Communization with a human face

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Charnel-House introduction

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The title of this post requires some explanation. In a recent post, I discussed an essay by Jacques Wajnsztejn of the journal Temps Critiques in which he took aim at interpretations of the November attacks in Paris by public intellectuals such as Olivier Roy and Alain Badiou. Wajnsztejn also occasionally writes for Yves Coleman’s publication Ni patrie ni frontières, hosted on the Mondialisme website.

As the editors of Internationalist Perspective explain below, in their introduction to their exchange with Wajnsztejn back in 2006, he belongs to communization current in France. Communization is not a term Wajnsztejn prefers, and he has in the decade since had his share of run-ins with the self-declared communisateurs, but for him it means basically the same thing it does for Roland Simon and the French group Theorie Communiste: an emphasis on the immediate transformation of conditions without any period of transition. Like Theorie Communiste, Temps Critiques believes that the revolutionary potential of the industrial working class has been exhausted.

One major contrast between Wajnsztejn and Simon, to take the two most prominent figures, is that the former works within a more humanist framework than the latter. Simon is decidedly an anti-humanist. You’ll see this in the article, with its emphasis on the “anthropological” dimension of capital’s periodization as opposed to its “structural” dimension, taken over from Camatte. Hence the “human face” referred to in the title: “Capitalized society tends to sup­press all the human fig­ures that were nec­es­sary for capitalism’s pro­gress towards matu­rity.” Wajnsztejn and Temps Critiques also disagree with Theorie Communiste et al. about the continued validity of the law of value; whereas the latter believe programmatism’s decline to be linked to a temporal mediation immanent to the valorization process itself, the former believe the old formula of value-accumulation to have been transcended altogether.

Patlotch and assorted others fault Wajnsztejn — along with the nihilist communists (the Duponts), communizers (Simon, Mattis, Lyon), and left communists in general (Dauvé, etc.) — for not being more adamantly anti-Zionist. But this says more about the particular obsession of Western leftists with the case of Israeli nationalism than the universal anti-nationalism maintained by left communists on principle.

I disagree with the communizers, humanist and anti-humanist alike, about the permanence of proletarian decline and its potential reconstitution as a revolutionary subject. Nevertheless, this is an interesting article. Enjoy.

Internationalist Perspective introduction

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Temps Critiques
is a review that is part of the movement of the communisateurs. What they mean by communization is that the revolution can only succeed and be emancipating if it undertakes from the very beginning a communist transformation on all levels, from the production of food and the way we consume it, to transportation, housing, learning, traveling, reading, doing nothing, loving, not loving, debating and deciding our future, etc, without any period of transition. The comrades who publish this review say that it is not an in crowd publication devoted to pure theory, but rather a place for critical activity in France and elsewhere; an effort to conceive political action, taking into account the transformations of capitalism and its new contradictions.

They take note of the changes that have occurred in the way capitalist society functions, and think that capitalism has realized the unification of its forms of domination (the institutionalization of the world market, the dissolution of classes as subjects, the generalization of the political forms of authoritarian and managerial democracy).

They also recognize that the system encounters increasing difficulties to reproduce itself on the basis of what constitutes its fundamental value: (abstract) labor. While production continues, and valorization proceeds somehow (though more and more surplus value goes to the financial sector instead of to production), capitalism’s logic of power and domination, which is not just an economic logic, also leads to a crisis of the social relation.

From this, they draw a startling conclusion: the decline of the historical role of the working class. For them, the revolutionary proletariat is a thing of the past.

What they see is a resurgence of a critical movement outside the proletariat. This movement is not just intellectual, it expresses concretely the refusal of the tyranny of capital and of the myths of the society based on labor, the refusal to let individuals be reduced to a mere economic or social value.

For Temps Critiques, this movement expresses the “becoming-otherwise” of the relations between the individual and the human community.

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After the revolution of capital

Jacques Wajnsztejn
Temps Critiques
April 25, 2015
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The slightly provoca­tive title, indi­cates the his­tor­ical moment from which we begin: the defeat of the last global rev­o­lu­tionary assault of the 1960-1970s. This assault marked the extreme limit of a clas­sist and pro­le­tarian pol­i­tics, espe­cially in the example of the Italian “Hot Autumn” (1969).1 Nonetheless, this last assault already com­prised an under­standing of the need for a rev­o­lu­tion on a human basis,2 for a cri­tique of work and for the supersession of classes, as was notice­able in May 68 France and 1977 Italy.3

The defeat did not result in a counter-rev­o­lu­tion as there had been no gen­uine rev­o­lu­tion. Rather, a double move­ment ensued: the restruc­turing of cor­po­ra­tions and the “lib­er­a­tion” of social and inter-indi­vidual prac­tices as if, all of a sudden, all bar­riers to the devel­op­ment of the society of cap­ital were swept away. The strait­jacket of the old bour­geois society was thrown off, even though society had already lost its bour­geois char­acter after the two World Wars, Fordism, and the real dom­i­na­tion of cap­ital, con­ser­va­tive ideas remained obsta­cles for the rev­o­lu­tion. Continue reading

Notes on ideology and Islamophobia

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Several salient points are made in Alexandra Pinot-Noir and Flora Grim’s jointly-written article, which I reposted, “On the Ideology of ‘Anti-Islamophobia’.” For example, the authors are onto something with their brief genealogical sketch of the derivation of “decolonial” theory from Third Worldism. Many efforts have been made to form ideological blocs with religious groups over the last fifteen years or so, ever since the start of the global war on terror. Provided that the groups in question belong to the religion of the oppressed, of course. All this would fall squarely under the rubric of what Loren Goldner has dubbed “reactionary anti-imperialism,” conceptualized in his brilliant essay on its origins in Turkey nearly a century ago. Considering Houria Bouteldja cites Gamal Abdel Nasser as a heroic decolonial thinker, or that “revolutionaries of color” at UC Davis in 2013 would approvingly invoke Sayyid Qutb just proves their point further. (Nevermind that Nasser had Qutb killed; this matters just as little as the fact the International Pan-Islamic Communist Party lists Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev alongside Stalin as an influence, despite the latter having purged the former in 1924. Regardless, it seems consistency is not decolonial theorists’ strong suit).

One of Grim and Pinot-Noir’s most startling insights has to do with the virtual symmetry between “culturalist” conceptions of race put forward by groups claiming to be on the Left and the ethnocultural arguments advanced by groups belonging to the Right. “New Right leaders like Alain de Benoist go so far as to defend anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World,” Grim and Pinot-Noir point out, “and thus deny the racist character of their own ‘defense of European identity’.” Indeed, New Right intellectuals are enthusiastic in their support for Third World nationalists such as Muammar Gaddafi and Hugo Chávez, as well as earlier strongmen like Nasser and Perón. Gregory Hood gave “Two Cheers for Chávez” following his death in 2013, while Greg Johnson eulogized Gaddafi after his ignominious “decline and fall” in 2011. Eugène Montsalvat likewise asserts “The Necessity of Anti-Colonialism,” writing that “anti-colonialism must be a component of any ideology which attempts to defend rooted identities, necessary against the uprooting of peoples in pursuit of power and wealth… Colonialism has warped both the colonist and colonizer — mixing, diluting, and even annihilating entire cultures and peoples.” He praises Nasser and Gaddafi for their anti-Zionism and resistance to “America’s Zionist New World Order.” (Bouteldja might even agree with Montsalvat on the topic of miscegenation, since she opposes interracial marriage in the name of race war).

Junge Linke has already thoroughly dissected Islamism as “heir to and rival of frustrated Arab nationalism,” so this is one more step. Grim and Pinot-Noir perspicaciously observe that “[t]he position of far-left anti-Islamophobes.regarding.political.Islam.is ambivalent at best. They want to prohibit any criticism of the Muslim religion, a practice which they say is racist.” Back in 2009, the British journal Aufheben made an analogous point vis-à-vis the Socialist Workers Party and the antiwar coalition Respect. “So as not to put Muslims off, the SWP insisted Respect eschew such left-wing ‘shibboleths’ as women’s and gay rights. Echoing the arguments of more radical Islamists, they went into the mosques and proclaimed that Bush’s ‘global war on terror’ was in fact a war on Muslims — both abroad, with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also at home with the passage of anti-terrorist legislation — that should be opposed by Muslims as Muslims. Like the radical Islamists, they denounced New Labour as Islamophobic and racist.” Arya Zahedi also discerns the ideological source of leftist ambivalence toward, if not outright support for, jihadist forces in the disastrous legacy of “Third World populism,” together with the imperative of anti-imperialism at any cost. Zahedi contends that, beginning in the 1980s, “the Left was theoretically disarmed by the fact that it was now confronted with a new state formation [i.e., the Islamic Republic] that was at once anti-imperialist and deeply reactionary.” Continue reading

We are not “anti”

Bernard Lyon
Revue Internationale
(May 25, 2005)
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Amadeo Bordiga once famously quipped that the worst product of fascism, politically speaking, was anti-fascism. The same could also probably be said of imperialism, only substituting anti-imperialism for anti-fascism. Nothing is worse than anti-fascists who call for communists to bloc with the Democrats in a popular front against the fascist scourge of Trump. Except, maybe, going to some anti-war march to see anti-imperialists waving around placards with Bashar al-Assad’s face on them. So it goes, more or less, down the line: anti-nationalism, anti-Zionism, anti-Stalinism, anti-globalization, etc. While such prefixes may serve as a convenient shorthand indicating opposition to a given feature of the social totality, as part of the overall effort to overcome that totality, to fixate upon one or another facet of capitalist society as the ultimate evil and prioritize it above all others is at once short-sighted and one-sided.

Certainly, there are many for whom anti-fa and anti-imp are the bread and butter of Marxist politics. It is unsurprising, then, that they would take issue with criticisms of their preferred modes of popular protest and organization. Raymond Lotta of the RCP-US, for instance, polemicized against Slavoj Žižek in 2012 for his “anti-anti-imperialism,” simply for questioning the simplistic logic which says “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Angela Mitropoulos, an Australian academic, recently scolded David Broder for his “anti-anti-fascism,” simply for questioning “The Anti-fascism of Fools.” (This is another common trope, incidentally, decrying “the X of fools,” following August Bebel. Broder’s article is far better than Richard Seymour’s article from a couple years ago on “The Anti-Zionism of Fools.” See Camila Bassi’s 2010 critique of “The Anti-Imperialism of Fools” for a much better example of this genre of article). Very few have positively embraced the “anti-anti-imperialist” label, though Loren Goldner and Arya Zahedi are among them, two of the best.

What follows is a translation of « Nous ne sommes pas Anti », a 2005 text by Bernard Lyon of the French group Theorie Communiste. Lyon has a couple articles that have been rendered into English, including “Intervention and the Communizing Current” as well as “The Suspended Step of Communization: Communization vs. Socialization.” I have my reservations when it comes to communization theory, roughly similar to those expressed in more traditional terms by Donald Parkinson of the Communist League of Tampa and in more value-critical terms by Kosmoprolet. Nevertheless, I think Lyon’s article gets at some essential points. Moreover, I do not think that it contradicts my last couple posts, in which I made the case for a politics of negation and non-identity over a politics of affirmation and difference. To be pro-communism is to be for the abolition of existing conditions, an essentially negative operation. Being anti-fascist often means affirming bourgeois democracy in developed countries, while being anti-imperialist often means affirming bourgeois dictatorship in undeveloped countries.

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Translated by Jake Bellone, with some
substantial revisions by Ross Wolfe.

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We are not “anti.” That is to say, we are not against extreme forms of exploitation, oppression, war, or other horrors. Being “anti” means to choose a particularly unbearable point and attempt to constitute an alliance against this aspect of the capitalist Real.

Not being “anti” does not mean to be a maximalist and proclaim, without rhyme or reason, that one is for total revolution and that, short of that, there is only reformism. Rather, it means that when one opposes capital in a given situation, one doesn’t counterpose to it a “good” capital. A demand, a refusal poses nothing other than what it is: to struggle against raising the age of retirement is not to promote the better administration of direct or socialized wages. To struggle against restructuration is not to be anti-liberal; it is to oppose these measures here and now, and it is no coincidence that struggles can surpass themselves in this way. We’re neither anti-this nor anti-that. Nor are we “radical.” We pose the necessity of communization in the course of immediate struggles because the non-immediate perspective of communization can serve as the self-critical analytic frame of struggles, as such, for the historical production of the overcoming of capital.

If anti-liberalism, or at least anti-ultraliberalism — which currently [2005] constitutes a national union, a nearly total frontism — furnishes a blinding example of how the “anti” approach permits position within a front, then it is organized along the lines of “Attac” [Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens] or something more informal. The archetype of this attitude is anti-fascism: first the ideology of popular fronts in Spain and France, then the flag uniting the Russo-Anglo-Saxon military coalition against the Germano-Japanese axis. Anti-fascism had a very long life, since it was the official ideology of Western democratic states as well as Eastern socialist states up to the fall of the [Berlin] Wall in 1989.

Besides anti-fascism there was anti-colonialism, an ideology combining socialism and nationalism within the tripartite world of the Cold War. This structuring ideology of the aptly-named national liberation fronts placed the struggles of colonized proletarians alongside those of local bourgeois elements under the political and military direction of the autochthonous bureaucratic layers produced by colonial administrations. Anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism were also the frame for the alliance of bureaucratic-democratic revolutionaries with the socialist camp. Such ideologies have then always functioned as state ideology (existent or constituent) in the context of confrontations and wars, global and local, between the different poles of capitalist accumulation. In the metropoles anti-imperialism was, with anti-fascism, an essential element for communist parties after the Second World War, presented as the defense of the socialist fatherland and the “peace camp.” It articulated the conflict-ridden day-to-day management of exploitation with capital in a global perspective where socialism remained on the offensive. Anti-imperialism has been, and to a certain extent remains, a framework of mobilization intrinsically linked to and for war. Continue reading

Letter on anti-Zionism

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While I ponder whether or not to jot down some stray thoughts regarding “left antisemitism,” a contentious and theoretically overwrought subject, I figured I’d finally get around to publishing a revised translation of a text posted by the Italian editorial collective Il Lato Cattivo back in July 2014. At the time, the Israeli military was conducting airstrikes on Gaza, on which it would eventually launch a ground invasion. Several months later, the excellent journal Endnotes featured an article by the group on “the Kurdish question” rendered into English by fellow travelers. “Il lato cattivo” is of course taken from Karl Marx’s famous polemic against Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy, in which he maintains that “history advances by the bad side [of the dialectic].”

Generally, I feel this text raises legitimate points against the facile Manichaean narrative on the left which holds Zionism to be the latest embodiment of pure Evil in the world, while all who oppose it valiantly serve the cause of the Good. Moreover, though I am rigorously pessimistic when it comes to the possibility of revolutionary politics in the present, I do not share Il Lato Cattivo’s conviction that programmatic proletarian approach is historically obsolete moving forward, thanks to the post-1968 restructuration of capital. This thesis, which is chiefly inspired by the analysis of Théorie Communiste, seems to me to proceed from a false premise. Here is not the place to hash this out further. Suffice it to say, for now, that on the subject of anti-Zionism, Il Lato Cattivo more or less agrees with authors in the left communist tradition who do still uphold the proletariat as the identical subject-object of revolution. Consider how nicely it squares with some occasional ponderings by the Duponts, chief representatives of nihilistic communism (nihilcomm) in our time. For example, take their quaintly-titled “Knockabout begun in earnest atop Leigh Tor (site reference SX77SW 2; 2.2km NNE of Holne) some time towards the later afternoon on August 6th 2014, and before evening’s rain had closed in,” which appears on their Insipidities blog:

Why is it, of all the states in the world, that the actions of Israel have such exceptional power to enrage distant populations? Nobody, outside of Ukraine and Russia, is particularly concerned about Russian expansionism, and there is little comment on, let alone condemnation of, for example, atrocities committed in South Sudan. In general, faraway wars invite only the uncomprehending sentiment of, a pox on both houses. Why is it then that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is so immediately comprehensible? Why does political imagination so imbue Israel with the capacity for autonomous agency? Individuals of the left claim they are directing their hostility towards the policies of Israel and not against Israel’s existence and/or that of the Jews. They argue that they make a political distinction between Jews and Israel. Perhaps that is so but this begs two questions: a. by what process does this act of making a distinction emerge? b. why are the military actions of Israel so significant to the left?

For the sake of brevity, it is to be taken here as a given that the answer to both of these can only be grasped in terms of there being at work in leftist discourse an irrational but historically structured anti-Semitism that is of the same type as what I described as the “meant metaphor” of nationalism. There is within the arrangement of leftist awareness, a preconscious responsiveness to the subjective agency of Jews which is correlative with the tendency to anthropomorphize institutional power as the outcome of the conspiracy of the powerful. That is to say, even though individuals of the left are personally opposed to anti-Semitism, the inherited arrangement of their argumentation, the procedures, the propositions, the inferences, the deductions, is structured to find archetypical moral personifications at the heart of what it opposes, and one of these figures, perhaps the most discernible and significant, is the Jew.

Or their more substantive “Islands in a Sea of Land”:

Proletarian internationalism (no war but class war) discloses the rallying cry for a “Free Palestine” as a retreat from the possibility of human community. Leftist support for reactionary nationalism on the grounds of siding with the underdog is both preposterous and repugnant. It is a wanton irrationality. Whomsoever brandishes the Palestinian flag sustains the general category of nationhood. And yet this left sentimentalism is also intelligible. Of greater interest than ostensible popular frontist rationalizations around my enemy’s enemy, is the how of leftism’s pro-nationalism. It appears in protest form against the historical process of demolition and bulldozing of that which has been defeated. The Left perpetually seeks another means for returning to the historically obsolete modes of religion, nation-state, and sentimentalized cultural particularity. Indeed, this seeking out of ways back, is the Left’s political function.

Historically, it has been the task of communists to simply refute this backward drifting of the Left, hitherto understood as mere opportunism or blatant racketeering. The refutation has always taken the same form: there can be no dialogue (and still less common cause) with the nation, with religion, with class. In their approach to leftism, it has been conventional for communists to fall into line with the progressive historical lockout of obsolete forms in the name of proliferating past potentialities. Evidently, this policy is inadequate and implicitly assumes the absolute unworthiness of all of that which is no longer supported by the present productive apparatus. While it is true that all past social forms institutionalized themselves as a specific mode of inhuman violence, repression, and denial, they also recorded something of an eternally renewed “passion and will” for the human community. The Left has imperfectly sought out connection to that which is good but buried in the past. This is not to suggest that a “return” to that which is otherwise lost forever is a plausible or even desirable option. National liberation is untenable and in all cases incompatible with human community. The no state, no religion, and no class demands, which communism makes upon society, remain invariant. There can not be and must never be a “free Palestine.”

Jacob Blumenfeld’s “Negation of the Diaspora,” from which the cover image above is taken, is also worth reading. Blumenfeld is a contributor to the Communists in Situ project in Germany, influenced by the anti-national Marxism that cropped up in that country following reunification in 1991. Pay no attention to the idiotic spectacle going on in Britain right now. Enjoy the translated Il Lato Cattivo text below.

A seldom-remembered historical fact: Stalin's USSR backed the foundation of Israel as a Jewish state, precisely under the rationale of national liberation

The perils of national liberation

Letter on anti-Zionism

R.F. (pseudonym)
Il Lato Cattivo
July 19, 2014
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Dear comrades,

Let me give you my opinion about what happened around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and forgive me if I am forced to dwell on this question. So-called anti-Zionism — with the alibi of staying in the concrete — changes more and more the present events into a metaphysical question. On the one hand, this is normal: it is characteristic of the “anti” to have an absolute enemy, compared to which the other enemies become relative enemies. At the moment it is Israel’s turn to be the target, and in my opinion it is necessary to distinguish oneself from that. It’s not the assault on the synagogues during the demonstrations of Saturday July 19th in Paris that ought determine this necessity, even if it makes it stronger in some measure. It is not necessary to exaggerate the importance of the uncontrolled behaviors that occurred; it is certain however that they are symptomatic of something — of a drift — whose possibility is consubstantial to anti-Zionism. The confusion between Jews, Zionism and Israel, the fluidity with which these different terms become interchangeable, if they do not appear in the public speeches and in the programmatic slogans, can nevertheless be noticed in the informal conversations that can be heard here and there in the demonstrations, and are on the other hand obvious enough. It is absolutely not the point to operate the slightest defense of the state of Israel — which would be merely absurd — but merely to replace the Israeli-Palestinian question in history, as the transformation of the enemy into absolute enemy sustains itself on myth and reproduces it. Similarly, the point is to escape from two equally unsustainable positions for a communist: on one side, the “solidarity with Palestinian resistance,” on the other side the proletarian internationalism as abstract principle. On this last point, I first want to say that what the ant-Zionists misunderstand is that — if some margins of pressure on the Israeli government exist — they lie on the side of those who live in Israel. The demonstrations that occurred in Israel against the slaughter in Gaza are encouraging, and forcefully more significant than those which occurred elsewhere; but they are in any case only few things, especially if we think that they rather spring from an impulse of moral indignation or from the affirmation of principles than from anything else, as it generally happens for the present pacifist movements; they are the most fertile field for the petty bourgeoisie with leftist sympathies and a cultural level, with all their generous feelings (some can remember the great demonstrations in Italy against war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the flags for peace hanged from the windows… and how it all ended). Concretely, a general strike striking the Israeli economy would be necessary (or at least the menace of this) to provisionally make Israeli government draw back. On the other hand, it is not surprising that this does not happen. It’s useless to launch general appeals to class struggle and solidarity among exploited peoples. The Israeli working class and the Palestinian working class can with difficulty unite in any common struggle, simply because they do not live in the same conditions. It is not a question of “class consciousness,” rather an objective situation: we can be the best comrades in the world, but this changes nothing if your situation is objectively in your advantage. I quote a passage from the book by Théorie Communiste on Middle East that seems to me particularly appropriate to this subject:

It is an illusion to hope within a predictable future in any junction between the struggles of Israeli proletariat and the struggles of the Palestinian proletariat. The major changes of Israeli capital have aggravated the situation of Israeli proletariat and this worsening is deeply linked to the transformations of the management of the territories and to the use of the Palestinian workforce. The disappearance of historical Zionism in those transformations is equivalent to the weakening of all the enterprises of the public sector and of the sector in the hand of the Histadrut [General Organization of Workers in the Land of Israel, Israel’s organization of trade unions]. Above all, the use of Palestinian workforce exposes the Israeli working class to the competition of the low wages of this workforce and of the still lower ones practiced beyond the frontier in the surrounding Arab countries. A great deal of Jewish workers of the public sector today are employed under a fixed-term contract, mostly the young people, the women and the new immigrants. The rallying of precarious workers or the new “radical” little unions that appeared during strikes, like the ones in the railway (2000) have the greatest difficulties to get recognized by the Histadrut (Aufheben, “Behind the Twenty-First Century Intifada” No. 10, 2002). The worsening of the situation of the Israeli proletariat and the reduction of the Palestinian proletariat to a “fourth-world” condition belong in fact to the same mutations of Israeli capitalism, but this nevertheless does not provide in any way the conditions of the slightest “solidarity” between both proletariats, quite the reverse. For the Israeli proletarian, the Palestinian with low wage is a social danger, and more and more a physical one, for the Palestinian proletarian the advantages the Israeli can retain rest on his own exploitation, his increased relegation and the seize of the territories. (Théo Cosme, Le Moyen-Orient, 1945-2002, Senonevero, Marseille 2002, p. 259)

Thus, if we look closely, the way the thing are is that the movement against war that was the basis of the demonstrations in Israel has been in any case the most dignified thing, as far as it has been something in the frame of the present hodgepodge. Vice versa the anti-Zionists — if it were not for the troubles they to generate — seem almost tender for their blessed ignorance of the things of this world. Particularly the “anticapitalists” ones: moreover their problem — as collectors of anti-isms — is that having an absolute enemy means forcefully that one can have only one at a time …. and have to choose between capitalism and Israel, they usually choose Israel. They usually do so also for convenience, as it is easier to be simply against individuals than against the social relation that determines their social function and position. I said before that we must in any case replace the Israeli-Palestinian question in history. Then let us start from a banal fact. Let us consider the geographic map of the area and the different evolutions of the territories from the end of the Second World War until today: starting from a few settlements — mainly situated on the coast and in the north — out of which was constituted its proto-state in 1946, Israel has appropriated in 60 years almost the totality of historical Palestine. To the Palestinians, very few is left from what Gaza and the West Bank still represented in 1967 (these frontiers are claimed today by the Hamas). In this sense, the problem of determining the frontiers that would delimit a “legitimate” Israeli state is irrelevant, so trivially impossible it is to solve: the logic of the seizing of the territories has revealed itself inseparable from its existence as national state. From this undeniable fact, the anti-Zionists deduce the illegitimate character of Israeli state, defined by them as “Zionist” — as if this adjective already said everything per se. This implicitly means that some states have a right to exist, and other not. But to ask the question of the legitimacy of Israeli state compared to other states simply means to ignore how the nation-states constitute themselves as homogeneous areas. It would be enough to look at the history of the Italian state: internal colonization promoted by the previous reign of Savoy, persecution of the “brigandage” in the South, Italianization of Trentino-South Tyrol and Istria under fascism, centrifugal surges and “national liberation” movements in Sicily and Sardinia, etc.. What is then a legitimate state? And what is an illegitimate state? We will say the same about the so-called “right to the land.” Who has a “right” to the land? According to what may one argue that a given geographic area “belongs” to a given population? According to passed history? And first, who had settled there, who was living there? It is the accomplished fact that establishes the “right,” and that’s all… at least in the world as it exists today. It is absolutely vain to participate (or sustain) the controversy over “who came first.” In facts, any reasoning over this point must resort to juridical formalism. In the fact that somebody may drive me out of my home, the real problem lies in the fundamental question, in the fact that there is something mine and something not mine…. And in the fact that what is mine may arouse the lust of somebody else, insofar as to be ready to resort to the abuse of his power to seize it. With some luck and adequate economic and military means, I will perhaps to seize back my home. If I am less lucky, I will not succeed to do that. In any case, the essential of the whole thing is that it doesn’t contain a dynamic that would go beyond itself — beyond the resentments and reciprocal accusations of suffered wrongs. The “reason” may be on my side or not, it is a conflict of typically military nature: action calls for reaction, and thus until the weakest is worn out . To come back to it and try to find in it something more, it is necessary that the concerned usurper represents the interests of the absolute enemy (the USA, pressure groups, or “Jewish finance”: we’ll come back to that). What’s more, it is simply stupid to contest — as the ridiculous [Roger] Garaudy does, following the ultra-orthodox Jews, in The Founding Myths of Modern Israel — the character of nation of Judaism, arguing that it is merely a religion: this only consists in opposing the idea to history, or to get lost in useless investigations that look back into the past since the dawn of time in order to affirm the authenticity, true or presumed, of one or other nationality. Similarly, to reproach to Israel — as, conversely, the Marxish professor Bertell Ollman does in his Letter of Resignation from the Jewish People — to have betrayed the universalist tradition of the Judaism of the diaspora, leads to make of this Judaism an essence which would be at safe from historical becoming. It is enough for us to know that everybody lives and relives his own past according to his own present. The experience of the present continuously selects and reworks the existing historical material. No national identity is produced ex nihilo; but the internal coherence and the times of incubation required are less important than one may think. As far as a given “feeling of national belonging” — for reasons we could consider as more or less good — appears in history and succeeds in consolidating itself, it becomes effective in reality. No nation is “legitimate” in itself, its legitimacy simply depends on its ability to unite, maintain and transform itself in history without disappearing. Exactly the way it happens for certain social movements that always have minority origins and a completely unpredictable future trajectory. The PKK — official embodiment of the Kurdish nationalist movement, previously “Stalinist” and today advocating a “democratic confederalism” — was constituted at the moment of its creation in the beginning of the seventies by a handful of students living in Ankara. To insist on the exceptional character of the denominational nature of the Israeli state, then, it is merely taking at face value what the Likud likes to tell about Israel. Continue reading

Federici versus Marx

Gilles Dauvé
Troploin
Fall 2015
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Note: Dauvé’s piece is not without its problems. Some lines are simply offensive — e.g., “Federici feminizes Marxism; that’s probably what has made her popular,” “the ‘reproductive labor’ theme is not a woman’s theory, only a housewife’s theory.” Others are beside the point, like the superfluous aside on Carla Lonzi, which I feel is grossly unfair to her body of work. But the point about the incompatibility of Federici’s account of primitive accumulation and Marx’s in Capital is extremely important, as is the point about the different priorities that these differing accounts reveal. He even lets her off somewhat light regarding the more outrageous claims of Caliban & the Witch. For example, the completely unsubstantiated figure of “five to six million” women killed during the witch-hunts in Europe during the period she covers. Anyway, many of the criticisms are perfectly valid and lay bare the practical poverty and theoretical misunderstandings that underwrite autonomist Marxism in general, as well as the “wages for housework” movement (which insisted on attaching a moral dimension to the purely economic category of “productive labor”).

One criticism I would raise that Dauvé does not regards the parallels between her presentation of the post-feudal transition and that of world “systems” theory. Federici’s account of primitive accumulation owes a lot to dependency theory, especially as articulated by Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, and Immanuel Wallerstein. These theorists analyzed the emerging economic world system in terms of core-periphery relations, whereby the overdeveloped core is sustains its development at the expense of the underdeveloped periphery in an ongoing process of “unequal exchange.” In Caliban & the Witch, Federici makes an analogous argument regarding the reproductive sphere and the productive sphere, with the latter profiting at the expense of the former. She openly admits to the ismorphism between her argument and that of the world systems theorists. As a moderate Brennerite, I find this interpretation of the historic transition to capitalism untenable. Her focus on extra-economic forms of compulsion not only during the formation of capitalism, but down through to the present, has a lot to do with this.Moreover, many of Federici’s political positions seem to approximate a kind of Third Worldist narrative, which falls into all the communitarian traps that theorists of “the commons” often do.
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…rough magic I here abjure…

William Shakespeare
The Tempest (1610)

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Caliban & the Witch
is of undeniable interest for our understanding of social movements at the critical juncture between medieval and modern times, of the advent of capitalism, its sexual dimension, the treatment of women and the conversion of female and male bodies into a work-machine, among other things. But the book also sets forth a vision of past and present which is as questionable as the political perspective that this vision entails.1

Primitive accumulation according to Silvia Federici

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Federici claims to be writing “against Marxist orthodoxy” (p. 6), and Caliban & the Witch is commonly read as a complement (or for some readers, as an alternative) to Marx’s Capital, especially Part VIII. Federici writes:

…my description of primitive accumulation includes a set of historical phenomena that are absent in Marx, and yet have been extremely important for capitalist accumulation. They include: 1) the development of a new sexual division of labor subjugating women’s labor and women’s reproductive function to the reproduction of the work-force; 2) the construction of a new patriarchal order, based upon the exclusion of women from waged-work and their subordination to men; 3) the mechanization of the proletarian body and its transformation, in the case of women, into a machine for the production of new workers.” (p. 11)

So we expect to read what was missing in the accepted master narrative, especially as history suffers from a long tradition of writing women off. The question is, where does a counter-hegemonic history lead us? In Federici’s case, the author is not merely filling in gaps: her analysis of primitive accumulation amounts to nothing less than a conception of capitalism not just different from Marx’s but indeed opposed to it.

In order to understand the birth of capitalism, she emphasizes the specific oppression that social groups, women in particular, were subjected to. That is what she is targeting, and her approach prioritizes certain factors and downplays others.

The question is, what tipped the historical scales? Continue reading

Art and politics in class society

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Book review:

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket. Chicago, IL: 2013)

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The following review was originally published by the CUNY Grad Center’s journal The Advocate. It is available in print and online, and I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to pick up a copy.

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Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class has clearly struck a chord with contemporary artistic communities, critics and practitioners alike. Not all have responded the same way, however. While most applaud the admirable clarity of its arguments and readily acknowledge Davis’ gifts as a writer, some have lamented the book’s “rather bleak” tone and the seeming despondency of its conclusions. One review went so far as to accuse Davis of drawing “lazy caricatures” of his opponents, panning Art and Class as “crudely reductive” and given to “smug, self-righteous dismissals.” Yet others have welcomed its challenge to the conventional image of artists as born radicals, and praise Davis’ sober reassessment of the lofty political ambitions often claimed for their work.

Despite a few cautious endorsements from figures like Molly Crabapple and William Powhida, the book’s reception among actual producers of art has likewise been mixed. At a recent talk held at Housing Works in downtown Manhattan, Davis invited to the stage a group of practicing artists with whom he’d been in close dialogue while writing Art and Class. The discussion that followed was polite enough, touching on some of the book’s central themes, but there were moments in which the panelists could be seen practically squirming with discomfort at the language Davis used to characterize their vocation. Even though they’d all read it before, and were thus familiar with the text’s provocations, it was as if the wound was still fresh.

So what is it about Davis’ thesis that makes it such a bitter pill to swallow? Part of it is semantic. Though the sociological framework he employs throughout his investigation into art under capitalism is generally sound, Davis encounters terminological difficulties as soon as he tries to conceptualize class. How does one talk about a mode of creative activity that doesn’t neatly fit the division of society into workers and capitalists? What accounts for this peculiar survival of quasi-artisanal forms of labor within such a rarefied commercial sphere as today’s art market? Art and Class approaches these questions from an avowedly Marxist angle. But this presents problems of another sort. For although classical Marxism had at its disposal an arsenal of readymade categories with which to comprehend the position of the artist, Davis finds terms like “petit-bourgeois” (probably the most fitting designation for artists at one time) irretrievably démodé. Looking for a more accessible word that might replace it, he arrives at “middle-class.” Davis emphatically asserts that “the contemporary artist is the representative of middle-class creative labor par excellence.”1

This nomenclature is unfortunate for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the confusing cluster of connotations that already surrounds notions of “middle-class.” Class is commonly (mis)understood as a purely quantitative relation, a function of “pay scale” or “income bracket.” As Davis points out, this distorts the more precise definition offered by Marxist theory, which sees class as a specific relationship to the means of production — namely of ownership or non-ownership, combined with some owners’ ability to hire others to operate them. Beyond such bland technicalities, however, Davis anticipates a more basic objection artists might raise to his analysis. “The issue of class has moral overtones,” he recognizes.2 Artists, who tend to sympathize with vaguely leftist political ideas and issues of social justice, bristle at the suggestion that they are somehow “middle-class.”

Gustav Klutsis, Multilingual propaganda machine (1923)

Once one gets past this initial allergic response, and accepts the meaning assigned to “middle-class,” the rest of the book’s contentions about art in class society fall into place. Davis is hardly indifferent to artists’ plight, either. Quite the opposite: the narrative he unfolds in Art and Class has profound implications for the way artists orient their politics. “The upshot is that artists’ middle-class position is not merely a limit on their relation to larger social struggle but also on their ability to organize to transform their own conditions,” Davis writes. He goes over some of the efforts to orchestrate artists’ strikes in the 1960s and 1970s, virtually none of which could be considered a success. “From whom would the artists be withholding their art if they did go on strike?” the book asks, quoting Carl Andre. “Alas, from no one but themselves.”3 By contrast, the closer artists get to wage-labor — those instances where they actually constitute a paid workforce, as with studio animators or industrial designers — the more effectively they can unionize and leverage demands. Continue reading

Deleuzeans of grandeur

Image: Pieter Brueghel
“The Flatterers” (1592)

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Earlier today, I tried to make my way through this rather long, theory-heavy Facebook thread. It popped up on my feed and some of the first few comments seemed pretty interesting. You know: it concerned concepts and authors like totality, status quo ante, the proletariat, Jameson. Figured I could maybe dig some of the Deleuze and communization stuff, even if I agreed with it less. Then all of a sudden all these theoretical accretions and academic encrustations began to glom onto the original topics under discussion at this crazy, exponential rate — sometimes as backstory or context, but more often as just syncretistic add-ons and meaningless whirligigs, an intellectually promiscuous process of addition, lunatical topsy-turvydom, etc.

Maybe I just didn’t know enough of these theories or theorists, but I don’t think that’s it. Really, I’m not anti-theory at all; I’m good at it. I have a lot more patience for dense theoretical discourse than many people I know. (That much should be obvious to anyone who reads or even glances passingly through this blog). But there’s some massive leveling our generation needs to do. Most of what’s been written recently or being written right now needs to be mercilessly torn down, without remorse or concern about hurt feelings. The elbow-rubbing and chummy collegiality needs to go. We must separate the wheat from the chaff, the Hearts—Stars—Clovers—Blue-Moons from the ordinary cereal. Honestly, we’re far too easily impressed with ourselves and each other. Most of what we produce is total garbage, and we should have no problem owning up to that. No more compliments or gentle “critiques” that just mildly “complicate” or “problematize” whatever bullshit we’re on about lately. Could be way off but who knows.

Anyway, I communicated these sentiments more or less exactly as I just presented them here to the posters in this thread. It was probably ill-advised decision to do so, bound to piss off everyone involved. People tend to get really touchy and insecure whenever their intellectual credentials are challenged. Of course, I wasn’t looking to call anyone out or target anybody in particular, though I could have, but leave things at this fairly generalized level. Still, most in the thread had enough of a sense of humor about themselves to move on quickly and not take it very personally. Except for one person: Louis-Georges Schwartz. Continue reading

Program and utopia

Roger Rashi, Sam Gindin, Richard Rubin,
Aaron Benanav, and Stephen Eric Bronner

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This year’s Platypus International Convention concluded with the plenary “Program and Utopia,” held on June 6 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This closing plenary brought together Roger Rashi, founding member of Québec Solidaire; Aaron Benanav, of the Endnotes collective; Stephen Eric Bronner, a professor at Rutgers University, scholar of modernism and the history of socialism, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); Sam Gindin, author, and director of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly; and Richard Rubin, of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that night. A full video of the plenary can be found online.

Opening remarks

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Roger Rashi:
Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight. I am honored to be on a panel with such distinguished guests. Can utopia and program be merged in a new, formal relation in the 21st century? It will not be easy, but I think we can follow the example of Marx, who, as the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre has pointed out, synthesized the utopian and the political trends within French Socialism and thereby politicized utopia. Marx hypothesized that, by seizing power, we could eventually, through a series of stages, arrive at a classless society. This synthesis was put to the test in the 20th century and has not come out unscathed. Can we undertake this synthesis again in the 21st century? I believe we can. However, it will be a difficult process that requires our involvement in mass struggles and in the anti-neoliberal movements, which are starting to merge into one.

Today, the Left is in crisis. But there remain many social movements. The first decade of the 21st century saw a rise of mass movements challenging neoliberalism. This has taken two major forms. In Latin America there is the “pink tide” — Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador — representing attempts to use state power to move gradually towards a form of socialism, although it is not socialism yet. Then, there is the new active struggle in the Middle East and southern Europe: the tremendous movement of the Arab Spring and the ongoing fight against austerity, respectively. Out of these movements, how can we craft a new political expression for the Left that will synthesize utopia — the goal of a classless society — and program, the practical movement towards formulating this kind of plan?

One approach is to come back to a vision of communism that Marx had in the middle of the 19th century. Here we should remember that Communism is not just a program or a utopia, but the actual movement attempting to abolish the existing state of affairs. It is the practical movement struggling against the status quo. From this perspective we can understand the emergent Left parties in different parts of the world, including Québec City, where I live. In the movement there, we have tried to develop from a united front against neoliberalism into a political party that can engage in elections as well as mass struggles — what we call combining the street and the ballot. We hope to move towards an understanding of what it means to overcome neoliberalism as well as the basis of neoliberalism: capitalism.

Continue reading

VIDEO — Plenary on Utopia and Program with Stephen Eric Bronner, the Endnotes collective, Sam Gindin, Roger Rashi, and Richard Rubin

2013 Platypus Affiliated Society
International Convention

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Image: Image designed by
Doug La Rocca

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The closing plenary of the 2013 Platypus International Convention, held from April 5-7, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Event description

“Program” and “Utopia” have for well over a century now sat in uneasy tension within the politics of the Left, in tension both with each other and with themselves. Political programs tend to be presented in the sober light of practicability — straightforward, realistic, matter-of-fact. Social utopias, by contrast, appear quite oppositely as the virtue of aspiring ambition — involved, unrealistic, exhilarating. Historically, then, the two would appear to be antithetical. In either case, one usually offers itself up as a corrective to the other: the programmatic as a harsh “reality check” to pipe-dream idealism; utopianism as an alternative to dreary, cynical Realpolitik.

Today, however, it is unavoidable that both program and utopia are in profound crisis. For those Leftists who still hold out some hope for the possibility of extra-electoral politics, an impasse has arisen. Despite the effusive political outbursts of 2011-12 in the Arab Spring and #Occupy — with their emphasis on the identity of means and ends, anti-hierarchical modes of organization, and utopian prefiguration — the Left still seems to have run aground. Traces may remain in the form of various issue-based affinity groups, but the more ambitious projects of achieving sweeping social transformation have been quietly put to rest, consoled with the mere memory of possibility.

Meanwhile, longstanding Left organizations, having temporarily reverted to the usual waiting game of patiently tailing popular discontents with the status quo, until the masses finally come around and decide to “get with the program” (i.e., their program), have experienced a crisis of their own: slowly disintegrating, with occasional spectacular implosions, many of their dedicated cadre call it quits amid demoralization and recriminations. What possibilities might remain for a Left whose goal is no longer utopian, and whose path is no longer programmatically defined?

Speakers

Stephen Eric Bronner (Rutgers University)
The Endnotes Collective
Sam Gindin (Socialist Project)
Roger Rashi (Québec solidaire)
Richard Rubin (Platypus)

Utopia and program

2013 Platypus
International Convention 

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Image: Designed by
Douglas La Rocca

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Closing plenary:

Sat. 6 April 2013 @ 6:00-8:00pm
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
36 S Wabash Ave  Chicago, IL 60603

Panelists:

Endnotes collective
Stephen Eric Bronner (Rutgers University)
Sam Gindin (Socialist Project)
Roger Rashi (Québec solidaire)
Richard Rubin (Platypus)

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Temple of Death, Interior (1795)

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Temple of Death, Interior (1795)

Description:

“Program” and “utopia” have for well over a century now sat in uneasy tension within the politics of the Left, in tension both with each other and with themselves. Political programs tend to be presented in the sober light of practicality — straightforward, realistic, matter-of-fact. Social utopias, by contrast, appear quite oppositely the virtue of aspiring ambition — involved, unrealistic, exhilarating. Historically, then, the two would seem antithetical. In either case, one usually offers itself up as a corrective to the other: programmatism as a harsh “reality check” to pipe-dream idealism; utopianism as a welcome alternative to dreary, cynical Realpolitik.

Today, however, it is unavoidable that both program and utopia are in profound crisis. For those Leftists who still hold out some hope for the possibility of extra-electoral politics, an impasse has arisen. Despite the effusive political outbursts of 2011-12 in the Arab Spring and #Occupy — with their emphasis on the identity of means and ends, anti-hierarchical modes of organization, and utopian prefiguration — the Left seems to have run aground. Traces may remain in the form of various issue-based affinity groups, but the more ambitious projects of achieving sweeping social transformation have been quietly put to rest, consoled with the mere memory of their possibility.

Meanwhile, longstanding Left organizations, having temporarily reverted to their usual waiting game of patiently tailing popular discontents with the status quo, until the masses finally come around and decide to “get with the program” (their program), have experienced a crisis of their own: slowly disintegrating, with occasional spectacular implosions, many of their dedicated cadre call it quits amid demoralization and recriminations. What could possibly remain for a Left whose goal is no longer utopian, and whose path toward it is no longer programmatically defined? Continue reading