Antifascism: Pros and cons

Saturday’s lopsided standoff between fascist and antifascist demonstrators in Boston, in which the latter outnumbered the former roughly a hundredfold, has been occasion for some relief among liberals scandalized by images of Charlottesville. I would caution against any overhasty optimism, however: Claudio Segrè, biographer of Mussolini’s heir apparent Italo Balbo, reminds us that the first Italian fascists were initially viewed as clowns in November and December 1920, fringe elements that could hardly be taken seriously. “They suffered from unsavory backgrounds and reputations,” writes Segrè, “not the stuff out of which to create a mass movement.” Just two years later they were in power.

Quartz reports that linguistic analysis of billions of Reddit comments has shown a marked increase in the use of alt-Right rhetoric and conspiratorial dog whistles (about “globalists,” “Soros,” “cultural Marxism,” and “Zionazis”). A suspect sample set, one might counter, but the numbers are suggestive either way. With Trump’s presidency spiraling out of control, losing far Right credibility with the bombing of Syrian airbases and the firing of Steve Bannon, its former supporters might look for new outlets to express their political discontents. Outlets other than the carnival sideshow of the 2016 Donald Trump campaign. But are more feelgood mass rallies like Boston really the answer to right-wing radicalization?

Fifteen years ago, massive antiwar marches took place in major cities across the US and around the globe. Impotently, they proclaimed “not in our name.” The invasion of Iraq happened anyway; the demonstrations did nothing to stop it. Participants in these marches could comfort themselves with the thought that their voices had been heard, but they weren’t really interested in stopping imperialism. Evidence of this can be seen in the near total collapse of the antiwar movement in 2008, as the various “soft fronts” of the ISO and FRSO — e.g. the ANSWER Coalition, whose members marched arm-in-arm with Howard Dean supporters and other Democratic Party pacifists — were liquidated into vegan bake-sales for the election of Barack Obama.

I’d similarly contend that most of the people who showed up in Boston on Saturday are not all that serious about stopping fascism. Most of them were liberals eager to reassure themselves that “we’re better than that,” with a meatspace analog to the #ThisIsNotUs hashtag that briefly circulated on social media. Gus Breslauer points out in a note for the Guy Debord Club of Houston that “communists are the only ones who can make fascism impossible.” Antifascism on its own is not up to the task, as we indicated in the previous post: Opposition to fascism does not a communist make. “Communists are the ones best equipped to effectively fight it if it continues to grow,” Beslauer continues, “since they are the only ones who can confidently say they not only want to destroy fascism, but all of what makes fascism possible.”

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Solidarity after Charlottesville

Like everyone else watching the Charlottesville protests, I was appalled by the violence and hateful rhetoric displayed by white nationalists over the weekend. I cannot, however, say I was surprised. Chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” as a group of fascists surrounded to defend a Confederate monument wielding Tikki torches (okay, I laughed a little at that) put the lie to the quaint notion that antisemitism is dead and gone in this country. Just like in the past, it seems to reemerge whenever there are economic anxieties and racial unrest, linked closely with anti-black racism as well as anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim xenophobia.

Emma Green made this point three days ago in an article which ran in The Atlantic: “Anti-black and anti-Jewish sentiment have long been intertwined in America. When the Jewish factory worker Leo Frank was wrongfully convicted of murder and lynched in 1915, two new groups simultaneously emerged: the Anti-Defamation League, which fights against bigotry and anti-Semitism, and the second Ku Klux Klan, which began by celebrating Frank’s death.” Similarly, Eric Ward’s Political Research essay “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” forcefully argues that “antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within white nationalist thought.” (It’s worth reading also for its insights into the early LA punk scene).

Regarding various “antis” like anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, readers of this blog will know I am influenced by the Bordigist critique of anti-fascism and the councilist critique of anti-imperialism. Nevertheless, this does not mean that fascism and imperialism are not to be opposed. If these political orientations are to be salvageable for Marxists at all, it is important to acknowledge most forms of actually-existing anti-fascism and anti-imperialism are awful. The best anti-fascists and anti-imperialists out there already admit this, of course, and know that in doing so they are not denigrating the lives that have been lost or the sacrifices that have been made.

Marx understood this well enough himself, writing in 1850: “Our task is that of ruthless criticism, much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies. And in maintaining this as our position, we gladly forego cheap democratic popularity.” Internationalist Perspective put out a good response a little while ago entitled “Antifa? No Thanks,” in which they claimed: “By framing the conflict as one between fascism and democracy, the partisans of antifa are making the first choice seem logical and necessary, and are thereby, despite their combativeness, acting as water carriers for capitalism.”

Horkheimer’s old adage from 1939 still rings true: “Whoever is not willing to speak of capitalism should keep quiet about fascism as well.” Gilles Dauvé’s debate with the British group Aufheben is worth revisiting in this context, in order:

  1. Jean Barrot [Gilles Dauvé], Fascism/Antifascism (1982)
  2. Aufheben, “Review of Barrot’s Fascism/Antifascism (1992)
  3. Gilles Dauvé, “Reply to Aufheben” (1998)

Opposition to fascism does not a communist make. The chorus of tweets from Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Nancy Pelosi, and other reactionaries condemning the white nationalists lend credence to Bordiga’s infamous quip that “the worst product of fascism is anti-fascism.” Politically, perhaps, it can be. Although I’d say that the human toll, the dead and brutalized bodies scarred by fascist goons, is fascism’s worst product in absolute terms. Going to the rally at Union Square on Sunday, there were a fair number of signs from the woke Democratic Party “resistance,” showing that class collaborationism indeed remains a real danger.

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Resources on communization

“Com­mun­iz­a­tion” is a the­or­et­ic­al cur­rent that emerged from the French ul­traleft after 1968. Gilles Dauvé is usu­ally cred­ited with coin­ing the term ac­cord­ing to its con­tem­por­ary use in his 1972 es­say on “Cap­it­al­ism and Com­mun­ism” (though in­ter­est­ingly, a cog­nate ap­peared in Eng­lish as early as 1849 in the journ­al of the Brit­ish Owen­ite Good­wyn Barmby, The Pro­methean). Later in that dec­ade, the ed­it­or­i­al col­lect­ive Théo­rie Com­mu­niste ex­pan­ded on the no­tion in at­tempt­ing to the­or­ize “com­mun­ism in the present tense.” It be­came the linch­pin of their more pro­cess-ori­ented vis­ion of how to tran­scend cap­it­al­ism. Rather than pos­it­ing com­mun­ism as some sort of end-goal or a fi­nal state to be achieved after an in­def­in­ite peri­od of trans­ition, com­mun­iz­a­tion un­der­stands it­self as an on­go­ing state of move­ment or flux. Or, as Léon de Mat­tis ex­plains, com­mun­iz­a­tion in­volves “the over­com­ing of all ex­ist­ing con­di­tions can only come from a phase of in­tense and in­sur­rec­tion­ist struggle dur­ing which the forms of struggle and the forms of fu­ture life will take flesh in one and the same pro­cess.”

A num­ber of art­icles by Gilles Dauvé, Karl Nes­ic, Bruno As­tari­an, and oth­er mem­bers of the group Troploin have been trans­lated in­to Eng­lish, along with pieces by Ro­land Si­mon, Bern­ard Ly­on, Léon de Mat­tis, and oth­er mem­bers of the groups Blau­machen or Théo­rie Com­mu­niste. Per­haps the best work on com­mun­iz­a­tion to ap­pear in Eng­lish to date, however, is the ori­gin­al ma­ter­i­al put out by End­notes, which formed in 2008 after a po­lem­ic between Brit­ish pub­lic­a­tion Auf­heben and Théo­rie Com­mu­niste. Moreover, the transat­lantic peri­od­ic­al Sic then co­alesced in 2011, pub­lish­ing its second and fi­nal is­sue in 2014. (The journ­al has since be­come de­funct, re­portedly as the res­ult of dis­agree­ments over the overly “aca­dem­ic” in­terest in the the­ory dis­played by the Amer­ic­an wing com­pared with fo­gies meet­ing in forests back in France. Not to men­tion the shit­storm that en­sued once it was dis­covered that Wo­land, one of Sic’s con­trib­ut­ors, had be­come a high-level func­tion­ary for Syr­iza in Greece. Dia­lect­ic­al De­lin­quents first blogged about it back in April of 2015, eli­cit­ing a series of re­sponses and re­crim­in­a­tions).

You can down­load full-text PD­Fs of the fol­low­ing com­mun­iz­a­tion texts by click­ing be­low:

Miscellaneous
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  1. Gilles Dauvé and François Mar­tin, The Ec­lipse and Ree­m­er­gence of the Com­mun­ist Move­ment (1997, 2015)
  2. Gilles Dauvé, A Con­tri­bu­tion to the Cri­tique of Polit­ic­al Autonomy (2008)
  3. Ben­jamin Noys, ed., Com­mun­iz­a­tion and Its Dis­con­tents (2011)
  4. Bruno As­tari­an, Gilles Dauvé, Jean Bar­rot, Everything Must Go! The Ab­ol­i­tion of Value (2016)

End­notes
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  1. End­notes 1: Pre­lim­in­ary Ma­ter­i­als for a Bal­ance Sheet of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury (Oc­to­ber 2008)
  2. End­notes 2: Misery and the Value-Form (April 2010)
  3. End­notes 3: Gender, Race, Class, and Oth­er Mis­for­tunes (Septem­ber 2013)
  4. End­notes 4: Unity in Sep­ar­a­tion (Decem­ber 2015)

Sic
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  1. Sic: In­ter­na­tion­al Journ­al for Com­mun­iz­a­tion, Volume 1 (Novem­ber 2011)
  2. Sic: In­ter­na­tion­al Journ­al for Com­mun­iz­a­tion, Volume 2 (Janu­ary 2014)

Chuǎng
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  1. Chung 1: Dead Generations (2015)

I have nu­mer­ous ob­jec­tions to the vari­ous strands of com­mun­iz­a­tion the­ory, though I find the prob­lems it’s raised to be im­port­ant. These may be briefly enu­mer­ated.

First of all, I am not con­vinced that the no­tion of a “trans­ition­al peri­od” is so prob­lem­at­ic that it must be done away with al­to­geth­er. Marx main­tained in his “Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gram” (1875) that “between cap­it­al­ist and com­mun­ist so­ci­ety lies the peri­od of the re­volu­tion­ary trans­form­a­tion of the one in­to the oth­er. Cor­res­pond­ing to this is also a polit­ic­al trans­ition peri­od in which the state can be noth­ing but the re­volu­tion­ary dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at.” Seizure of state power, wheth­er first “smashed” or left re­l­at­ively in­tact, is ana­thema to the com­mun­izers. En­gels’ quip about the ex­iled Blan­quist com­munards also comes to mind: “These thirty-three are com­mun­ists be­cause they ima­gine that, as soon as they have only the good will to jump over in­ter­me­di­ate sta­tions and com­prom­ises, everything is as­sured, and if, as they firmly be­lieve, it ‘be­gins’ in a day or two, and they take the helm, ‘com­mun­ism will be in­tro­duced’ the day after to­mor­row. And they are not com­mun­ists if this can­not be done im­me­di­ately. What child­ish naïveté to ad­vance im­pa­tience as a con­vin­cing the­or­et­ic­al ar­gu­ment!”

Second, I do not ac­cept the premise, ad­vanced by both End­notes and Théo­rie Com­mu­niste, that “pro­gram­mat­ism” is dead and gone. “Pro­gram­mat­ism” broadly refers to the era of work­ing-class polit­ic­al pro­grams, so­cial­ist parties and syn­dic­al­ist uni­ons, in which in­di­vidu­als’ status as pro­du­cers was af­firmed. All claims to polit­ic­al le­git­im­acy were thought to flow from this fact. Though they dif­fer some­what on the dates that bookend this peri­od­iz­a­tion, the two journ­als share the same gen­er­al con­clu­sion that this era is at an end. Joshua Clover and Aaron Ben­anav summed it up suc­cinctly in a 2014 art­icle, “Can Dia­lectics Break BRICs?”:

The col­lect­ive ex­per­i­ence of work and life that gave rise to the van­guard party dur­ing the era of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion has passed away with in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion it­self. We re­cog­nize as ma­ter­i­al­ists that the cap­it­al-labor re­la­tion that made such a party ef­fect­ive — not only as idea but as real­ity — is no longer op­er­at­ive. A changed cap­it­al-labor re­la­tion will give rise to new forms of or­gan­iz­a­tion. We should not cri­ti­cize present-day struggles in the name of ideal­ized re­con­struc­tions from the past. Rather, we should de­scribe the com­mun­ist po­ten­tial that presents it­self im­man­ently in the lim­its con­fron­ted by today’s struggles.

Richard Ru­bin of Platy­pus raised some points back in 2013 with which I still for the most part agree. While End­notes’ ap­prais­al of the polit­ic­al im­pot­ence of the Left in the present is sim­il­ar to that of the Platy­pus, Ben­anav con­ten­ded that the lat­ter’s ana­lys­is did not pen­et­rate down to the hard un­der­ly­ing real­it­ies that ex­plain why this is the case. By re­main­ing at the level of ideas, fo­cus­ing on ideo­lo­gic­al re­gres­sions and the dia­lectics of de­feat, Platy­pus failed to see the changed so­cioeco­nom­ic con­di­tions that lie be­neath. “Fail­ing to see this ma­ter­i­al basis for the death of the Left, Platy­pus is help­less to de­scribe the char­ac­ter of class struggle over the last dec­ade and a half,” Ben­anav ar­gued. “Their per­spect­ive com­pletely cov­ers over the real gap that sep­ar­ates the present from the past. Work­ers are only able to find a com­mon in­terest di­luted through the ex­tra­ver­sion of class be­long­ing in­to some oth­er weakened form of an af­firm­able share of ex­ist­ence.” Even­tu­ally, Ru­bin countered. “It is true in a cer­tain sense that the con­di­tions for re­volu­tion emerge from struggle, but there are many dif­fer­ent forms of struggle. People do not al­ways come to the con­clu­sion that they should struggle, and even then they of­ten struggle in un­pro­pi­tious ways.”

Un­like End­notes, I be­lieve the so­cial­ist work­ers’ move­ment re­mains the un­sur­pass­able ho­ri­zon through which alone cap­it­al­ism can be over­come. If these older mod­al­it­ies of struggle no longer have any real pur­chase on the world, then it is not just a par­tic­u­lar form of polit­ics that has seen its last but rather polit­ics it­self. Len­in once re­marked that polit­ics prop­er only be­gins once you start count­ing in the mil­lions: “As long as it was (and inas­much as it still is) a ques­tion of win­ning the pro­let­ari­at’s van­guard over to the side of com­mun­ism, pri­or­ity went and still goes to pro­pa­ganda work; even pro­pa­ganda circles, with all their pa­ro­chi­al lim­it­a­tions, are use­ful un­der these con­di­tions, and pro­duce good res­ults. But when it is a ques­tion of prac­tic­al ac­tion by the masses, of the dis­pos­i­tion, if one may so put it, of vast armies, of the align­ment of all the class forces in a giv­en so­ci­ety for the fi­nal and de­cis­ive battle, then pro­pa­gand­ist meth­ods alone, the mere re­pe­ti­tion of the truths of ‘pure’ com­mun­ism, are of no avail. In these cir­cum­stances, one must not count in thou­sands, like the pro­pa­gand­ist be­long­ing to a small group that has not yet giv­en lead­er­ship to the masses; in these cir­cum­stances one must count in mil­lions and tens of mil­lions.”

Some fur­ther ob­jec­tions with which I gen­er­ally con­cur were made by Don­ald Par­kin­son already more than a year ago. Oth­er points of con­ten­tion are fleshed out in the piece be­low, by some Ger­man com­rades in Kos­mo­prolet. End­notes trans­lated this piece last year, to vent­ri­lo­quize their “frus­tra­tion with the way [com­mun­iz­a­tion] has be­come as­so­ci­ated with a new the­or­et­ic­al brand and/or rad­ic­al iden­tity.” It’s a great piece.

tullio-crali-aerial-machine-1980

On communization and its theorists

Kosmoprolet
January 2016
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This text was ori­gin­ally pub­lished in the Friends’ journ­al Kos­mo­prolet as a re­sponse to Théo­rie Com­mu­niste’s cri­tique of the Friends’ 28 Theses on Class So­ci­ety. A trans­la­tion of Théo­rie Com­mu­niste’s ori­gin­al cri­tique can be found here.

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In the 1970s, some­body in France in­ven­ted the word com­mun­iz­a­tion in or­der to ex­press a fairly simple, but im­port­ant idea: the pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion is not the self-real­iz­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­at, but its self-ab­ol­i­tion. This idea is noth­ing new, for it can already be found in a po­lem­ic­al work from 1845.1 However, it nev­er played a strong role in the labor move­ment, sig­ni­fy­ing at best the ho­ri­zon of a dis­tant fu­ture. Rather, the con­quest of polit­ic­al power by the pro­let­ari­at topped the agenda. In the sub­sequent trans­ition­al so­cial­ist so­ci­ety, which was still to be dom­in­ated by com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion and the strict meas­ure­ment of the in­di­vidu­al share of so­cial wealth, the pro­let­ari­at would lay the found­a­tions for com­mun­ism as a class­less so­ci­ety in which there would be no more wage sys­tem and, in­deed, no more pro­let­ari­at. The term com­mun­iz­a­tion ex­presses the ob­sol­es­cence of this no­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the pro­ponents of com­mun­iz­a­tion, com­mun­ism is not a dis­tant goal, but the move­ment it­self which elim­in­ates all ex­change re­la­tions as well as the state. As is ap­par­ent from our 28 Theses on Class So­ci­ety, we share this per­spect­ive, al­though we do so, ac­cord­ing to a French the­ory circle, in a fash­ion that is halfhearted, and ul­ti­mately bound to the “af­firm­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­at.”2 It is this we seek to ex­am­ine be­low.

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Politics of affirmation or politics of negation?

Joseph Kay
Libcom.org

Nov. 2008
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Below you can read Joseph Kay’s excellent 2008 post on affirmation, negation, and identity. Many of the themes I touched on in my last post are covered here as well, but couched in less philosophical language. I have taken the liberty of editing it lightly, Americanizing the spelling and fixing some minor grammar mistakes. While I might take issue with a couple of its claims, for the most part I agree entirely.

Enjoy.
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Political debate often tends to quickly polarize into simple binaries. This is perhaps even more so online. Mainstream politics has its liberals versus conservatives and left versus right. Radical politics has its Marxists versus anarchists and reform versus revolution. Almost invariably these dichotomies are false ones, obscuring the subtleties of the debate and leading to endless circular slanging matches with the protagonists becoming ever more entrenched.

However, there is one pairing I’ve often found useful: that which distinguishes between leftist politics and communist politics. This is not to use “leftist” as a slur, although many (generally North American) post-leftists and primitivists are wont to do just this. (As indeed are Trots, with “ultra-left”). Rather, it is deployed here as a political term in order to distinguish between the politics which characterize “the left of capital” — sectarian groups, union bureaucrats, NGOs — and the communist movement.

To this end, I tend to use the following definitions: Communist demands are those which stress the concrete material needs of the class (wage demands, universal healthcare, the length of the working day, through to the rejection of wage labor altogether). Leftist demands are those which stress how capital should be managed to accommodate the struggles to impose those needs (tax this! nationalize that!).

While this definition is fine to distinguish communist politics from those of your average Trots in many situations — as they push union candidates to manage the struggle “better” on the workers’ behalf, demand nationalization of the banks, or call for higher taxes on the rich, etc. — it doesn’t adequately address a host of other political positions that cluster around leftism. These include support for national liberation movements and identity politics, particularly with regard to gender, race, and sexuality (though in light of the SWP’s recent love affair with Islam, now ethno-cultural identity too).

For example, consider the argument of the prominent platformist Wayne Price. “Central to anarchism is a belief in self-organization and self-determination of the people,” writes Price. “But there are topics on which many anarchists reject the pro-freedom position, particularly involving free speech and national self-determination.”

Here, he clearly envisages particular groups as subjugated, as needing to affirm themselves by practicing “self-determination.” Implicitly, Price means workers, women, and/or ethnic minorities. Explicitly, but perhaps more controversially, he means “oppressed nations.” As Price goes on to state, “revolutionary anarchists must be the champions of every democratic freedom, every struggle against oppression, whatever its immediate relation to the class struggle as such” [my emphasis]. The oppressed need to assert themselves. (The fact there are ample precedents for this position within the anarchist tradition is not at issue here.)

I would like to juxtapose this leftist approach to one of my favorite political quotes, from Gilles Dauvé. For me, this is emblematic of a communist politics:

If one identifies proletarian with factory worker, or with the poor, then one cannot see what is subversive in the proletarian condition… The proletariat is the dissolution of present society, because this society deprives it of nearly all its positive aspects. Thus the proletariat is also its own destruction… Most proles are low paid, and a lot work in production, yet their emergence as the proletariat derives not from being low paid producers, but from being “cut off,” alienated, with no control either over their lives or the meaning of what they have to do to earn a living.

I will for the time being ignore that Dauvé is talking only of the proletariat and not other possible subject-positions. (I do hope to return to the important differences — not hierarchies — between class politics and politics of race, gender, as well as sexuality in a future blog). The important thing here is that Dauvé is outlining a politics of the dispossessed, a negative politics which must destroy both its adversary along with itself in the course of its liberation. That is to say, a politics of negation.

This is in contrast to the position above, of which Wayne Price is just a convenient example: a positive politics of self-determination for the oppressed, a politics of affirmation. Continue reading

Non-identity and negation

“Identitarianism” and the
affirmation of difference

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we are generation identity, blood and soil

Renovators and renegades

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In a classic 1952 essay on “The Historical Invariance of Marxism,” Amadeo Bordiga identified three contemporary forms of opposition to Marxist theory. First of all there were the bourgeois apologists, who denied the validity of Marx’s critique of political economy. Next there were the Stalinists, who verified Marx’s insights in word but falsified them in deed. Last but not least came the renovators, who tried to modernize Marx’s concepts — i.e., the “self-declared advocates of revolutionary doctrine and method who nonetheless attribute its current abandonment by most of the working class to defects and initial gaps in the theory which must be rectified and brought up to date. Deniers — falsifiers — modernizers. We fight against all three, but we consider the third group [of adversaries] to be the worst of the lot.”

Bordiga’s hardheaded “invariance” was of course largely strategic, meant to sustain a set of principles against unwarranted revisions, additions, subtractions, etc. Marxism addresses itself primarily to history, to changing conditions which must be dealt with on their own terms. Principles, while not totally sacrosanct, should not be compromised at a whim, in order to accommodate regression or to rationalize defeat (Stalin’s motto of “socialism in one country,” for example, was only adopted after it became clear that proletarian revolution had failed in the West). Recently, however, it has again been suggested that Marxism must be supplemented, augmented, or otherwise updated so as to be more inclusive or appeal more to a broader range of people. LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism at least poses this as an open-ended question: “How do we assess the many different theories that attempt to describe the structure of race, gender, and class?” Questions like this seem to suppose definite answers, though, which invariably prove weaker than the original line of inquiry.

Yesterday, in a discussion about how to conceptualize race under capitalism, one ostensible left communist remarked that “there are any number of left communists who are ready to explain to you where ‘intersectionalism’ fails, but how many of them can account for why it exists?” Another discussant then asserted that “a left communist fusion with identitarian points of view is necessary. We need to do more than dismiss a whole perspective just because of differences in language and analysis.” Terms such as “identitarian” and “identitarianism” are of fairly recent vintage, stemming from several sources, hence polysemic. Black socialist critics like Adolph Reed use these terms to denote “essentialized ascriptive identities, commonly referred to as identity politics.” Here the identities in question are multiple, referring to discrete groups whose distinct characteristics, fluid social relations, are fast-frozen and held aloft as if solids. Or else they are snatched from the air, from the misty realm of ideology — as the reified distillate of cultural stereotypes. For the critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, “identitarian” signified just the opposite, the idea of a harmonious social totality in which every antagonism had been surreptitiously removed.

Anyway, I objected that a fairly widespread identitarian movement already exists across Europe and the United States. It is one with which socialists must not fuse, however, under any circumstances. Since 2002, the extreme right-wing nationalist Bloc Identitaire has been active in France. Now it has managed to set up a branch in England and establish a foothold in America. Generation Identity, as it calls itself, is the logical culmination of the “identity politics” foolishly embraced by many parts of the Left these last few years. “Our only inheritance is our blood, soil, and heritage,” reads their headline, with clearly fascist overtones. “We are heirs of our destiny.” Just a couple months ago, the National Policy Institute (NPI) held an entire conference devoted to identity politics in Washington, DC. Claus Brinker, who covered the event for the website Counter-Currents, reported that it aimed to ascertain “the future of white racial identity politics.” In the comments thread of a post several years ago by Red Maistre, “On Identitarianism: In Defense of a Strawman,” Maoist veteran Carl Davidson argued that the real enemy was tacit “white male identity politics.”

Tacit or not, it is clear that formations like Generation Identity and Bloc Identitaire represent something new. When I brought them up, the aforementioned discussant did not seem to appreciate it. “You must have been confused by my terminology,” was the reply. “I did not mean that particular brand…” My response was to ask what the approved brands of identitarianism might be, expressing my concern that drawing distinctions of this sort is reminiscent of the attempt to distinguish “good” from “bad” nationalism. Special pleading routinely accompanies support for the “nationalism of the oppressed,” and relies on a similar logic. One wonders if a similar rationale might not be used to justify cheering on various national liberation projects, like every other Maoist and Trotskyist sect. Even anarchists can get in on some of this action now, with the PKK’s Bookchinite municipalism. Why not just ditch the whole left communist schtick if what you really want is to wave a Palestinian, Kurdish, or Naxalite flag? Continue reading

Not yet human: Universality, common inhumanity, and Marx

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The earth will rise on new foundations.
We have been nothing; we will be everything.
’Tis the final conflict, let each stand in their place.
The International will be the human race.

— L’Internationale, 1871

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Universality today seems a lost cause, the mild resurgence of Marxism in recent years notwithstanding. A number of prominent theorists have championed this category in their critiques of multicultural neoliberalism, perhaps most notably Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, but have made little headway. Vivek Chibber’s noble (if somewhat flawed) 2013 polemic against Postcolonial Studies was made to suffer the indignity of a public scolding by whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who writes under the handle Of CLR James: “If postcolonial theorists want to hold onto the particularity of the particular, and engage the universal through it, Chibber uses these ‘two universalisms’ [the universalism of capital and the universalism of labor] in order to denude the particular, to remove the particularity of the particular in order to reduce it to the universal.” He claims that Chibber’s book is thus not even Marxist, since the real Marxists à la mode have already all accepted the legitimate points raised by postcolonial and decolonial theory and moved on:

The Marxism fashionable both inside and outside the academy today is one which has learned to meet people where they are, that has learned that a caring approach to particularity and a concern to foster difference is not opposed to the universal but is, rather, one way of producing new universals, of realizing freer modes of being in common. Indeed, the Marxism fashionable today is that one which has taken postcolonial theory as a serious incitement, as a spur to think critically about its own deficits but also as a challenge to uncover its hidden possibilities.

Obviously, there’s no accounting for fashion. And I won’t even touch the platitude about “meeting people where they are.” Loren Goldner is perhaps a little old-fashioned. In any case, he has little patience for this fashionable nonsense. Deploring postcolonial theory as “a relativizing discourse of cultural ‘difference’ incapable of making critical judgments,” Goldner argues that Marxist universality must be recovered, reasserted, and boldly upheld. “Today, the idea that there is any meaningful universality based on human beings as a species is under a cloud, even if the opponents of such a view rarely state their case in so many words (or are even aware that this is the issue),” he writes. “For them, such an idea, like the idea that Western Europe from the Renaissance onward was a revolutionary social formation unique in history, that there is any meaning to the idea of progress, or that there exist criteria from which one can judge the humanity or inhumanity of different ‘cultures,’ are ‘white male’ or ‘Eurocentric’ constructs designed to deny to women, people of color, or gays the ‘difference’ of their ‘identity’.”

Goldner’s fulminations against the influential Heideggerian idea of ontological difference and its French variations are well known. He suspects that the partisans of “the current climate of postmodern culturalism” are mostly disturbed by the fact the Marxian critique does not have recourse to its usual explanatory mechanisms: “What bothers them is that the concept of universality for Marx and Engels was ultimately grounded neither in cultural constructs nor even in the metaphysics of ‘power,’ which is the currency in which today’s fashion trades.”

Questions of fashion aside, it might still be asked whether the method described above by Taylor is the way Marxists actually approach matters of universal import. In what does the universality of Marx consist? Goldner tells us: “The universalism of Marx rests on a notion of humanity as a species distinguished by its capacity to periodically revolutionize its means of extracting wealth from nature, and therefore as free from the relatively fixed laws of population nature imposes on other species.” According to Marx, then, the special characteristic that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, or rather potentially sets it apart, is that humans exist historically. Unlike other species, knowledge and customs are transmitted from one generation to the next through record-keeping, allowing individual humans to participate in the past as more than just temporary embodiments of genetic code. “History itself is a real part of natural history and of nature’s becoming man,” Marx concluded in Paris 1844. Élisée Reclus, a prominent nineteenth century anarchist and professional geographer, put it pithily: “Man is nature become conscious.”

One crucial detail is omitted in Goldner’s otherwise accurate formulation of Marx’s view, however: namely, that this uniquely human capacity manifests only at a specific moment in history, though perhaps it was always latent in its nature. By a confluence of factors, many of them fortuitous and by chance, a systemic logic took hold which would sweep away older forms of local community in the name of a global society founded on exchange. With the historic emergence of capital, new vistas of possibility are opened up (even if today they seem to have closed). Powers and capacities that did not hitherto exist become available for the first time. 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