communists in situ

leberwurst proletariat

Tag: activism

Nihilist Communism (2009)

A critique of optimism — the religious dogma that states there will be an ultimate triumph of good over evil — in the far left

Preface

You know it is a book if it weighs a quarter pound.

A book is dependent more on the quantity of its words than on quality of writing. Certainly, I have written better elsewhere but our book, this book, has a weight about it that goes beyond the writing – it has been assigned its own four ounces of reality, its half inch of spine width; Nihilist Communism is a true thing in the world of things, it has independent existence. Admittedly, the viability of this existence has been sustained amongst a very small readership, but nevertheless this book is real.

The phenomenon of books escaping from their authors is a curious matter and it is difficult to know how to respond to it; at one level we feel responsible for it, it is ours; at a different level entirely (the text is anti-copyright), it functions under its own power. I sense that my right to talk about it, alter it, frame it, is debatable. After all, there are live threads leading from the event of its initial publication which I might now cut with these comments here. It seems to me that there are more disconnections in the republishing of a book than there are continuities. At the least, there is the opportunity to modify and manipulate what went before.

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College

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– from The New Activism of Liberal Arts Colleges by Nathan Heller

Through the late eighties and the early nineties, liberals on college campuses often spoke of “multiculturalism”: a reform of the curriculum to reflect the many traditions of the world. As the doctrine gained adherents, though, it was criticized by the academic left—not least, by many nonwhite scholars—who worried that it made a luxury commodity of otherness.

Marc Blecher, an Oberlin professor of politics, had problems with the program at the time, in part, he said, because thinking in terms of cultural identities often leaves out a critical factor: class. He believes the problem goes back to the early days of boomer politics, which he experienced as an activist at Cornell, in the sixties. “When we opposed the Vietnam War, we didn’t take seriously that all the draft dodging we were doing was screwing black people and poor people and forcing them to go fight,” Blecher said one afternoon, in his office. He had a gray beard and a somewhat stark, feral intensity; as he spoke, he put one leg, but not the other, on his desk.

In time, the sixties gave rise to more identity-bounded movements: Black Power, second-wave feminism, gay liberation. Class was seldom fully in the mix, except, maybe, in a generalized Marxist way. Blecher suggests that this is how we ended up with market-friendly multiculturalism and, in universities, an almost consumerist conception of identity politics.

Identity politics used to be obligate: I am a woman of color, because the world sees me as such. Now there is an elective element: I identify as X and Y and Z right now. That can distract from the overriding class privilege of élite education. “Intersectionality is taken as a kind of gospel around here,” Blecher complained. For this he put a lot of the blame on Comparative American Studies, an influential program among Oberlin activists.

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Hic Nihil, Hic Salta!

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 (a critique of Bartlebyism)

[We offer up to our comrades the following critique of the nihilist turn in communist and anarchist thought, in part because we find some of its appeal mystifying and some of its appeal understandable. We hope that at very least it will provoke some conversation among friends and comrades sympathetic to this line of thought.]

After the jailings and beatings and trials; after the last-ditch efforts you knew wouldn’t work, the surprising turn-of-events you thought just might, the labored attempts to force the situation; after the too-many meetings, the too-little sleep, the what-the-fuck-is-going-on-here; after the list of former friends has grown longer, after deciding there must be a snitch, after all the terrible things have been said and regretted and then said again and not regretted; after afraid, sad, tired, and after admitting, finally, sooner than some and later than others, that you failed, that it was over, that they won and that you can’t just call it a day, give up, go home, because when they win, they don’t just go home and feel happy and count their money and their votes and their weapons, they fuck your life up bad, they fuck up the people you love, they put them in jail or on probation, they take your money, they raise your rent, they wreck the place where you live, they kill and kill and keep on killing—after all this, it’s natural to feel pretty depressed; it’s natural to feel that everything you did was just stupid, that you were a fool, that you must have done something wrong or, better, that someone else must have done something wrong, even though you’re up against an enemy who is stronger than you, and even though the history of every struggle ever is a concordance of failures, and even though no one has ever figured out how to succeed against such an enemy in any kind of consistent and repeatable manner. It’s easier if there’s someone to blame. It’s easier if there was some mistake. If there was a mistake, then there was hope; if there was a mistake, then one can remain melancholically attached to the grim specter of what might have been…

The world is depressing enough as it is, of course. For many of us, it’s the return to normality, the prospect of another year of the grinding everyday, that makes the end of a political sequence unbearable. Through the experience of defeat we realize that the quotidian is constituted by defeat; the normal functioning of capitalism is continuous counter-revolution. Depression and anxiety are forms through which this victory is secured, through which people are rendered compliant, isolated, but only when these moods are modulated by brief moments of hopefulness, relief, imagination, ambition. What capitalism wants is a continuous, low-level unhappiness. They want people engaged in a continuous process of emotional management – with images, with work, with sex, with commodities. Anything more extreme makes people unpredictable, and it’s no surprise that communities that define themselves in opposition to the status quo are filled with the most wounded and miserable types. Once such feelings get politicized, once their political origins are disclosed, all sorts of problems result. Because these affects are the one thing that people in such communities are guaranteed to share, they tend to be valorized as a mark of authenticity; they become markers of an identity, something to hold onto, burnish, aestheticize, worship. Our feelings become not the motivation for our politics, not their energy source, but their object. The result is miserabilism, a community formed by a shared unhappiness, whose reproduction secretly depends upon the continuous provision of more sources of unhappiness.

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Remarks on Activism

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Activism is the permanent “What is to be done?” of the epoch in which everything that constituted a worker identity has disappeared. A permanent “What is to be done?” which no longer disposes of that mediation towards generality which was represented by the worker identity and/ or the Party (existing or to be built), by the empowerment of the class, or more generally, by a proletarian being to be revealed, no matter if it was explicit in its mediations (political, trade-unionist, institutional) or thwarted by them. If activism is an autonomisation of the dynamics of the current cycle of struggles, this autonomisation becomes for activism, in its working modalities, the generality of the proletariat in which every particularity is just a contingency, an accidental occurrence.

This is why activism can also be defined on the basis of a constitutive contradiction: Practice is necessary to it, whereas it sustains a random relationship to its object. This contradiction could equally be formulated in the following terms: activism falls within the province of a general class belonging; its application is, in fact, always particular. Hardly pressed, without any mediation, between the general and the particular, activism is tactics, and always dissatisfied with itself and with others (until the next action). The next action is the rationale of the current action. Being fundamentally tactical, activism works like a toolbox: generalisation of the action, overcoming of sectional demands, self-organisation of the struggle, rejection of mediations, autonomy, etc. As a consequence, activism is normative. And while such a feature might not enter into its definition, it is nonetheless a preponderant trend.

For activism, any specific activity might have, in every case, been different. This appears to be self-evident as a critique of a tailor-made “enemy”: “determinism”. But the separation between an activity and the circumstances on which it is exerted constitutes a retrospective illusion which, constantly repeated, imposes itself a priori as a general comprehension of “practice”. “Practice” then becomes the question of practice, i.e. the question of intervention. The retrospective trap of the analysis of specific activities within a movement is defined by a separation, appearing a posteriori as self-evident (since it pertains to a cyclical movement) between the conditions of a movement and the activities or decisions of its actors (which are being retrospectively apprehended as particular objects). The starting point is the analysis of the limits of particular actions in relation with the movement, not of the limits of the movement of which these actions are constitutive elements, and which would admittedly have been different without them. One has separated what, in the best case, was in unison: conditions and activities, terms which not only were in unison, but rather absolutely identical – so much so, that no reality presents itself as the relation of these two terms. Their separation is the reconstruction of the world through the question of practice: an objective world faced by activity.

The error resides not only in the separation of the terms, but also in the comprehension of reality in these terms. Militants, always considering retrospectively their current action, have principles to apply, and dispose of a well-furnished toolbox; whereas the on-the-spot actors are content with the possibilities (which are actions themselves), the thoughts produced, and the initiatives taken at the moment of the action. This is because they are defined by those actions while, like everybody else, they do not identify themselves with them. The retrospective trap transforms a movement of struggles, which is the sum or, even better, a constantly changing interaction between actions and decisions taken, into a scene that becomes the object of action, that is, one to which the action is applied. In this way, activism constructs and confirms the abstract generality of its class practice. This is then a militant reconstruction of reality in which action is “pure action” and its preexisting subject is a “pure subject that constitutes reality”. Neither the activity nor its subject are being produced themselves; they just face the world as “pure object”. The relationship to the world becomes that of success or failure. Needless to say, “failure” is always being interpreted as conjunctural and/or circumstantial.

However, the dialectics of the particular and the general does not spare activism. Nourishing the pretension to always be general, activism is directed towards an attack on the general conditions of capitalist reproduction as its particular and preferred field of action: commodity, exchange, State violence, ideological constraints, the educational system, gender roles, etc. Activism finds there a generality adapted to its own abstraction. But what makes it fail in its attack on the general conditions of reproduction is that the practices deployed in this attack render these conditions as abstract as activism itself. By its very nature, activism stops before the point of articulation between the general and the particular: being defined by a general and abstract construction of class belonging, activist practice jumps over the reality of the particularities inherent in the capitalist relation of exploitation. For activism, the generality of the proletariat is simply given, or at least an internal truth to be revealed, a generality mirrored so as to justify the generality of activism itself. To further the analysis, the definition of the proletariat here appears as self-sufficient, independently of the relation between proletariat and capital, and thus of the specific, subsuming role of capital in this relation, and of its defining presence in the other pole of the relation.

It is in this sense that alternativism represents the natural inclination of activism, and the friction between “proletarian activism” and “alternativist activism” is a family affair (with its fair share of dirty linen to wash and the occasional murder between friends).

Sic 1.1 – Further Remarks on Activism