Formaldehyde embalming the corpse: Looking back at The Coming Insurrection

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Right now the insurrectionary ultraleft is abuzz at the release of a new document by the so-called “Invisible Committee,” entitled A Nous Amis [To Our Friends]. For now it’s only available in French, but a translation is expected to appear under the Semiotext(e) brand as early as January 2015. I’ll probably read it once it comes out. Apropos its publication, however, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the enthusiasm and criticism generated by the group’s 2009 title, The Coming Insurrection.

Let’s start with the enthusiasm. John Cunningham wrote an appreciative piece over at Mute that explains the history and context behind the Invisible Committee’s weirdly anti-social politics — their various perversions and inversions. Cunningham situates them within the emerging “communization” milieu (an appellation that seems to have stuck, given their inclusion in Benjamin Noys’ collection Communization and Its Discontents). Predictably, Geoff Bailey of the International Socialist Review, a Cliffite theory rag, took a much more negative stance in his article “Searching for the New, Resurrecting the Old.”  Bailey sees The Coming Insurrection as tragically out of touch with the return of familiar patterns, conditions conducive to normal soft-Trot recruitment drives: “[T]he authors have overlooked some of the very real changes — the globalization of production, the expansion of access to communication technology, and the onset of new a systemic crisis — that open up new possibilities for rebuilding a revolutionary movement, even as they present new challenges.”

The following article by my friend Ashley Weger takes a different path. Weger, unlike Bailey, readily acknowledges the deep discontinuity of the present with the revolutionary movements of the past. Unlike Cunningham, however, she does not find the Invisible Committee’s reworking of traditional problematics all that promising. Some might dismiss Weger’s simply because it first ran in the Platypus Review, but such prejudices are silly. (I’m not even sure whether Platypus is still publishing; their last issue was the combined August-September issue, appeared late, and only had one mammoth panel transcript. October has no new issue yet, unsurprising considering the pitiful turnout at their inaugural European convention and ongoing boycott of their events).

A couple of Weger’s allusions to pop culture are a bit too clever or cute for my taste, but other lines are devastating. Regardless, this is a great piece.

coming-insurrection

The coming insurrection? A reflection on resistance at the Toronto G20

Ashley Weger
Platypus Review 27
September 1, 2010

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One of the results of these recent movements is the understanding that henceforth a real demonstration has to be “wild,” not declared in advance to the police. Having the choice of terrain, we can, like the Black Bloc of Genoa in 2001, bypass the red zones and avoid direct confrontation. By choosing our own trajectory, we can lead the cops, including unionist and pacifist ones, rather than being herded by them. In Genoa we saw a thousand determined people push back entire buses full of Caribinieri, then set their vehicles on fire. The important thing is not to be better armed but to take the initiative. Courage is nothing, confidence in your own courage is everything.[1]

— The Invisible Committee,
The Coming Insurrection

These few sentences prescribe the Invisible Committee’s advice for today’s budding radical. Concurrently serving as agitator and guidance counselor, their pamphlet’s understanding of the path towards overcoming capitalism is woven through with the demand to abandon the fear and inhibition taming one’s revolutionary, insurrectionary potential. As a theoretical justification for tactics of subversion, violence, and destruction in the name of anti-capitalism, The Coming Insurrection was without a doubt in the minds, hearts, and backpacks of the black-clad protesters who converged on, collided with, and combusted cop cars in protest of the Toronto G20 Summit in June [2010]. Perhaps less apparent is the manner in which the emphasis on the propaganda of the deed, à la the insurrectionists and those participating in Black Bloc actions, is hardly restricted to the usual, sable-appareled suspects. Rather, this lust for radical change rooted in “real struggle” represents the culture of the contemporary anti-capitalist Left en masse, and is reflective of a politics whose fervent affirmation of action expresses a non-critical, reified understanding of society.

Despite seemingly great differences between “mainstream” protest and “extremist” tactics, Black Bloc methods and the theory of the insurrectionists are in reality only more acute expressions of a political outlook shared by the contemporary activist Left as a whole: a naïve, ahistorical asseveration of action, despite the Left’s continued downward descent into the abyss of meaninglessness. Marx once described the predicament of emancipation being fettered by a gulf between thought and action, famously concluding that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The mantra of the 21st century left seems to have amended this evaluation, posing that the point is to resist it. This fixation on resistance, contrary to popular imagination, does not reveal the Left’s strength, but rather its consensual degradation into pure symbolism. The actions, antics, and aftermath of the G20 protests underscore the current crisis of the Left: not a rain of rubber bullets aimed at it, but the perverse, perennial celebration of its own comatose state.

Global gatherings of the G20 have been celebrated for bringing together all flavors of left activism: religious social justice types pleading for peace, eco-warriors distraught over the destruction of Mother Earth, dozens of infinitesimal sectarian groups ironically endorsing the power of the masses, Fosteresque entryist union organizers championing any cause that gives their local more street cred, anarchists equipped with tear-gas-ready bandanas, hoards of protestors decked out in “Fuck the G20” shirts and marching to chants of equal chutzpah, and enough Tibetan flags to make one think he or she is jamming at a Beastie Boys concert circa 1994. The uncomfortable, odd couple dynamic of this conglomeration is a decades-long tradition, for these unlikely comrades share the streets time and time again, as they did in 1999 while battling in Seattle and in the host of protests against corporate criminals, global hegemony, and world capital that populate the landscape of the Left, post-collapse. Protest, it has been decided, is the least common denominator amongst what constitutes itself as the Left today, the arena in which divides are bridged in the name of unity against the enemy of all.

While constantly conceptualized as unprecedented, this form of politics is in reality formulaic, and the storyline of the G20 in Toronto has only reproduced the equation. Thousands gather for state-sanctioned, peaceful demonstrations seeking to inform those in power what democracy looks and sounds like — apparently, like hundreds of people mechanically shouting in unison. As the demonstration unfurls, a small militant population destroys property as a gesture of their “autonomy” and fearlessness to resist the intimidating batons and tear gas of police officers outfitted in riot gear. This is followed by intense retaliation from the police officers, chiefly against persons who committed no crime. Indeed, the G20 resulted in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. To the embarrassment of police officers and the city of Toronto, nearly all these arrests and detainments, whether the result of the frenzy of the moment or an intentional abuse of power, were without merit. Continue reading

Towards a theory of the development of the world market and the world economy

Isaak Dashkovskii
Under the Banner of
Marxism
(№ 1, 1927)
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Translated by Noa Rodman with light edits by Ross Wolfe. Still waiting on a full copy of the Russian to go over some of the rougher sections. English is not Noa’s first language, to my knowledge. He’s a mysterious figure in general, who sometimes comments on my blog and occasionally Chris Cutrone’s, while also haunting the LibCom forums. Anyway, I’ve done what I can to clean it up.

First of three articles. Under the Banner of Marxism, 1927, № 1 , 86-117. See part two and three.1
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The most fundamental and dominant facts of modern economic life are the world market and the world economy. This is observed in countless written works, devoted to recent history of the economy and its modern situation. Even those authors, who, like [Werner] Sombart, tend to defend the paradoxical idea, that “the single national economy increasingly is becoming a completed microcosmos, and the internal market gradually outweighs for all industries the significance of the foreign market,”2 nevertheless have to recognize, that an essential condition for the growth of the domestic market is a “permanent and continuous extensive expansion of world economic relations.”

The development of international economic relations is a kind of dialectical process. As is known, exchange and trade historically occur “on the margins of social organisms.” International, intertribal trade is the starting point of the development of exchange, with which the capitalist economy also develops. 3 Later on capitalism gradually clears for itself a required “field of exploitation” inside the country, disintegrating the remnants of the natural order, paving the way of commodity economy throughout and transforming the latter into capitalist economy. During this period there occurs an intensive “formation of the internal market” for capitalism. When this work is done in enough depth and breadth, there comes the turn again of international exchange, on no longer primitive foundations, but on the basis of large-scale production and manufacture technology. Capitalism “pulls” all nations one after the other into the world economic orbit. The epoch of world economy arrives.

As troubadours of this international exchange act always the economists of those countries, which occupy a dominant position in the world market. Since the era of development of bourgeois political economy coincided with the dominance of England in the world market, it is only natural that the theory of the classics became the fighting banner of bourgeois “cosmopolitanism,” which essentially was the only adequate form of expression of the national interests of British capital. In the development of the “cosmopolitan” theory one can mention two stages: the first period associated with the names of Smith and Ricardo, characterizing the predominance of the interests of international trade in the strict sense, i.e., in terms of export of goods. Praising the benefits of international exchange both Smith and Ricardo refer negatively to the tendency to transfer capital and entrepreneurship abroad.

But in relation to this already Mill takes a step forward, pointing out that the export of capital is a powerful force for expanding the field of employment of remaining capital. It is quite fair to say that the more, to a certain extent, we will send capital out, the more we will have it and the greater the amount of it we will be able to keep in the fatherland.4 This evolution of the classical theory was closely related to changes in the economic environment. From export of goods British capital turned, after the Napoleonic Wars, to the export of capital. The pursuit of higher profits got the better over “attachment to the fatherland,” and Mill only registered a fait accompli. True, he has not yet completely done away with the old ideology and proves the benefits of export of capital by the consideration that the export contributes to increasing the amount of capital remaining in the fatherland. But this was already a simple tribute to prejudices, from which the later generation of economists managed to entirely escape.

In the theory of international economic relations as well as in all other matters of political economy, the classics remained true to their main method — to issue the specific laws of bourgeois economy to a natural order of things, to a pre-established harmony. The moving force of the development of world trade they saw in physical conditions of production, and not in the social form, which they take under capitalism. International trade spreads the frame of the division of labor, increasing its productivity. Growth of productivity is a simple consequence of technical factors — the division of labor, which therefore is the most natural order of things. Natural laws inevitably must forge a way through the artificial barriers created by the wrong policies of social organizations — the state, etc. Therefore the development of international trade is inevitable.

From the natural order of things proceeded, incidentally, also a prominent opponent of the classical school on the continent of Europe — Friedrich List. But he, in contrast to the classics, argued that the greatest economic benefits are obtained not from the division of labor between countries, but from the conjunction of labor within the same country, in particular from the conjunction of industrial and agricultural production. A clear case of how the meaning of “natural laws” is modified when they need to express opposing interests of different groups of bourgeoisie, in this case the bourgeoisie of England and Germany in the first half of the 19th century. True, also List did not depart from “cosmopolitanism” in relation to more or less distant future, when circumstances permit “universal” struggle. He also considered it necessary to flirt with “universal” considerations. “That the civilization of all nations, the culture of the whole globe is the mission of mankind, is a consequence of those immutable laws of nature, according to which civilized nations are driven by irresistible power to carry over their productive forces to the less civilized countries.”5

“Natural laws” unconsciously for their interpreters spoke in the purest language of bourgeois categories in those cases, for example, when the benefits of the international exchange strengthened arguments on the profit rate or wages. But since these categories in the representation of bourgeois economy had “antediluvian existence,” these same forces of development of the world market appeared independent of any form of social organization. They were rooted in the “immutable laws of nature.”

In his comments on Ricardo Diehl correctly notes that “​​Ricardo’s idea about foreign trade policy is closely connected with his theory of distribution of national income; he is in favor of free trade because it has the most favorable influence upon the distribution of wealth within the national economy” (K. Diehl, Erläuterungen, Bd. III, II Theil, 326 p.).

Only Marx put the question of the world market on a real scientific ground. He showed that the creation of the world market was not a function of “laws of nature” as such, but a function of capital, and moved, in this way, study on the ground of social laws, peculiar to a determined era. “What is free trade under the present condition of society?” Marx asks. “Freedom of capital. When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action.”6

And further, revealing the essence of protectionism, Marx finds it in a strong growth, despite the apparent contrast, with the system of free trade:

The protectionist system is nothing but a means of establishing large-scale industry in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the world market, and from the moment that dependence upon the world market is established, there is already more or less dependence upon free trade.

In this way, both seemingly mutually exclusive, systems of economic policy, lead, according to Marx, to the same result: the expansion of the scope of capital’s activity, the expansion of world economic relations.

A theory of the world market had no fortune in Marxist literature. Marx himself assumed to devote a significant part of his research to the analysis of foreign trade, international market and international economy. He mentions this in the first lines of his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “I examine the system of bourgeois economy in the following order: capital, landed property, wage-labor; the State, foreign trade, world market.” The incompleteness of Capital is reflected precisely in the last three parts of Marx’s plan. In particular the theory of international economic relations is represented there only in the form of passing remarks, which, however, are themselves of an enormous scientific worth and allow in general outlines to build a system of Marx’s views on this question.

Regarding post-Marxian economic literature, although questions of world economy also were and are paid a lot of attention, a general theory of international exchange remained poorly developed. The dispute about the importance of foreign markets for capitalism between Marxists and populists, renewed in our days around the theory of Rose Luxemburg, revolves mainly around the problem of realization, or the complication of specific questions of modern imperialism, involving the highly advanced monopolization of important sectors of the world economy, the strong influence of “supra-economic” factors , etc., conditions interfering with the economic laws of capitalism “in its pure form.” Meanwhile, without a “pure theory” of the global market one cannot understand the real binding of global economic phenomena, just as without a “pure theory” of commodity and capitalist economy one cannot understand the general course of economic life, relations, classes, etc. The theory of “realization” is only a part of this pure theory. The question about realization of surplus value cannot be separated from the question about prices, for it is only through prices that potential surplus value is converted into real profit. The formation of price in international exchange is impossible to understand, without having a general theory of international exchange, and international exchange is part of a wider field of international economic relations (including the migration of capitals, the so-called “exchange of services,” the movement of labor forces, etc.). In short, here is an untouched region of theoretical research, in which Marxist science has made only first steps. Continue reading

The spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism

Introduction

To understand the history of architectural modernism and eclecticism as they emerged out of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one must take into account the broader development of architecture over the course of the latter half of the nineteenth century. This development, in turn, must be seen as emerging out of the dynamic of late nineteenth-century capitalism, which had by that point extended to encompass the whole of Europe. For it was the unique spatiotemporal dialectic of the capitalist mode of production — along with the massive social and technological forces it unleashed — that formed the basis for the major architectural ideologies that arose during this period. Before the story of the academicians or the avant-garde can be told, then, some background is necessary to explain both their origin and the eventual trajectory they would take into the early twentieth century.

So while my aim is to eventually account for how a single social formation, capitalism, can give birth to these two opposite tendencies within architectural thought, the space required to give an adequate exposition of the spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism is such that it deserves to function as a standalone essay. Certainly other trends, both cultural and social, could be understood as reflections of this underlying socioeconomic dynamic. It is thus my intention to post this as its own piece, before then proceeding to detail the way in which architectural modernism and eclecticism mirrored these dynamics. Continue reading

Regressive activism at the recent Toronto G-20 conference

An excellent piece by Ashley Weger of Platypus provides a desperately-needed critical reexamination of the latest round of anti-globalization protests, which took place at the G-20 Conference in Toronto a couple months ago.  Unsurprisingly, the same predictable scenario of spectacular, ineffectual “resistance” played itself out there yet again.  In some ways, it’s a continuation of conventions established by ’60s and ’70s radicalism.  The newer element, noted by Weger in her article, is the peculiar hodgepodge of unrelated and even contradictory tendencies within the Left that have shown up at these events ever since they were first held back in 1999.  Any notion of a common goal toward which these disparate groups are working, under which they are united, is, however, completely lost on the protesters.  Their “courageous” acts of defiance and non-conformity all too often amount to nothing more than empty displays of a vague, generalized discontent with the status quo, however inadequately they understand it.

Whether or not the riots were provoked by undercover police agents posing as Black Bloc members is irrelevant to an investigation of the fundamental premises of the G-20 marches.  This is so no matter what the excesses committed by the police might have been, since these are matters of purely legal and ethical consideration.  Though many of the accusations of police brutality against innocent protestors might be well-founded, this does not in any way retroactively justify their tactics, goals, and antics.

The characteristics exhibited by the demonstrations in Toronto in late June are nearly all symptomatic of what Theodor Adorno termed “actionism” in his “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” and in his final published essay, “Resignation” (1968).  His evaluation of this phenomenon was as follows:

Actionism is regressive.  Under the spell of the positivity that long ago became part of the armature of ego-weakness, it refuses to reflect upon its own impotence.

Adorno was here responding to the new wave of mass social activism that was first beginning to emerge in the 1960s, culminating in the widespread protests, demonstrations, and university takeovers of 1968.  When he expressed his misgivings about these protests, Adorno was accused of turning his back on the students’ revolutionary struggle.  To this he responded:

We older representatives of that for which the name Frankfurt School has established itself have recently had the reproach of resignation leveled against us. We had, it is stated, developed elements of a critical theory of society, but we were not prepared to draw the practical consequences from this theory. The objection raised against us be states approximately in these words: a person who in the present hour doubts the possibility of radical change in society and who for that reason neither takes part in nor recommends spectacular, violent action is guilty of resignation. Thinking activists [claim]: among the things to be changed is that very separation of theory and praxis. The trouble with this view is that it results in the prohibition of thinking. The often-evoked unity of theory and praxis has a tendency to give way to the predominance of praxis. Today…one clings to action because of the impossibility of action.

At the present point no higher form of society is concretely visible: for that reason, anything that seems in reach is regressive. The Utopian impulse in thinking is all the stronger, the less it objectifies itself as Utopia whereby it sabotages its own realization.

Repressive intolerance toward a thought not immediately accompanied by instructions for action is founded in fear. Thought, enlightenment conscious of itself, threatens to disenchant pseudo-reality within which activism moves. This activism is tolerated only because it is viewed as pseudo-activity. Only thinking could offer an escape. It is the responsibility of thought not to accept the situation as finite. If there is any chance of changing the situation, it is only through undiminished insight.

Adorno witnessed the anti-intellectualism of popular protest movements firsthand.  This character of unthinking has been more recently addressed by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti, in their 2003 article “Action Will be Taken”, written in the context of the (now largely forgotten) antiwar movement.  Activists and protesters, they observed, would rather not “get bogged down in analysis.”  Featherstone, Henwood, and Parenti thus asked: “So over all is the activist left just an inchoate, ‘post-ideological’ mass of do-gooders, pragmatists, and puppeteers?” To which they promptly answered:

No.  The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore.  The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed.  They are Activismists.

That’s right, Activismists.  This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade.  In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists.  And the one who acts is righteous.

Those who participate in events such as the recent G-20 protests often leave with the sense of smug self-satisfaction that comes from knowing that they have “done their part” in order to somehow “make a difference” in the world.  The danger for the Left is not police repression, but rather its own thoughtlessness.  Or, as Weger puts it, in a magnificent line: “[the current crisis for the Left is] not a rain of rubber bullets aimed at it, but the perverse, perennial celebration of its own comatose state.”

Ivan Leonidov's City of the Sun (1940s-1950s)

The transformation of utopia under capitalist modernity

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IMAGE: Ivan Leonidov’s
City of the Sun (1940s)

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Utopianism has always involved the imagination of a better world, a perfected society set against the imperfect society of the present. Whether as an object of speculative philosophical reflection, a practical program for social transformation, or an idle daydream, utopia has always evinced the hope that reality might be made ideal.

Underneath this general rubric, however, “utopia” can be seen to signify several related but distinct things. The term is commonly used to refer to that literary genre, deriving its name from Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia, which depicts various “ideal commonwealths.” Beyond this meaning, many commentators have identified these literary utopias as belonging to a broader impulse that exists within the very structure of human experience, of which they are but one expression.[1] Karl Mannheim, for example, described utopianism as a mentalité, writing that “[a] state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs…and at the same breaks the bond of the existing order.”[2] Others have linked the idea of utopia to more metaphysical foundations, explaining how the condition for the possibility of utopia is carried by the category of possibility itself. Understood in this way, a utopia could be an alternate social configuration that is imaginable either as a pure fantasy wholly apart from existing conditions, or as one that is potentially viable, somehow implied by those same conditions.[3] The former of these constitutes an abstract or merely logical possibility, whereas the latter represents a concrete or real possibility.

Continue reading