by Reid Kane Kotlas 

Image: Georges Braques,
Bottles and Fish (1909)


Originally posted on Reid Kane’s tumblog.

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.”

On “politics”

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.

4 thoughts on “Fragments

  1. Thanks for this. A friendly question: at the end of your post, you speak of ‘democracy in the social’ and then cast it as a sublation or the process of sublation of the division of political and social and so the paradox – at least the apparent paradox – of ‘democracy in the social’ dissolves or is self-dissolving. If I am following your logic or meaning thus far, I was wondering why it follows from this that (a) the concept of democracy would become unintelligible; and (b) whether you think there are limits – to be precise, non-exclusionary limits – to non-exclusionary collective decision-making? Though not limited to this, part of the motive behind the last question – which is really to open up the question of the specificity and specifics of unintelligible democracy, and so of the role of the work of imagination in this – part of the motive is to highlight both the (my) question of the distribution of collectivity, spatially and temporally and individually, etc., as well as the (my) question of the possible transformations of expertise, whether in an immediate labor-process or on a larger scale.

    • It’s a good question. The essential point about democracy is that it remains a form of state power, which is to say, domination, κράτος. We only think of forms of collective decision-making by analogy with the state because of our alienation from such decision-making capacity.

      Lenin explains as follows:

      “In the usual argument about the state, the mistake is constantly made against which Engels warned and which we have in passing indicated above, namely, it is constantly forgotten that the abolition of the state means also the abolition of democracy; that the withering away of the state means the withering away of democracy.

      At first sight this assertion seems exceedingly strange and incomprehensible; indeed, someone may even suspect us of expecting the advent of a system of society in which the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed–for democracy means the recognition of this very principle.

      No, democracy is not identical with the subordination of the minority to the majority. Democracy is a state which recognizes the subordination of the minority to the majority, i.e., an organization for the systematic use of force by one class against another, by one section of the population against another.

      We set ourselves the ultimate aim of abolishing the state, i.e., all organized and systematic violence, all use of violence against people in general. We do not expect the advent of a system of society in which the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed. In striving for socialism, however, we are convinced that it will develop into communism and, therefore, that the need for violence against people in general, for the subordination of one man to another, and of one section of the population to another, will vanish altogether since people will become accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social life without violence and without subordination.”

      I think the point here is that for collective reasoning to count as such, the minority must subordinate itself to the majority. Otherwise, its not collective at all, because the greater part of the collective body is excluded. Democracy, however, means the use of coercion to forcibly subordinate this minority, or least to threaten as much. This is only necessary in a context in which a minority would not autonomously subordinate its will to the majority where appropriate, as, for example, a result of the discontent bred by class domination. Engels puts a fine point on this:

      “When, at last, it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a State, is no longer necessary. The first act by virtue of which the State really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a State. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not “abolished”. It dies out. This gives the measure of the value of the phrase: “a free State”, both as to its justifiable use at times by agitators, and as to its ultimate scientific inefficiency; and also of the demands of the so-called anarchists for the abolition of the State out of hand.”

      Democracy would be unintelligible for an emancipated humanity, or in other words, they would cease to understand collective decision-making by analogy with the democratic state, because there would no longer be discontent with majority decisions hostile enough to require coercive or heteronomous subordination. All arguments would remain ‘civil’ in this respect.

      As for the question of limitations, I’m not sure what you’re getting at, but I’ll take a stab. It would of course be foolish to speculate at length about the structure of specific forms of social life within an emancipated society, but I don’t see any reason to believe that various sorts of limitations could be imposed upon decision-making bodies of various kinds, both by ‘higher’ bodies with delegative capacities and by those bodies themselves in the form of explicit foundational agreements made by the participants. Of course, delegation, devolution, divisions of labor, etc, would be necessary in a number of different forms, with geographical factors among them.

      The question about expertise is a bit more complex I suppose, although I think we can take for granted that in an advanced communist society, the vast majority of physical labor would be phased out through automation, leaving the bulk of human attention (where it still takes the form of something like ‘necessary labor’) would be devoted to intellectual matters. Furthermore, I think that without the writhing anarchic hedonism of our present cultural milieu, we could expect to see a far greater baseline level of general education, such that, in Trotsky’s words, the “average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” The problem Lenin so desperately tangled with, that of the unpreparedness of the masses for engagement in the complex tasks of governance, would no longer be even a remote concern, and so I don’t think limitations to participation on the basis of inadequate expertise would be a significant concern, save perhaps in the most specialized terrain.

  2. thanx. italian “political” situation of today is a good field of application showing, as it shows, that politics is pure fiction and a political government no longer necessary.
    as a writer, i agree with you on writing here and now: it has to be incoherent.

  3. Pingback: On Democracy and Communism | barbarie della reflessione

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