It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism
In one of the key scenes in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men, Clive Owen’s character, Theo, visits a friend at Battersea Power Station, which is now some combination of government building and private collection. Cultural treasures – Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig – are preserved in a building that is itself a refurbished heritage artifact. This is our only glimpse into the lives of the elite, holed up against the effects of a catastrophe which has caused mass sterility: no children have been born for a generation.
Theo asks the question, ‘how all this can matter if there will be no-one to see it?’ The alibi can no longer be future generations, since there will be none. The response is nihilistic hedonism:
“in this society unity appears as accidental, separation as normal.”
—Marx, Theories of Surplus Value
We live in an era of long-unfolding social crisis, which is fundamentally the crisis of societies organized in a capitalist mode. Indeed, the employment relations that govern production and consumption in capitalist societies are breaking down. The result has been the reappearance of a structural condition that Marx called surplus capital alongside surplus population. Technological transformations continue to take place in spite of economic stagnation, giving rise to a situation in which there are too few jobs for too many people. Meanwhile, huge pools of money scour the earth for profits, leading to periodic expansions of bubbles that burst in massive blowouts. Rising job insecurity and inequality are symptoms of the increasing impossibility of this world as such.
In the present moment, these contradictions, formerly contained within capitalist societies, are set to explode. The 2008 crisis was one manifestation of this. It gave rise to a global wave of struggles that is still unfolding today. In order to gain some control over a simmering crisis, states organized coordinated bailouts of financial and other firms. State debt rose to levels not seen since World War II. Bailouts of capitalists thus had to be accompanied by punishing austerity for workers, as states sought to manage their balance sheets while also recreating the conditions for accumulation. Yet these state actions have been only partially successful. Rich economies continue to grow ever more slowly even as they take on huge quantities of debt at every level. Poor economies are also faltering. We call this global situation the holding patternand assert that further economic turbulence is likely to issue in a capitalist crash landing.
Workers fought defensive battles in the twentieth century as they still do today. But then, their defensive battles were part of an offensive struggle: workers sought to organize themselves into a labor movement, which was growing ever more powerful. This movement would sooner or later expropriate the expropriators in order to begin to build a society organized according to the needs and wants of workers themselves.
However, the post-1970s crisis of capitalism, which for many should have spelled its end, led to a deep crisis of the labor movement itself. Its project is no longer adequate to the conditions workers face. Most fundamentally, this is because of the decline of the centrality of industrial work in the economy. With the onset of deindustrialization and the decline in the manufacturing share of employment (which was itself one of the fundamental causes of the expansion of surplus populations), the industrial worker could no longer be seen as the leading edge of the class. In addition, due to rising levels of greenhouse gases, it is apparent that the vast industrial apparatus is not only creating the conditions of a better future – it is also destroying them. Most fundamentally of all, work itself is no longer experienced as central to most people’s identities. For most people (although not everyone), it no longer seems as if work could be fulfilling if only it was managed collectively by workers rather than by bosses.
At the same time, the decline of the workers’ identity revealed a multiplicity of other identities, organizing themselves in relation to struggles that had, until then, been more or less repressed. The resulting “new social movements” made it clear, in retrospect, to what extent the homogeneous working class was actually diverse in character. They have also established that revolution must involve more than the reorganization of the economy: it requires the abolition of gender, racial and national distinctions, and so on. But in the welter of emergent identities, each with their own sectional interests, it is unclear what exactly this revolution must be. For us, the surplus population is not a new revolutionary subject. Rather, it denotes a structural situation in which no fraction of the class can present itself as the revolutionary subject.
Under these conditions, the unification of the proletariat is no longer possible. This might seem to be a pessimistic conclusion, but it has a converse implication that is more optimistic: today the problem of unification is a revolutionary problem. At the high points of contemporary movements, in occupied squares and factories, in strikes, riots and popular assemblies, proletarians discover not their power as the real producers of this society, but rather their separation along a multiplicity of identity-lines (employment status, gender, race, etc.). These are marked out and knitted together by the disintegrating integration of states and labor markets. We describe this problem as the composition problem: diverse proletarian fractions must unify but do not find a unity ready-made within the terms of this unraveling society.
This is why we think it is so important to study the unfolding of struggles in detail. It is only in those struggles that the revolutionary horizon of the present is delineated. In the course of their struggles, proletarians periodically improvise solutions to the composition problem. They name a fictive unity, beyond the terms of capitalist society (most recently: the black bloc, real democracy, 99%, the movement for black lives, etc.), as a means of fighting against that society. While each of these improvised unities inevitably breaks down, their cumulative failures map out the separations that would have to be overcome by a communist movement in the chaotic uproar of a revolution against capital.
This is what we mean when we say that class consciousness, today, can only be consciousness of capital. In the fight for their lives, proletarians must destroy that which separates them. In capitalism, that which separates them is also what unites them: the market is both their atomization and their interdependence. It is the consciousness of capital as our unity-in-separation that allows us to posit from within existing conditions – even if only as a photographic negative – humanity’s capacity for communism.
In capitalist modernity, all that is fluid is frozen fast, and vice versa. Everything is at the same time solid and not. We need to do something. One must always produce. But then, one must always produce the same. Production is always reproduction, no more, no less, albeit on an extended scale. Capitalist society is a treadmill: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that,” as the Red Queen asserted. Society (re-)produces itself, using humans as its principal agents, as ever new and ever the same. Humans (re-)produce society as ever the same by making a fresh start every morning when the alarm bell tolls: a new morning promises gold – the matter of eternity – every single day anew. My consciousness is split on this matter: it tells me, on the one hand, that I have places to go (hooray!), I have some inner growing to do, but at the same time, I am proudly identical to myself (disregarding some metabolism-related corporeal change that one tries to keep separate from one’s sense of selfhood). I who took out the student loan yesterday will have to pay up tomorrow, although the intervening time – not least ‘the student experience’, as they say – will have made me a whole new person (with places to go, hooray!). Growing up, experience – going-beyond-and-through: ex-per-ire – or not, contracts are to be fulfilled. This is a rule society will enforce.
This article explores the dialectic of a twofold compulsion characteristic of modern bourgeois society: on the one hand the dynamism grounded in the compulsion to expand production, to never stand still, relax and enjoy, always to increase the labors of self-preservation, on the other hand the static, sameness and identity that are produced by the ‘real-abstracting’ processes equally central to the capitalist mode of production, the locking down of humans in their identities, including those of sex and race. The article examines these matters through the prism of Adorno’s late essay on the concepts of ‘static and dynamic’ that is taken as a vantage point for a reading of ‘The concept of enlightenment’ in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. The last part of the essay argues that capitalist society’s needless necessities impose themselves on society through abstracting practices in everyday life but also produce an equally contradictory set of social movements that have now opened up a fragile prospect for the revolutionary overcoming of capitalist society. The key point of the argument is that Horkheimer and Adorno’s unique emphasis on the critique of ‘the economic’ beyond that of ‘the economy’ is crucial to this radical perspective.
If, as Marx wrote in 1844, taking a cue from Fourier, the relationship between the sexes enables us to judge humankind’s “whole level of development”, with this relationship we can also judge the level of development of the revolutionary movement. According to this criterion, past insurrections have done rather poorly, as they have usually let masculine domination prevail.
When faced with this undisputable fact, most radical thought rarely rises up to the challenge. (1)
In the past, anarchism did not treat this issue as a specific one: emancipating the human species would emancipate women as well as men. Lately, since the 1970s and the growth of a feminist movement, many anarchist groups have come to regard women as an important (and long overlooked) oppressed category which must be added to the list of major potentially revolutionary categories.
As for the Marxists, they often start with the perfectly valid assumption that the “woman question” part can only be solved via the “proletarian” whole, and with the equally valid necessity of differentiating between bourgeois women and proletarian women, but they end up dissolving the woman question in the class question. The trouble is, without this part, the whole does not exist. (2)
Unlike most anarchists and Marxists, we think women’s emancipation is not a mere consequence of general human emancipation: it is one of its indispensable key components.
In this first issue we outline our basic conceptual framework and illustrate the current state of class conflict in China. We also include translated reports and interviews with the proletarians engaged in these struggles, pairing our theory with primary sources drawn from class dynamics that might otherwise remain abstract.Though taking the futureless present as our starting point, our first issue is also in a way performing burial rites for the dead generations who have populated the collapse of the communist horizon in East Asia. This issue therefore begins with a long-form article on the socialist era, “Sorghum and Steel: The Socialist Developmental Regime and the Forging of China,” the first in a three-part series aiming to narrate a new economic history of China (the next two parts will be included in subsequent issues), before moving on to a pair of analytic articles on contemporary urban and rural struggles, as well as original translations and interviews with individuals engaged in them.
“Some people will find our propositions insane or naïve. We do not expect to convince everyone. If such a thing were possible, it would be very disturbing. We would rather have readers who have to rub their eyes before granting credence to our positions.”
A World Without Money: Communism, 1975
AUTONOMY BLUE COLLAR CLASS DAILY LIFE
ECOLOGY FAMILY GIOTTO HABITAT
INSURRECTION JAILBREAK KARL (MARX) LABOUR
MONEY NON-ECONOMY OBFUSCATION POLITICS QUERY
REVOLUTION SEX TIME (IS OF THE ESSENCE) UNLABELLED
VALUE WORK XENOPHILIA YESTERDAY ZOMIAS
In 2012, radical Oakland occupiers made it clear that “no permission would be asked, no demands would be made, no negotiation with the police and city administration” : nobody or no body had the power to grant them anything relevant, so there was no point in bargaining with wannabe representatives.
Participatory decision-making implies a communal capacity often called “self-empowerment”. Autonomy is inclusive. As participants share an equal stake in the creation of a different world, the most important thing in their lives becomes their relation to others, and this interdependence extends far beyond the circle of relatives and friends.
In a different time and place, some people have stressed the spontaneity of many recent Chinese strikes, demonstrations, protests, street blockades and riots. Other observers have emphasized the careful planning that takes place beforehand. Yet organization and spontaneity are two sides of the same coin. A self-initiated work-stoppage needs previous secret talks and meetings, and its continuity needs durable independent information channels (such as a mutual help hotline) and decision-making structures.
However, the ideology of autonomy is one of the up-to-date nostrums. Autonomy is acting by oneself: it says nothing about what this individual or collective self actually does. In the ebbs and flows of social battles, most occupations and strikes meet the limit of one company, one neighbourhood, one town, one city. Workplace, neighbourhood, kinship, etc., create a potential community of struggle which by its own strength alone can certainly self-manage an occupation, a strike, even community life for a while… but it is not enough to break the log jam.
How does a community of struggle create more than its struggle ? Can it go beyond rituals of social partnership ? How does solidarity not become an end in itself ? When can collective will wield its transformative power?
Unlike a book divided into chapters which gradually make their point from beginning to end, this A to Z is more like a dictionary in which each entry is to be read in relation to all the others. It is by accident that autonomy begins with the first letter of the alphabet. But it is no accident that self-activity should be a starting point. Autonomy is a necessary condition of the whole A to Z of communisation. It does not encapsulate the whole process.
Occupational Hazards. The Rise & Limitation of Occupy Oakland, CAL Press, 2012
New Strikes in China, gongchao.org
Eli Friedman, Insurgency Trap. Labor Politics in Post-socialist China, Cornell U.P., 2014
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Autonomy, troploin site, 2008
I have received everything: your letters (including some friendly notes from your dear wife and Fränzchen), the ‘Meyer’  (police-socialist, faiseur,  literary scribbler), the cuttings from the Frankfurter, etc, and finally a letter from Madame Tenge.
I am very grateful for your, your family’s and Madame Tenge’s friendly interest in my progress. But you do me an injustice if you ascribe my failure to write to any other cause than an uncertain state of health, which continually interrupts my work, then goads me on to make up for the time lost by neglecting all other duties (letters included), and finally puts a man out of humour and makes him disinclined for activity.
After my return from Harrogate I had an attack of carbuncles, then my headaches returned, insomnia, etc, so that I had to spend from the middle of April to 5 May at Ramsgate (seaside). Since then I have been feeling much better, but am far from being quite well. My specialist (Dr Gumpert  of Manchester) insists upon my going to Karlsbad and would like to make me travel there as soon as possible, but I must finally complete the French translation which has come to a full stop, and, apart from that, I should much prefer it if I could meet you there.
In the meantime, while I was unable to write, I worked through a lot of important new material for the second volume. But I cannot start on its final working out until the French edition is completed and my health fully restored.
So I have by no means yet decided how I shall spend the summer.
The progress of the German labour movement (ditto in Austria) is wholly satisfactory. In France the absence of a theoretical foundation and of practical common sense is very evident. In England at the moment only the rural labour movement shows any advance; the industrial workers have first of all to get rid of their present leaders. When I denounced them at the Hague Congress I knew that I was letting myself in for unpopularity, slander, etc, but such consequences have always been a matter of indifference to me. Here and there people are beginning to see that in making that denunciation I was only doing my duty.
In the United States our Party has to fight against great difficulties, partly economic, partly political, but it is making headway. The greatest obstacle there is the professional politicians, who immediately try to falsify every new movement and change it into a new ‘company-promoting business’.
Notwithstanding all diplomatic moves, a new war is inevitable au peu plus tôt, au peu plus tard,  and before the ending of this there will hardly be violent popular movements anywhere, or, at the most, they will remain local and unimportant.
The visit of the Russian emperor is giving the London police a great deal to do and the government here will be glad to get rid of the man as soon as possible. As a precautionary measure they requisitioned forty police (mouchards), with the notorious police commissioner Plocke at their head (Ali Baba and the forty thieves), from the French government, to watch the Poles and Russians here (during the tsar’s stay). The so-called amnesty petition of the London Poles is the work of the Russian embassy; in answer to it the Poles here issued an appeal, written and signed by Wróblewski,  which is addressed to the English and which has been distributed in large numbers at the Sunday meetings in Hyde Park. The English press (with very few exceptions) is obsequious – the tsar is after all ‘our guest’ – but for all that the real feeling against Russia is incomparably more hostile than it has been since the Crimean War, and the entry of a Russian princess into the royal family  has aroused rather than disarmed suspicion. The facts – the arbitrary abrogation of the decisions concerning the Black Sea in the Paris Treaty, the conquests and trickeries in Central Asia, etc, irritate John Bull, and Disraeli has no chance of remaining at the helm for any length of time if he continues Gladstone’s unctuous foreign policy.
With my warmest greetings to your dear family and Madame Tenge.
Paul Mason gehört zu den wenigen Menschen, die es schaffen, im gegenwärtigen «Interregnum» den nur allzu notwendigen «Optimismus des Willens» aufrechtzuerhalten. Von seiner inspirierten Analyse der radikalen Demokratiebewegungen ab 2011 («Warum es überall knallt»), über seinen mutigen Journalismus während des deutsch-europäischen Putsches in Griechenland 2015 gelingt es Mason, in den Bewegungen der Zustände die wirkliche Bewegung zu entdecken, die es vermag, die Zustände aufzuheben. Nun führt er sein Projekt fort, in einem großen Aufschlag, wie man ihn seit Beginn der Krise kaum noch erwarten durfte: Während die Welt scheinbar ins Chaos driftet, findet er in den Tendenzen des Bestehenden die Saat eines Postkapitalismus. Der neoliberale Informationskapitalismus, so Mason, untergräbt die Möglichkeit seines eigenen Überlebens, während – in den Nischen der solidarischen Ökonomie und in den Staatskanzleien der europäischen Peripherie – andernorts das Neue schon im Entstehen begriffen ist. Natürlich stellt sich daraufhin die alte Frage: Was genau ist nun zu tun? Und wer zum Teufel tut es?
KGB agent Leo Demidov, the hero in Tom Rob Smith’s trilogy of Soviet thriller novels, isn’t a terribly rich character in his own right. But the intrepid, thoughtful Demidov acts as a convincing stand-in for a generation of operatives who watched from the inside as the Soviet machine transformed itself and ultimately sputtered to a halt. His struggle to reconcile reality with party orthodoxy begins in the first (and best) book of the series, Child 44, which has Demidov investigating a serial murder case while he tries to maintain the official pretense that the USSR is a crime-free society. Nikita Khrushchev’s shocking repudiation of the Joseph Stalin personality cult gives its name to the second book, The Secret Speech, and Demidov’s disillusionment deepens accordingly. By the last half of the final book (Agent 6), Demidov hopes to escape his homeland once and for all, so he fights to outrun the ever-encroaching tendrils of the massive Soviet intelligence apparatus. Demidov isn’t just the central figure in a series of vibrant thrillers—he’s also a glimpse into what it might have been like to live through the USSR’s major political upheavals, which those of us in the Western world could only watch from afar. – John Teti
Here’s how good Dr. Strangelove is: It features my favorite Hollywood commie, and he never even shows up in the flesh. Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov exists only as the other side of an exasperating phone conversation with U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers at his deadpan best), but he’s such a thoroughly sketched character that it’s hard not to fall in love. Found at an unlisted number (because, as the Russian ambassador sheepishly notes, this man of the people is “also a man, if you catch my meaning”), Kissov is drunk, partying, and delightfully petulant. (When Muffley explains he’s not calling just to say hello, the smashed statesman demands to know why he wouldn’t do just that.) Dr. Strangelove is an entire movie about how our poor, doomed world is light on actual villains but heavy on supposedly well-meaning idiots (and that the latter are just as dangerous as the former, when nuclear bombs are in the mix), and portraying Kissov as a childish buffoon, instead of a sneering supervillain, only heightens the human tragedy of the apocalypse to come. It doesn’t hurt that he gets (indirectly) one of the movie’s best punchlines: When nuclear expert Strangelove (also Sellers, also brilliant) demands to know why the Russians haven’t told anybody about their perfect, world-ending deterrent, the ambassador explains that it was going to be announced the following Monday. “As you know,” he says, with just a hint of a sigh, “The premier loves surprises.” – William Hughes
My love for Zangief knows no bounds. Though he’s now billed as hailing from the Russian Federation, Street Fighter’s premiere wrestler has deep Soviet roots. With the USSR’s full support, he traveled the world pile-driving rivals into oblivion for the glory of Mother Russia and nothing more. His hyperbolic patriotism led to some of the series’ funniest moments—like the time he celebrated his Street Fighter II victory with an ersatz Mikhail Gorbachev “in the appropriate Russian fashion” (doing a Hopak dance with the Soviet president, of course). But thanks to an endearing personality that’s as massive as his physique, Zangief’s appeal transcends geopolitics. There’s an earnest goofiness beneath all those bear-wrestling scars, which the artists at Capcom have continued to amplify throughout The Red Cyclone’s 25-year street-fighting career. In Street Fighter V, it’s gotten to the point where, whenever you choose to play as him, he responds by flexing every muscle and screaming “CYCLONE” at the top of his lungs while his eyes bulge and his entire body convulses. How can you not love this guy? – Matt Gerardi
In Los Angeles to be against Capital typically presents itself in a pro-work / worker position. The problem is never work itself, the nature of work or that work is waged but instead what is desired is extending a sphere of work that is unionized and bolstered with higher wages. Take for instance the CLEAN Carwash campaign, where carwash workers (whom are mostly immigrant men) have been unionized under the representation of United Steelworkers Local 675. Though this move one is that brings much needed betterment of working conditions and wages for these workers, what is ultimately not brought up is that the work of a car wash workers can and has already been automated. But of course the fading labour movement is not concerned with the overthrow of capitalism and abolition of work at all. That dream is a dream that has been lost along with the labour movement.
The expression of an anti-work position has either been minoritarian or unheard of. In a city where working conditions for immigrants can be well below the legal standards set forth by the State and the Federal Government, the push for more protections and rights within the workplace takes on precedence. An anti-work affect (rather than a bonafide position) among Mexican immigrants and / or Mexican-Americans is usually to be found in cultural forms and do not often take on explicit anti-political, or anti-capitalist forms. Whereas the playful and tongue-in-cheek cultural forms are plentiful, the other mentioned forms are few and far in between.
ANTI-WORK / ANTI-CAPITALIST : AN INTRODUCTION
My first encounter with an explicit anti-work position came from Chican@ friends who I had met in 2001 who were heavily-influenced by the French Marxist theorist Guy Debord and the Situationist International. In 1953, a young Guy Debord painted on a wall on the Rue de Seine « NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS » (tr. Never Work). A statement that was difficult for me to understand conceptually at the time but which I immediately gravitated towards. Hitherto, all the anarchist literature I had read on work concerned themselves with how wage labor was theft of our time & of our labor power and that the solution was not the abolition of work per se but worker self-management. [Think of all the nostalgia that some Left-Anarchists have for the revolution lost by the anarcho-syndicalists during the Spanish Civil War.]
Growing up in a Mexican household where what was prized was the opportunity to find well-paying work and as well as reverence of a hearty work ethic, this was a scandalous position. Though the starting point for Guy Debord opposition to a world of work was not a beatnik, bohemian lifestyle refusal common to the 1950s but rather a rejection of the bleariness of life under capitalism and part of a whole project to overthrow The Spectacle and make life a joyous affair once again.
The critique of work can be found elsewhere throughout history including Paul Lafargue’s “The Right to be Lazy”(1883) written by Karl Marx’s son-in-law, in the notorious post-left Anarchist Bob Black’s “The Abolition of Work”(1985) and Gille Dauve’s “Eclipse & Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement” (1970) where he clarifies what the abolition of work could mean and says “what we want is the abolition of work as an activity separate from the rest of life.” He later would explain that the issue at hand is not that we do or not do things, but that under capitalism what we do is often made confused by wage labor. We assume only those things paid a wage have value and that only those things which are productive are necessary to human life.
Endnotes – If the term “communisation” is missing from Endnotes 4 this is due partly to the topics we covered, and partly to our frustration with the way this word has become associated with a new theoretical brand and/or radical identity. We will return to the theme of communism in the present tense in Endnotes 5, but as a preview of that issue we here publish a critical take on “communisation” by some friends of ours and the classless society (Freundinnen und Freunden der klassenlosen Gesellschaft). We don’t agree with it all, and we will include a response in the forthcoming issue, but in the meantime we hope it will provide food for thought. 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 TC’s original critique can be found here.
HOW WILL IT END? For centuries even the most sanguine of capitalism’s theorists have thought it not long for this world. Smith, Ricardo, and Mill pointed to a “falling rate of profit” linked to inevitable declines in agricultural productivity. Marx applied the same concept to industrial production, suggesting that the tendency to replace workers with machines would lead to a chronic and insurmountable lack of demand. Sombart saw the restive adventurousness of capitalism as the key to its success—and, ultimately, its failure: though the appearance of new peripheries had long funneled profits back to the center, the days of “stout Cortez” had ended and there would one day be no empires or hinterlands to subdue.
Schumpeter was the gloomiest of all. He opened a chapter titled “Can Capitalism Survive?” (in his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy) with the definitive answer, “No. I do not think it can.” Inspired by Marx, he imagined that the very success of capitalism—the creation of large enterprises through continuous innovation—would lead to profound fatigue as innovation came to be merely routine, and the bourgeoisie turned its attention toward the banalities of office life: “Success in industry and commerce requires a lot of stamina, yet industrial and commercial activity is essentially unheroic in the knight’s sense—no flourishing of swords about it, not much physical prowess, no chance to gallop the armored horse into the enemy, preferably a heretic or heathen — and the ideology that glorifies the idea of fighting for fighting’s sake and of victory for victory’s sake understandably withers in the office among all the columns of figures.” He foresaw a world in which intellectuals, a marginalized and unhappy lot, would turn their discontent into politics and lead the discontented castoffs of capitalism toward socialism.
These predictions, however, failed to describe what was actually happening with capitalism in the 20th century. By the 1980s people had turned toward a different proposition of Schumpeter’s: that competition “from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization” was the source of dynamism in a swiftly growing economy. For Schumpeter, the crises of capitalism were signs not of the system’s debility but of its secret health. Business cycles were zesty, violent guarantees of continued growth. Monopolies were only temporary and could be broken up by the “perennial gale of creative destruction.” When in the 1960s and ’70s the otherwise impregnable position of American industry was broken by competition from Germany and Japan, Schumpeter seemed prescient. The response of corporations in the 1980s—enormous mergers, leveraged buyouts, union busting, corporate raiding, mass layoffs, and upward redistribution of wealth—seemed almost to be taking his words as prescriptive.
But while the economy has been dynamic, it has not been healthy. Several crashes later, the gloom has returned, and the signs of autumn are once again most recognizable in the pronouncements of free-market capitalism’s erstwhile boosters. In the past year, many have taken up Larry Summers’s remark that we have entered a period of “secular stagnation,” marked by persistent and slow growth worldwide. Fiscal austerity is general, taxes remain low, and debt levels continue to rise—which means that Western countries, by selling treasury bonds to the rich through capital markets, are actually paying their elites in bond yields to avoid having to go through the politically impossible process of taxing them. Absent any political recourse to countercyclical fiscal policy, central banks in the US, the Eurozone, and Japan have kept interest rates low and pumped trillions of dollars of fiat money into the financial system, keeping banks and dot-com companies liquid and driving the rich to put their money into the condos now flooding Manhattan, all while leaving median wages pleasantly low. It’s kept things humming along, but not much more than that. Fear courses through the veins of the free-marketers, who recognize that all is not well with the system they love.
Along with the return of economic crisis and social struggles around the world, the term “communism”—supposedly discredited once and for all by the experience of Russia and its satellite states in the 20th century—seems to be enjoying a certain comeback in recent years. Conferences on “the idea of communism” attract significant crowds, books by professed communists like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek find readers and grab media attention. However, more often than not this (surely limited) comeback does not seem to be driven by a genuine desire to retrieve the emancipatory content the term carried in the writings of Karl Marx and like-minded critics, as well as in practical movements from the 19th century onwards. Rather, maîtres-penseurs like Badiou and Žižek prefer to pose as enfants terribles, defending Maoism and flirting with Bolshevik terror, hence reaffirming precisely the unholy traditions with which a “communism” for the 21st century would have to break.
In his new biography of Paul Mattick, a German-born worker who immigrated to the United States in 1926 and later emerged as one of the most important radical critics of his time, Gary Roth tells the story of a largely forgotten current in the 20th century that early on made a rupture with the statist caricatures of communism to which today’s media-savvy leftist intellectuals are still holding fast.1 Noting that this story is about “bygone eras in which a radicalized working class still constituted a hope for the future,” Roth steers clear of melancholy and nostalgia, instead seeking a justification for his work in the more recent reconfiguration “of the world’s population into a vast working class that extends into the middle classes in the industrialized countries and the pools of underemployed agricultural workers everywhere else.” In fact, though far from constituting a sustained, consistent assault on existing conditions, some recent struggles of parts of this class, most notably the “square movements” that spread from North Africa via Europe to Istanbul, exhibit certain traits—horizontal self-organization (or “leaderlessness), direct mass action against state forces, a focus on occupations—that point much less to the Bolshevik-Leninist tradition than to the one Roth describes, commonly referred to as council communism, though the resemblances should certainly not be exaggerated.
The opening post in our latest forum, on Nick and Alex Williams’ new book, Inventing the Future. Commentaries will follow over the week, and Nick and Alex will respond soon thereafter with a rejoinder to points raised. All will eventually be available under this tag url.
Today kicks off a symposium on our new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. On a surface level, it is a book analysing post-work, the global crisis of surplus populations, and the challenges of rebuilding the contemporary left. Yet it is also a book designed to intervene in the current political conjuncture. It is written to produce discussions, rather than close them down; to spark debate, rather than dictate; and hopefully to persuade people of the utility of its prescriptions. As such, this blog event is the perfect avenue to inaugurate what we hope will be a series of productive engagements. Rather than simply summarising the book here, it is perhaps more useful if we briefly outline some of the debates we sought to contribute to.
The first such debate is the question concerning the dismal state of the left. While some find elements of hope in the contemporary left, for most it has been a series of marginal successes at best, and outright defeats at worst. In the book we attempt to offer a new explanation for why this is the case. Without rejecting the contributing factors of objective changes in the organisation of capitalism, and subjective changes in the self-understanding of class, we try to add a third explanation based upon a widespread common sense amongst the left. It is what we call ‘folk politics’: an intuitive set of beliefs that leads those on the left to instinctually turn towards immediacy as the solution to political problems. It finds greater and lesser expression in a series of recent movements, and while sometimes explicitly valorised, more often than not it goes on unconsciously in practices and habits. Our argument is that this folk political common sense tends to lead movements to organise and do politics in a way which constrains the possibility of escaping a global capitalism. This does not mean that folk politics should be rejected or dismissed; rather we simply try to point to its wide circulation and strategic insufficiency.
On a second level, the book seeks to generate discussion about what the future should look like. Too often, the activist and academic left only offers visions of the future in negative terms: the end of wage-labour, the end of racism, the end of sexism, the end of colonialism. These are all agreeable, of course, but ultimately remain empty signifiers. If we want a better world, we need to have some idea of where we are going. This doesn’t mean taking the opposite tack, and outlining a detailed plan for a future society (as with Parecon and New Socialism, for example). Rather it means setting out a series of broad proposals for what should be desired, what can be achieved, and how to get there. We have no illusions about the errors, biases, and limitations that our own proposals will include. We are, indeed, keenly aware of the limits of a small book written for a general audience. But the point of setting out a vision of the future and a series of demands is to lay our cards on the table for others to take up, critique, or reject. It is too easy to adopt a comfortable critical stance against the world.
Finally, discussions about the problems of the left and visions of the future must come together in debates over how to rebuild the power of the left and bring about a new future. To this end, our argument is for a counter-hegemonic strategy across an ecology of organisations, intervening in newly discovered and constructed points of leverage. While we try to give some concrete content to these broad proposals, we have also intentionally pitched these ideas at a level which allows them to be taken up in different forms across different countries and under different conditions. It is our hope that people who are convinced by our analysis and proposals will then take up these broad ideas and translate them into their own specific circumstances. We offer the book as a possibility – one among many – of what the future could look like.
A statue of Vladimir Lenin in Odessa, Ukraine, has been refashioned into Darth Vader. A Ukrainian artist, Alexander Milov, whose work appeared at Burning Man this year, transformed the statue in response to recent decommunization laws, which require the removal of Communist symbols in Ukraine.
Lenin’s face has been covered by Darth Vader’s mask, and his coat has been turned into a cape. The helmet also reportedly serves as a Wi-Fi hot spot.
“I wanted to make a symbol of American pop culture which appears to be more durable than the Soviet ideal,” Mr. Milov told the BBC.
The decommunization law was passed in April by the Ukrainian Parliament following Russian military aggression into the country.
Sometime in the past couple of generations, capitalism’s victory over our hearts and minds seems to have become complete, in that hardly anyone even notices it anymore. It’s a monoculture, taken for granted, like monogamy, or monotheism, or having one sun. It’s hard to think of any “serious” literary writers in the United States under the age of fifty who engage the big political issues of our time as directly as Boomer authors like Paul Auster (“Leviathan”), Thomas Pynchon (“Vineland”), or Robert Stone (“A Flag for Sunrise”), let alone in the way that muckraker novelists like Upton Sinclair used to.1 When we call literary writers “political” today, we’re usually talking about identity politics. If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death. If they were looking for any indication that we were even dimly aware of the burgeoning global conflict between democracy and capitalism, or of the abyssal catastrophe our civilization was just beginning to spill over the brink of, they might need to turn to books that have that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine. That is, to science fiction.2
Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding), in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident, whereas conservatism holds it to be inevitable, natural, and therefore just. The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.
Kim Stanley Robinson is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest living science-fiction writers; collectively, the three novels of his “Mars” trilogy—“Red Mars,” “Green Mars,” and “Blue Mars”—have won all the major science-fiction and fantasy awards. He is also, for my money, one of the most important political writers working in America today. In his Mars novels, Robinson uses the Red Planet as a historical tabula rasa, a template for creating a saner, more sustainable, and more just human society. What’s most powerful about the Mars books as political novels is that they envision a credible utopia, one that doesn’t—unlike, say, Skinner’s “Walden Two”—rely on a revision of human nature. Robinson’s characters are cynics, opportunists, idealists, narcissists, drug-dependent, manic-depressive, borderline Asperger’s, and emotionally frozen survivors of abuse, but with all their flaws and conflicting agendas they manage to remake their world in more humane and equitable form.
The first wave of his Martian settlers are all scientists, who are no more perfect than any other human beings but have been rigorously trained in a kind of intellectual integrity. Robinson argues that, now that climate change has become a matter of life and death for the species, it’s time for scientists to abandon their scrupulous neutrality and enter into the messy arena of politics. Essentially, Robinson attempts to apply scientific thinking to politics, approaching it less like pure physics, in which one infallible equation / ideology explains and answers everything, than like engineering—a process of what F.D.R. once called “bold, persistent experimentation,” finding out what works and combining successful elements to synthesize something new. He scavenges ideas from the American Constitution, the Swiss confederacy, “the guild socialism of Great Britain, Yugoslavian worker management, Mondragon ownership, Kerala land tenure, and so on” to construct his utopias. The major platform planks these methods lead him to in his books are:
common stewardship—not ownership—of the land, water, and air
an economic system based on ecological reality
divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities
the basics of existence, like health care, removed from the cruelties of the free market
the application of democratic principles like self-determination and equality in the workplace—which, in practice, means small co-ops instead of vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations—and,
a reverence for the natural world codified into law.
Depending on your own politics, this may sound like millennia-overdue common sense or a bong-fuelled 3 A.M. wish list, but there’s no arguing that to implement it in the real world circa 2013 would be, literally, revolutionary. My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all.
You could argue that, if I didn’t fundamentally agree with his politics, Robinson’s fiction might seem contrived and didactic to me, the way Ayn Rand’s does if you’re not predisposed toward her brand of enlightened assholism. It’s true he likes to write lectures and speeches, but they’re more engaging than some of Tolstoy’s, who nearly succeeded in stomping my clinging fingers off of “Anna Karenina” with his ruminations on Russian agriculture circa 1870. But I don’t just admire Robinson’s ambitions or agree with his agenda; I’m not recommending his books because they’re good for you. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite novelists, period. I know the characters of his “Mars” trilogy—John Boone, Frank Chalmers, Maya Toitovna, Sax Russell, Anne Clayborne (none of whose names I needed to look up)—like I know old friends from college. I love them; they exasperate me; I talk about them behind their backs with my other friends. The history shared by these characters becomes so long and fraught and tangled over the course of his hundreds of pages and years (thanks to genetic longevity treatments, Robinson’s able to keep the same ensemble of characters around for centuries) that it gives me a pang of longing and nostalgia and bittersweet sense of life’s length and brevity. In a bold authorial gambit, Robinson kills off his most charismatic characters—the alpha males, the movers—by the end of the first novel in the trilogy, allowing his secondary characters to come to the fore, expose new facets, and evolve in unexpected and beautiful ways. The strength of his characterizations is inextricable from his power as a political visionary; Robinson is realistic about human beings but nonetheless optimistic about our capacity for change. In the last pages of the “Mars” trilogy, a character who has bitterly resisted change for a hundred and fifty years reminds herself, “Nowhere on this world were people killing each other, nowhere were they desperate for shelter or food, nowhere were they scared for their kids.” Put this way, it sounds like such a modest utopia to hope for.
Erhältlich ab September 2015 | 208 Seiten | 5 € / 6 CHF
Herausgegeben von den »Freundinnen und Freunden der klassenlosen Gesellschaft» (Berlin), »eiszeit« (Schweiz) und »la banda vaga« (Freiburg)
■ Abseits des Spülbeckens. Fragmentarisches über Geschlechter und Kapital
■ Reflexionen über das Surplus-Proletariat. Phänomene, Theorie, Folgen
■ Elend und Schulden. Zur Logik und Geschichte von Überschussbevölkerungen und überschüssigem Kapital
■ Moloch und Heilsbringer. Zur Geschichte und Kritik des Sozialstaats
■ Israel, Palästina und der Universalismus
■ Leiharbeit. Ende der Identifikation mit der Ausbeutung oder doch nur Waffe des Kapitals?
■ Zwischen Eigentor und Aufstand. Ultras in den gegenwärtigen Revolten
Einzelexemplare gibt es bei Syndikat-A in Deutschland, sowie in verschiedenen Buch- und Infoläden zahlreicher Städte in Deutschland und der Schweiz. WiederverkäuferInnen bestellen über das Kontaktformular. Sie bekommen (inkl. Versandkosten): 3 Ex. für 12 €; 5 Ex. für 18 €; 10 Ex. für 35 €. Die Auslieferung erfolgt nur gegen Vorkasse auf das Konto: Weltcommune, Konto Nr.: 494584109, Postbank Berlin (BLZ 10010010). Als Verwendungszweck den Namen des Bestellers angeben.
Das Jahr 2011, in dem die Leute an vielen Orten in Scharen auf die Straße und manchmal auf die Barrikaden gingen, wurde oft mit 1968 verglichen. Kommentatoren, denen Revolutionsromantik fern liegt, stellten verblüfft fest, dass weltweit sogar erheblich mehr Menschen in Bewegung geraten waren als im legendären Jahr der Revolte. Seitdem hat sich die Lage bekanntlich je nach Land eingetrübt oder pechschwarz verfinstert. Wo 2011 Plätze besetzt wurden, wie in Europa, herrscht wieder der bekannte Alltagstrott, ohne dass sich an den Gründen zum Aufbegehren etwas geändert hätte. Wo Diktaturen gestürzt oder wenigstens ins Wanken gebracht wurden, wie in der arabischen Welt, herrscht heute fast ausnahmslos das Militär oder ein Bürgerkrieg unter reger Beteiligung von Djihadisten. Aus dem großen Aufbruch ist nichts geworden, zumindest nichts Gutes. Fast scheint die Regel zu gelten, dass die Misere umso größer ist, je weiter die Rebellierenden gegangen sind. Stillhalten wird zwar nicht belohnt, aber wenigstens auch nicht bestraft.
Trotzdem plagt die Sachwalter der Ordnung weiter das Gespenst der Revolte. »Die Situation erinnert mich an 1968«, unkte ein hohes Tier des europäischen Staatenkonglomerats, als die Griechen neulich dem Spardiktat mehrheitlich ein Oxi entgegenhielten. »Es gibt in Europa eine weitverbreitete Unzufriedenheit mit den bestehenden Verhältnissen, die schnell in eine revolutionäre Stimmung umschlagen kann. Es wird die Illusion erweckt, es gebe eine Alternative zu unserem Wirtschaftssystem, ohne Sparpolitik und Einschränkungen. Das ist die größte Gefahr, die von Griechenland ausgeht.«1
Der Befund stimmt nur zur Hälfte und darin liegt das Problem. An der weitverbreiteten Unzufriedenheit besteht kein Zweifel, zumindest für Griechenland kommt das Wort sogar einer gewaltigen Beschönigung gleich, schließlich hat dort in den letzten Jahren angesichts massenhaften Elends schiere Verzweiflung um sich gegriffen. Dass bereits die bescheidene Hoffnung, wenigstens nicht noch weiter zu verarmen, in der politischen Klasse die Alarmglocken schrillen lässt, sagt einiges. Eine Alternative zum existierenden Wirtschaftssystem aber hat anders als 1968 niemand aufgeworfen, die Protestierenden von 2011 so wenig wie die Athener Linksregierung von 2015. Beide eint vielmehr der Glaube, die drastischen Einschnitte ließen sich prinzipiell innerhalb der jetzigen Ordnung vermeiden, und ein Absehen von weiteren Kürzungen bei Renten, Löhnen, Staatsjobs wäre für diese Ordnung – Stichwort Massenkaufkraft – sogar von Vorteil. Insofern ist Syriza tatsächlich die Fortsetzung der Proteste mit anderen Mitteln; eine Fortsetzung ihrer Illusionen, mit Mitteln, die all das abschneiden, was an ihnen trotz dieser Illusionen vorwärtsweisend war: Selbstorganisation, Missachtung der Gesetze, direkte Aneignung, Konfrontation mit der Staatsmacht.
The concept of class has become popular again. After the most recent global economic crisis, even bourgeois newspapers started posing the question: “Wasn’t Marx right after all?” For the last two years Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ has been on the bestseller list – a book which describes in a detailed way how historically, the capitalist process of accumulation resulted in a concentration of wealth into the hands of a tiny minority of capital owners. In western democracies too, significant inequalities have led to an increase in fear of social uprisings. This spectre has haunted the world in recent years – from riots in Athens, London, Baltimore, to the revolts in North Africa, which at times got rid of whole state governments. As usual during these times of unrest, while one faction of the rulers call for repression and weapons, the other raises the ‘social question’, which is supposed to be solved by reforms or redistribution policies.
Global crisis has de-legitimated capitalism; the politics of the rulers and governments to make the workers and poor pay for the crisis has fuelled anger and desperation. Who would still dispute that we live in a ‘class society’? But what does that mean?
‘Classes’ in the more narrow sense of the word only emerge with capitalism – but the disappropriation from the means of production on which the property-less state of the proletarian is based, has not been a singular historical process. Disappropriation is a daily reoccurrence within the production process itself: workers produce, but the product of their labour does not belong to them. They only get what they need for the reproduction of their labour power, or that according to the living standard that they have claimed through struggle.
In principle, class societies don’t recognise any privileges by birthright, rather the ownership of money determines one’s position in society. In principle capitalism makes it possible to have a career that starts from being a dishwasher to becoming a stock market speculator (or at least a small entrepreneur, which is the hope of many migrants). At the same time, members of the petty bourgeoisie or artisans can descend into the ranks of the proletarians. Climbing up the social ladder is rarely the result of one’s own labour, rather of the ability to become a capitalist and to appropriate other people’s labour. (The mafia, as well, possesses this ability.)
In actual fact, a process of class polarisation takes place, which Marx and Engels had already grasped as an explosive force and precondition for revolution. “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”(Manifesto) Immanuel Wallerstein declared Marx’s thesis of class polarisation to be his most radical one, which – once related to the world system – has been proven to be true. Polarisation means, on one hand, proletarianisation, on the other hand bourgeoisification.
Capital is not simply wealth accumulated in the hands of a few. Capital is the precondition and result of the capitalist process of production, in which living labour creates value, which is appropriated by others. For capitalism is not typically the ‘exploitation’ of a single worker by an artisan master, but the exploitation of a big mass of workers in a factory. It is a mode of production based on the fact that millions of people work together although they don’t know each other. They produce value together, but together they can also refuse this work and question the social division of labour. As labour power, workers are part of capital; as the working class, they are capital’s biggest enemy within.
Generations of ‘scientific management’ researchers have tried to expropriate workers’ knowledge of how to produce in order to become independent from them. They have established parallel production units in order to be able to continue production in case workers go on strike. They have closed down and relocated factories in order to be able to increase exploitation of, and control over, new groups of workers. But they were not able to exorcise the spectre. During the strike-waves of 2010, for the first time it haunted all parts of the globe simultaneously. These struggles are currently in the process of changing this world. Even academia has become aware of it and after a long time has turned the working class into an object of their research again – as numerous publications, new magazines and web-pages demonstrate, through which left-wing social scientists try to create links between workers in different continents. In Germany for the last 25 years, workers were left alone with their struggles – here, as well, social movements and intellectuals have started referring to them again.