by Reid Kane Kotlas
Image: Georges Braques,
Bottles and Fish (1909)
To have a system and to have none
Contrary to Hegel, who sought to consummate in theory the system that emerged as humanity rendered itself the necessary product of history, Marx is thought to have definitively indicted this system, or at least what it became. Marx’s critique is understood as a ‘systemic’ critique, a critique not of the actions of individuals or groups but of the whole social structure within which individuals and groups are bound to adopt the social roles that give them actuality. Marx offered no alternative system however, and that alternative which was eventually offered in his name ended in calamity.
Yet Marx did not offer such a critique. Rather, he recognized that the system had already become self-critical, and that this criticism was now advancing in the form of the struggles of the proletariat. It was with this struggle that Marx identified his criticism, a criticism which is nothing if not a critical participation in the political struggle, and thus a struggle to transform the ‘system’ on its own basis. “By raising the representative system from its political form to the universal form and by bringing out the true significance underlying this system, the critic at the same time compels this party to go beyond its own confines, for its victory is at the same time its defeat.”
We often act as if what ‘politics’ is is taking sides on the big issues of the day: social problems and crises, collective projects (where they may exist), and state policies. This is anathema to politics. To be genuinely political, one must either refuse to take sides as the lines are drawn, one must challenge and redraw those lines, or where one accepts the dominant terms, one must flesh out the line in detail that would not be given to it were one not pressing up against it, and specifically by finding points where it connects up with other lines one has drawn.
No one ‘in power’ is going to take your council, at least not if you have anything meaningful to say. This is because the meaningfulness of political positions is a function of their relation to the emancipatory project through which humanity constitutes itself as such. Today, this project having ceased in all but name, it is virtually impossible to have a political position on anything. One could only have a position on a matter if that amounted to a policy position adopted by an organization striving to take power, be it as a party within a state apparatus or a faction within a party. Yet no parties with even a tenuous connection to emancipatory politics are seriously poised to take power, and most organizations refuse to even try for power, some even outright reject the notion of doing so as a worthy goal.
The right has no politics, or its ‘politics’ is bereft of any meaningful content, because politics is the collective practical constitution of humanity as a free subject, and right wing politics by definition impedes this constitutive process, replacing gains made by regressive, disemancipating forms of domination. This is not politics, but the disintegration of politics into well-organized unfreedom, sustainable inhumanity at varying degrees of barbarity. Only the left can be political, and it only becomes political where it overcomes the regressive spiral with a transformational upswing. Today we cannot hope to break the string that keeps our movements swinging around the axis, for we are too tightly wound around it to move. We must undertake the agonizing process of untying ourselves if we are to ever have hope of pushing forward again.
Today one can only write in fragments, because the world lies in fragments. There is no longer any coherence that can be duplicated in a literary form, and so coherence in writing is dishonest. This is not necessarily dishonesty on the author’s part, but the dishonesty of the world toward him. The fragment, on the contrary, encapsulates the world piecemeal, which is to say, as it truly is. If it were possible in Marx’s day to write a work like Capital, and it is by no means evident yet that this was an honest possibillity, it is because there was a growing force to actively combat the incoherence of the world, fighting first to keep it together, then to put it back together. “When people speak of the ideas that revolutionise society, they do but express that fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence.” For nearly a century the elements of the new society too have fallen into disrepair, and so to have any ideas with revolutionary pretensions. A fragment, in this context, cannot explain the world, cannot separate the facts from objective dishonesty, but can only, perhaps, provoke those remnants of the new that persist to reflect upon their own degraded and fragmentary character, and the state of completion toward which they once pointed.
We don’t want another world, we want to complete this one.
We don’t want another system. This ‘system’ is really just the systematization of our failure, the manner in which our failure has been rendered survivable. We want our system to be complete.
The existing world is not the product of our enemies, be they class enemies or moral enemies. There has only ever been one collective project for social transformation, and that is the project to realize collective freedom. We live among the ruins of this project, not in the finished product of a fundamentally different vision. The project to realize collective freedom is the only possible collective project, because for such a project to be truly collective, truly social, it cannot dispense with the primacy of full collective participation in the determination of collective life—democracy in the social, not merely political sphere, which is to say, raising the social sphere into the political sphere, and insodoing, instigating the withering away of the distinction between the political and social, and thus between democracy and social life. In a liberated world, the concept of democracy would be unintelligible because no exclusionary mode of collective decision-making would be possible.