Daily Archives: May 8, 2012
A Book Chat with Richard Wolin on Wind from the East, on the French Moaists and their original hostility to May 1968, and the merger between the anarchists and Maoists after the first botched 1968. The tensions within Maoism and Post-Maoism seem to be encapsulated in this, to use an ironic work, “problematic.” So the Maoist point of reference is moved away from 1974 afterwards for “cultural revolution,” sort of merges in cultural politics one sees in the Foucault-inspired left in both France and America. One sees a rightward shift after 1968 in France for many of the Maoists who shifted towards the nouvelle philosophie, and while one sees Alain Badiou as a development of the period, there is a highly problematic tendency of the Post-Maoists in France to resemble the Post-Trotstkyists in the US.
I wish Wolin would have gone into more detail about the influence of the Alhusserian strain other than Foucault particularly given the popularity of Ranciere these days, but we can’t always get what we want.
A very insightful, if optimistic, take by Badiou.
Originally posted on Guava Purée:
below is a provisional translation of Alain Badiou’s article “The Racism of Intellectuals” published May 5, 2012 in Le Monde.
The Racism of Intellectuals
My Platypus Affiliated comrades, Pam Nogales and Ross Wolfe, interviewed Domonic Lusurdo on Liberalism. While Lusurdo’s history of liberalism is enlightening, it also involves some strange definitions: arguing, for example, that Hegel and Kant don’t belong in the liberal tradition and neither do the Jacobins despite being directly out of the Enlightenment tradition. A lot of my anarchist friends and North American automatist Marxist friends liked Losurdo’s redefining of the liberal tradition, but I would point them to this:
RW: “Radicalism,” as you have been defining it, would be liberalism without exclusion. If one were to get rid of the division between the “sacred space” and “profane space,” it would just be liberalism for all. Insofar as radicalism purports to remove any distinction between those who are inside and those outside the realm of freedom, and thereby bring everyone into the “sacred space” of freedom, wouldn’t radicalism to some extent just be universal liberalism?
DL: It is impossible to universalize in this way. For instance, colonial wars were for the universalization of the condition of the white slave-owners. That was the universality proclaimed by colonialism. The universalization of liberal rights to excluded groups was not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, but resulted from forces outside liberalism. These forces were, however, in some cases inspired by certain declarations, for instance of the Rights of Men.
In speaking of the enduring legacy of liberalism, I have never said that we have nothing to learn from liberalism. There two primary components of the legacy of liberalism. First, and perhaps the most important point: Liberalism has made the distinction between “sacred space” and “profane space” that I have spoken about. But liberalism has the great historical and theoretical merit of having taught the limitation of power within a determined, limited community. Yes, it is only for the community of the free, but still it is of great historical importance. On this score, I counterpose liberalism to Marxism, and rule in favor of liberalism. I have criticized liberalism very strongly, but in this case I stress the greater merits of liberalism in comparison to Marxism.
Often, Marxism has spoken of the disappearance of power as such—not the limitation of power, but its disappearance—the withering of the state and so on. This vision is a messianic vision, which has played a very negative role in the history of socialism and communism. If we think that power will simply disappear, we do not feel the obligation to limit power. This vision had terrible consequences in countries like the Soviet Union.
RW: So you believe that historical Marxism’s theorization of the eventual “abolition” of the state, or the “withering away” of the State—as Lenin, following Engels, put it—was misguided?
DL: Totally misguided!
RW: So do you feel that society can never autonomously govern itself without recourse to some sort of external entity, something like the state? Must the state always exist?
DL: I do not believe society can exist without regulation, without laws. Something must ensure obedience to the laws, and in this case the “withering away” of the state would mean the “withering away” of rights, of the rule of law. Gramsci rightly says that civil society, too, can be a form of power and domination. If we conceive the history of the United States, the most oppressive forms of domination did not take the shape of state domination, but came from civil society. The settlers in the American West independently carried out the expropriation, deportation, and even extermination in more extensive ways than the state. Sometimes, even if only partially, the federal government has tried to place limits on this phenomenon. Representing civil society as the expression of liberty—this is nonsense that has nothing to do with real Marxism.
Marx himself speaks of the despotism in the capitalist factory, which is not exercised by the state, but rather by civil society. And Marx, against this despotism, proposed the interference of the state into the private sphere of civil society. He advocated state intervention in civil society in order to limit or abolish this form of domination, in order to limit by law the duration and condition of the work in the factory.
RW: That’s the famous passage where Marx describes industrial capitalism as “anarchy in production, despotism in the workshop.” In other words, haphazard production-for-production’s-sake alongside this kind of militarized discipline of industrial labor. But insofar as Marx conceives the modern state as the expression of class domination, the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society, do you believe that a classless society is possible? Because it would seem unclear why a classless society would need a state, if the state is only there to express class domination.
DL: On the one hand, Marx speaks along the lines you just laid out. In many texts, Marx and Engels say that the state is the expression of one class’s domination over the other. But at other times, they speak of another function of the state. They write that the state functions to implement guarantees between the different individuals of the ruling class, the individual bourgeois. And I don’t understand why this second function of the state would disappear. If we have a unified mankind, in this case too there is the necessity of guarantees between individuals within this unified mankind.
Furthermore, we are not allowed to read the thesis of Marx and Engels in a simplistic way. Sometimes they speak of the “withering away” of the state. In other circumstances, however, they speak of the “withering away” in its actual political form. These two formulations are very different from one another. But in the history of the communist movement, only the first definition was present, the most simplistic definition: the “withering away” of the state as such. The other formulation is more adequate: the “withering away” of the state in terms of today’s political form.
RW: And the other great legacy of liberalism?
DL: The other great legacy of liberalism exists in its understanding of the benefits of competition. And here I am thinking of the market, too, about which I speak positively in my book. We must distinguish different forms of the market. For a long time, the market implied a form of slavery. The slaves were merchandise in the market. The market can assume very different forms. Not that the market is the most important fact. We cannot develop a post-capitalist society, at least for a long time to come, without some form of competition. And this is another great legacy that we can learn from liberalism.
So let’s recount Losurdo’s position: there must be a state, the emancipatory premises of liberalism cannot be realized for everyone, and the prime good in the competition. I would like to point out that I have heard all this before, and in was in Enrico Corradini’s National Syndicalism. For all the placing fascism as an outgrowth of liberal racism that Losurdo’s work has done, and sometimes quite convincingly, I am struck by how similar his platform is to national syndicalism: markets without capitalism, the need of competition, the need for a strong centralized state of which there will NEVER be another form beyond (Losurdo’s comments are obfuscatory on that front), and one must be aware of the despotism of civil society. Now that I think of it, Paul Krugman also says the same thing: the illiberalism of Losurdo isn’t a demand that liberalism keep its promises, it’s advocating anti-liberalism on the grounds that it can’t and never could. (Which is more to point: There is a way that certain readings of Stalinism sound like both fascism and liberal Keynesianism. Oswald Mosley was a Keynesian afterall).
Beware of enemies of your enemy.
I have talked to everyone from die-hard Eurasian (read: Russian) Nationalists, who seem to the think Putin is the walking manifestation of a meritocratic Russian nationalism that will one day rule of Europe and Asia. Frankly, given the massive capital flight out of Russia, this seems like dreaming for a second coming of Stalin. I suppose one knows the future by its wish fulfillment. As I write this there is almost monarchical pomp over Putin’s reassumption of power, and protests in the streets. RT, which I call Radio Free US, has some great programming, but it is a Putin-friendly arm of Russian state and it good not to forget that. Sadly, the same is true for most of the UK, and so the recent debacle involving Assuange’s show is met with the liberal critique of tepid variety:
US cables released by WikiLeaks in December 2010 paint a dismal picture of Putin’s Russia as a “virtual mafia state”. Has Assange read them? It seems extraordinary that Assange – described by RT as the world’s most famous whistleblower – should team up with an opaque regime where investigative journalists are shot dead (16 unsolved murders) and human rights activists kidnapped and executed, especially in Chechnya and other southern Muslim republics. Strange and obscene.
There is a long dishonourable tradition of western intellectuals who have been duped by Moscow. The list includes Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, HG Wells and André Gide. So Assange – whether for idealistic reasons, or simply out of necessity, given his legal bills and fight against extradition to Sweden – isn’t the first. But The World Tomorrow confirms he is no fearless revolutionary. Instead he is a useful idiot.
But like the the Eurasian nationalists and Putin apologists that Luke Harding cannot stomach, he ultimately sees things in same jilted hope for a Cold War area unipolar world. So why do so many leftists take the enemy of my enemy is my friend approach to politics? It’s hard to say, but it is a simpletons move. Still, this is what shows you who is serious in politics: the left is not neither is the right, because you see simple platitudes and not facts being marshalled for decision making. We live in a broadly liberal movement, but not liberal-left in the way American’s understand it. Chomsky is right to point out that if you Foreign Policy, The Financial Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal (prior to Murdock), you got honest news and detailed specifics because those who are in power need that in way those who merely dream of power don’t.
NPR is an example of this: It is liberal media in both senses: in the sense that it serves soft capitalist interests and that it placates the sensibilities of the center-to-center-left liberal. It is mid-brow/mid-cult capriciousness consumption plus decent news with a milder (but still dangerous) US-tinged corporate slant. In coverage of the French elections and the Greek elections, one could hear defenses of Sarkozy passed off as impartial: the American left always secretly wants to be the European center right–capitalism with a human face. Although if one actually knew the rhetoric of in Sarkozy in daily life, or if one took time to see how religious the rhetoric of David Cameron was, the vapidity of the American left is the European center-right meme would be apparent.
Still, an example of the good news “liberals” give to themselves: Take the Planet Money podcast In A Leaderless World, Who Wins?, which is based on Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini‘s notion that “even is America is not declining, we aren’t a hegemon anymore, and despite word to contrary, it is unlikely that Russia or China will be it either as both have serious issues that largely unaddressed, and I’ll quote here instead of paraphrase:
This is not a G-20 world. Over the past several months, the expanded group of leading economies has gone from a would-be concert of nations to a cacophony of competing voices as the urgency of the financial crisis has waned and the diversity of political and economic values within the group has asserted itself. Nor is there a viable G-2 — a U.S.-Chinese solution for pressing transnational problems — because Beijing has no interest in accepting the burdens that come with international leadership. Nor is there a G-3 alternative, a grouping of the United States, Europe, and Japan that might ride to the rescue.
Today, the United States lacks the resources to continue as the primary provider of global public goods. Europe is fully occupied for the moment with saving the eurozone. Japan is likewise tied down with complex political and economic problems at home. None of these powers’ governments has the time, resources, or domestic political capital needed for a new bout of international heavy lifting. Meanwhile, there are no credible answers to transnational challenges without the direct involvement of emerging powers such as Brazil, China, and India. Yet these countries are far too focused on domestic development to welcome the burdens that come with new responsibilities abroad.
We are now living in a G-Zero world, one in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage — or the will — to drive a truly international agenda. The result will be intensified conflict on the international stage over vitally important issues, such as international macroeconomic coordination, financial regulatory reform, trade policy, and climate change. This new order has far-reaching implications for the global economy, as companies around the world sit on enormous stockpiles of cash, waiting for the current era of political and economic uncertainty to pass. Many of them can expect an extended wait.
In the interview, Bremmer talks about how the Chinese growth model must change, not be based on 21th century mercentilism, and raise net-GDP which makes it far more unstable than it appears now. He points the contradictions exposed in the Bo Xilai, which of course is painted in the liberal media as a story of ruthlessness (I saw this headline in HuffPo, NYTimes, etc) and fails to mention Bo’s popularity among the Chinese Left, the fact that Aei Wei and other luminaries praised him. But the liberal reformers (in both the positive and negative sense) have used this to push for change in China, against both the Dengish middle and the Maoists left, or at least that is what is passed along in the media in South Korea. Bremmer has a point: there is a fundamental problem to the paradoxes of PRC’s strange blend of New Confucianism, Legalism, and Maoism with mercentilism-esque State Capitalism. Although as the London Review of books point it, it also points out that there is a move to try re-centralize as Maoism is beginning to start on a public now see the benefits:
In Chongqing there was more emphasis than in some other places on redistribution, justice and equality, and because the province was already highly industrialised, state-owned enterprises were important to its model. Chongqing’s experiment with inexpensive rented housing, its experiment with land trading certificates, its strategy of encouraging enterprises to go global: all these, under the rubric ‘the state sector progresses, the private sector progresses,’ contributed to society’s debate. Chongqing may not have offered a perfect blueprint, and it’s hard to know whether Bo himself was corrupt, but its architects stressed the importance of equality and common prosperity, and tried to work towards them.
The Chongqing experiment, launched in 2007, coincided with the global financial crisis, which made a new generation feel less confident of the benefits of free-market ideology. The policies followed in Chongqing demonstrated a move away from neoliberalism at a time when the national leadership was finding it harder to continue with its neoliberal reforms. What the Chongqing incident now offers the authorities is an opportunity to resume its neoliberal programme. Just after Bo was sacked the State Council’s Development and Research Centre held a forum in Beijing at which the most prominent neoliberals in China, including the economists Wu Jinglian and Zhang Weiying, announced their programme: privatisation of state enterprises, privatisation of land and liberalisation of the financial sector. At almost the same time, on 18 March, the National Development and Reform Commission issued a report on ‘Important Points and Perspectives on the Deepening of Economic Structural Reform Priorities’. It contained plans for the privatisation of large sections of the railways, education, healthcare, communications, energy resources and so on. The tide of neoliberalism is rising again. But it won’t go unchallenged, even when left-wing websites have been closed down. In the past ten days both the People’s Daily and the Guangming Dailyhave devoted several pages to the achievements of state-owned enterprises and the argument against privatisation.
According to several reports, Bo and Zhou had been plotting a smear campaign against future Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while planning to install Bo as a high-level official.
So who knows if all those liberals know they are spreading p.r. related to the PRC’s politoburo. I guess one can say that Assuage is not the only useful idiot. But there this big trouble in big China, and the signal to move investment into India and Brazil as well as Latin America is telling. Canada’s turning to China is telling too, but perhaps short-sited ultimately. The one thing is true: The 1%, to use Occupy’s somewhat vapid term, thinks in global terms in ways Occupiers, despite all their rhetoric, don’t comprehend.
While I am endorsing “Liberal” media for news, let me point you to a serious liberal podcast that I have come to like for its honest wonkiness: Bruno and the Professor is good, honest liberal Keynesianism. That has all the weaknesses that Keynesianism does: It ignores that stagflation, not just neo-liberalization, was part of why things were abandoned: Neo-liberalization was a political project empowered by stagflation, and as Bruno and Professor point out, was often started by Carter, not Reagan. Anyway, their analysis of the brain-drain in Southern Europe to Germany, explains, for the first time, what the ECB could be doing, no order explanation of the sado-monetarism adopted by the Germans was really that coherent.
Now, before you critique me with “Why are you endorsing managerialism and the state?” Who says I am, but to change the world, you must see the world as it is. The abstractions, hypotheses, and refusal to understand managerial logic and the flows of capital that under-grid it is a refusal to be able to offer a real counter-point. To have a theory of what politics should be, one must see what politics is.
Jehu is a former co-blogger at Symptomatic Redness and blogs at Re: The People and at the Gonzo Times. While Jehu and I don’t always agree and I have been known to criticize his tone, I do find talking to him fascinating, and his close reading of Marx is penetrating, so my disagreements with him are often extremely instructive. He and I both worry about overly statist visions of Marxism as well as reification of the idea of consciousness, although we profoundly disagree on the degree of the role of Lenin in that development and the problems of the concessions of the World War 1 and the Russian Civil War in the problems that followed.
Skepoet: I have been following your occupy the Marxist academy, why do you think Marxist have split up in the English speaking world into fairly tiny sectarian groups made up students and then academics?
Jehu: I think the roots of this can be traced well back to what I hypothesize as “The Catastrophe”. Perhaps this catastrophe was inevitable, perhaps not, but it occurred.
Briefly stated, my still primitive hypothesis states that in Marx’s argument the struggle between the two great classes is a political struggle that took place mainly within the confines of 19th Century nation states. The various sections of the working class developed mostly side by side with each other within the larger context of the world market. While capital was always a mode of production bound up with the world market, and the labor market, based on this world market, always a global one, the political organization of the working class made use of the political structures available to it — which were necessarily limited to nation states.
While, from what I can determine, working class parties in the European sections gained some important victories, these victories were limited, local, victories, and were always vulnerable to the further development of the capitalist mode of production bound up with the world market, including, most important, the increasing rivalry between national capitals.
We are familiar with competition between national capitals, and even competition between capitals within individual countries. What we fail to grasp is that the very same law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall that generates increasing competition between capitals also generates competition within the working class. The law states capital will tend to an overaccumulation of capital which will itself produce a struggle among capitals over which capitals will be forced to cease functioning as capitals and which will continue to function as capitals. However, it also produces conflict within the working class, produced by the tendency toward an overpopulation of workers, over whose labor power will be employed and whose labor power will be condemned to the industrial reserve.
So the conflict within society at the turn of the 20th Century was nowhere near as simple as it is often presented in our conceptions. It was actually very complex and it was within this very complex situation that the working class movement suffered a series of profound shocks to its internal solidarity resulting from the triple catastrophes of the Great War, the Great Depression and World War II. I think we underestimate the impact these events had on the moral development of the working class movement. There were victories in Russia, China, etc. But even these victories were ultimately of the sort of limited, isolated, local events Marx predicted would dissolve under pressures of the world market.
The internal enemy to the solidarity of the working class has always been sectarianism. I believe these catastrophes spread confusion, demoralization and mystification within the working class over its own
S.: What do you think has sparked the sectarianism since the fall of the Soviet Union?
JEHU: I think there are several reasons for this. Marxists have a profound suspicion of the working class and any movement of that class that they cannot direct or subordinate to their alleged theoretical leadership. In part, this can be explained by historical events, but there is beyond this a pattern that cannot be dismissed by reference to these historical causes. It results from a completely idealist notion of social development that is persistent — a view Marx identified as the tendency of consciousness to imagine itself independent of material relations.
Within the various strands of Marxism, and, in particular, the Leninist strand, from which I came, the idea has predominated that the revolutionary potential of the working class movement depends on the political correctness of the vanguard forces leading the working class. This vanguard, it is said, is necessary because the working class is incapable of creating its own revolutionary theory. And why is this? According to Kautsky, who later went on to betray the working class movement in the Great War, science was the domain of the intellectual. This nonsense was imported into Russian Marxism by none other than Lenin himself, who later became an influential figure within the revolutionary opposition to revisionists like Kautsky. It has since infected both European Social-Democracy and Leninism.
In this view, the working class is not a revolutionary class in its own right, owing to its actual position in the mode of production — like its opposite, the capitalist class — but a class which has the potential to be revolutionary only if it is brought under the leadership of a theoretically correct vanguard. This view was significant within the working class movement even in Marx’s day and he struggled against it — not only against those who opposed him in the working class movement, but also others who claimed to be among his followers. This view continues to have popularity not simply because both trends within Marxism spread it within their ranks, but also because it is based on a rather simplistic understanding of the relation between critical ideas and practical critical activity.
The sectarians have no conception of the working class as a revolutionary force in society in its own right (not by reason of the introduction of revolutionary ideas, but by reason of its direct practical everyday activity). This goes double when looking at capital itself as a revolutionary mode of production. Theory, to the extent it is even a factor here, is only significant as a more or less accurate reflection of the revolutionary motion of the working class itself — in almost all cases theory isn’t a significant factor in the social process at all. Theory can only disclose the laws of motion of capitalist society, it cannot change them. It is no more possible for Marxist theory to change or affect the laws of motion of capitalist society than it is for the neoclassical theory of the fascist state or central bank authorities to change those laws. This implies that if the working class were not of itself a revolutionary force no amount of theory could transform their movement into a revolutionary movement.
The adoration of theory above even the practical activity of society seems hardened into the ossified thinking of most Marxists at this point. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the current collapse of European Social-Democracy is a profound blow to this world-view. But, paradoxically, these collapses have only the effect of spurring stupid Marxists to double-down both on their pessimistic view of the working class movement and their adoration of critical theory. They seek to explain these failures not with reference to unfolding of the capitalist laws of motion but with reference to failures of one or another ideology.
In fact, Russian Marxists from the very beginning never imagined a revolution could succeed in one or a few countries within the world market – and no one looking at the Russian revolution in 1917 had any hope for its prospects in isolation from the world market. The communist movement of society was always understood to be a movement bound up with the world market and not in opposition to it. To now argue the failures of these revolutions, or the equally disastrous failure of European social-democracy, results from bad theory is the worst kind of stupidity. Of course they failed — no one in their right mind believed they would survive as long as they did!
Today we have a number of silly sectarian Marxists who think the problem facing the working class is one of theory and that the objective of the moment is theoretical self-clarification. They look at movements like the Tea Party and the Occupy movement superficially — and, indeed, on the surface there are only flaws in these movements. Having stupidly examined these movements in the fashion of bourgeois pundits — that is, only as they immediately present themselves to us as mere political movements — they arrive at the opinion these movements do not measure up to Marxist standards as revolutionary movements. Just as Marx argued regarding the bourgeois economist, Marxist nowadays do no more than “interpret, systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations.”
Since, in almost every case, the movement of the working class is shrouded in mystification resulting from its practical divisions, the Marxist, who never moves beyond these silly divisions, but instead takes them to be absolute, can say nothing about this movement beyond the most simple-minded punditry typical of Sunday morning talking heads. If, as a practical matter, the Occupy movement is preoccupied with the “one percent versus the ninety-nine percent”, we only learn from the Marxist that this view must lead to reformism, since it ignores the capitalist “system”. If, as a practical matter, the Tea Party is preoccupied with fascist state expenditures and deficits, we only learn from the Marxist that this view serve only the Koch Brothers. In no case can a Marxist explain why the very same process appears to one section of the working class as the domination of a tiny minority, yet to another section as the domination of the state.
It is no less true for the working class, than it is for the capitalist class, that it is entrapped in bourgeois production relations. The point of theory is not to constantly berate the working class for these limitations but to understand how the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production is expressed precisely in these limitations and despite them. The difference between the two classes is this: whereas the capitalist class overcomes the obstacles arising from the capitalist mode of production in a fashion that reestablishes them on a still greater scale, the working class alone has the potential to abolish them entirely. Even where these two classes begin a the same point — e.g., their hostility to the fascist state – the position of the capitalist class must lead it to resolve its own hostility in a way that places politics in its path once again. On the other hand, the working class alone, owing to its position in the capitalist mode of production, has the capacity to abolish the state. Superficially the antagonism of the working class to the fascist state appears entirely of the same sort as the antagonism of the capitalist class to this state. A deeper examination of the situation, however, reveals two entirely different revolutionary potentials. Marxist haven’t a clue to this.
Sectarianism among Marxists will not be addressed until every Marxist organization is dissolved and these elements integrate themselves into the working class once and for all.
S: What role does class consciousness play?
J: Ain’t that an awkward question for Marxists? Marxists have made so many predictions about the inevitability of the social revolution only to be dismayed by lack of evidence for sufficient consciousness among the working class for precisely this sort of revolution. Ha!
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this lack of class consciousness among the working class is that the class is not a political class — but this conclusion is so over the heads of our sectarians they can’t even grasp what it means to be an essentially non-political class. But let’s think about this: was it necessary for the capitalist to acquire a theory of the capitalist mode of production and its inner laws prior to his assertion of his political interests? Did it require decades or even centuries of patient political education by a theoretically advanced vanguard party among the burghers before they were ready to seize political power and re-fashion society in the image of capital? The answer to these questions show the difficulty in establishing class consciousness as the precondition for social revolution.
The working class is not a political class in any sense of that term — it is a quintessentially economic social organism. No amount of patient political work and socialist education among the working class will transform it from an economic organism into a political organism. Theoretically, this is already obvious since Marx wrote that it was a class with no particular interest to assert. Every political class is tied to a particular interest — this is the definition of politics itself: an attempt by some class or another to raise its particular interest to the status of the general interest. Without a particular interest to assert against the community, what purpose is served by politics for the working class? The purpose is obvious: every other class in society asserts its particular interest against labor — which is to say, in bourgeois society all politics is more or less the imposition of particular interests over and against the working class.
Now, let’s think about this logically. How is this possible in a state that more less is composed almost entirely of the working class? In all the advanced nations the working class amounts to 90% or more of the population. This means the rule of capital fundamentally coexists with the suffrage of the working class majority in almost all nations — a circumstance that would be impossible for even one day if this majority had the capacity to acquire a political consciousness in the fashion of the burghers or previous ruling classes. Moreover, in the German Ideology, Marx sets an astonishingly high (actually, politically, it is impossible) standard for the rule of the working class: this rule has to be accomplished all at once and together in an association that must itself be a universal one within the world market, where the freedom of each member of this association and their free development is the necessary condition for the association of its members.
The social revolution is essentially anti-political — i.e., economic — in nature, and it is expressed in the forcible conversion of the state into a mere economic mechanism for management of the social process of production. As Marx put it, the communist movement of society — i.e., the movement of the working class, of the social producer — is essentially economic, the material production of the working class’s own association.
Class, that is, “political”, consciousness does not figure in this material production process at all.
Precisely because the working class is inherently an anti-political class Marx comes to the conclusion that the working class come into conflict with the state and will be compelled to overthrow it. I think it is important to understand that what is represented in the political activity of the working class is not its class interest, but its class divisions. This is completely unlike the capitalist class, where its existence as a class is politically expressed in what it has in common. To put this another way, in its political activity the working class expresses the material insufficiency of its present mode of association. If you look behind the law of value, which imposes its will over the entire capitalist mode of production, this law turns out to be nothing more than the material economic activity of the social laborers appearing as if it were a natural law imposed on the activity of the capitalist class.
S: What do you think is the case of the Marxist focus on the state in the last century and a half?
J: I can think of four areas where the focus on the state after the death of Marx and Engels have hurt Marxism and contributed to its marginalization or impotence.
First, Marxists’ focus on the state is a focus on the illusory community rather than the actual community that exists. Even if we assume the proletariat is capable of achieving something akin to a political or class consciousness along the lines of the bourgeois class, the effort directed toward achieving such class consciousness is misguided precisely because it misdirects the class’s attention from what it has already achieved in materially creating an actual community of social producers.
Second, if my interpretation of Marx’s theory is correct, the focus on the state and political action precisely focuses on the very arena in which the proletariat suffers a disadvantage against the other classes in society. If, in fact, the working class is incapable of articulating its own interests in political terms, it must be the plaything of the politically articulate classes in any struggle for state power. This implies we are fighting on the enemy’s terrain every time we raise political demands that do not include abolition of the state and politics itself or advance this effort.
Third, while focus on the state leads us to fight our battles on the enemy’s terrain, it also means we neglect our own terrain, which is the Law of Value. If I am right about this law, it is the unconscious expression of the working class’s own material activity expressed in the form of a law determining the events within the entire capitalist mode of production bound up with the world market. Even unconsciously, the working class has already achieved determinate influence of its circumstances. The focus on political action redirects our attention to what Marx called the estranged outward appearances of this determinate influence as they appear in the limited realm of political-economy, i.e., as they appear to individuals who are no more than agents of bourgeois production, and who, subsumed entirely in bourgeois production relations, can no more than vaguely comprehend its logic.
Fourth, focus on the state carries the inherent danger that we accomplish no more than to reproduce the division of labor, rather than abolish it. Along with this, the focus on the state only serves to reproduce the mystified forms of bourgeois relations of production by preserving the split between the state and civil society. Our job is to theoretically clarify this relation, not add to its mystification, yet Marxists seem intent on promoting precisely such mystification when they hold to such nonsense as fascist state fiscal and monetary policy — essentially spreading the illusion among the working class that this parasitic body, the state, can produce “economic growth” through financial pyramid schemes.
By focusing on the state and bourgeois political action, Marxists have done great injury to the cause of the working class. Despite this injury, however, the victory of the social producer remains inevitable. In the end, all that these insignificant Marxist sects have accomplished is to render themselves ever more marginal to this unfolding process.
Marxists have to understand capitalist crises do not provoke working class action, it is precisely the reverse: working class practical critical activity, social labor, produces capitalist crises. It is this social labor that generates the crisis, and represents the unconscious attempt by the proletariat to throw off the outmoded relations of production of the capitalist mode. Once we grasp this, it is possible to see that the performance of the working class has been anything but “disappointing” — in fact, it has been quite thrilling in this regard. Our job is to merely bring this understanding to the working class regarding the effect of its own material actions.
S.: You seem to have been channeling something about the liberal revolutions that I have been thinking about, which is that liberal revolutions are revolutionary first steps as they do empower massive section of the population, but they so far have not transcended a statist-capitalist form? Why do you think that is? Or do you think this is too narrow of a framework?
Part of the problem can be conceptualized by comparing the situation of the individual producer to that of the social producer. Of course, this is an historical oversimplification, but I will risk that in order to highlight our problem. The individual producer doesn’t experience crises, overaccumulation of capital, nor unemployment, because her labor is directly regulated by her needs. These needs exist as empirically comprehensible requirements that make themselves felt immediately to her through her senses. Because of this, there is a direct connection between her needs and her activity. For the social laborer it is otherwise: her needs are only met indirectly through her own activity, and directly only by the activity of the community of social producers as a whole. This arrangement is incredibly more productive, of course, which is why it comes to dominate production, but it comes at the cost of a widening division between the needs of the individual and her immediate activity. The more social production advances in breadth and complexity, the more tenuous the connection between the activities of the community of social producers and their needs as individuals becomes. By the time we get to bourgeois society, the connection between the activity of the laborer and her needs as an individual has been entirely lost. In fact, we now find her activity develops only in antagonism with her needs as an individual. Rather than satisfying her individual needs through her activity, this activity develops at the expense of her needs.
There is no mechanism to bridge what has now become a growing chasm between the activity of the individual and her material needs. No amount of planning, no market mechanism, no matter how perfected beforehand in the minds of social reformers, no amount of political intervention in the form of regulation, social safety nets, or public expenditures, and no growth in this activity, can bring the activity of the social producers into line with their needs as individuals. It is no longer a matter of how this activity is organized, but the activity itself, labor, that has become entirely antagonistic to the needs of the individual. The antagonism between the needs of the individual as an individual and her activity, labor, is the problem that can only be resolved by the communist movement of society.
So, it is no longer a question of “How is labor to be organized?”; “How is labor to be accounted for?”; “By what mechanism is labor to be regulated?”; or “How can labor be made more satisfying to the producer, less damaging to the environment, more equal, or less stultifying?” These questions are political questions. The problem is simple and straightforward: “How is labor itself to be abolished!” And this is the question on which the entirety of the social relations of bourgeois society, and bourgeois society itself must come to an impasse, because, for bourgeois society, labor is the premise of all social relations, while for the laborer, it has become increasingly intolerable and self-destructive.
Separated as they are from the daily life of the working class, the Marxist academy can only express this impasse in a limited, purely theoretical or philosophical, fashion. Kliman’s bumbling examination of the Critique of the Gotha Program shows there is a profound unclarity within Marxism on the problem raised by Marx of the relation between the economic structure of society and “right”. It is an unclarity over the objective of the communist movement of society: the abolition of labor, not its mere reorganization. If we presuppose a “class conscious” working class — to use that completely misleading phrase — this only means the social producers have acquired a common recognition that labor itself must be abolished and have taken this
abolition as the immediate objective of their activity.
If the communist movement of society results from an empirical event, it means this same community of producers has already prepared for this abolition in advance through its unconscious material activity, i.e., that labor now exists in the form that makes its immediate abolition both possible and necessary. In the latter case, as Moishe Postone explained almost two decades ago to these simpletons, for the abolition of labor to be both possible and necessary it must first appear in the form of wholly superfluous labor time, of an unnecessary expenditure of social labor that exceeds the requirements of society directly and indirectly. It is just this growing unnecessary expenditure of labor time that has been marked by writers like Chris Harman, Kevin Carson, Michael Kidron, and also, according to Harman, by Moseley, Shaikh and Tonak, and Simon Mohun. None of them, however, seem to have made the connection between their empirical evidence and Postone’s argument.
In the democratic republic all political interests in society are only interests asserted against the labor of the working class. On the other hand, the abolition of labor itself can only appear as the aim of the working class. However, since this class has no particular interest to assert on its own behalf, is not a political organism, and cannot act politically as a class, as a practical matter the demand for the abolition of labor must appear simultaneously as a demand for the abolition of the state — for the replacement of this democracy by a universal association of the producers.
I think the whole of the communist movement of society consists essentially of the conversion of labor time into free time for the laborers. And the only measure of progress in this movement is conversion of the mass of superfluous labor time that has thus far accrued within society into time away from labor for the mass of the laborers. The battle over hours of labor is, just as Marx stated, the modest Magna Charta of the working class and the working class’s own association begins only where the working day ends. The working class can be said to conscious of itself as a class only when it has acquired a consciousness of the importance of work time reduction and made this its immediate objective.
S.: So this would make communism and post-workerism almost the same thing?
J.: I will have to think about this more, but I can see your connection between my argument and post-workerism. I have been reading up on Autonomism, Workerism and Post-Workerism interpretations of Marx’s theory. I had never heard of “post-workerism” until you raised this, but after looking at some articles on the theory, I could see the similarities, and @tvissia reminded me he made a similar comment about Tronti’s work several months ago.
So am I an autonomist without knowing it? I think I need to figure this out. I read Alberto Toscano’s “Chronicles of Insurrection: Tronti, Negri and the Subject of Antagonism”. According to Toscano, post-workerism can be best understood within concepts of “political subjectivity”, “antagonism” and “insurrection”. Toscano writes autonomism “postulates the increasing immanence of struggles, as based on the Marxian thesis of real subsumption, together with the intensification of the political autonomy or separation of the working class.”
If this is correct then I cannot be an autonomist, because, I think, the working class as a class cannot have political autonomy from capital. I think what is unique about the class is that among all classes in society it is incapable of having an independent political expression. This understanding, as I explained, rests on Marx’s theory in the German Ideology, where Marx states the working class has no particular interest to assert. I think it is impossible to understand communism as a movement of society without understanding this: the working class is anti-political. I think the working class is incapable of expressing a class (political) consciousness and its political action is always a bourgeois political action. I think this is already contained in the assumption of what political or class consciousness means: No class can become conscious without seeking to conquer state power. However, every Marxist writer I know assumes the working class is led precisely to do the opposite: break the state power.
Rather than seeking to establish its particular interest as the general interest of society, which is the essence of political consciousness, the working class seeks only to dissolve all particular interests imposed on it as a class, i.e., to abolish the state. The position of autonomism is not just, as Toscano argues, paradoxical, it is an oxymoron. This, of course, does not in the least prohibit it from being an accurate reflection of the process if the process itself is a contradiction. In such a case, the contradiction doesn’t lie in the theory of autonomism, but in the material processes of social production itself. It may be simply that this anti-political content must, of necessity, have a political expression or appearance. The feature of capitalism most Marxists point to in their argument is its inherently totalitarian, or totalizing, character. For the anti-political nature of the working class to appear at all within this totalization, it must appear as a political position. However, if we take this appearance for the content we are no more capable of grasping its revolutionary essence than political-economy.
In his paper, Toscano quotes a worker, Nanni Balestrini, who cannot understand why anyone would want to celebrate May Day. Why would anyone want to celebrate work or a workers day? What I find interesting about this quote is that, obviously, May Day does not “celebrate work”, but celebrates a victory in the working class’s struggle for a reduction of hours of labor. What began as a celebration of a victory marking a step toward the abolition of labor became, over time, redefined as the celebration of the thing to be abolished, labor. But what is equally interesting about the quote is that the worker quoted, while apparently ignorant of this history, recognizes the idiocy of celebrating wage slavery. Even without realizing it, the worker reestablishes the original significance of the day. The question for me is why “May Day” appears in the worker’s statement both directly as a negative and indirectly as a positive expression. What is significant here is not simply that “May Day” begins as a celebration of a step toward the abolition of labor but later appears as a celebration of labor itself that is rejected by the worker, but that this may provide a clue to the social process of production as a whole. This social process begins with the activity of the worker, appears as the activity of capital, and leads inevitably to its rejection by the worker. The worker is, in effect, rejecting her own activity, but this rejection is leveled against this activity insofar as it appears as an attribute of capital.
The question raised by the autonomist critique is whether the activity of the worker must appear as an attribute of capital. If it can appear as the activity of the worker in her own right, in opposition to capital, Marx’s theory is fundamentally flawed, I think. Marx’s theory states the activity of the workers in its own right can only appear as a universal activity of associated individuals. If this activity does not acquire a universal character from the beginning, the worker merely acts as her own capitalist. The capitalist mode of production appears as the necessary form of the worker’s activity, because the worker’s activity does not appear directly in its universally associated form. This activity is capital no matter what legal definition is given to it: state property or private, individual property or cooperative. And it is capital no matter its personification: nomenklatura, state bureaucracy, industrial enterprise management or worker-owned cooperative.
Anne Jaclard makes this argument in the paper I mentioned earlier. She says production remained essentially capitalistic even if workers rather than corporate managers served as managers. However, she does not offer an explanation for why this is true, except to offer that the law of value continues to operate: “There cannot be socialism in one country, much less in a single cooperative or network of cooperatives.” This is the original understanding of Marx’s theory, but what Jaclard doesn’t explain is why capitalism, the world market and the law of value continue to exist despite cooperative forms, even if these forms predominate the whole of production. It is because social labor can only exist as a totality, as a universal mode of production consistent with its instrument, the total capital. This implies the totalitarian character of the capitalist mode of production itself is just this activity of the social laborer creating her necessary material preconditions.
To put this in a less abstract form, social labor can only exist as a totality, but it can only become a totality through the activity of a form that is not itself total but must tend toward totality, that is itself totalizing. To use Marx’s terminology, ‘the historical mission of capital’ is to create the material preconditions for this totality. As a material reality, therefore, social labor exists nowhere except as a tendency of the capitalist mode of production toward absolute development of the productive forces. In theory we can propose the communist movement of society as a thing independent of capital, but as an empirical activity it is capital. The fact this communist movement exists empirically as capital, but theoretically as something independent of capital argues against the autonomist project.
S.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
J.: Ha! I think I have committed to enough heresies for the moment. Thank you very much for taking the time to force me respond to some very important questions.