- Category: Theory
- Created on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 23:10
- Written by kasama
Read with us! Announcing the Kasama Book Club
By THE KASAMA PROJECT
The Kasama Project is excited to announce the initiation of the Kasama Book Club. Each month we're selecting a single book to be read and discussed by our entire membership and by anyone else who is interested. We will be reading a broad range of books that address a variety of subjects important to the revolutionary movement we seek to build: books on the oppression and liberation of women; on racism and national oppression in the United States; on the history of popular struggles and of the communist movement both in the U.S. and around the world; on imperialism, revolutionary strategy, organization and more. A short reading guide for each book will include discussion questions and suggestions for further reading.
In a number of cities across the country including Boston, New York, Houston, Seattle, Portland, and Denver, reading circles of Kasama comrades and friends are being organized around the monthly readings. Individual supporters and Kasama Project website readers are encouraged to participate in the Book Club by reading along. The books being selected will cover a broad range of issues and should be an excellent opportunity for people to engage discussions on questions both historic and urgent. Any Kasama readers who would like help setting up their own reading circle including study guides and reading lists, or who would like to attend one of our existing reading circles, please contact us at email@example.com.
Of course it should be noted that the selection of a book for study by the Kasama Book Club is not a blanket endorsement of any author's point of view: the books are being selected to provoke critical engagement with key issues.
For February, our first monthly reading is “Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory” by Lise Vogel. We'll be reading the updated version of this work, which was originally published in 1983. Haymarket Books has recently republished this work, describing it as revisiting “classical Marxian texts, tracking analyses of ‘the woman question’ in socialist theory and drawing on central theoretical categories of Marx’s Capital to open up an original theorization of gender and the social production and reproduction of material life.”
Upcoming Kasama Book Club selections will include Waldo E. Martin's history of the Black Panther Party “Black Against Empire,” and Kirkpatrick Sale's definitive history of the 1960s student movement, “SDS: The rise and development of the Students for a Democratic Society.” Topics later in the year will include aspects of communist theory, various chapters of 20th century communist history, and specific challenges faced by revolutionary organizers today.
Stay tuned to this space for ongoing details.
- 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 Saturday, 11 May 2013 21:45
- Written by Bromma
The following piece was written as a response to a new piece called "A Commune in Chiapas?" It first appeared on Kersplebedeb. Without endorsing all of its verdicts, I want to point out that is is both a powerful indictment of Euro-chauvinist fantasies about the Zapatista story, and an introduction to the complex process of mutual transformation through which the Mayan people transformed the Zapatistas, and the Zapatistas in turn transformed the people. It is highly relevent to our own discussions of what new communist beginnings might look like.
-Intro by Eric Ribellarsi
Class, Colonialism and the Zapatistas
I started off wanting to like “A Commune In Chiapas?” (This major essay about the Zapatistas, written for the English “liberation communist” journal, Aufheben, is distributed as a pamphlet by Arm the Spirit/Solidarity, Canadian anti-imperialist publishers who represent u.s. political prisoners such as David Gilbert, Albert Nuh Washington and Jalil Muntaquin.) I appreciated its willingness to criticize radicals who “project their hopes onto this ‘exotic’ struggle.” I was ready to agree with its skepticism about the rhetoric of Subcommandante Marcos, about romantic views of indigenous life, about social democracy masquerading as “civil society.” I was glad to see that the pamphlet included some background history about Mexico and a chronology of the Zapatista uprising. Most of all, I looked forward to its attempt to analyze the events in Chiapas from a class perspective.
I shouldn’t have got my hopes up. “Commune” is actually a pretty conservative piece of writing. Conservative in its view of class. Conservative in its distaste for national liberation struggles and radical anti-colonialism. Above all, conservative—even predictable—in its Eurocentric assumptions about Indians. A narrow form of academic Marxism acts like parental web-screening software, preventing the authors from seeing even the basic outlines of the Zapatista struggle.
The January 1, 1994 uprising in Chiapas resulted from a fusion of indigenous peoples’ struggles for survival with a band of revolutionary Marxist guerrillas. This fusion produced an innovative movement which slammed a body blow into global capital. “Commune,” on the other hand, was written by theoreticians who lack respect for indigenous struggle and apparently have little use for real-life revolutionary Marxist guerrillas. Not surprisingly, their main message is that the Zapatistas have limited historical significance.
The pamphlet’s aim is not so much to learn lessons from the Zapatista struggle as to grind ideological axes. The authors claim to represent the voice of moderation, avoiding what they see as twin errors: wishful thinking about Chiapas (which they ascribe to autonomist Marxists, among others) as well as a dismissive attitude among self-styled “ultra-left” groups in Europe. But actually “Commune” is squarely in the dismissers’ camp. Like them, it disdains what it calls “anti-imperialist and Third Worldist ideology.” Like them, it applies a series of formulaic litmus tests to the events in Chiapas, and judges the Zapatista struggle as essentially backward.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Wednesday, 13 March 2013 20:43
- Written by Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman
This article by Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman is part of an ongoing discussion about what type of theories and strategies can lead to the liberation of women as part of the all around struggle for communism and human liberation. It is a direct response to an earlier article by Nat Winn titled "Not for herself alone: beyond the limits of Marxist Feminism." The Mitchell/Zimmerman piece originally appeared on the Gathering Forces blog. Other parts of the discusion are here and here.
For Herself, and Therefore, for the Class: Toward a Methodological Feminism
by Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman
Recently, Nat Winn, a member of Fire Next Time and Kasama weighed in on a discussion of Marxist-Feminism begun on the FNT blog originally by Ba Jin and ZoRa B'Al Sk'a and with a response by Eve Mitchell of Unity and Struggle. We welcome the energetic engagement by all parties including those commenting on the Kasama blog on what remains one of the most critical questions of our time: the content and forms of women's liberation.
The scope of Eve's response did not go beyond clarifying the relationship between Federici and James, and discussing broadly the Marxist-Feminist methodology, including the Wages for Housework campaign. Nat has challenged the practical implications of Wages for Housework which is supposedly linked to the political failings of Marxist-Feminism.
What may at first sight appear in Nat's response as merely strategic difference (for instance, whether or not there should be an emphasis on intervention in struggles around reproductive freedom versus that over domestic and reproductive work), belying it is the crucial question of method that must be unpacked.
In Nat's comments, we observe an unnecessary antagonism being drawn between two completely valid arenas of struggle; the content and form of reproductive labor on the one side and reproductive freedom on the other (there is no coincidence in the double use of "reproduction" here which we'll expound further down). The origin of this antagonism is located between a splitting of the subject and object. This is done through a dualistic reading of "economics" and "politics," or, to use the terms Marx employed in the "Preface" to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, "base" and "superstructure." But there is an immanent unity between subject and object as well as between base and superstructure and what Marxism represents is precisely the unification of these categories. The tragedy of orthodox Marxism is that it represents a reification of them; that is, regarding an abstract duality of the subject and object as a real thing that plays out in the real world in terms of forms of organizing and concrete political orientations.
We'd like to say a little bit about the importance of Marx's conception of labor and unity of subject-object. Only then will the political divergences with Nat come into relief.
Marx's conception of labor and the unity of the subject-object.
Marx's early philosophical texts directly fleshed out his conception of self-, or life-activity, which later in works like Capital, he discussed simply as "labor." In "Estranged Labour," Marx writes,
"For in the first place labour, life-activity, productive life itself, appears to man merely as a means to satisfying a need — the need to maintain the physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species — its species character — is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man's species character. Life itself appears only as a means to life." (76)
Self-activity, or labor, is universal; meaning it exists in all modes of production. Further, it is defines our humanity. It is the ever-expanding process of satisfying our needs, introducing new needs, and developing new ways of fulfilling our needs. Labor encompasses everything from our jobs under capitalism to tilling the land under feudalism to creating art and poetry to having sex and raising children.
But labor is not just what we do; it is our ability to choose, reflect upon, and change our labor process. Labor is our process of changing the external world and our internal selves. Later in "Estranged Labor," Marx writes,
"It is just in the working-up of the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being. This production is his active species life. Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of man's species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labour tears from him his species life, his real species objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him." (77)
Here Marx's conception of the subject-object becomes clear. The external physical world is acted upon by humans, (labor is subjective), but the physical world is also an objectification of human labor, or self-activity (labor is objective).
Marx restated this concept in a polemic against the German "materialist" Ludwig Feuerbach. In the "Theses on Feuerbach," Marx argues that sensuousness is not something merely subjective, perceptive, and one-sided, as Feuerbach postulated. It is also objective and used toward the transformation of the external world. Human beings are both thinking subjects of the world but also objects of their own creation through labor. This is what Marx calls the metabolic relationship between man and nature.
While the subject-object dialectic is universal–meaning it exists in all modes of production–under capitalism, this process is interrupted. Our self-activity is no longer unified with our conscious will, and the subjectivity of our self-activity is turned against us. We do not produce for use, and do not have access to our multi-sided needs and corresponding activity; the world we have created is not our own but alien to us, or estranged from us. In contrast, communism is the movement toward uniting the subject and object, or the completely free state of conscious self-activity in which we produce for use; as Marx states in "Estranged Labour," we make our life-activity itself the object of our will and consciousness (76). A lot more can be said about this. For more elaboration, see the Unity and Struggle post, "The Communist Theory of Marx."
Politics and economics, a duality or a totality?
The base/superstructure concept adapted by orthodox Marxism has reified the subject-object split. It sees the "base," or economy, in a structuralist/sociological manner that exists independently of human initiative and which determines all activity and thinking. So capital, wages, and money are mere objects. On the other hand, "superstructure," or politics, is understood as subjective and confined to ideas or an abstract kind of activity that isn't metabolic with nature but divorced from it and determined by the base.
Marx never had a dualistic understanding of these categories and posited quite conversely that "economic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production." (Poverty of Philosophy, MECW 6, 165) For Marx, capital, wages and money are the various phenomenological forms of alienated labor; they are subjective and objective social relations in disguise, not ahistoric things as political economy conceives. The economy and politics, or capital, wages and money can only be separated logically because concretely and in the real world they exist as a social and dialectical whole.
A dualistic conception of economy and politics ignores Marx's emphasis on living labor and fails to understand the unity of subject-object.
The splitting of the intrinsic unity of the subject-object and the dualistic reading of base/superstructure creates a dynamic where struggles around work are seen as narrow and economistic.
Struggles that emerge broadly around the wage, and which are not always simply about getting higher wages for a small group of workers, are not automatically economistic. And struggles that take place outside workplaces are not automatically political. For example, it was precisely the "economist" types who sought women's liberation through selling their labor-power during second wave feminism. Such a strategy was predicated on capital's fundamental social relations and confined gendered alienation to a question of receiving "equal wages for equal work."
This economism is typified precisely by a disconnect between the struggle to maintain access to abortion and the struggle against the gendered division of labor. This typically looks like mass protests that emerge to keep abortion legal without consideration not only for what sections of the class have access to sexual/reproductive healthcare but why there's a contradiction between many white women who are oftentimes coerced into keeping children and black women who face forced sterilization.
Economism refuses to challenge the racial and other important divisions within the class and which allow it to be recuperated by the movement's "official" leaders, by capital, the State, and the value-form. This also implicates various problematic forms to combat the encroaching hand of the State over women's bodies whether it be by petitioning, lobbying, symbolic protests, etc. Demands against the State are just as easily absorbed by the ruling class into new forms of rationality as demands for higher wages directed to employers, and many forms wind up acquiescing the fight before one actually begins.
When we enter the factory gate, or the domicile kitchen, we don't leave the political world behind us. Likewise, when we exit, we don't leave the realm of economics. There are manifold "political" dynamics that manifest at work, that implicate race and gender, from the wage scale, to the division of labor, to sexual harassment. Such factors not only undercut the specific, local, or sectoral interests of workers engaged in that workplace but become generalized features of class life institutionalized by the State. Similarly, outside of work, in the streets where women are fighting to maintain access to abortion have all kinds of economic implications.
Given this, the abstractions "economics" and "politics" cannot be separated. Our sense is that it is partly the job of communists to tease out the political implications of various spontaneous struggles that emerge, whether they take form at work or in the streets.
Marxist-Feminism, production and reproduction, labor and capital: finite or universal?
The methodology of orthodox Marxism, whereby the subject and object are split into a determining base (object) and a determined superstructure (subject), necessarily has consequences for how the content of women's liberation is to be understood. And this framework is exactly why reproductive labor and reproductive freedom are counterposed. For Nat,
"women's liberation from a communist point of view has to do with unleashing the capacity for every woman to be able to reach her full human potential in a society where human knowledge and technology along with natural resources are shared in common."
"women's liberation [is]...far beyond a discussion about waged and unwaged labor and an economic struggle for wages for housework."
If, then, women's liberation goes beyond labor, what we are dealing with is a framework that is ahistorical. Patriarchy is not something that statically exists separate from the mode of production; under capitalism patriarchy takes the form of gendered alienation, the gendered division of labor, etc. We cannot understand patriarchy without a critique of political economy and vice-versa. Furthermore, the form of reproductive labor under capitalism, which is gendered, exists in a unity with controlling our bodies as a means of production, and determining what kind of labor-power capital needs. This coincides with a racial division of labor which we've discussed above.
There can be no "reproductive freedom" if reproductive workers aren't freed from the gendered division of labor, i.e. unless there is a coordinated attack against the multifarious forms of alienated labor. Under the capitalist gendered division of labor, women's uteri and women's bodies are both means of production of labor-power that they are radically separated from. This condition is reinforced by the State in many forms, from limiting women's access to abortion and forced sterilization, to austerity measures that force women to increasingly bear the burden of caring for young, elderly, and disabled members of the class.
In relegating the gendered division of labor into an objective "base," and similarly assigning reproductive freedom to subjective "superstructure," Nat sets up a false dichotomy that can have devastating practical consequences. According to Nat,
"There has been an aversion to [the fight over reproductive freedom] in Marxist Feminism, perhaps because it is not a strictly 'working class' struggle. But this to me is a rigid type of Marxism which narrows everything down to the relation between labor and capital. To me this is a mistake. A revolution isn't a narrow economic act, it is a complex struggle involving real world alignments, consciousness, and political struggles. When we ignore real politics we stay isolated."
Again, labor/self-activity/production is posed as either objective economics on the one hand or subjective politics on the other. Further, this rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of Marx's conception of "labor." In contrast to this dualistic framework, we can return to Wages for Housework and the Marxist-Feminist methodology.
Wages for Housework emerged out of very real struggles of women in the post-war period and departed from the theory of the role of reproductive labor as a whole, struggles that find their historic origin in the split between productive and reproductive labor. The split of these two was necessary toward the development of the capitalist division of labor (which had a visible gendered content). In previous modes of production, reproductive labor was not so distinct, and individuals were not radically separated from the means of production and confined to a single sphere of work. This passage from Mariarosa Dalla Costa's and Selma James' "The Power Women and the Subversion of the Community" is not only illuminating but quite emphatic:
"In the same way as women are robbed of the possibility of developing their creative capacity, they are robbed of their sexual life which has been transformed into a function for reproducing labor power: the same observations which we made on the technological level of domestic services apply to birth control (and, by the way, to the whole field of gynaecology), research into which until recently has been continually neglected, while women have been forced to have children and were forbidden the right to have abortions when, as was to be expected, the most primitive techniques of birth control failed." (30)
Here, Dalla Costa and James confirm that labor and capital aren't narrow, they are universal categories. Certainly they've been narrowed in the orthodox Marxist tradition from Kautsky to Althusser, both in their theoretical scope and in their practical conclusions. But labor isn't just wage labor and capital isn't just factories. Labor and capital express the universal antagonistic movement between living labor and dead labor which is capital. This dynamic is one where things control us rather than us controlling things, between monotonous, one-sided work in the division of labor and the social relations between things we make. This is the picture Marx gives us from "Estranged Labour" to the "Critique of the Gotha Programme" and nowhere does he see labor and capital as reductive by any stretch.
Reproduction constitutes all those various labors that are essential to maintaining human beings and which are also historically developed; where the "nature" of humans change as they deepen their consciousness and many-sided labors, as opposed to a narrow naturalist and fixed conception of reproduction (babymaking).
We are told by Nat that "the discussion was suffocated in its scope because of its confinement within in a certain 'workerist' conception of how to look at women, sexuality, reproduction, and liberation." Nat counterposes and unnecessarily polarizes defending abortion versus struggles over reproductive labor and this is done precisely with the dualistic understanding of "base" and "superstructure" rooted, again, in the split of the subject-object. This also has bodily implications: where a woman' hands are concerned, it is economic, where it concerns her uterus, it is political.
Nat points out that Wages for Housework was not relevant in the 60s and 70s (and is still not relevant today) because it has never had popular currency with women engaged in struggle. Nat writes:
"Ultimately I think that women's liberation from a communist point of view has to do with unleashing the capacity for every woman to be able to reach her full human potential in a society where human knowledge and technology along with natural resources are shared in common.
To do that there needs to be a break away from the traditional role of women, namely traditional roles of giving birth to and raising children and other domestic roles.
Now due to the development of global capitalism since the 1970s, but also due to the fight of women at that time against traditional relations, there has been a break away from tradition.
The Wages for Housework tendency was correct in stating that a break from the home in and of itself would not liberate women or destroy capitalism. However, it was wrong politically to not unite with what was correct. We need to recognize the necessity of such a demand when placed within an overall communist vision of women's liberation."
We agree with Nat that women needed to break the isolation of the home in order to develop their communist potential, and that Wages for Housework never caught on. We also agree that revolutionaries should develop a strategy that both understands the current conditions and is informed by the self-activity of the class. But our approach is distinguished specifically by Marx's subject-object dialectic.
The Marxist Feminists understood the relationship between the objective conditions of society and the subjective self-activity of the class. They used this understanding to develop a programmatic strategy that would resolve contradictions within the class in favor of revolution (and abolition of gendered value relations):
This was a time in which capitalism was in crisis, and needed a strategy to overcome crisis (which later materialized in strategic shift from Keynesianism to neoliberalism). Entering into the workforce and receiving higher wages there would only allow capital to subsume increased labor-power, which would solve the crisis in the interest of capital. Wages for Housework would have caused increased devastation to capital by forcing capital to concede profits for unwaged domestic labor. In other words, the Marxist-Feminists argued that equality politics would add labor to women's plates instead of forcing capital to relinquish profits for work already being done. On top of this, Wages for Housework would have broken the isolation of the home and the patriarchy of the wage. Again, this strategy is based on the subject-object dialectic.
In contrast, Nat's arguments against Wages for Housework (and for engaging in reproductive rights struggles) is based on the assumption that when a programmatic strategy is not popular, it is not relevant and should be abandoned: "In fact, the ideas of Marxist Feminism have never caught on among large sections of women outside activist circles."
Are things valid only to the extent that masses of people say they are? Is Marxist-Feminism invalid because it has not been a banner waived or slogan employed by millions of women? We don't think Nat is implying this, but in its logical extension are found a host of problems, including working within the various trade union bureaucracies or the Democratic Party, or that revolutionaries should fight for all sorts of things just because they are popular. In any case, it seems that here Nat is conflating the subject and object, arguing that the current activity of the class, whatever the form, is the objective conditions of capitalism. The practical implications of this methodology is to "meet the class where they are at...and leave them there," meaning the current activity of the class dictates the program, strategies and tactics, instead of dialectically informing them.
Marxist-Feminism, like Marxism itself, is the distillation of the experiences of working class women. Where else does theory come from but those experiences? What was Marxism if not the logical content of the working class movement considered in its totality?
Programmatic strategies for women's liberation today
As stated in "Marxist-Feminism vs. Subjectivism: A Response to Fire Next Time", there is no problem in asking if Wages for Housework is relevant today. However, this must be done through grappling with the subject-object dialectic.
On the one hand, we must look at the objective conditions of capitalism and how that manifests in a gendered way today. One side of this Nat explains, including recent legislative and right-wing attacks against women's access to abortion. In the comments to Nat's post, commenter Liam Wright adds to this to include street harassment, rape and gendered assault. To this we would add super-exploitation in feminized workplaces, from nonprofits and schools to street sex work/prostitution and maquiladoras. We have explained above how these issues are at once both economic and political.
We would also include unwaged reproductive labor in the home (the majority of housework is still done by women in the home). However, the character of labor in the home is different today than it was in the 60s and 70s. A contradictory result of second wave feminism was that many of the things that women traditionally did in the home have been broadened out and entered into the circulation of capital. For example, the introduction and expansion of the fast food industry has on the one hand offered some relief to women but on the other, established a new sector of highly exploitative workplaces. This is both a win and a loss for women and therefore the class. It is also relevant that many more women are in the workforce these days; according the the U.S. Census, in 1960, only 15% of women worked full time, and in 2010 this number was up to 43%. This is not to say that struggles around unwaged, reproductive labor are irrelevant, but that workplace issues are far more relevant for women today.
The other side of the subject-object dialectic includes looking at the subjective activity of the class. Nat points toward mobilizations to defend abortion/women's health clinics. While these struggles are absolutely worth paying attention to, they are simply not representative of a generalized activity of the class. A large majority of the class is not mobilized at this time.
These expressions in content are a small sector of the class engaging in liberal methods to stop anti-abortion bills and restore funding to nonprofits. This strategy does not illuminate the State's interest in capital and patriarchy. Instead, it relies on the State to be women's protector, and ensures women's exploitation and eroded communist potential through protecting women's "right" to sell labor-power in nonprofits.
In the comments, Liam Wright points to Slut Walk as another strata of women's self-activity. While Slut Walk was a bit more broad, it was a series of permitted marches that culminated in open mics where people shared stories about being raped, sexually assaulted, stalked etc. There was no confrontation with the State or capital. In some ways, Slut Walk sought to break down the public/private split (women's bodies and sexuality is reserved for the private reproductive sphere), yet it did so only to rebuild women and reaffirm their subjectivity. This is important work that is necessary in building up women's ability to stand up to patriarchy and in developing a social fabric woven from the objective conditions of gendered alienation. This consciousness-raising activity, a historical carryover from the strategies of the 60s and 70s, is a hugely important aspect of our work as organizers and revolutionaries. However, consciousness-raising does not substitute for direct confrontation with patriarchy, and therefore capital and the State.
To be clear, we are not arguing for political abstention from liberal or reformist struggles, or consciousness-raising circles, when they are expressions of the self-activity of the class. However, a principled intervention would not be to participate in legislative reform but to argue for a strategies that would seek to damage capital, break down gendered antagonisms within the class, and forefront the demands of women. This is precisely what the Marxist-Feminists did during second wave feminism.
This gets back to Nat's fundamental question: what forms of activity should we practically engage in today?
Based on the analysis above, we would argue that Wages for Housework does not seem like a relevant strategy today. Instead, here are some examples of concrete areas of struggle that speak to the objective experience of women in the U.S. today:
- Grassroots clinic defense takeovers and/or nonprofit worker committees/unions that build solidarity across worker-"client" lines. This model would build on the work of the Jane Collective, socializing the skills women need to control their own bodies while taking advantage of the de-skilled advances of capital (for example, in general everyone who works in an abortion clinic, right up to the front desk girl, knows how to perform a manual abortion and there are no specialized skills needed for a large majority of medical abortions). This model could be broadened out to things like hormone therapy, HIV and STI treatment, and health care in general for the class.
- Neighborhood groups engaged in tenant struggles with the capacity to deal directly with violence against women in the community.
- Parent, teacher, and student alliances that struggle against school closures/privatization and for transforming schools to more accurately reflect the needs of children and parents, for example on-site childcare, directly democratic classrooms and districts, smaller class sizes, etc.
- Sex worker collectives that protect women from abusive Johns and other community members, and build democratically women- and queer-run brothels with safe working conditions.
- Workplace organizations in feminized workplaces like nonprofits, the service industry, pink collar manufacturing, etc., or worker centers that specialize in feminized workplaces and take up issues and challenges specific to women.
Having said all of this, we want to stress again that any strategies we call for are premature, given the lack of generalized movement among working class women today. Of course, it is still important to struggle in ways that we see as best given the circumstances. However, it is impossible to know whether these activities are the best strategy for today without collective self-activity in opposition to gendered value relations. We raise this to say that it is actually possible that wages for housework is a relevant demand. Only the self-activity of the class will clarify this for us. It is not the task of communists, as Marx once famously said, to write recipes for the cookshops of the future.
- 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 Saturday, 02 February 2013 13:04
- Written by Charlie Post
Is the working class divded? How is it divided? What does this mean for revolutionary strategy? A new book by a Zak Cope, Divided World, Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism which some see as theoretical evidence for the politics of third worldism has sparked a great deal of debate? Kasama will be posting a series of reviews of Cope's work in order to spark discussion on the relation between class composition, imperialism,and revolutioinary strategy. Other posts can be found here and here. The following review by Charlie Post is from the webzine New Socialist.
Workers in the Global North: A Labor Aristocracy?
Review of Zak Cope, Divided World, Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism (Kersplebedeb, 2012)
By Charlie Post
A specter has haunted anti-capitalist radicals and revolutionaries for more than 150 years—the specter of working class reformism and conservatism in the global North of the capitalist world economy. Why have those who Marx called the "grave-diggers of capitalism," the wage-earning majority of the industrialized societies, embraced politics that either seek to "balance" the interests of capital and labour (reformism) or blame other workers for falling living standards and working conditions (conservatism)?
- Category: Theory
- Created on Saturday, 02 February 2013 14:19
- Written by M-L-M Mayhem
Is the working class divded? How is it divided? What does this mean for revolutionary strategy? A new book by a Zak Cope, Divided World, Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism which some see as theoretical evidence for the politics of third worldism has sparked a great deal of debate? Kasama is posting a series of reviews of Cope's work in order to spark discussion on the relation between class composition, imperialism,and revolutioinary strategy. We've posted reviews by Matthijs Krul and Charlie Post. The following is a critique of Charlie Post's review on the MLM Mayhem blog.
The Theory of Labour Aristocracy and its Discontents: a meta-review of Cope's "Divided World Divided Class"
Although the position Charlie Post takes in his thorough, and thoroughly backwards, review of Zak Cope's Divided World Divided Class was predictable, the review itself tells us more about the state of critical thought amongst marxist theorists at the centres of capitalism than anything else. We could point out that the fact that Post begins by snidely claiming there is no empirical basis for the theory of the labour aristocracy is a rather humorous attempt at empty rhetoric: he knows that numerous revolutionary political economists such as Samir Amin have provided an empirical framework to apprehend a labour aristocracy because he argued with their frameworks in his own analysis (simply because your empirical framework is in disagreement with another doesn't mean that there is no empirical data, it just means that you are calling one set of empirical data into question with your own); he should also be aware that his own empirical data was called into question with another framework of competing empirical data. We could also point out that his argument from authority where he claims that the theory of the labour aristocracy was disproved by a non-marxist (though anti-capitalist) political economist Anwar Shaikh is somewhat laughable. The real point, however, and one that Post cannot help but miss, is that any attempt to prove or disprove the theory of the labour aristocracy through empiricism can only go so far: just us Cope can find the data to prove the theory, Post can mobilize opposing data to supposedly undermine this data, and Cope could probably reply with another pie chart or set of statistics, and Post would reply again... round and around it goes.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Wednesday, 30 January 2013 16:39
- Written by Matthijs Krul
Is it really so easy? I would argue it is not. It falls to me to defend the currently very unfashionable proposition that a socialist mode of production, recognizable to the Marxist tradition as well as to non-Marxist opponents of capitalism, actually requires a system of central planning and cannot permit any kind of market socialism to exist in the scale and manner Ackerman suggests... Firstly, that market socialism cannot overcome the limitations of capitalism, and secondly, that the failure of Soviet central planning does not condemn the idea of central planning. In fact, I will argue that the flaws in Ackerman’s design and the Soviet model of central planning are remarkably similar: both are rooted in the failure to overcome capitalist production, as opposed to distribution... The most significant shortcoming of almost all market socialisms, including that of Ackerman, is that they share with neoclassical economics and the liberal tradition generally the exclusive focus on the process of exchange.
This piece comes to Kasama from Matthijs Krul.
On Communism and Markets: A Reply to Seth Ackerman
In his recent essay on Jacobin, Seth Ackerman makes a number of common arguments in favor of some form of market socialism over and against central planning as well as other designs for non-market, non-capitalist economies. The essay contains much that most socialists could agree with. He rightly cites the failure of the neoclassical argument for general equilibrium to apply in real-world situations under the devastating theoretical impact of the Cambridge capital critique and the so-called ‘theory of the second-best’, and the lack of statistical evidence proving the superior efficiency of market capitalist societies over those of the former Soviet bloc. The historical record of capitalism to achieve general efficiency, equity, and democracy is, in short, atrocious, and neoclassical economics always serves first and foremost as apologetics for this system – we probably need not go into this further.
Also understandable is Ackerman’s negative response to models of a post-capitalist economy along the lines of some form of direct democracy, such as Albert and Hahnel’s “Parecon” approach. For Albert and Hahnel, democratic councils would gather data from individuals regarding their preferences, debate these according to socialist and ecological norms, and process them into a planning system, which would regularly update its information according to the same political processes; all this in order to regulate production for human need. Ackerman is justifiably skeptical of the workability of this proposal, as it would require millions of political debates about millions of input-output processes from wildly divergent sources and for wildly divergent ends. If every aspect of the planning system would have to be truly democratic – in the sense of being up for immediate political input ‘from below’ – any system with more than a rudimentary division of labor would quickly come to a shuddering halt.
For Ackerman, this is proof of the validity of the so-called calculation problem, an old argument from liberal critics of Marxism (in particular the Austrian school of economics), alleging that it is a priori impossible for centrally planned economies of any kind to operate: only prices, the argument runs, are accurately able to convey the necessary decentralized and distributed information that makes up the relative exchange value of goods. Therefore, in any system seeking to replace prices (and by implication, profits) with some form of central management, there necessarily follows a shortage of information in the decision-making process in production and exchange, with the familiar results of shortages, gluts, famines, and failures of supply.
For the liberal critics, and especially the Austrian school, this argument against central planning has often been generalized against any attempt to interfere with the market process: after all, if this argument holds, any interference at all will prevent ‘getting the prices right’, and thereby move the economy away from optimal allocation of goods and services. However, even the mainstream economic literature abounds with debate as to the accuracy of this proposition, with much of the debate revolving around the significance and extent of the presence of externalities, that is, costs not internalized into the price system but nonetheless real from a social or ecological viewpoint. But even taking the pervasiveness of externalities for granted, the critique of government intervention allows the left little substantial political room for maneouvre – at most mere management of market failures. This does not satisfy Ackerman, who is committed to superseding capitalism as a social system, and therefore he is faced with a plausible economic answer to this critique.
Ackerman’s solution is to propose a market socialist alternative, which would have prices (and thereby evade the calculation problem), but not profits – a handy solution if ever there was one, having one’s cake and eating it too. In this, he follows some of the market socialist critics from Eastern Europe, who responded to what they saw as the political-economic failures of their countries under Soviet-oriented rule by formulating a happy middle between a planned economy and the ‘anarchy’ of market capitalism. This proposal boils down to leaving intact the free market in the sphere of production and exchange, with autonomy of firms and competition between them, but by socializing the commanding heights of the economy in the sphere of finance and credit, in particular the banks: “A constellation of autonomous firms, financed by a multiplicity of autonomous banks or investment funds, all competing and interacting in a market — yet all nevertheless socially owned.”
Of course, if one has this, but permits profits to be pocketed by the capitalist class, one would simply have a kind of social-democratic capitalism with nationalized banks – perhaps radical, but not necessarily anything novel. Ackerman realizes this and confronts the problem of profit under market socialism with admirable clarity. His proposal is a compulsory purchase of all private financial assets – stocks, bonds, investments, and so forth – and to deposit them into a “multiplicity of socialized banks and investment funds owning and allocating capital among the means of production”. Any surplus firms would generate would then (presumably as dividend) be allocated towards this socialized fund, and thereby the capitalist class would be eliminated from the social division of labour – the euthanasia of the rentier interest, at least, as Ackerman notes. Now, this would still leave the tremendous inequalities generated by the buying, rather than expropriating, of the capitalists’ financial assets. But here Ackerman has a simple solution as well, a classic left social-democratic measure: one simply caps the total assets an individual (or family) may have. Socialism in two steps!
Is it really so easy? I would argue it is not. It falls to me to defend the currently very unfashionable proposition that a socialist mode of production, recognizable to the Marxist tradition as well as to non-Marxist opponents of capitalism, actually requires a system of central planning and cannot permit any kind of market socialism to exist in the scale and manner Ackerman suggests. To do so, I must also analyze the significance of the central planning efforts of the Soviet Union, seen by friend and foe alike in these debates as the prototype of such a system, and access to what extent it really did ‘fail’ (as Ackerman takes as decisively proven), and what this might imply. It is no small task, and I will necessarily have to be somewhat summary in my arguments, but the significance of this debate makes it essential to get this right. I do not wish to make a virtue of orthodoxy, but market socialist critiques such as those of Seth Ackerman have been a dime a dozen in the history of the communist movement, and they have never been convincing nor been able to make themselves practical within actual anti-capitalist revolutionary movements. I would argue this is no coincidence, for they contain a number of fundamental flaws that Marx and his immediate successors already identified. In this reply to Ackerman, I will argue two things. Firstly, that market socialism cannot overcome the limitations of capitalism, and secondly, that the failure of Soviet central planning does not condemn the idea of central planning. In fact, I will argue that the flaws in Ackerman’s design and the Soviet model of central planning are remarkably similar: both are rooted in the failure to overcome capitalist production, as opposed to distribution.
The most significant shortcoming of almost all market socialisms, including that of Ackerman, is that they share with neoclassical economics and the liberal tradition generally the exclusive focus on the process of exchange. This stands in stark contrast to Marx’s primary interest, the process of production. It is not for nothing that Marx considered the classical economists’ emphasis on exchange to be a powerful ideological weapon of the bourgeoisie. As long as distribution and exchange are the central categories of social relations, the market will seem to be the natural, self-evident form in which one-off exchange between individuals takes place, at least in societies with an advanced division of labor. But, for Marx, it is precisely this fetishism of commodities, this exclusive focus on the sphere of exchange and distribution, that hides the essential nature of capitalist society. In Capital, after discussing exchange value, he then famously writes: “Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face – ‘No admittance except on business.’ Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”
This secret, the core of capitalist social relations that must be overcome to overcome capitalist society altogether, is the process of capitalist production. It is there that capitalist social relations are reproduced on an ever-expanding scale through the repeated separation of workers from the means of production, and the generation of surplus value that results from this separation. Whatever value is produced in capitalist society can only be distributed within the market, but is never generated in it: whatever you gain in exchange, I lose. Marx for this reason distinguished between the labor in capitalist society that immediately produces surplus value, and the manifold kinds of labor that are involved in exchange, transport, marketing, and so forth. The latter do not reproduce capitalist social relations, and therefore fall in the sphere of distribution. This is not to say distribution in this sense is not important: indeed, it forms by far the largest part of the everyday experience of capitalism in contemporary Western societies. But this is exactly what leads to mistaking all the economic activities of the market for the reproduction of capitalism itself. This is why Marx considered it a form of fetishism. The process of production under capitalist conditions is what reproduces capitalist society – the actual application of labor and technology that allows modern-day society and its accumulative drive to exist. The everyday significance of the sphere of distribution – with its apparent equality of buyer and seller and the smooth machinery of the price system – give rise to the appearance that this is what capitalism is all about, not what happens behind the doors of the factories, sweatshops, and mines. If market socialism does not address the sphere of production, it does not address the fundamental conditions of capitalist society, and therefore does not succeed in overcoming it.
So it’s no surprise that in Ackerman’s example, nothing at all is said about the production process itself. In his concern to evade the calculation debate’s critique of central planning, he permits the central conditions of capitalism to perpetuate themselves: the separation of workers from the means of production, which are not the banks and other distributional institutions, but the factories, mines, sewing machines, and tractors. If nationalizing banks and investment itself had the power to create socialist conditions by themselves, the Royal Bank of Scotland would now be in the vanguard of socialism – which is sadly not the case. Even if all banks were nationalized, and a good deal else besides, as was de facto the case under total war conditions in various capitalist societies during WWII, there would still be a capitalist mode of production. Private appropriation of surplus is not the central feature of capitalism, although this permits a capitalist class to exist independently in political terms. Rather, its central feature is coercing working people to work on means of production not held in common, means that are used for the purposes of accumulation for its own sake. Even if one were to have a 100% tax on profit, and nationalization of banks, hedge funds, and pension funds, as Ackerman’s proposals seem to reduce to, this would be a left social-democratic version of capitalism, perhaps a radically egalitarian capitalism: but a capitalism nonetheless. It would be nothing to sneeze at, but not achieve his aim of an actually socialist society; with capitalist production left intact, so is exploitation, the alienation of working people, and the politics of growth for its own sake.
The reason for this is that, as Marx pointed out, the root of exploitation under capitalism is not insufficient wages per se, or the depredations of finance, but the theft of alien labor time. Not only is labor under capitalism alienated from the means of production and is the worker alienated from society’s general interests, but more importantly, the process of exploitation under capitalism necessarily implies that for accumulation to take place on one end, the worker must be paid less than the value of her labor-time on the other. The more capitalist production expands, the less time the worker has for herself. This is why so much of the history of socialist activism does not revolve around higher taxes on the wealthy or the nationalization of the commanding heights, but about reducing the share of their total lifetime workers are forced to produce for the reproduction and expansion of capitalist society – for example through pensions and social security, or overtime laws.
The struggle over exploitation is fundamentally the question of whether the worker has the time to fully develop her intellectual, social, and creative powers, or must devote this time instead to the reproduction of a hostile, alien, and benumbing society, with no time to call her own. Here central planning comes back into view. The aim of central planning, what Marx calls “the society of associated producers”, is therefore not just to socialize the process of exchange and distribution of goods – though as Ackerman rightly notes, this is a ‘bread and butter’ question in its own right – but to develop the productive forces to the degree that the necessary labor-time for all workers can bereduced to a minimum. This leaves maximum time for playing, singing, socializing, sports, art, music, writing, debating, and all those things that have been considered the good things in life and the birthright of humanity since the classical age.
There is no known process of the market that can achieve this aim, for the logic of the market is blind to the process of production, and concerns itself exclusively with private accumulation and consumption. Just as we do not care, in practice, about the appalling conditions under which our clothing and our food is made, in Ackerman’s market socialism the condition and work of the producers is of no significance. Their alienation is not abolished by the mere phrase ‘socializing finance’; as long as they are subject to the coercive pressure of competition and accumulation, each other’s eternal counterparts, they cannot fully realize their talents and potential as individuals and can therefore society is a hostile force for them.
Ackerman’s society, in short, would socialize capital, but not abolish it. It would socialize exploitation, but not abolish it. It would not work towards the fullest development of the creative, intellectual, and social capacities of the majority, and would not apply technology, the embodiment of reduction of necessary labor-time, to this end. As Marx wrote: “economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself.” This applies to market socialism as much as any society, and Ackerman’s proposal keeps at arm’s length “the very possibility of defetishizing economic life”, to borrow from David McNally’s critique of market socialism, Against the Market. “To reject this possibility is to embrace the inevitability of alienated labor, of exploitation, and the unplanned and anarchic drive towards competitive accumulation”.(1)
Seth Ackerman also confronts us with a new problem, however – a historical one. Doesn’t the Eastern European experience under ‘really existing socialism’ disprove the possibility of central planning? Is central planning really necessary to overcome the limitations of market socialism outlined above? The Soviet (and Soviet-dependent) experience plays a central role in Ackerman’s argument against the very possibility of a centrally planned society. For Ackerman, Soviet-type central planning was simply too radical; by ignoring the centrality of the market it represented a kind of bureaucratic utopianism whose only result was a shortage of toilet paper at crucial moments. Ackerman only barely acknowledges the very real accomplishments of Soviet society: “when Communism came to poor, rural countries like Bulgaria or Romania they were able to industrialize quickly, wipe out illiteracy, raise education levels, modernize gender roles, and eventually ensure that most people had basic housing and health care”. But this is not enough for him. Central planning seems to be unable to go beyond the point of the achievement of mere basic provisions. It can achieve no more than a mid-table economy in GDP per capita terms, with shoddy cars and insufficient toothpaste. This will not do, for the aim of socialism cannot be universal equal poverty, but the possibility of abundance for the widest possible share of society. If central planning cannot achieve this, then we must reject it. But is that true?
I argue that the conventional narrative of central planning’s failure must be radically revisited. Ackerman himself already notes that the central planning system performed not much less efficiently than most actually existing capitalisms of today. The Soviet strategy was based on a classic model of high investment rates, financed by the artificial repression of living standards and the (forcible) distribution of the surplus population unproductive in agriculture into the cities as an industrial working class, generating an enormous increase in the productivity of labor. The idea is that such productivity gains are then reinvested into heavy industry, further generating productive capacity, and so forth. This model was followed not just by the USSR, but in a different way also by China, Japan, South Korea, and other nations.
Using mainstream productivity and growth models, the liberal economic historian Robert C. Allen compared the central planning and collectivization of the Stalin period to various alternative approaches. In his book Farm to Factory, Allen astounded orthodox economic historians by finding that the ‘Stalinist’ approach (albeit credited to Preobrazhensky) was the best possible result among the alternatives(2). But, the narrative goes, Soviet planning could undertake labor-intensive industry well, but not capital-intensive industry. While the USSR could compete in sheer quantities of steel and coal and cars produced, as their propaganda often boasted, it couldn’t compete in spheres of production requiring substantial R&D and rapid technological upgrading of goods. Robert Allen’s account, for example, uses this as the explanation of Soviet failure. However, I believe evidence points to a very different conclusion.
William Easterly and Stanley Fischer’s World Bank study of the ‘Soviet climacteric’ argues that Soviet R&D on civilian production actually increased substantially between 1959 and 1984, rejecting the common notion that the Soviet arms race combined with the inflexibility of Soviet production caused the consumer economy to come to a standstill.(3) Moreover, Brendan Beare’s correction of the Easterly and Fischer paper has demonstrated that due to statistical mistakes in the reconstruction of the data, the elasticity of substitution between capital and labor in the Soviet economy was much higher than is commonly believed.(4) In other words: previous scholars claimed that when the Soviet surplus population ran out, the USSR was unable to efficiently replace labor with machinery, leading to an inability to make the leap from labor-intensive to capital-intensive production. But Beare’s data show that the ratio of this replacement of labor by capital may not have been as bad as previously thought, but in fact may have been quite high, as it was in Japan, which did not experience such stagnation. Nor did investment itself falter: even as late as 1989 the Soviet investment share of GDP was a staggering 35%. In short, Soviet central planning did not fail due to its inability to develop or implement labor-saving technology.
Why do I mention all these technicalities? Simply to make the important point that the traditional narrative, in which the Soviet central planning model collapsed due to the inherent flaws in such a system’s ability to expand and deliver the goods, is untrue. The failure of Soviet and Eastern European planning is no less real than it was before, but it must be understood as a contingent, political failure, located not in the concept of central planning itself, but in the limitations of the Soviet version. By most statistical measures, even those of outright foes of the Soviet Union, their central planning system was an overwhelming success in terms of growth, increases in productivity, and raising the potential living standards. It is not a coincidence that the USSR was the only state ever to make the American ruling class tremble – no mean achievement. Contrary to Ackerman however, I would argue its ultimate failure rested not so much in these categories. It failed for reasons not dissimilar to the flaws of Ackerman’s market socialism. The Soviet Union failed not because it was too socialist, but because it was not socialist enough.
The one weakness of the Soviet model was that it was still a form of the 20th century ‘developmental state’, that is, part of the general push of the past century of poor and underdeveloped countries to develop the productive forces (as Marxists would say) and to modernize at all costs. In so doing, it achieved tremendous things, but it was still subject to the logic of accumulation characteristic of all the negative aspects of capitalism. The workers of the USSR never saw the ‘switch’ from the development of heavy industry to the point in which the enormous productive capacities so generated would actually be used in their favour: when production would no longer be for exchange or reinvestment, but for general use. Their working days were long and intense, and as illustrated by the propaganda of Stakhanovism, they were ever exhorted to work harder and longer for the accumulation of a socialized surplus.
This brings me to the similarities between the failure of the Soviet model and the problems with Ackerman’s plan. Since the USSR arguably lacked a capitalist class, the surplus so accumulated was socialized, but not used for the purpose of general needs. The technology developed was socialized, but applied to further generate surplus, not to reduce the necessary labor-time to a minimum. Finally, the ultimate yardstick of the USSR was its military-industrial competition with the USA, not the fullest development of all. In short, just like Ackerman’s market socialism, Soviet society fell short of true socialism. Soviet society, and the Eastern European states dependent on them, asked its working class to postpone the move to a recognizably socialist form of production as long as the country, isolated and surrounded, needed to develop. Investment, the distribution of goods, housing and healthcare: all these were socialized, but there was no ‘society of the associated producers’ sought by Marx. The result was that competitive production would lead to the preservation of exploitation. This is exactly the same flaw I outlined in Ackerman’s plan: a failure to overcome capitalist production means a failure to overcome capitalism itself. In this sense, the Soviet economy is actually closer to Ackerman’s ideal than he realizes.
I would argue then, contrary to Ackerman, that the failure of actually existing central planning is not one of its potential, but historically one of its politics. The drive for accumulation for its own sake makes sense, when productivity in poor countries must be developed so that socialism can mean general abundance, not general poverty. I completely agree with Ackerman when he points to the importance of whether the supermarkets are full or empty. But there can be no market-based socialism, because capitalism ultimately does not reproduce itself in the market, but in production. Soviet central planning is in this respect a step up from that, as it socializes not only all spheres of distribution and surplus, but also consciously aims for developing productivity so that ultimately the ‘switch’ can be made towards a general needs-based society. However, it failed this test. The working class resisted this accumulation, as it represented the perpetual postponement of their personal development in the name of the general interest. This resistance took the form of a resistance to work, since this and this only was the remaining locus of capitalist logic in the Soviet system: hence the endless thefts from the workplace, the low quality of production, the shoddiness of the finished goods, the sullen, passive noncompliance with the state apparatus and its designs, and finally the fruitless attempts by the Soviet state to remedy these by draconian measures and moral exhortations. The problem with Soviet-type central planning was therefore a political, not a technical one.
Central planning is simply not the problem Ackerman makes it out to be. In fact, we see it at work even in ‘normal’ capitalism all the time. As soon as push comes to shove, and the liberal-democratic societies are threatened by total war, they approximate central planning in their production methods as closely as their political systems allow. Capitalist firms rely on high-level central planning all the time in the modern economy. Just-in-time distribution, Amazon’s on-demand system, modern supermarket provisioning, international cargo shipping, air traffic coordination: all these are examples of sophisticated and accurate central planning in the contemporary world. Our computing techniques and capacity have improved by several factors since the Cuban Missile Crisis: there is nothing technical stopping us from applying this technology in the benefit of socialist humanity rather than a small elite of owners and investors. But if we do not want to repeat the mistakes of market socialism and of Soviet planning both, we must put the conditions of production at the forefront of our transition to socialism. Let us learn all we can about logistics, about organizational theory, about planning models. Let us take the enormous technological capacities and productivity of capitalist society, “which has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals”, and use it to reduce to a minimum the work expected from everyone; especially dirty, unpleasant, and degrading work. Our unprecedented expansion of free time will see not just a flourishing of culture and the intellect, but also of many more ideas to perfect the process of production and distribution to the benefit of all. Then the realm of freedom will truly begin, and with it a new, socialist, history of humanity.
1) David McNally, Against the Market (London/New York, NY 1993), p. 184.
2) Robert C. Allen, Farm to Factory (Princeton, NJ 2009).
3) Easterly, William and Stanley Fischer. 1995. “The Soviet Economic Decline”, in:World Bank Economic Review vol. 9, p. 341-371.
4) Beare, Brendan K. 2008. “The Soviet Economic Decline Revisited”. Econ Journal Watch 5:2 (May 2008), p. 135-144.