attack that compelled us to commit to formal representation, before we were dispersed and destroyed. By this point however, for reasons that deserve fuller treatment than this footnote can provide—and which I attempted to outline in my S&D piece, “Revolution Underground?”—the initiative and momentum of the Occupy movement had largely ebbed; Certainly there was no longer such widespread (or sympathetic) mass and media interest in the new movement as there had been early on. Thus this last ditch Statement, which did include some powerful language—especially the call to place the human needs of all ahead of the profits of a few—would not find much of an audience beyond the General Assembly at Dewey Square, though for many of us it remains a reference point to this day.]
22. See the substantive discussions on political representation and organizational form that have appeared on the Kasama Project website, e.g., Mike Ely’s writings, including “Unsettled Questions of Communist Organization,” http:// kasamaarchive.org/2012/01/25/unsettled-questions-of-communist-organization/
23. We should note also that the status, trajectory, or scope of such proto-autonomist labor commons within capital is far from being uncontroversial. Nor is the significance for political subjectivity of such developments clear. See for instance Jason Read’s discussion of the persistence and intensification of fetishism in relation to cooperation under capital: http://www.unemployednegativity.com/2011/03/ general-intellect-personified-more.html
It should be noted, however, that Hardt’s (and Negri’s) call to take the sudden emergence of such beachheads seriously, is to be much preferred to the approach of those who would dismiss such enclaves out of hand, as somehow out of step with classical or properly Marxist models of politics.
During the Q and A, Hardt did concede that there could be some role for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in his notion of communism, namely as the “instilling of new habits” among the people.
Of course, it is also possible to conceive of love and violence as non-exclusive entities: a kind of “tough love” for and of the common.
It’s worth noting that something like this notion of a dictatorship of the proletariat has been re-emergent in contemporary radical thought, from Zˇizˇek to Dean, to Hallward. . .
- Category: Theory
- Created on Saturday, 20 July 2013 16:33
- Written by Joe Ramsey
"To look to the communist horizon is always to be looking for others looking back. For, the ultimate communist horizon, what makes a cooperative and egalitarian social transformation possible as well as necessary, I would argue, is the intersection of four points: 1) that capitalism itself is a system based on increasingly (albeit increasingly disavowed) socialized labor, one that brings people together in new ways and that unleashes productive (and destructive) forces of unprecedented power (and danger); 2) that this system remains fundamentally incapable of satisfying the needs and wants of the vast majority of humanity; 3) that human beings are capable of thinking, desiring, wanting, and wishing in ways that point beyond this system’s limits; and 4) that among our needs is the need to satisfy the other’s need; that it is within our capacity, even perhaps integral to our nature, that we see in the other a being ultimately very much like ourselves, that we see ourselves reflected in the other."
This piece by J. Ramsey is excerpted from a longer article, which will appear in the July issue of the journal, Socialism and Democracy, available online at www.sdonline.org I
The eye-grabbing cover of Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon (Verso, 2012) depicts what could be the dawn of a new day. A red sun, half in view, arcs across the volume’s bottom edge. From this solid red spot, dozens of thin but widening beams fan out; crossing the background, the sunlight splits the sky itself into stripes of red and white.
Though Dean had no direct hand in selecting this cover image,1 it speaks to one of her most consistent themes: the fundamental importance of division to her notion of communism. We are not presented here with a unified red star in the distance (suggesting a stable true referent to navigate or chart one’s march by), nor with a solid red flag (that might suggest this truth is presently embodied in a particular party or state). Here, the red spot splits the scene. The beams emanating from the red sun are not just red, but red and white, suggesting that this horizon does not turn all the world red—like some anti-capitalist Midas touch—but rather illuminates the divisions that exist. Here the red sun divides in two the world it stretches to meet; it does not eradicate particularity, but casts it in a new—dividing—light.
Surely it says something that of all the dozens of cover-images put out by Verso last season, the editors chose this one—red sun rising, red beams spreading—to go on the cover of its Fall 2012 catalog. It would appear that the idea of communism is making a kind of comeback, at least in some circles—academic as well as activist. Consider the story of the now famed March 2009 Birkbeck Institute conference on “The Idea of Communism.” Featuring critical communist theorists from Alain Badiou and Bruno Bosteels to Michael Hardt, Peter Hallward, and Slavoj Žižek, this gathering, expected to attract a mere 200 attendees, found itself overwhelmed with an interested crowd of 1200. Verso Press’s new “Pocket Communism” series is among the latest signs of the red shift. These hard-covers—they won’t fit in your pants, but will in a jacket—are built for easy transport to the post-demonstration discussion circle or to the seminar table.
The latest in this Verso series, Dean’s The Communist Horizon may be the most accessible and most explicitly engaged of the bunch, in the sense of being oriented towards recent political developments and pressing questions of political form.2 Though it is a book that certainly sheds light (and weighs in) on a number of debates within what might be called the New Communist Philosophy, The Communist Horizon deserves to be read and discussed beyond such circles, by anyone who believes that the present capitalist world order leaves much to be desired. One recent commentator has aptly described Dean’s book as “Theory for Everyone.”3
It’s a sweeping and forceful work, one that boldly and unapologetically attempts to recast the political field of contemporary capitalism (at least as it is experienced in the Euro-American sphere) while taking aim at a host of widely held beliefs – prevalent on both the Right and the Left – that stand in the way of building a serious emancipatory movement today.
When I first heard the phrase “communist horizon” – in Bruno Bosteels’ The Actuality of Communism (Verso, 2011), where Dean herself found her title-trope4—I was excited. (Excited enough, in fact, over the following months, to push successfully for naming a local group I worked with Red Horizon.)
Why? What does communist horizon conjure, connote, or emphasize that communism alone might not? What does it mean to figure communism as our horizon?
Well, for starters: a horizon is equally available to all. It does not require specialized goggles, or a special Archimedean point from which to look out; in no way is it the property or the monopoly of any particular group or lineage; it belongs to everyone. What could be more common than the horizon? While someone may point it out to you, or help you to discern its signs, anyone with functioning eyes can see it (provided of course there are no large structures obstructing the view), so long as they are willing to look. It belongs to no country, but is in a fundamental sense global, planetary.
A horizon is always out ‘there,’ never quite ‘here.’ It can only be seen, never touched. No matter how one strides towards it, it remains distant, an aspiration. However focused one is on keeping a particular spot on the horizon in view, one can never be sure that one will arrive exactly ‘there.’ Certainty as regards a horizon must always remain more than a bit speculative. There is no room for arrogant pre-possession or for pretense, as if one could know for sure that one’s charted path is the “one true path,” as if we were the ‘true’ and only communists. A horizon is wide; it stands to reason that there may be many different paths for reaching it. It can be glimpsed, but not grasped. No single person, no single group can in fact control, nor possess it.
Yet, though unreachable, even in a sense unapproachable, a horizon can help to orient us where we are. We look to a horizon to see where we are headed, to determine the general direction in which we want to go.
Crucially, to orient toward a communist horizon is to be reminded of hopes and possibilities that may not seem apparent in the immediacy of the present. Keeping the horizon in mind, keeping one eye on the horizon, if you will, is to keep from losing our bearings, to keep from becoming totally consumed by, and mired in, our immediate surroundings, institutions, or struggles, as important and demanding as these often are. Even as we devote energies to the local terrain, we should never forget that what we’re about is trying to find our way towards a radically egalitarian and worldwide change, a global human flourishing, “where the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.” Communism can never be solely about the here and the now, but must seek to connect this here and now to the there and the then, with the spatially and temporally distant.
At the same time, we also may look to a horizon to see not just where we are heading (or where we want to go), but also to see what is coming our way: what is in the distance now (in spatial or temporal terms), but is coming nearer…whether it’s good or bad, or—as is often the case—both.
In our particular moment, to look toward this horizon (whether in spatial or in temporal terms) is to lay eyes on a number of intensifying capitalist crises—perhaps most acutely, the environmental crisis (which includes but is by no means limited to the toxic spiral of global warming and climate destabilization), but also interrelated crises involving spiraling global inequalities, the overproduction of surplus capital on the one hand and the production of “surplus” population, for whom the system appears to have little profitable use, on the other. Acting out what Marx termed the “absolute general tendency of capitalist production,” capitalism’s unrestrained ‘productivity’ promises to render huge swaths of humanity superfluous to value production altogether, except as global slums to be policed by private security, locked up in private prisons. To these fundamental crises, readers can easily add their own catalog of oncoming catastrophes.5
At the same time, though, to look into the distance today is also to take in the stirring of mass popular movements across the world, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement, to the anti-austerity struggles growing in Europe, to the ongoing Maoist-led movements in India and Nepal. These uprisings suggest what Alain Badiou has called a “Rebirth of History,” reminding us of the potential for an aroused populace to challenge and even to overthrow dominant political regimes. Especially here in the US, where political horizons and immediately realizable possibilities often seem so radically impoverished—where the commercial media and corporate politics drag down political discourse and childlike imagination alike—keeping one eye on the horizon (temporal and spatial) may be crucial to sustaining hopes of radical social transformation.
Crucially, to speak of the horizon of the era as communist is to imply that the capitalist horizons, the proclamations about where the limits are for human social potential, about what is “natural” and what is “possible” or “realistic,” given the “new normal” of the existing system, are utterly artificial, arbitrary, themselves non-necessary. They are not limits, but artificial and socially constructed restrictions and restraints. To declare that the actual place where the earth and sky (where human materiality and human aspiration) meet is communism, is to call out the structures and the “laws” of the ruling system as no more “natural” or ultimately binding for us than fake skylines that might be painted onto flat canvas backdrops for a cheap Hollywood movie. We can—and should—point out their artifice at every opportunity, as one key step toward knocking them over and revealing the actual horizon beyond. To speak of the communist horizon is to implicitly call out the capitalist horizon as false. It is to defamiliarize the dominant “norms” of our world, by persisting in a belief in something beyond it, even when a self-identified mass communist movement—except in India, Nepal, Greece and perhaps a few other places—is not yet a clear and present player on the scene. It is to insist that other coordinates of political and social life are possible and desirable, however fleetingly discernible within the present.
The communist horizon offers us a figure for thinking unity and contingency together, universality and particularity. It is the aspiration that needs to be kept in view while we devote ourselves to more immediate projects, not knowing at this point which projects will turn out to have been the ‘correct communist path’ at some hypothetical point in the future. The horizon thus becomes a figure for uniting revolutionary utopianism with political pragmatism. As such, it is a figure that offers questions, more than answers—perhaps an appropriate image for us today. With the communist horizon in mind, the question becomes not where should we go (or who precisely we should go to) to do communist work, but rather how can we conduct our explorations – and the work that we are doing, wherever we are – in a communist way.
Finally, I would conclude my opening ‘riff’ on Dean’s titular trope by emphasizing that looking to the communist horizon is always to be looking for others looking back.6 For, the ultimate communist horizon, what makes a cooperative and egalitarian social transformation possible as well as necessary, I would argue, is the intersection of four points: 1) that capitalism itself is a system based on increasingly (albeit increasingly disavowed) socialized labor, one that brings people together in new ways and that unleashes productive (and destructive) forces of unprecedented power (and danger);7 2) that this system remains fundamentally incapable of satisfying the needs and wants of the vast majority of humanity; 3) that human beings are capable of thinking, desiring, wanting, and wishing in ways that point beyond this system’s limits; and 4) that among our needs is the need to satisfy the other’s need; that it is within our capacity, even perhaps integral to our nature, that we see in the other a being ultimately very much like ourselves, that we see ourselves reflected in the other.
These points, taken together, imply nothing less than the potential and necessity for a communist, cooperative organization of the world. Bearing them in mind, we must assume that, whatever the immediate political situation proclaims as “realistic,” there are billions of people out there who in some way are looking out for something systemically beyond it, even if the words ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ do not cross their lips. The challenge, the need, then, is to find a way to catch their eye, and to hold and to triangulate their gaze long enough to build something together out of our mutual recognition.
Building upon each of those four points, communism can then stand for the unending struggle to render increasingly visible and self-conscious: 1) the collective nature of social production under capitalism—or for that matter, under any “transitional” socialism; 2) the fatal flaws of capitalism with respect to the needs of humanity; 3) the capacity of human thought and reflection to transcend the reifying and fetishizing, fragmenting and isolating, marketizing and mental deadening that are so essential to capitalism, and remain as latent dangers under socialism; and 4) the reciprocal and self-reflexive nature of human need.8
To strive for communism is not only to strive for a particular set of social, political, and economic institutions and relationships, but to strive to cultivate (in oneself and in others) a consciousness of and sensibility to the way that we are all made of a common substance and inhabit a common planet, that we all, in a sense, face a common threat, and that, as human beings, our individual interests and flourishing are deeply interdependent. In short, no one can be fully human alone. When we hurt another, we hurt ourselves. We are at root social and collective beings.
The ultimate horizon of communism then might be conceived not as a state and not as a sun, or any other thing, but as the possibility of a collective humanity, looking back at itself—taking itself in, if you will—and then seeking to satisfy and to realize itself, in and through rational and non-coercive intercourse with others (and with the earth we share). It takes flight from the mutual recognition of our common class enemy, yes, but also of the ways in which we labor together each day to make and remake the world (albeit in ways that often do not accord with our will or desire, that are forced upon us by capital and its private dictatorship over our commonwealth, our social surplus too often stolen and used against us). It insists that we treat the myriad of human others not as instrumental means, but as human ends in themselves—as intersections of need and desire, as beings to whom we are connected.
Communism can thus be understood as beginning—as having already begun—not with the achievement of some utopian end-state (or with the toppling of the capitalist order, the seizing of factories, etc), but wherever there grows a conscious desire to bring about this dialectic of mutual human recognition and flourishing. Communism thus incarnates, as Jodi Dean keeps reminding us, as “the collective desire for collective desiring.”9 This desire stands opposed to the rule of capital, but is not reducible to that opposition. It aims to cast new coordinates for human species-being.
For Dean, the Communist Horizon represents “a fundamental division that we experience as impossible to reach, and that we can neither escape, nor cross…a dimension of experience that we can never lose,” she adds, “even if, lost in a fog or focused on our feet, we fail to see it” (1). “The horizon,” she writes, “shapes our setting,” whether we acknowledge it or not. Citing parenthetically the influential Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Dean likens the horizon to the “Real” which, for Lacan, was both impossible and actual. She likens it, in our recent dialogue (printed below), not to an end point, but to a condition, the only political condition under which an egalitarian politics is possible.
It is at once unreachable and yet constitutive, utopian not in the sense of an imaginary blueprint to be imposed on reality, but in the sense of a viewpoint that cracks open possibilities inherent in our immediate, present conditions, while at the same time providing coordinates—and inspiration—by which we can navigate these conditions, together. To grasp the horizon is to enact a shift of subjective perspective – albeit rooted in the study of objective actuality – that allows us to envision, and thus seek to actualize, a freedom beyond the formal limits of the present system. At the very least such a shift allows us to dissolve in thought some of the self-defeating ideas and practices that too often keep us from daring to actualize our potential.10
Dean roots her title in Bolivian Marxist García Linera’s contention that “The general horizon of the era is communist.” She notes early on that Linera does not feel that he must provide an argument for this contention; rather, he “assumes the communist horizon as an irreducible feature of the political setting,” “as if it were the most natural thing in the world” (3). “For Linera,” she adds, “communism conditions the actuality of politics.”
To speak of communism as a horizon is thus to suggest its natural and eternal, if not self-evident, aspect; it exists as a possibility to some extent independent of the state of the ‘productive forces’ or the particular historical moment. It is at once historical and eternal at the same time.11
As much a manifesto as a cutting-edge critical intervention, The Communist Horizon aims not just to sharpen our view of the present, but to stoke our desire for global human emancipation, to help us clear our throats of the taboos that choke them, for the study and the struggle that lie ahead. Dean seeks to incite in readers not just a righteous indignation in the face of capitalism’s many and widely documented abuses and injustices, and not just an understanding of how capitalism (‘necessarily’) produces these crimes, but a collective desire for communism. She understands communism not just as a goal – to abolish class divisions and satisfy basic needs – but as a transformative subjective process: the unfolding desire for collective desiring, a desire to bring into being a political Subject, a “We” which can put into practice the principle: “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” As Dean puts it, rather eloquently, “This principle contains the urgency of the struggle for its own realization” (15).
Who among us would disagree? And yet, despite the eloquence of such Marxian poetry, who among us dares to proclaim proudly and publicly that s/he is a communist?
Dean’s book not only seeks to convince us of its truths, but tries to make it easier for us to speak these truths, publicly, boldly, and unapologetically. It is a text whose very polemical style performatively models the engagement for which it argues. At the level of style and of theoretical critique alike, it aims to challenge the “We” skepticism and the scholastic individualism that characterize academic circles (and so much else in contemporary capitalist society). Her manifesto makes its premise what many Marxists leave as their conclusion: that it is not enough to challenge or protest or reform the present order (nor is it enough to predict the precise vector of its demise, as if we were outside it); we need to collectively overthrow it, so we can outgrow it – even if in order to do so we must first outgrow it from within.
1 In a personal email, Dean indicated to me that while she had no input into the cover, she appreciated its Mao-era communist style. She further emphasized the subtle but important differences between this communist horizon and the “Rising Sun” of Imperial Japan; the latter would have many fewer and thicker sun beams compared to the former.
3 See Samuel Grove’s insightful piece, “Theory for Everyone,” in Review 31, available at http://review31.co.uk/article/view/95/theory-for-everyone.
4 To be clear, Bosteels takes the phrase from Álvaro García Linera, though he gives it his own theoretical bent.
5 I have tried to trace some of the dynamics of these interconnected capitalist crises in a special issue of Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice, entitled Culture and Crisis (www.eserver.clogic.org) as well as in print as issue #60/61 of Works and Days (www.worksanddays.net). I would also recommend the thought-provoking analyses associated with “Communization Theory.” See for instance the work of Endnotes, starting with “Misery and Debt: On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital” http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/1; also the critical volume, Communization and Its Discontents, ed. Benjamin Noys, available in full at http://libcom.org/library/communization-its-discontents-contestation-critique-contemporary-struggles.
6 Jodi Dean approaches this aspect of the horizon in her recurrent description of communism as a matter of “collective desire for collective desiring.”
7Every object or institution that we see, that we encounter, that we use, has been created by others—often many many others, no more fully satisfied by the current system than we are.
8 Here we get at one reason why I prefer to use the term communism when speaking of my own political orientation as well as of the ‘end goal’ or condition toward which we ought to aspire. We may support socialist economic or state structures, but it is important to continue to struggle for communism within and around such structures!
9 The early Marx spoke of it as the cultivation of species being, a term that takes on new and urgent resonance in this age of potentially apocalyptic capitalist ecocide.
10 Actually, Dean opens her book with quick references to not one but three types of “horizon,” each of which stands in resonant relation to her figure of the communist horizon. She invokes, all in her opening paragraph (and throughout her introduction): 1) the horizon as “the dividing line separating earth from sky;” 2) “the lost horizon” which suggests a more temporal dimension, connoting those “abandoned projects” and “prior hopes that have now passed away”; 3) “the event horizon.” Taken from astrophysics, this last signifies the space surrounding a black hole from which nothing can escape.
Dean at the outset emphasizes how the first and third horizon (the spatial and the event horizon) are “not much different” from one another. But is that the case? She writes: “Whether the effect of a singularity or the meeting of earth and sky, the horizon is, the fundamental division establishing where we are” (2). And this may be true. But certainly these two types of horizon establish our location, or allow us to establish our location in somewhat different ways. The earth-sky horizon is one that we can never reach, but which, if we study it, we can use to navigate our more immediate environment. The event horizon is rather a black-box, a black hole, an unknown. We might conceivably reach one, but once we did we could never return, nor would we be ‘there’ to register our having reached it. The event horizon represents the most extreme form of gravity, determinism on a cosmic scale, where epistemology and ontology collapse in on one another. Though we could certainly err in too closely parsing the metaphor(s) here, it might not be too much to suggest that while the earth-sky horizon represents the possibility of freedom within limits, the event horizon suggests the limits on that freedom. We might read the former as a figure for Theory, associated with communism, and the latter as a figure for History, linked to capitalism and its vortex-like laws. As human beings, we are creatures who, with the help of eyes and light, can see and navigate. But even the light, in the end, is bent, by gravity. How to go about bending social gravity!
11 Bruno Bosteels edges towards this tense relation of Eternity and History in his valuable The Actuality of Communism (Verso, 2011).
- Category: Theory
- Created on Tuesday, 09 July 2013 17:06
- Written by Joe Ramsey
Dean discusses with Ramsey the need for a communist party, the lessons of the Occupy movement, and the question of how to conceive of communist subjectivity for our times -- the whole version will soon be published in the July 2013 issue of Socialism and Democracy
Division and Desire:
Jodi Dean discusses The Communist Horizon
with Joseph G. Ramsey
Joseph G. Ramsey: How would you trace your own relationship to communism as a cause and a concept? You attribute the notion of the communist “horizon” to Bruno Bosteels (who takes up the term from the Bolivian Marxist theorist and rebel turned politician Álvaro Gercía Linera). For how long have you viewed communism as your political horizon? How has this horizon shaped your theoretical and practical work? Has communism always defined the end point, the horizon for you?
Jodi Dean: I don’t think of the horizon—or communism—in terms of an end point. The horizon is the division that marks where we are. The division that marks where we are with respect to politics is that between communism and capitalism. This has been true at least since 1917 and arguably since 1848. It’s important to think of communism not as an end but rather as the only condition under which a politics adequate to the needs, demands, and common will of the people is possible. Under any other conditions, interests other than those of the people rule (coerce).
I find myself feeling anxious about the term ‘your political horizon’ because it makes it sound as if the communist horizon (that is, the fundamental opposition between communism and capitalism) was subjective or personal rather than objective. The communist horizon isn’t something specific to anyone. It’s a fact of the world, the event of 1917.
I didn’t think about communism via the metaphor of a horizon until I heard Bruno use García Linera’s term at a conference in Rotterdam in 2010. The conference, called “Waiting for the Political Moment,” was completely interesting in part because it gave me the sense not only that communism was back on the table (which was already clear after the Birkbeck conference) but that the tables had turned, so to speak. The arguments that had been so popular, the ones that had seemed to be winning in academic contexts, the ones associated with Foucault, Deleuze, deconstruction, a particular kind of post-structuralist theory, weren’t so persuasive anymore. The ones that were persuading people, that were the most compelling, were the ones coming from communist orientations.
Ramsey: How would you characterize your relationship to Occupy Wall Street, from a practical and a theoretical perspective? The closing chapters of your new book both unite with aspects of this recent social upsurge and offer sharp criticisms of some of the ideological common sense that was very influential in Occupy. I think here of your take on concepts of horizontalism, direct democracy, autonomy, etc. To put it sharply: What are the problems with these concepts as political organizers for our fledgling radical movement?
Dean: Most succinctly put: the problem with these concepts is that they deny or obscure antagonism. They are insufficiently divisive in several senses. They do not break sufficiently with the dominant ideology that urges people to participate and that celebrates individual freedom. Autonomy in Occupy doesn’t seem to be pointing to autonomy from organized parties (as the term has done historically in Italy, for example). Rather, it blends together with libertarian emphases on the consent of each individual person. Horizontalism (which may well have been a powerful ideal in Argentina, and I take it that at least part of the emphasis on horizontality in Occupy comes from Marina Sitrin’s important work on horizontalidad in that country) resonated in the US primarily because it is part of the current neoliberal environment. For example, corporations (particularly Google; the New York Times runs laudatory pieces on horizontal decision making in ‘hip’ companies about every six months) celebrate their flat structures, their inclusive decision-making, that make them flexible and responsive. Or, think of Thomas “The World Is Flat” Friedman. The uncritical uptake of horizontality in Occupy needs to be read in terms of its setting in a critique of bureaucracy, regulation, and expertise that has been deployed by the libertarian right against the welfare state, against any government control of the economy, and against the academy. It should also be read in terms of communicative capitalism’s emphases on connectivity and communication such that all opinions and ideas are communicatively equivalent.
There is another sense in which the concepts of direct democracy etc are insufficiently divisive—they proceed as if all political ideas are equal. We saw this in some of the anti-party rhetoric last fall. On the one hand, this rhetoric voiced a concern with breaking out of the chokehold of the mainstream political parties—and of course I agree with that. On the other, the refusal to draw lines makes it seem like libertarians, anti-Fed Ron Paulites, and anti-tax people are on the same side as people who want more control over the banking sector and people who are anti-corporate. Communists and socialists can work with the latter, but not with the former whose politics is basically one of expanding opportunities for the market.
Ramsey: Throughout The Communist Horizon you frame an opposition between desire, which you tend to align with communism, and drive which you generally identify as a form of enjoyment that ensnares subjects in the existing networks of communicative capitalism? What does it mean to formulate communism from the standpoint of desire? Is drive always politically bad/suspect? Or can we speak of a drive that would be oriented towards communism?
Dean: Drive isn’t oriented toward something; it’s shaped from loss and just attaches to any old thing, easily moving from one object of intense attachment to another (I’m tempted to say that with respect to politics drive manifests itself as a kind of political Asperger’s syndrome; you know, how everyone is at one moment obsessed with binary oppositions, then fracking, then “isms,” then debt). It’s a repetitive circuit that results from failure, where people get off (get a little nugget of enjoyment) from failing. So drive also structures melancholia, as we see in Freud’s discussion in Mourning and Melancholia where he uses the language of drive that he develops in the The Instincts and Their Vicissitudes. This language is reflexive, inward-turning as well as self-loathing. I argue that communicative capitalism (and consequently contemporary democracy as well as contemporary media networks) exhibit the reflexive structure of drive. Examples: getting stuck in the intertubes, clicking around, looking but not finding, repeating the same gestures, having the same pointless arguments, getting invested in them even when (or especially when) they don’t matter.
Now, it’s possible for drive’s repetitions to have destructive effects as with vicious circles in feedback systems or when bubbles burst in markets. Žižek describes this version of drive as a kind of prior clearing that creates the space for something new. I don’t disagree with this, but I don’t think it provides a politics (or, the politics it suggests is one of waiting for the rupture—which Žižek sometimes suggests when he appeals to Bartleby or when he emphasizes the importance of thinking rather than getting caught up in activity; I prefer to think of not getting caught up in activity in terms of working to break the hold of drive’s repetitions). Desire doesn’t turn inward; it looks outward, toward the horizon. A communism thought in terms of desire, then, is one that recognizes the necessity of breaking out of the trap of reflexivity, of installing a gap.
At this point, I am focused on thinking of communism in terms of a collective desire for collectivity. Because I understand communicative capitalism as structured in terms of drive, I don’t see the benefit in theorizing communism this way—communism is a break with this, a rupture of the circuit that lets us look outwards.
Ramsey: It’s difficult to miss the Lacanian influence here. I’ve seen some within self-identified socialist or communist circles writing about your book in somewhat dismissive ways, focusing on the ‘Lacanese’ you employ as if it is does more to obfuscate than to illuminate. What do you see as the value of Lacan here for radical theory and for the communist movement in particular?
Dean: The unconscious matters—we’ve been talking about desire and drive, both unconscious processes. Language matters. Understanding the subject matters. Psychoanalysis offers a theoretical apparatus that helps us think about these components of our thought and experience. It provides us with ways of addressing our attachments to dysfunction and self-hate, to perceived needs for guarantees and certainty, as well as to our ambivalence toward masters.
But, to use an odd cliché I may have never used before, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ If people don’t find Lacan/lacanese illuminating, it will be obfuscating. It’s that way with any specialized discourse or vocabulary.
Maybe an example will help. In The Communist Horizon I use Lacan to suggest an idea of the party as situated at the overlap of two lacks, such as the people’s lack of knowledge of what they desire as well as the party’s own lack of knowledge, the fact that it can’t guarantee a particular future. Given these lacks, the role of the party is to keep the site at which they overlap open as the gap necessary for the collective desire for collectivity. The question is then whether this formulation helps us think of new or better ways to organize.
Ramsey: Would it be fair to say then, building upon these “two lacks,” that the party you envision must be one that is able both to learn and to teach, and moreover to incite and sustain the collective desire to both learn and teach?
Dean: Yes, particularly the latter insofar as sustaining desire requires cultivating a kind of relation or orientation to what is lacking. I sometimes wonder whether prior visions or versions of the communist party have overplayed its teaching role and then in a backlash against this overplaying ended up fetishizing some kind of authentic workers’ or people’s knowledge that the party has to learn. What if instead we recognize that the party is a collective and that collectives bring together people with different skills, experience, and knowledge? A communist party orients its collective toward the truth of communism. The primary task of the party is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and establishment of communism. This is more than a pedagogy, to say the least.
Ramsey: In the book you cite Marx’s famous communist motto (a phrase that precedes Marx as well) “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” writing that “this principle contains the urgency of the struggle for its own realization” (15). I often speak of the communist kernel of hope as inherent in the fact that among the needs of human beings is the need to satisfy others’ needs (and perhaps to be or to feel needed by those others as well). How does your reframing of communism from the standpoint of desire relate to the (more traditional?) framing of communism as oriented towards the satisfaction of need, and the development of human abilities? How do need and desire relate within your thinking here?
Dean: Here’s the rub: we all know that people have needs. Even the worst capitalists know this. The political question concerns our relation to these needs. This is a matter of desire and will. Are needs to be addressed singularly or collectively? Desire, then, involves the politicization of needs.
Ramsey: Often it seems to me that communists put forth our goals as a matter of what we will eliminate or abolish (“the 4 Alls” etc. “the gaps” or divisions that are inherent in class society, etc). Not so much in terms of what we want to cultivate or unleash. Often when we speak of what we strive to unleash or cultivate (“global human flourishing” etc.) it is depicted as something that will come after the elimination or overturning of various oppressive institutions, ideologies, state structures, class relations, etc. I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to say we want to eliminate A, B, and C, or that we want to abolish or overthrow X, Y, and Z. But it sometimes seems to me as if desire and the pursuit of what we “really want” is positioned somehow “on the other side” of this abolishing, overturning, eliminating, etc. – now being the time for “self-sacrificing struggle” and the repression of desire for the sake of the greater good, of the collectivity, of the revolution down the road. Desire here may become something we’ll only get back to on the “other side” of some kind of revolutionary break. Nothing against revolutionary breaks, and the openings they provide, of course. But your focus on communism as a matter of desire–”the collective desire for collective desiring”–seems to me notable and refreshing as a way to bring that future flourishing we communists often imagine into the present, but in a way that still propels us forward towards cultivating human liberation. It gives a positive lean to communist subjectivity, even if that subjectivity continues to be defined (as desire) by lack.
Dean: I love the way you are putting this and will now have to use this! It’s nicely succinct and clear.
Ramsey: It seems to me that often on the radical left, we speak of pursuing the “satisfaction of human needs.” Everyone getting enough food to eat, clean, water, shelter, etc. All crucial stuff, obviously. But this emphasis on the emancipated society as a state of satiety and “satisfaction” may give short shrift to the way that – on another level– communism and liberation is not only, or even primarily, about satisfying people’s immediate material needs (though this too), so much as it is about cultivating a hunger, or, as you would put it, a desire. A political desire.
Dean: Sorry to keep interrupting but I like your expression ‘state of satiety and satisfaction’ and your evocation of a hunger — it reminds me of Benjamin’s critique of left melancholic hacks preoccupied with their digestion.
Ramsey: Something I’m just starting to think about is what the difference is between conceiving of communist politics as a matter of satisfying human needs – and cultivating new needs – vs. a matter of desire. What do you see as the stakes of foregrounding communism as a matter of desire?
Dean: The opening up of a gap so as to free us to envision new possibilities. You know how people tend to criticize the left for not having a vision, not having a goal, not having ideas? Well, this only makes sense for a left that has abandoned communism. Once we claim communism, then we insert ourselves into a logic of desire such that we have to think strategically as well as tactically, we have to start thinking in terms of what communism for us will look like and how we can get there.
Ramsey: In reading (and re-reading) The Communist Horizon I was struck by your rather complex, even vexed, relationship to the concept of the proletariat. On the one hand you give a forceful (and quite Leninist) account of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as the organization of the exploited and oppressed to forcibly suppress the oppressor. Similarly you reflect that the current Left reluctance to identify with a Marxist term such as the proletariat may reflect chiefly the negative influence of decades of anti-communist (and anti-Soviet) propaganda. You in fact point out how Marx and Engels, as well as such contemporary Marxist thinkers as Étienne Balibar, contrary to pervasive anti-Marxist stereotypes, all have understood the proletariat precisely not as a straightforward empirical/sociological category limited to, say, factory workers, but rather as an open category encompassing all those who are structurally positioned opposite to and yet constitutive of capital and its ceaseless processes of accumulation.
And yet, after all of this rather firm defense of the concept, you reject the proletariat as a name for the subject of communism, at least in a contemporary US-European context. What struck me was the way, in the exact places where you reject the proletariat as a term (in favor of a notion of “the people as the rest of us” as shaped by and opposed to the process of proletarianization), you refer not just to the proletariat but to “the industrial” proletariat (77) and to “factory labor” (78). My question is: why the insertion of these qualifiers here? Is it possible to deploy a concept of the proletariat that is not centered on the site of the industrial factory? Why reject the proletariat as such, rather than just its narrow misconstrued empirical “industrial” image? Is your decision to reject the proletariat justified by the post/de-industrialization and/or financialization/precariatization of the US economy? Or more so by a pragmatic adaptation to contemporary ideology and popular misunderstanding? Is your sense that the proletariat as a concept—though used by Marx and Marxists in a more dialectical and dynamic sense that is intellectually still valid—is so mis-identified today with a narrow notion of clock-punching factory workers as to be politically unhelpful? Why not continue to fight for a dialectical notion of the proletariat (alongside the notion of proletarianization, which you more clearly uphold)? Why uphold the latter but not the former?
Dean: This is the part of my argument about which I am most ambivalent. As you suggest, financialization does not mean that there is no proletariat, especially when we follow Marx, Engels, and Balibar and recognize that ‘proletariat’ is not an empirical category. I ended up arguing for the idea ‘the people as the rest of us’, first, for pragmatic reasons. A year or so ago I gave a talk at No Space in Williamsburg. At one point, someone in the audience asked “who here is a proletarian?” No one raised a hand (I may be getting the details of this wrong, but this is how I remember it). So, even though a bunch of folks were unemployed and precarious, they didn’t feel right identifying themselves as proletarian. Since I was already fighting for the name communism (controversial to some folks), I decided not to hold on to proletarian. I also felt like there were good commie grounds for this, as Lukács argues in his book on Lenin. There he speaks of Lenin’s radical notion of the people.
Ramsey: And then of course there is your argument for speaking of the “sovereignty” rather than the “dictatorship” of the people (with people here substituted for the proletariat). What’s the significance of this shift in terminology?
Dean: The primary theoretical reason for the shift is that dictatorship is temporary. Arguments for the dictatorship of the proletariat occur in the context of the withering away of the state. I don’t accept such a withering away, particularly once we recognize the distributed and differentiated nature of contemporary states. State operations occur at multiple levels—local, municipal, national, international—and are distributed into a wide array of operations, from inspecting food production, to providing air traffic control, to funding infrastructure projects, to overseeing public health, to collecting and redistributing revenue. I don’t think these things will or should go away and I don’t think they should be handled via markets. They are matters to be determined by the people for their collective good. The state is a tool for the people to handle these things (of course, it isn’t now; now it’s the way capitalists keep themselves in power). I think it’s important to get away from claims regarding the withering away of the state—they seem to point to the end of politics, but politics won’t end as long as there are people.
Ramsey: This is very interesting, and not uncontroversial these days! Of course, perhaps predictably, some have criticized your book for continuing to uphold (some would say “falling back on”) the terms of Party and State. What is your response to those who argue that we must chart a communist road that does without these terms as anchor-points? How would the “State” which you envision for a communist movement be similar to or different from the state apparatus that exists today? Are we talking about taking over existing entities and running them under different leadership and with different methods or priorities? Or the sweeping away of existing institutions and the creation of new ones?
Dean: Here I agree with Žižek: politics without the party and the state is politics without politics. It’s a kind of hysterical provocation, or macho play-acting that eschews responsibility and reduces politics to fashionable sloganeering. Getting more specific can help: we can realize that there are different kinds of states and different kinds of parties. When people reject the party because they are rejecting electoral politics, they have a good point and a lot of history on their side. When people reject the state on the basis of the failure of socialism to develop into communism, they also have a good point. The underpinning of most of these discussions is a set of assumptions regarding the European experience, the Soviet experience, and the Chinese experience. But what if we attend more to Latin America? To Nepal? To the role of revolutionary communists in anti-colonial struggle? To the role of communists in anti-racist struggles in the US in the thirties?
We dismiss too much if we assume that the bad experiences of the French and Italians with their communist parties means that there is no role for an organization like a party in contemporary politics now. On the state: again, we can improve our thinking here by considering different state apparatuses and functions, the way they are distributed, the role of law, etc. I don’t think all existing institutions need to be eliminated—why reinvent the wheel? A jury system is a good idea. Layered institutions (local, municipal, county, state, region, nation, hemisphere) as well as economic sectors and sets of interests that crisscross one another also make sense for complex societies. And so does the rule of law – as long as this rule is exercised for and in the interest of the working class, the people as the rest of us (which is the basic idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat). Maybe the best way to put it would be in terms of the need to reevaluate all existing institutions from the standpoint of the people/working class, and seeing what is worth saving.
Ramsey: I was struck by the fact that there is nowhere in The Communist Horizon an overt argument for “communism” as being a better or more useful name for the emancipatory project than, say, “socialism” is. Why is communism the name of the horizon for you? What is the significance of the name here?
Dean: This is a good question. For the longest time I thought of myself simply as a socialist and didn’t worry about the difference. Then, I guess it was Negri who started to emphasize the accomodationism of European socialism (although on that note one can say the same about, say, the Italian communist party). The difference matters in terms of installing a gap: communism opens us up to something else in a way that socialism doesn’t. And why is that the case? Because we know that socialism doesn’t require the abolition of capitalism. It works for capitalism with a human face. Is this an option? I don’t think so. And, if it could be an option, it would only be in the context of the political space secured by active, militant communists.
Ramsey: And the fact that the über-capitalist dictatorship of China still refers to itself as “communist” and thus taints this name?
Dean: No one thinks China is communist.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Tuesday, 05 March 2013 19:24
- Written by NPC
The problem that much communization theory points out is that, if your revolutionary praxis is simply to emphasize (materially and ideologically) labourers as a class (by building up industry, focusing the entire society toward developing productive forces rather than re-organizing the "insides" of the means of production to be more amenable to those using the means and the product, etc) then you are simply affirming the value-form as such, which IS very much the class relation...
...In short, Value-form theory tries to describe capitalism. It is a negative critique of capitalism. Whenever the article above says "Value-form theory" or "VFT," you can almost always replace it with "capitalism," since value-form theory is NOT claiming that these things are facts of nature, but facts of capitalism which can (and ought to be) abolished--i.e., it is not an overdetermining totality.
The following is a response from NPC to Nat Winn's article entitled Getting to communism: negating the value form in practice.
"Again, revolution is about more than abolishing the value-form. The method here is one that ignores the realm of politics, the confrontation with the state, armies, and the whole repressive apparatus. It ignores geo-politics. It doesn't deal with any classes outside of workers and capitalist in analyzing the end of capital. What you have here is not a look at a totality but a rigid binary. The complexity of revolution is just not dealt with at this point."
I would first point out that this argument could, verbatim, be applied to basically all the works of Marx himself -- particularly Capital. It basically says that we should NOT engage in economic argument because economic argument does not include all these other things. But that means you are just critiquing something based on what you want it to be, rather than what it actually is (it has a scope which is a priori limited).
Only among communization's critics have I heard of communization as a be-all-and-end-all plan for revolution. Among communization's supporters, I've heard of communization as, alternately, a fresh economic/structural analysis (in the structural wing), or a swath of incendiary outreach materials calling people to action (in the voluntarist wing).
It's certainly true that communization doesn't provide immediate tactical advice. It doesn't provide much revolutionary strategy. Most of the structural works of TC, Endnotes, etc. hardly talk about "the superstructure" at all. But I'd also point out that communization never pretends to be both a necessary and sufficient theory for making revolution.
Honestly, it just seems silly that anyone would consider it as such -- and, again, I literally know of no one (other than its critics) who see it like this.
For those of us who use communization theory we use it for what it is good for -- economic analysis, outreach, reminders of the deeper economic reasons that previous socialist projects were unable to fundamentally challenge the value-form (their failure was absolutely not just superstructural). It also helps to remind us that we ought to talk about the abolition of the working class a little bit more than the affirmation of the working class.
It's also not like anyone is actually thinking that abolition of the value-form happens overnight or that revolution would be evenly distributed -- and its convenient that the above article excludes such quotes as this:
"So there will a "transition" in the sense that communism will not be achieved overnight. But there will not be a "transition period" in what has become the traditional Marxist sense: a period that is no longer capitalist but not yet communist, a period in which the working class would still work, but not for profit or for the boss any more, only for themselves: they would go on developing the "productive forces" (factories, consumer goods, etc.) before being able to enjoy the then fully-matured fruit of industrialization. This is not the programme of a communist revolution. It was not in the past and it is not now. There is no need to go on developing industry, especially industry as it is now. And we are not stating this because of the ecology movement and the anti-industry trend in the radical milieu. As someone said forty years ago, half of the factories will have to be closed.
Some areas will lag behind and others may plunge into temporary chaos[...] Nobody knows how we will evolve from false capitalist abundance to new ways of life, but let us not expect the move to be smooth and peaceful everywhere and all the time."
[[That is from Dauve's intro text on communisation (here: http://www.troploin.fr/textes/60-communisation-uk). Dauve, alongside Aufheben, is in the more "voluntarist" camp (though they engage with the structuralists much more) which is brushed over fairly quickly in this overview.]]
There is no eliding the real problems of reorganizing production -- the point is simply that there is NOT a period in which we have an industrial build-up emulating capitalist styles of factory organizaton, managed with moneyed-wages or labor vouchers and justified in the terms of the people working now and enjoying the fruits of that industry later, once the production base is properly "built up." Clearly, models more similar to that may be necessary if revolution occurs (again) exclusively in areas that have few means of production -- but the neoliberal redistribution of these means of production TO the "third world" makes that less and less likely.
But these natural presumptions based on the economic theory in most of communization are more or less ignored in the above critique -- even though they are precisely the presumptions that DO begin to make tactical and strategic suggestions for revolution.
Instead, the critique just misses the point by attacking communization for not being something that it never claims to be -- i.e., a roadmap for revolution.
Communization theory NEVER claims that we should "look at revolution strictly through the capital-labour relation." It simply claims that the capital-labour relation is kind of really important to judging whether or not your "communist revolution" is very communist (or even very anti-capitalist) -- and I would definitely affirm that point.
On the second topic: Communization does claim to be a real critique of the value-form. This article sort of vacillates between acknowledging that the abolition of the value-form is necessary (in which case the differences between communizaton's affirmations and the article's become less clear) and the opposing argument that communization misportrays abstract value (and therefore one would presume that it's a non-issue).
I think that it's obvious that we have to abolish the capitalist value-form, the question is simply again one of whether or not one tries to "use" that value form for a period of time (the "socialist transition period") for the benefit of the working-class -- and the point from communization is that this only reinforces the proletariat class category rather than beginning to take it apart (it, like the state, did not tend historically to "wither away"). And this affirmation basically ignores the class struggle -- which, despite the above article's claims to the contrary, is all about the abolition of the proletariat as a class (since its nature as a class is relationally determined by the existence of the bourgeoisie exploiting it).
But there is also a significant problem with the article's portrayal of the value-form:
First: communization theory doesn't deny the labor-theory of value. It simply points out that if you affirm labor as a category defined by capital you are also affirming capital by affirming its interdependent category -- i.e., they are arguing precisely against "economism" as traditionally defined and as often practiced by political tendencies which see unions or wage struggles, for example, as the primary grounds of revolutionary activity.
Second: The above critique ignores the nuance in Marx's theory of exchange-value and its relation to abstract labor, and misportrays communization's approach to exchange-value (which is NOT equal to "the value-form").
The article quotes from Endnotes: "Rather, in a fundamental sense value — as the primary social mediation — pre-exists and thus has a priority over labour."
Based on this, the article then claims: "It is also the case here that labor is not seen as the primary producer of value. Capital or value "has a priority over labor. This leads to a political call within Communization to abandon the class struggle."
Unfortunately, this is a misquotation. Endnotes in the quote is actually talking about how CAPITALISM (i.e., the capitalist value-form) posits itself as originary. This is clearer if you also quote the paragraph sitting a little BELOW the one quoted by the above critique:
"While it seems true and politically effective to say that we produce capital by our labour, it is actually more accurate to say (in a world that really is topsy turvy) that we, as subjects of labour, are produced by capital. Socially necessary labour time is the measure of value only because the value-form posits labour as its content. In a society no longer dominated by alienated social forms — no longer orientated around the self-expansion of abstract wealth — the compulsion to labour which characterises the capitalist mode of production will disappear. With value, abstract labour disappears as a category. The reproduction of individuals and their needs becomes an end in itself. Without the categories of value, abstract labour and the wage, "labour" would cease to have its systematic role as determined by the primary social mediation: value."
This "world that really is topsy turvy" is the world of capitalism, in which capital makes itself into the primary source of productivity, centering the M-C-M' cycle around the M more than the C (or the use-value in it, for that matter). The critique conflates Endnotes' descriptions of how Capital PORTRAYS ITSELF, with the obvious acknowledgement that how Capital actually operates (as exploitative of labour) is evident in Marxist theory.
But the bottom of that quote also gets to another interesting point: "with value, abstract labour disappears as a category." This is interesting in particular because it ties abstract value back to its roots (in Marx) with exchange-value. Here Endnotes is NOT talking about simple "abstract" human labour (or "general human force" as Marx says). Though Marx at times uses this definition, he also acknowledges how problematic it is, since the definition (borrowed from Smith and Ricardo) pretends that "labour" or "work" in capitalism is the same, transhistorical practice of human physical exertion, when really labour as a category is created BY the social relations of capitalism itself. Marx, therefore, translates this transhistorical abstract labor into a more relevant category: exchange value (in an oppositional unity with use-value to create value as such).
The above critique then argues that Value-form theory poses a "monetary theory of value," simply because it acknowledges that exchange value does, in fact, exist and operates much as Marx describes it -- as capitalism's own particular form of "abstract labour" which will be abolished alongside value itself. The abolition of value as such clearly does not mean the abolition of use-value, but the severing of use value from exchange value (and thus the destruction of the wage and money as the form of quantified, generalized exchangeability). Again, Endnotes says it clearly: "Without the categories of value, abstract labour and the wage, "labour" would cease to have its systematic role as determined by the primary social mediation: value."
The "labour" quoted here means SPECIFICALLY CAPITALIST labor--not general human work (which is OF COURSE productive in the simple sense and of course abstractable in that it all requires physical exertion--this is not Marx's point). The problem that much communization theory points out is that, if your revolutionary praxis is simply to emphasize (materially and ideologically) labourers as a class (by building up industry, focusing the entire society toward developing productive forces rather than re-organizing the "insides" of the means of production to be more amenable to those using the means and the product, etc) then you are simply affirming the value-form as such, which IS very much the class relation. It is the very exchangeability (NOT exchange but the POTENTIAL for exchange or its future possibility--exchange does not PRECEDE production) which makes labour itself productive of value (again, value is, in capitalism, not just use-value but also monetary "exchange" value). Obviously physical human work can also produce things that are useful -- but that is NOT "labor" in capitalism or "value" in capitalism.
This doesn't mean that labor does not create value or that money (or capital) is primary in the circuit. I.e. it does NOT (as the above article claims) argue that exchange has to come first. NO, it simply argues that the potential of exchangeability exists--without the ACT of exchange itself yet occuring. This is, again, the SOCIAL part of the relation -- the presumption (and perceived necessity) of the M-C-M' cycle perpetuating itself and the wage being generally exchangeable for goods. In fact, the ACTUAL exchangeability does not have to exist in every instance for labor to be extracted -- all kinds of things (rampant inflation, product shortages, rationing, collapse of a certain currency, etc.) could disrupt that actual exchangeability in a given instance--but in general "abstract labor" would remain abstracted. Marx is fairly clear on this.
There is no basis in the actual works of communization theory for claims such as this:
"Production is concrete labor. Period. Abstract labor is only expressed through the process of exchange. This abstract process subsumes concrete labor and negates its objectivity, thus also negating its role as creator of value. The value-form as validated through exchange in it's totality is the primary creator of value and the contradiction between capital and labor is a relation internal to the value-form process which must be abolished as a process."
For communization theorists, abstract labor exists not through the process of exchange but through the potential of future exchange -- the wage is paid AFTER the work is done and BEFORE it is exchanged for other goods. Value AS SUCH is the production of use-values ("concrete labor" in the above quote) in the interests of exchange (rather than use). Exchange is therefore embedded (as the incentive) in the production itself. That's the topsy-turvy aspect of capitalist relations to productivity, which Endnotes references. Capitalism itself poses (quantified--monetary) exchange as originary, even though exchange HAS NOT HAPPENED yet. The communist point is that things can be made as ends in themselves rather than ends-to-more-money (capitalism) or ends-to-more-things ("productivist" socialism).
In short, Value-form theory tries to describe capitalism. It is a negative critique of capitalism. Whenever the article above says "Value-form theory" or "VFT," you can almost always replace it with "capitalism," since value-form theory is NOT claiming that these things are facts of nature, but facts of capitalism which can (and ought to be) abolished--i.e., it is not an overdetermining totality. The article constantly confuses this, acting like Value-form theory IS saying that the capitalist forms it describes are totalizing or overdetermining--that they are, in short, facts of nature--and thus provides a very poor perspective on what Value-form theory is actually saying or how capitalism works.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Sunday, 27 January 2013 11:07
- Written by Mike Ely
by Mike Ely
The following was a comment posted on an open thread called Zizek is wrong: Previous socialism was not just failure.
The discussion on that thread quickly evolved into a debate about whether we should ever post bad analysis. The following is Mike Ely's argument for posting and engaging wrong analysis.
"I want to express again frustration that we have rarely opened a complex topic on Kasama, without someone running in, angry or offended, to announce that we have no right to have this discussion. It is amazing to me.
"Taking angry offense at the ideas of others is (as we all know) very often a default mode of entering discussion in many parts of today's U.S. left. It is a terrible practice. Everyone is constantly told to shut up. And such drama often obstructs productive discussions."
"My view is that we need to engage views that are influential or interesting. Not just the ones that are most interesting and sophisticated... but also sometimes bad theories that are influential."
"If the critique of Zizek is too poor to be engaged with, why not find a stronger critique of Zizek and engage with that?"
ok, good question.... let me respond to that:
First, it is unfortunately true that bad critiques are often influential. There are quite a number of decent people (in the U.S. and quite often around the world) who don't understand the value and contribution of theory produced by people like Zizek and Badiou. This is particularly true in the global communist movement -- where a defacto view of "closed system" has taken hold (i.e. the assumption that our philosophy is fixed and known, and that other philosophical work is judged against that closed system.)
There is great value in answering (repeatedly and convincingly) why we can't approach communist theory as a closed system.
And the argument by Karlo above is quite typical and quite influential: I.e. Lenin explained imperialism in 1916. He described the global capitalism of his time as "the highest stage of capitalism." He polemicized against Kautsky's ultra-imperialism. So we can (supposedly) judge the views of people today (including here Zizek) against a checklist of Lenin's points and verdicts.
Now, on one level, it is rather startling that such "closed system" thinking has such influence. First, because there were forces within the international communist movement (most notably the Comintern increasingly over its life) fighting to "codify" and fix Marxism, and then promote it as a definitive and closed system. But second (and important for our purposes), new people coming to communism are often (understandably and correctly) impressed by the coherence and power of previous communist synthesis. The first time you read the "classics" of Marxism-Leninism there is often the breathless excitement of discovering a coherent answer to the many infuriating philosophical and political "standard" thinking of capitalism. And it takes a while for many people to see communist theory as a contradictory and moving thing -- more like a bush than a layer cake (as we have put it).
So for example Lenin's "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism" is often seen as the final word on many questions -- even though you can see (if you look at Lenin's methodology in that work) how he himself used and synthesized many creative analysts of his day, including many who were (obviously) not communists. In other words, the lesson of the best communists we study is precisely that they drew from many contemporary sources and treated their own theory as an open system. (And Lenin's Imperialism was a major rupture with the inherited marxism of his day -- a rupture with Marx and Engels, and with those who, in an orthodox way, clung to Marx's verdicts in a new time.)
My view is that we need to engage views that are influential or interesting. Not just the ones that are most interesting and sophisticated... but also sometimes bad theories that are influential.
Like you, I think we should post and share high level engagements with key questions (including, in this case, people who engage Zizek in a sophisticated way). And we ourselves should engage (in these threads) in such a sophisticated way (when we can).
But I also think we should engage influential views, even when they are not particularly sophisticated -- for reasons that should be obvious. And my hope, in posting Karlo's essay was to make that possible.
Unfortiunately, that has not been possible so far, largely because we have had (instead) a debate over whether we (here on Kasama) have a right to even post such a work (!) because its misunderstandings of Zizek veer so far.
"Sure, you can engage with bad critique, but this discussion makes it rather obvious that engaging with a bad critique will lead you to debate about its poor quality rather than engage in a critical discussion about Zizek."
Is it necessary that wrong ideas WILL lead to sterile debate about why we are engaging them? I don't believe that. "Poor quality" is often subjective -- one person sees that it is an awful analysis, but others sometimes think it is astute. That's the point of debating such things.
We've often have very fruitful discussions of wrong ideas and terrible analysis (and the archives of Kasama are full of them).
I am frustrated that our thread here is not about Zizek, but about whether Kasama can even debate bad ideas. But we can get to a culture where that doesn't happen -- and where we have a substantive refutation of bad ideas, not another tailchasing debate about what ideas mau be heard.
Perhaps we can (out of this current conversation) get some common ground on the importance of engaging both influential and interesting views.
Now, some people may not believe that orthodox Marxisms are influential -- sometimes arguing "No one I know cares about those people." Or "anyone who believes such things should not be respected in our plans." Or "If we engage old dogmatism, no one will take us seriously."
That is largely (in my opinion) a problem of "frog in a well" localism. If you were with Liam and Natalio in Nepal right now, you would suddenly become aware (talking to even the best communists there, and from around the world) how powerful the influence of some theories of orthodoxy still are.
We are internationalists (or at least we should be). We don't limit our discussion (on Kasama) simply to what is relevant in our own immediate or personal practice (with the few specific people right around us).
Finally, I just want to express again my frustration that we have rarely opened a complex topic on Kasama, without someone running in, angry or offended, to announced that we have no right to have this discussion. It is amazing to me.
But taking angry offense at the ideas of others is (as we all know) very often a default mode of entering discussion in many parts of today's U.S. left. It is a terrible practice. The tangents caused by such drama is a repeated obstruction to productive discussions everywhere.
And there are several arguments raised in such protests here on Kasama:
Sometimes people believe that their own views are so obviously correct that it is offensive and stupid to engage the differing views of others. I.e. that Karlos is so obviously wrong that his arguments can't be worth dissecting.
Another argument raised is that if you post and discuss a "wrong idea" you are just advertising it, giving it more reach, and you must (in fact) be wanting to promote it. If you allow a bad idea to be discussed on Kasama, you must secretly agree with it.
Let me be clear on this: This is essentially an argument against scientific inquiry and open discussion. It says that peopleallowing ideas to be dissected must agree with those ideas.
If i post (for discussion) a wooden critique of Zizek, then I must (in the views of some people) want to promote woodenness (not critique of woodenness).
The disturbing implication of this view is (after you have run into it for a while) to demand all kinds of discussion to simply be shouted down.
For example: The views of backward among the people can't be engaged (racism, sexism, individualism, patriotism etc.) -- they must simply be denounced with great offense (in small "safe spaces" of subcultures). Or orthodox and conservative forms of communism can't be discussed because they are (supposedly) beneath contempt. And so on.
I don't agree. I will never agree.
I think we should engage wrong ideas, we should dissect them, we teach ourselves how to answer wrong ideas in deep ways, and we should even expect learn from ideas that we dont' agree with. (Mao says even shit serves as fertilizer....)
Just shouting down wrong ideas (or demanding that they be ignored) doesn't arm anyone to defeat wrong ideas (where they really must ultimately be defeated.... in the minds of humans).
I hope we can get to a political culture where the first impulse (at the sight of new controversy) is not for people to announce they are "offended" and to tell others to just shut up. I want us to fight for a different kind of culture among us.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Thursday, 04 October 2012 11:25
- Written by Jasper Bernes
This was posted on the LA Review of Books website. H/T to J. Ramsey for the reference.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Badiou has the virtue at least of examining riots from a strategic rather than a moral perspective, and spying something within them other than a maddened reenactment of capitalist consumption. …[H]e takes the riot as something more than a manifestation of “culture,” more than an expression of an underlying social truth which it cannot help but affirm, for all its burned cars and looted shops. The questions which Badiou hears uttered by the Sphinx of riot are the correct ones: How do we generalize and extend the offensive capacity of the riot? How and why do riots spread and become open insurrection?
History and the Sphinx: Of Riots and Uprisings
by Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover
Riots are the Sphinx of the left. Every soi disant radical intellectual feels compelled, it seems, to answer the riddle they hear posed by the riots of the present, in Bahrain or Asturias, Chile or Britain: Why now? Why here? Why riot? These answers generally come in a few simple varieties. First, if the riot seems to lack focus or present clears demands – that is, if it is illegible as “protest,” as in the case of the London riots of summer 2011 – the intellectual will paint them as a “meaningless outburst” (Slavoj Žižek), undertaken by “mindless rioters” (David Harvey). Invariably, attributions of unmeaning must find support in patronizing sociology, rendering the rioters mere side-effects of an unequal society, symptoms of neoliberalism, capitalist crisis and the ensuing austerity. Frequently, such commentary adheres to the flinching rhetorical structure of “yes, but…” In the words of Tariq Ali from the London Review of Books:Yes, we know violence on the streets in London is bad. Yes, we know that looting shops is wrong.
But why is it happening now?
Why didn’t it happen last year?
Because grievances build up over time, because when the system wills the death of a young black citizen from a deprived community, it simultaneously, if subconsciously, wills the response.
Far worse than such half-hearted apologias is the claim, repeated with alarming frequency by people who should know better, that the rioters in London were acting out the self-contradictory imperatives of neoliberal society. Such commentary is likewise a symptomatic account. For Harvey, the rioters are mere reflections of the rapacity and greed of post-Thatcher capitalism. For the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, looting is simply a violent and risky variant on shopping, an expression of a materialistic consumer society.
Then there are the commentators who see the riots as simply misguided, rather than as reflections of capitalist ideology. Such writers understand the riots as an engine lacking the proper tracks. The failure then belongs to the decrepit left in general, who have failed to provide an “alternative” or “political programme” which might harness, shape and direct the rage of the rioters. Asks Žižek: “Who will succeed in directing the rage of the poor?” Forget the possibility that the poor might be able to direct their own rage.
One can see the fundamentally patronizing lines common to all these responses. In each, the intellectual imputes a kind of false consciousness to the rioters, in order to make himself (and it is usually a him) all the more necessary as the voice of missing authority. These intellectuals hear in the riots a question to which they must provide the answer. They do not realize that the riots are, rather, an answer to the question they refuse to ask.
Alain Badiou is not one to hide from the Sphinx. Nonetheless, he is a paradoxical candidate to address an entire book to the unfolding age of riots. On the one hand, it is entirely sensible: Badiou has maintained an affiliation with militancy from his days as a young French Maoist to his current position as towering maestro of contemporary European philosophy; indeed, he has forthcoming a manual of a sort translated as Philosophy for Militants. On the other, there is a curious mismatch between thinker and subject here, caused in part by the incommensurate tempos and tonalities of intellectual position and global crisis. Badiou’s thinking, however committed, always preserves a considerable degree of abstraction (as a philosopher, he is most highly regarded for advancing the area of ontology via the rigorous application of set theory).
As a matter of cultural history, however, Badiou’s greatest significance lies in his lifelong fidelity to what he has influentially called “the communist hypothesis.” In the years following on the fall of the Eastern Bloc wherein communism — as an actually existing politics, theoretical figure, and social desire — fell into global desuetude, Badiou and precious few others husbanded whatever spark remained within intellectual spheres. In this sense he is very much a mirror version of what Pound’s great biographer Hugh Kenner called “a man of the vortex,” at the center of a history that convulsed and mutated by the hour. Badiou is a man of the desert: a figure of the horizonless interval wherein neoliberal policies, for all their vaunted dynamism, produced an unvariegated political landscape in which serious antagonism was in the main neutralized (certain developments in South America notwithstanding). If history had not quite died, it was looking extremely wan.
By the time that concerned parties met for “The Idea of Communism” conference in 2009 at the Birkbeck Institute, this desert-like micro-epoch was over. Militant struggles against the coiled regimes of capital and state had burst forth unevenly, but something very much like everywhere. They burned bright, they faded, they were brutally repressed or they ate their own tails, but, as a general tendency, they spread. The urgency for philosophers to nurture a theory of opposition in hope of future antagonisms was not abandoned, but of a different time and place. Inevitably (as a thousand “Occupy” conferences testify), intellectuals wheeled to engage this changed circumstance, trooping out of the desert to review the nascent action in the streets — Badiou in prime place among them.
The 2009 Birkbeck conference spawned several books, all of which stake much on the wager that the present period might feature a renewal of “The Communist Hypothesis” and bring to a close the long period of neoliberal reaction that has held since the 1970s. But claims for such a renewal depend only in select instances on observed historical developments, on new forms of communist practice or struggle. More often, they seem to stake their wager on a change in dinner table talk among philosophers – the idea of communism, rather than its political practice. This contrasts markedly with the elaboration of communism one finds, for instance, in a book like The Coming Insurrection, whose writers base their theoretical elaboration of a new communism on a critical examination of the practices, struggles, and social movements of the last decade. But for those familiar with Badiou’s philosophy and his reliance on logical proof, axiom, and argument from first principles, it will come as no surprise that, for him, communist practice follows behind communist idea. The primacy of the idea is unmistakable in Badiou, not least because it appears in majuscule: “Idea,” rather than “idea.” Glossing his own title early on, he insists that “The only possible reawakening is the popular initiative in which the power of an Idea will take root.”
Thus does The Rebirth of History use the Arab Spring and other uprisings of the last few years as empirical validation of the more abstract framework developed in The Communist Hypothesis. First the Idea, then its emergence in the world. Certainly the relationship between the history and the Idea is more complex than the description above might make it seem, since the “political truths” which form the basis for “the Idea” are produced by history in its unfolding. And yet, at the same time, as much as the Idea is the product of history it also, paradoxically, precedes it: “the Idea refers to a kind of historical projection of what the historical becoming of a politics is going to be — a becoming originally validated by the riot.” This circular temporality allows Badiou to vacillate between suggesting that the Arab Spring failed for its lack of an enduring Idea, and at the same time facilitated the reawakening of the Idea in the present period.
Between what Badiou calls the “intervallic period” of capitalist restoration beginning in the 1980s and a new revolutionary political sequence animated by the Idea lies the riot. The Rebirth of History is essentially a grammar of riot, using recent events to distinguish between those riots which produce “political truth” and those which do not. Badiou, a tireless fashioner of categories and schemata, here taxonomizes riots into three types, discussed in order of ascending political significance: the “immediate,” the “latent,” and the “historical.” Whereas the “immediate,” anticop riots of the poor like the ones that took place in the UK during the summer of 2011 or the French banlieues of 2005 are classed as reflexive outbursts of unfocused violence, “anarchic and ultimately without enduring truth,” the historical riot which we witnessed with the Arab insurrections exhibited a capacity to endure and generalize.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Badiou has the virtue at least of examining riots from a strategic rather than a moral perspective, and spying something within them other than a maddened reenactment of capitalist consumption. That is, unlike Harvey, Žižek, Ali, and Bauman, he takes the riot as something more than a manifestation of “culture,” more than an expression of an underlying social truth which it cannot help but affirm, for all its burned cars and looted shops. The questions which Badiou hears uttered by the Sphinx of riot are the correct ones: How do we generalize and extend the offensive capacity of the riot? How and why do riots spread and become open insurrection?
Though we hesitate at Badiou’s distinction between immediate and historical riot, it’s worth commending the way in which he measures the extension of the riot in terms of spread in physical space and across social categories. Whereas, in Badiou’s account, the immediate riot extends from the banlieues of Paris to those of Marseille, or from London to Manchester council estates, it does so via the medium of a single social category: young proletarian men. The historical riot, however, exhibits a categorical extension, spreading among men and women, the young and the old. Badiou is mistaken when he asserts that “immediate” riots are composed entirely of young men – the arrest records from the British riots say otherwise, and numerous riots so-defined in the past decade have significantly involved women, the elderly and kids, though perhaps not in proportional numbers. Still, it is absolutely essential to understand how riots and insurrections come to involve (or remain limited to) different social groups. One thing that decisively distinguishes the Egyptian insurrection from, say, the UK riots is that, largely as a result of the Tahrir encampment, there were numerous ways to participate in the uprising that did not involve direct combat with the police and their proxies. This contributed not only to the expansion of the insurrection but its durability. Nonetheless, it is not enough for an insurrection to be composed of people other than young men if the relationship between social groups continues to follow the established division of labor in capitalist society – with men fighting the police and women doing the work of caretaking, for instance, or proletarians fighting and middle class people attending assemblies and making important decisions. We have to examine not only how an uprising spreads among different social groups but how it undoes (or perpetuates) the violence of such categories.
Moreover, Badiou’s very distinction — between immediate riots that rise and die as if in a single shout, and historical riots that take root in the soil of time — excludes dramatic events with which any serious study of riot must reckon. Thus, for example, the broken parade of riots that have rocked Thessaloniki and Athens go entirely unmentioned. It is a scandalous omission. These riots are, it must be admitted, hard to schematize. Are these, according to Badiou’s taxonomy, only an unconnected sequence of immediate riots? Perhaps each instance is immediate: episodes rarely last as long as, say, the Los Angeles riot that greeted the Rodney King verdict in 1992 (also unmentioned). Certainly, in the Greek case, the triggering event was, as is characteristic of Badiou’s immediate riot, the police murder of a young man. But it is impossible to speak of “the Exarcheia riot of 2008” except in the way one speaks of Book One of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War: it was inarguably a beginning, and thus an element of a larger unity. The Greek riot has kept unfolding, unevenly but continuously as months turn into years, addressing itself now to the cops, now the banks; now the supermarkets, now the parliament. Its protagonists, for better or worse, are often young male anarchists and/or students. At the same time it has leapt beyond this demographic, filling Syntagma Square with broad swaths of the polis, often getting their first taste of tear gas.
This is scarcely Badiou’s only omission, but it is a telling one. Just as the matter of its duration eludes Badiou’s taxonomy, the Greek riot cannot seem to disclose whether it possesses or lacks the Idea. What has provisioned its serrated persistence, its half-expressed capacity for generalization which, for all its tidal shifts and incomplete nature, is not a trivial fact? If the situation has a constant, it is not to be found in the realm of concept; surely it is the violence of austerity policies, traversing social categories. Or to tilt back toward the register of theory, it will turn out that all riots happen in history, subject to material forces. Rather than insisting, Glinda-like, on asking, “are you a good riot or a bad riot?” we might take the opportunity to understand the ways that the Greek situation is tellingly distinct from that of Egypt or the U.K. — and particularly how they find themselves in different places in the structure of global crisis, commingled each with divergent trajectories of local political management.
That said, we must grapple with what Badiou has written, not with what he has not. Salutary in his account is the direct disavowal of the political party and its conjunction with the state, now definitively obsolete as a mechanism for a revolutionary project: “The party-form has had its day, exhausted in a brief century by its state avatars.” This has been the philosopher’s (non-)party line for some time, and surely he means to provide an opening to grasp what might be provisionally new about the political volatility of the present. But it is on this point that Badiou and the book founder absolutely. For, still in thrall to the guiding Idea, he continues to assume and demand of us the very activity most closely identified with the party-form: organization: “Anyway, it remains the case,” he writes, “that, by formalizing the constitutive features of the event, organization makes it possible for its authority to be preserved….Organization transforms into political law the dictatorship of the true from which the reality of the historical riot derived its universal prestige.”
So: for Badiou, the Idea has in some sense replaced the party. Or, there is a triangle of riot/party/Idea, and it must now be the Idea rather than the party that shepherds the riot from immediate to historical, to communism. However, being itself immaterial, the Idea will require some manner of practical activity to realize itself down here — and that activity looks a lot like what the party once did. “I maintain that the time of organization,” he writes in a summary chapter, “the time of construction of an empirical duration of the Idea in its post-riot phase, is crucial.” Behold the Dictatorship of the Idea.
The exhortation to organize has been often heard in the dissolution of the various Occupy encampments here in the US, from left thinkers as various as Noam Chomsky, Doug Henwood, and Jodi Dean. And “organize” must in some regard be the right thing to do, in so far as it is a term both common-sensical and capacious in its lack of specificity. It risks being what Fredric Jameson calls a “pseudoconcept”: the imperative to “organize” comes down to, do that thing that causes you to be more rather than less effective. But lacking any further tactical clarity, the word inevitably backslides into the meaning it offered the last time around, redolent of sad-faced activists trying to sell you copies of Socialist Worker. In the face of this vast and mercurial irruption which Badiou’s book wishes to register, the call to “organize” serves for the moment as the chorus to a paradoxical song: this new politics is fantastic, but it seems to have reached its limits; we need…the old politics!
Badiou’s communism thus drives itself straightaway into the ditch separating new from the old: “at a distance from the state,” but still fundamentally oriented toward hoary ideas about the state’s withering away. Though “organization” no longer means a party capable of seizing state power and directing its military and bureaucratic power toward particular programmatic ends, it does mean that “[y]ou decide what the state must do and find the means of forcing it to, while always keeping your distance from the state…” And yet this orientation toward the state – regardless of its reliance on telekinesis rather than direct contact – reproduces the primary weakness of the riots and uprisings of the present, the very thing it seeks to overcome. Whether or not they feature explicit demands, these riots are always heard by the state and powers-that-be as practical calls for reform: “Mubarak must go!” and “No more austerity!” are how the uprisings of Egypt and Greece sound in paraphrase. This has less to do with the ideas actually held by participants, who may indeed have anticapitalist and antistate aspirations, than it does with their particular strategic and tactical choices: massing in the square defensively, for instance, or attacking the parliament building on the eve of an austerity vote. Even the supposedly “meaningless” violence of the London riots gets heard as a call for reform, for amelioration of poverty, social exclusion, and the racist harassment of the police.
It is unclear, then, what solution Badiou’s call for “organization” might provide to the limits of the historical riot, which he rightly notes “does not by itself offer an alternative to the power it intends to overthrow.” The dubious case of “Latin American socialism” and the sloganizing of the antiglobalization movement notwithstanding, no such alternative has yet emerged in the 21st century. We might wonder, instead, if the very concept of an alternative belongs to the now-outmoded politics of party, state and program. In the 20th century, “alternative” always meant an alternate form of modernization and industrialization – modernization under socialist (or fascist) conditions of political control and distribution. Past revolutionary ideas of the future depended on a conception of an alternate course of development. But such futures are gone. There are no creditable images of the century to come that are not formed of nightmare and ruin, however much the Shanghai skyline tries to tell us otherwise. Everyone dreads the future. Which means that we might need to revise our very conception of what “revolution” and “alternative” mean.
Perhaps, then, the very immediacy of the immediate riot might have more to teach us than it appears. Badiou approaches for a moment the truth of immediacy when he refers to “the thrilling sense of an abrupt alteration in the relation between the possible and the impossible” which will be familiar to any partisan of the riot. But, as one might by now expect, he retreats instantly into political abstraction, musing on the “de-statification of the issue of what is possible.” Here he leaps over the actual experience of riot, and in so doing, what might be learned from it: first there is the realization that there are too many of you for the police to control, and then the immediate leap to suspecting that you might also be free from the discipline of the market, the wage and commodity, and the world organized by these alien powers. Rather than a form of extreme, high-risk consumerism, the looting of stores during a riot is perhaps one of the clearest examples we have in the present moment of communist practice, without which the communist Idea can mean nothing. Indeed, we would aver that communism can mean at this point only the elaboration of practices that remove the things we need and want, the things we make, from behind the cordon of property — a cordon in defense of which millions are daily condemned to starvation, disease, imprisonment and a thousand forms of suffering besides.
Though it should go without saying, let’s remember that consumerism depends on paying for things, with money earned by working. Looting a pair of shoes depends upon hatred of the commodity form and its relationship to social class, not enthrallment to it. This is why, during riots, commodities are as often wantonly destroyed as they are seized for consumption. As Guy Debord wrote of the immediate riot of Watts in 1965:
once the vaunted abundance is taken at face value and directly seized…real desires begin to be expressed in festive celebration, in playful self-assertion, in the potlatch of destruction. People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities … Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and alteration.
This is the “enduring truth” that survives beyond the immediate riot.
Rather than moralizing in the face of some acts of antisocial violence which, while deplorable, occur during times of riot as well as times of social peace, we might examine the immediate riot from a strategic perspective: How can such acts of expropriation and free taking be extended and deepened, and what other practices might go along with and help the extension of these expropriations? How do more and more people become involved in the unfolding of the riot, and what measures will be necessary in order to defend against the consequent violence of the state? Organization, in this sense, means something very different than Badiou intends. Rather than a mechanism for the reproduction of the Idea, it becomes a means for the elaboration, diffusion, and coordination of practices which contain ideas within them, and from which other as-yet-unknown ideas will blossom. It is notable that Badiou has nothing to say about the establishment of kitchens and street clinics, improvised cell phone charging stations and displays of art in places like Tahrir Square. These are indeed the kinds of organization – forms of mutual aid and free giving – which might help extend the free taking of the riot, and enable the passage from riot to open insurrection. This in turn might give us cause to rethink the kernel of the Occupy movement now that it has reached its first anniversary: not the insertion of new terms into the national discourse, not the call for a less-poisoned political apparatus, not even the registration of the current catastrophe’s dimensions, but the tentative and partial and still-powerful experiments with self-organized care, defense, and provision.
At stake in the foregoing critique are not just ideas about how social change emerges, but ideas about the role of ideas, and the various intellectuals who might shepherd them, within emergent struggles. Standing on its head Marx’s statement that “Mankind only sets itself such tasks as it is able to solve,” Badiou writes that “History does not contain within itself a solution to the problems it places on the agenda.” The solution he imagines emerges from beyond history, from the rational process of the Idea and its faithful adherents, who translate the truth of present struggles into winning organizational structures and disciplines. Though we find good reasons to balk at Marx’s optimism, we nonetheless cannot see any place from which the solutions might emerge if not from the practices of the riots and uprisings and struggles of today. Rather than seeing theory as a lesson we must teach to the participants of today’s uprising, we might see it as something immanent within what they do. We might adopt a listening posture with regard to the world we live in. The answer to the riddle of the Sphinx is always another question.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Thursday, 25 August 2011 21:17
- Written by Scott Nappalos
A theoretical question which is clearly important but has so far not been broached on this site is that of political organization. Here too, old forms seem clearly insufficient, while new configurations have yet to be born. How to approach this question, given our present circumstances, is the subject of the following essay, republished in slightly revised form from Miami Autonomy & Solidarity.
As it appears here, this essay combines two of what Nappalos describes as a series of four interconneted essays addressing questions of revolutionary organization and organizational theories in use today. Published so far have been Parts I, II, and III of Towards Theory of Political organization for Our Time. What appears below is an edited amalgamation of Parts I and III.
Towards a Theory of Political Organization for Our Time: trajectories of struggle, the nature of our period, and the intermediate level
The Nature of Our Period: looking to an autonomous working class alternative
The end of the twentieth century was a time of transition. The regime of low-intensity warfare, the dismantling of the welfare state, and neo-liberal privatization schemes ultimately was running its course. The final defeats were to be dolled out across the world in the eventual collapse of finance bubbles, widespread resistance to austerity, and the implosive of the economies of Latin America. Before this was all but said and done, there was the gradual and later meteoric rise and fall of social movements against neo-liberal reforms and the militarism leading to the afghan and Iraq wars. Revolutionaries played an active and disproportionate role in mobilizing the social actors in what would become the largest mobilizations of their kind.
Time has passed, and the limitations and deflation of the early 2000s anti-globalization and anti-war movements are becoming clearer to many revolutionaries. Though massive mobilizations occurred, little lasting organization was built.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Wednesday, 22 August 2012 12:32
- Written by Badiou
This essay by Alain Badiou is one of the earlier places where he has spoken directly on political issues. (This was before his recent new book on the Arab Spring and Occupy-like events,The Rebirth of History — Times of Riots and Uprisings.)
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Badiou acerca de Negri y la singularidad del acontecimiento
Fuente: Kasama Traducción: Martín López
En este ensayo Alain Badiou habla directamente sobre cuestiones políticas. Publicamos esto para promover la exploración y el debate. Kasama incluye una discusión previa acerca del trabajo de Badiou.
Se incluyen también aquí los comentarios de Badiou acerca de Imperio, de Toni Negri – sobre la cuestión de si el cambio revolucionario emerge de la evolución de conflictos estructurales de larga data o de la erupción de acontecimientos coyunturales.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Friday, 13 July 2012 09:07
- Written by Theodoros Patsatzis
This article by Theodoros Patsatzis was published on the website of DEA (i.e., Internationalist Worker's Left) on 11 July 2012. DEA is one of the smaller constituents of SYRIZA. In this article, Patsatzis provides a concise overview of the common minimum programme of the pro-Troika coalition government that emerged from the June general election in Greece, which is primarily characterized by an orthodox neoliberal policy of privatization. Translation courtesy of Azad.
The history of privatization demonstrates that consumers and workers are harmed. Everyone loses, except the new owners, who fill their pockets
In parliamentary discussions, privatization has been identified as the central and most immediate goal of the pro-austerity coalition government. The three coalition partners appear set to fully implement the medium term requirements and the second Memorandum, which had been passed by the previous pro-austerity governments. What they may not remember, and should be reminded of, is that such goals led to major struggles by workers and the fall of previous governments.
Privatizations: In reality, Samaras and his coalition partners announced massive privatizations. These include privatization of energy and electricity (DEH), water (EYDAP and EYAF), the post office (ELTA), the Agricultural Bank and its subsidiaries (SEKAP, Dodoni, Sugar Industrials), Hellenic Petroleum (ELPA), natural gas (DEPA and DESFA) and National Rail (OSE). This neoliberal programme was anticipated by the "medium term requirements" and the second Memorandum. Only the timing has changed. The medium term requirements anticipated privatizations generating revenue of 50 billion euro until 2015 while the second Memorandum reduced expected revenues to 30 billion euro. Of these, 4.5 billion were expected in 2012, 7.5 billion by the end of 2013 and the remainder by 2015. Privatisation is a long-term goal of capitalists. Its leading exponents are supporters of neoliberal politics. Samaras, Venizelos and Kouvelis are the personalities currently embracing such a politcs . They insist that revenue from privatization will be apportioned for the "leaking barrel of debt." Or, at least, this is specified in the Memorandum. Resorting to extortion in order to force the consent of the people, they have raised the question: "privatization or slashing of wages and pensions." Moreover, they remind us of the poor conduct and operations of public agencies.