- Category: Theory
- Created on Tuesday, 05 March 2013 19:24
- Written by NPC
The problem that much communization theory points out is that, if your revolutionary praxis is simply to emphasize (materially and ideologically) labourers as a class (by building up industry, focusing the entire society toward developing productive forces rather than re-organizing the "insides" of the means of production to be more amenable to those using the means and the product, etc) then you are simply affirming the value-form as such, which IS very much the class relation...
...In short, Value-form theory tries to describe capitalism. It is a negative critique of capitalism. Whenever the article above says "Value-form theory" or "VFT," you can almost always replace it with "capitalism," since value-form theory is NOT claiming that these things are facts of nature, but facts of capitalism which can (and ought to be) abolished--i.e., it is not an overdetermining totality.
The following is a response from NPC to Nat Winn's article entitled Getting to communism: negating the value form in practice.
"Again, revolution is about more than abolishing the value-form. The method here is one that ignores the realm of politics, the confrontation with the state, armies, and the whole repressive apparatus. It ignores geo-politics. It doesn't deal with any classes outside of workers and capitalist in analyzing the end of capital. What you have here is not a look at a totality but a rigid binary. The complexity of revolution is just not dealt with at this point."
I would first point out that this argument could, verbatim, be applied to basically all the works of Marx himself -- particularly Capital. It basically says that we should NOT engage in economic argument because economic argument does not include all these other things. But that means you are just critiquing something based on what you want it to be, rather than what it actually is (it has a scope which is a priori limited).
Only among communization's critics have I heard of communization as a be-all-and-end-all plan for revolution. Among communization's supporters, I've heard of communization as, alternately, a fresh economic/structural analysis (in the structural wing), or a swath of incendiary outreach materials calling people to action (in the voluntarist wing).
It's certainly true that communization doesn't provide immediate tactical advice. It doesn't provide much revolutionary strategy. Most of the structural works of TC, Endnotes, etc. hardly talk about "the superstructure" at all. But I'd also point out that communization never pretends to be both a necessary and sufficient theory for making revolution.
Honestly, it just seems silly that anyone would consider it as such -- and, again, I literally know of no one (other than its critics) who see it like this.
For those of us who use communization theory we use it for what it is good for -- economic analysis, outreach, reminders of the deeper economic reasons that previous socialist projects were unable to fundamentally challenge the value-form (their failure was absolutely not just superstructural). It also helps to remind us that we ought to talk about the abolition of the working class a little bit more than the affirmation of the working class.
It's also not like anyone is actually thinking that abolition of the value-form happens overnight or that revolution would be evenly distributed -- and its convenient that the above article excludes such quotes as this:
"So there will a "transition" in the sense that communism will not be achieved overnight. But there will not be a "transition period" in what has become the traditional Marxist sense: a period that is no longer capitalist but not yet communist, a period in which the working class would still work, but not for profit or for the boss any more, only for themselves: they would go on developing the "productive forces" (factories, consumer goods, etc.) before being able to enjoy the then fully-matured fruit of industrialization. This is not the programme of a communist revolution. It was not in the past and it is not now. There is no need to go on developing industry, especially industry as it is now. And we are not stating this because of the ecology movement and the anti-industry trend in the radical milieu. As someone said forty years ago, half of the factories will have to be closed.
Some areas will lag behind and others may plunge into temporary chaos[...] Nobody knows how we will evolve from false capitalist abundance to new ways of life, but let us not expect the move to be smooth and peaceful everywhere and all the time."
[[That is from Dauve's intro text on communisation (here: http://www.troploin.fr/textes/60-communisation-uk). Dauve, alongside Aufheben, is in the more "voluntarist" camp (though they engage with the structuralists much more) which is brushed over fairly quickly in this overview.]]
There is no eliding the real problems of reorganizing production -- the point is simply that there is NOT a period in which we have an industrial build-up emulating capitalist styles of factory organizaton, managed with moneyed-wages or labor vouchers and justified in the terms of the people working now and enjoying the fruits of that industry later, once the production base is properly "built up." Clearly, models more similar to that may be necessary if revolution occurs (again) exclusively in areas that have few means of production -- but the neoliberal redistribution of these means of production TO the "third world" makes that less and less likely.
But these natural presumptions based on the economic theory in most of communization are more or less ignored in the above critique -- even though they are precisely the presumptions that DO begin to make tactical and strategic suggestions for revolution.
Instead, the critique just misses the point by attacking communization for not being something that it never claims to be -- i.e., a roadmap for revolution.
Communization theory NEVER claims that we should "look at revolution strictly through the capital-labour relation." It simply claims that the capital-labour relation is kind of really important to judging whether or not your "communist revolution" is very communist (or even very anti-capitalist) -- and I would definitely affirm that point.
On the second topic: Communization does claim to be a real critique of the value-form. This article sort of vacillates between acknowledging that the abolition of the value-form is necessary (in which case the differences between communizaton's affirmations and the article's become less clear) and the opposing argument that communization misportrays abstract value (and therefore one would presume that it's a non-issue).
I think that it's obvious that we have to abolish the capitalist value-form, the question is simply again one of whether or not one tries to "use" that value form for a period of time (the "socialist transition period") for the benefit of the working-class -- and the point from communization is that this only reinforces the proletariat class category rather than beginning to take it apart (it, like the state, did not tend historically to "wither away"). And this affirmation basically ignores the class struggle -- which, despite the above article's claims to the contrary, is all about the abolition of the proletariat as a class (since its nature as a class is relationally determined by the existence of the bourgeoisie exploiting it).
But there is also a significant problem with the article's portrayal of the value-form:
First: communization theory doesn't deny the labor-theory of value. It simply points out that if you affirm labor as a category defined by capital you are also affirming capital by affirming its interdependent category -- i.e., they are arguing precisely against "economism" as traditionally defined and as often practiced by political tendencies which see unions or wage struggles, for example, as the primary grounds of revolutionary activity.
Second: The above critique ignores the nuance in Marx's theory of exchange-value and its relation to abstract labor, and misportrays communization's approach to exchange-value (which is NOT equal to "the value-form").
The article quotes from Endnotes: "Rather, in a fundamental sense value — as the primary social mediation — pre-exists and thus has a priority over labour."
Based on this, the article then claims: "It is also the case here that labor is not seen as the primary producer of value. Capital or value "has a priority over labor. This leads to a political call within Communization to abandon the class struggle."
Unfortunately, this is a misquotation. Endnotes in the quote is actually talking about how CAPITALISM (i.e., the capitalist value-form) posits itself as originary. This is clearer if you also quote the paragraph sitting a little BELOW the one quoted by the above critique:
"While it seems true and politically effective to say that we produce capital by our labour, it is actually more accurate to say (in a world that really is topsy turvy) that we, as subjects of labour, are produced by capital. Socially necessary labour time is the measure of value only because the value-form posits labour as its content. In a society no longer dominated by alienated social forms — no longer orientated around the self-expansion of abstract wealth — the compulsion to labour which characterises the capitalist mode of production will disappear. With value, abstract labour disappears as a category. The reproduction of individuals and their needs becomes an end in itself. Without the categories of value, abstract labour and the wage, "labour" would cease to have its systematic role as determined by the primary social mediation: value."
This "world that really is topsy turvy" is the world of capitalism, in which capital makes itself into the primary source of productivity, centering the M-C-M' cycle around the M more than the C (or the use-value in it, for that matter). The critique conflates Endnotes' descriptions of how Capital PORTRAYS ITSELF, with the obvious acknowledgement that how Capital actually operates (as exploitative of labour) is evident in Marxist theory.
But the bottom of that quote also gets to another interesting point: "with value, abstract labour disappears as a category." This is interesting in particular because it ties abstract value back to its roots (in Marx) with exchange-value. Here Endnotes is NOT talking about simple "abstract" human labour (or "general human force" as Marx says). Though Marx at times uses this definition, he also acknowledges how problematic it is, since the definition (borrowed from Smith and Ricardo) pretends that "labour" or "work" in capitalism is the same, transhistorical practice of human physical exertion, when really labour as a category is created BY the social relations of capitalism itself. Marx, therefore, translates this transhistorical abstract labor into a more relevant category: exchange value (in an oppositional unity with use-value to create value as such).
The above critique then argues that Value-form theory poses a "monetary theory of value," simply because it acknowledges that exchange value does, in fact, exist and operates much as Marx describes it -- as capitalism's own particular form of "abstract labour" which will be abolished alongside value itself. The abolition of value as such clearly does not mean the abolition of use-value, but the severing of use value from exchange value (and thus the destruction of the wage and money as the form of quantified, generalized exchangeability). Again, Endnotes says it clearly: "Without the categories of value, abstract labour and the wage, "labour" would cease to have its systematic role as determined by the primary social mediation: value."
The "labour" quoted here means SPECIFICALLY CAPITALIST labor--not general human work (which is OF COURSE productive in the simple sense and of course abstractable in that it all requires physical exertion--this is not Marx's point). The problem that much communization theory points out is that, if your revolutionary praxis is simply to emphasize (materially and ideologically) labourers as a class (by building up industry, focusing the entire society toward developing productive forces rather than re-organizing the "insides" of the means of production to be more amenable to those using the means and the product, etc) then you are simply affirming the value-form as such, which IS very much the class relation. It is the very exchangeability (NOT exchange but the POTENTIAL for exchange or its future possibility--exchange does not PRECEDE production) which makes labour itself productive of value (again, value is, in capitalism, not just use-value but also monetary "exchange" value). Obviously physical human work can also produce things that are useful -- but that is NOT "labor" in capitalism or "value" in capitalism.
This doesn't mean that labor does not create value or that money (or capital) is primary in the circuit. I.e. it does NOT (as the above article claims) argue that exchange has to come first. NO, it simply argues that the potential of exchangeability exists--without the ACT of exchange itself yet occuring. This is, again, the SOCIAL part of the relation -- the presumption (and perceived necessity) of the M-C-M' cycle perpetuating itself and the wage being generally exchangeable for goods. In fact, the ACTUAL exchangeability does not have to exist in every instance for labor to be extracted -- all kinds of things (rampant inflation, product shortages, rationing, collapse of a certain currency, etc.) could disrupt that actual exchangeability in a given instance--but in general "abstract labor" would remain abstracted. Marx is fairly clear on this.
There is no basis in the actual works of communization theory for claims such as this:
"Production is concrete labor. Period. Abstract labor is only expressed through the process of exchange. This abstract process subsumes concrete labor and negates its objectivity, thus also negating its role as creator of value. The value-form as validated through exchange in it's totality is the primary creator of value and the contradiction between capital and labor is a relation internal to the value-form process which must be abolished as a process."
For communization theorists, abstract labor exists not through the process of exchange but through the potential of future exchange -- the wage is paid AFTER the work is done and BEFORE it is exchanged for other goods. Value AS SUCH is the production of use-values ("concrete labor" in the above quote) in the interests of exchange (rather than use). Exchange is therefore embedded (as the incentive) in the production itself. That's the topsy-turvy aspect of capitalist relations to productivity, which Endnotes references. Capitalism itself poses (quantified--monetary) exchange as originary, even though exchange HAS NOT HAPPENED yet. The communist point is that things can be made as ends in themselves rather than ends-to-more-money (capitalism) or ends-to-more-things ("productivist" socialism).
In short, Value-form theory tries to describe capitalism. It is a negative critique of capitalism. Whenever the article above says "Value-form theory" or "VFT," you can almost always replace it with "capitalism," since value-form theory is NOT claiming that these things are facts of nature, but facts of capitalism which can (and ought to be) abolished--i.e., it is not an overdetermining totality. The article constantly confuses this, acting like Value-form theory IS saying that the capitalist forms it describes are totalizing or overdetermining--that they are, in short, facts of nature--and thus provides a very poor perspective on what Value-form theory is actually saying or how capitalism works.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Sunday, 27 January 2013 11:07
- Written by Mike Ely
by Mike Ely
The following was a comment posted on an open thread called Zizek is wrong: Previous socialism was not just failure.
The discussion on that thread quickly evolved into a debate about whether we should ever post bad analysis. The following is Mike Ely's argument for posting and engaging wrong analysis.
"I want to express again frustration that we have rarely opened a complex topic on Kasama, without someone running in, angry or offended, to announce that we have no right to have this discussion. It is amazing to me.
"Taking angry offense at the ideas of others is (as we all know) very often a default mode of entering discussion in many parts of today's U.S. left. It is a terrible practice. Everyone is constantly told to shut up. And such drama often obstructs productive discussions."
"My view is that we need to engage views that are influential or interesting. Not just the ones that are most interesting and sophisticated... but also sometimes bad theories that are influential."
"If the critique of Zizek is too poor to be engaged with, why not find a stronger critique of Zizek and engage with that?"
ok, good question.... let me respond to that:
First, it is unfortunately true that bad critiques are often influential. There are quite a number of decent people (in the U.S. and quite often around the world) who don't understand the value and contribution of theory produced by people like Zizek and Badiou. This is particularly true in the global communist movement -- where a defacto view of "closed system" has taken hold (i.e. the assumption that our philosophy is fixed and known, and that other philosophical work is judged against that closed system.)
There is great value in answering (repeatedly and convincingly) why we can't approach communist theory as a closed system.
And the argument by Karlo above is quite typical and quite influential: I.e. Lenin explained imperialism in 1916. He described the global capitalism of his time as "the highest stage of capitalism." He polemicized against Kautsky's ultra-imperialism. So we can (supposedly) judge the views of people today (including here Zizek) against a checklist of Lenin's points and verdicts.
Now, on one level, it is rather startling that such "closed system" thinking has such influence. First, because there were forces within the international communist movement (most notably the Comintern increasingly over its life) fighting to "codify" and fix Marxism, and then promote it as a definitive and closed system. But second (and important for our purposes), new people coming to communism are often (understandably and correctly) impressed by the coherence and power of previous communist synthesis. The first time you read the "classics" of Marxism-Leninism there is often the breathless excitement of discovering a coherent answer to the many infuriating philosophical and political "standard" thinking of capitalism. And it takes a while for many people to see communist theory as a contradictory and moving thing -- more like a bush than a layer cake (as we have put it).
So for example Lenin's "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism" is often seen as the final word on many questions -- even though you can see (if you look at Lenin's methodology in that work) how he himself used and synthesized many creative analysts of his day, including many who were (obviously) not communists. In other words, the lesson of the best communists we study is precisely that they drew from many contemporary sources and treated their own theory as an open system. (And Lenin's Imperialism was a major rupture with the inherited marxism of his day -- a rupture with Marx and Engels, and with those who, in an orthodox way, clung to Marx's verdicts in a new time.)
My view is that we need to engage views that are influential or interesting. Not just the ones that are most interesting and sophisticated... but also sometimes bad theories that are influential.
Like you, I think we should post and share high level engagements with key questions (including, in this case, people who engage Zizek in a sophisticated way). And we ourselves should engage (in these threads) in such a sophisticated way (when we can).
But I also think we should engage influential views, even when they are not particularly sophisticated -- for reasons that should be obvious. And my hope, in posting Karlo's essay was to make that possible.
Unfortiunately, that has not been possible so far, largely because we have had (instead) a debate over whether we (here on Kasama) have a right to even post such a work (!) because its misunderstandings of Zizek veer so far.
"Sure, you can engage with bad critique, but this discussion makes it rather obvious that engaging with a bad critique will lead you to debate about its poor quality rather than engage in a critical discussion about Zizek."
Is it necessary that wrong ideas WILL lead to sterile debate about why we are engaging them? I don't believe that. "Poor quality" is often subjective -- one person sees that it is an awful analysis, but others sometimes think it is astute. That's the point of debating such things.
We've often have very fruitful discussions of wrong ideas and terrible analysis (and the archives of Kasama are full of them).
I am frustrated that our thread here is not about Zizek, but about whether Kasama can even debate bad ideas. But we can get to a culture where that doesn't happen -- and where we have a substantive refutation of bad ideas, not another tailchasing debate about what ideas mau be heard.
Perhaps we can (out of this current conversation) get some common ground on the importance of engaging both influential and interesting views.
Now, some people may not believe that orthodox Marxisms are influential -- sometimes arguing "No one I know cares about those people." Or "anyone who believes such things should not be respected in our plans." Or "If we engage old dogmatism, no one will take us seriously."
That is largely (in my opinion) a problem of "frog in a well" localism. If you were with Liam and Natalio in Nepal right now, you would suddenly become aware (talking to even the best communists there, and from around the world) how powerful the influence of some theories of orthodoxy still are.
We are internationalists (or at least we should be). We don't limit our discussion (on Kasama) simply to what is relevant in our own immediate or personal practice (with the few specific people right around us).
Finally, I just want to express again my frustration that we have rarely opened a complex topic on Kasama, without someone running in, angry or offended, to announced that we have no right to have this discussion. It is amazing to me.
But taking angry offense at the ideas of others is (as we all know) very often a default mode of entering discussion in many parts of today's U.S. left. It is a terrible practice. The tangents caused by such drama is a repeated obstruction to productive discussions everywhere.
And there are several arguments raised in such protests here on Kasama:
Sometimes people believe that their own views are so obviously correct that it is offensive and stupid to engage the differing views of others. I.e. that Karlos is so obviously wrong that his arguments can't be worth dissecting.
Another argument raised is that if you post and discuss a "wrong idea" you are just advertising it, giving it more reach, and you must (in fact) be wanting to promote it. If you allow a bad idea to be discussed on Kasama, you must secretly agree with it.
Let me be clear on this: This is essentially an argument against scientific inquiry and open discussion. It says that peopleallowing ideas to be dissected must agree with those ideas.
If i post (for discussion) a wooden critique of Zizek, then I must (in the views of some people) want to promote woodenness (not critique of woodenness).
The disturbing implication of this view is (after you have run into it for a while) to demand all kinds of discussion to simply be shouted down.
For example: The views of backward among the people can't be engaged (racism, sexism, individualism, patriotism etc.) -- they must simply be denounced with great offense (in small "safe spaces" of subcultures). Or orthodox and conservative forms of communism can't be discussed because they are (supposedly) beneath contempt. And so on.
I don't agree. I will never agree.
I think we should engage wrong ideas, we should dissect them, we teach ourselves how to answer wrong ideas in deep ways, and we should even expect learn from ideas that we dont' agree with. (Mao says even shit serves as fertilizer....)
Just shouting down wrong ideas (or demanding that they be ignored) doesn't arm anyone to defeat wrong ideas (where they really must ultimately be defeated.... in the minds of humans).
I hope we can get to a political culture where the first impulse (at the sight of new controversy) is not for people to announce they are "offended" and to tell others to just shut up. I want us to fight for a different kind of culture among us.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Thursday, 04 October 2012 11:25
- Written by Jasper Bernes
This was posted on the LA Review of Books website. H/T to J. Ramsey for the reference.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Badiou has the virtue at least of examining riots from a strategic rather than a moral perspective, and spying something within them other than a maddened reenactment of capitalist consumption. …[H]e takes the riot as something more than a manifestation of “culture,” more than an expression of an underlying social truth which it cannot help but affirm, for all its burned cars and looted shops. The questions which Badiou hears uttered by the Sphinx of riot are the correct ones: How do we generalize and extend the offensive capacity of the riot? How and why do riots spread and become open insurrection?
History and the Sphinx: Of Riots and Uprisings
by Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover
Riots are the Sphinx of the left. Every soi disant radical intellectual feels compelled, it seems, to answer the riddle they hear posed by the riots of the present, in Bahrain or Asturias, Chile or Britain: Why now? Why here? Why riot? These answers generally come in a few simple varieties. First, if the riot seems to lack focus or present clears demands – that is, if it is illegible as “protest,” as in the case of the London riots of summer 2011 – the intellectual will paint them as a “meaningless outburst” (Slavoj Žižek), undertaken by “mindless rioters” (David Harvey). Invariably, attributions of unmeaning must find support in patronizing sociology, rendering the rioters mere side-effects of an unequal society, symptoms of neoliberalism, capitalist crisis and the ensuing austerity. Frequently, such commentary adheres to the flinching rhetorical structure of “yes, but…” In the words of Tariq Ali from the London Review of Books:Yes, we know violence on the streets in London is bad. Yes, we know that looting shops is wrong.
But why is it happening now?
Why didn’t it happen last year?
Because grievances build up over time, because when the system wills the death of a young black citizen from a deprived community, it simultaneously, if subconsciously, wills the response.
Far worse than such half-hearted apologias is the claim, repeated with alarming frequency by people who should know better, that the rioters in London were acting out the self-contradictory imperatives of neoliberal society. Such commentary is likewise a symptomatic account. For Harvey, the rioters are mere reflections of the rapacity and greed of post-Thatcher capitalism. For the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, looting is simply a violent and risky variant on shopping, an expression of a materialistic consumer society.
Then there are the commentators who see the riots as simply misguided, rather than as reflections of capitalist ideology. Such writers understand the riots as an engine lacking the proper tracks. The failure then belongs to the decrepit left in general, who have failed to provide an “alternative” or “political programme” which might harness, shape and direct the rage of the rioters. Asks Žižek: “Who will succeed in directing the rage of the poor?” Forget the possibility that the poor might be able to direct their own rage.
One can see the fundamentally patronizing lines common to all these responses. In each, the intellectual imputes a kind of false consciousness to the rioters, in order to make himself (and it is usually a him) all the more necessary as the voice of missing authority. These intellectuals hear in the riots a question to which they must provide the answer. They do not realize that the riots are, rather, an answer to the question they refuse to ask.
Alain Badiou is not one to hide from the Sphinx. Nonetheless, he is a paradoxical candidate to address an entire book to the unfolding age of riots. On the one hand, it is entirely sensible: Badiou has maintained an affiliation with militancy from his days as a young French Maoist to his current position as towering maestro of contemporary European philosophy; indeed, he has forthcoming a manual of a sort translated as Philosophy for Militants. On the other, there is a curious mismatch between thinker and subject here, caused in part by the incommensurate tempos and tonalities of intellectual position and global crisis. Badiou’s thinking, however committed, always preserves a considerable degree of abstraction (as a philosopher, he is most highly regarded for advancing the area of ontology via the rigorous application of set theory).
As a matter of cultural history, however, Badiou’s greatest significance lies in his lifelong fidelity to what he has influentially called “the communist hypothesis.” In the years following on the fall of the Eastern Bloc wherein communism — as an actually existing politics, theoretical figure, and social desire — fell into global desuetude, Badiou and precious few others husbanded whatever spark remained within intellectual spheres. In this sense he is very much a mirror version of what Pound’s great biographer Hugh Kenner called “a man of the vortex,” at the center of a history that convulsed and mutated by the hour. Badiou is a man of the desert: a figure of the horizonless interval wherein neoliberal policies, for all their vaunted dynamism, produced an unvariegated political landscape in which serious antagonism was in the main neutralized (certain developments in South America notwithstanding). If history had not quite died, it was looking extremely wan.
By the time that concerned parties met for “The Idea of Communism” conference in 2009 at the Birkbeck Institute, this desert-like micro-epoch was over. Militant struggles against the coiled regimes of capital and state had burst forth unevenly, but something very much like everywhere. They burned bright, they faded, they were brutally repressed or they ate their own tails, but, as a general tendency, they spread. The urgency for philosophers to nurture a theory of opposition in hope of future antagonisms was not abandoned, but of a different time and place. Inevitably (as a thousand “Occupy” conferences testify), intellectuals wheeled to engage this changed circumstance, trooping out of the desert to review the nascent action in the streets — Badiou in prime place among them.
The 2009 Birkbeck conference spawned several books, all of which stake much on the wager that the present period might feature a renewal of “The Communist Hypothesis” and bring to a close the long period of neoliberal reaction that has held since the 1970s. But claims for such a renewal depend only in select instances on observed historical developments, on new forms of communist practice or struggle. More often, they seem to stake their wager on a change in dinner table talk among philosophers – the idea of communism, rather than its political practice. This contrasts markedly with the elaboration of communism one finds, for instance, in a book like The Coming Insurrection, whose writers base their theoretical elaboration of a new communism on a critical examination of the practices, struggles, and social movements of the last decade. But for those familiar with Badiou’s philosophy and his reliance on logical proof, axiom, and argument from first principles, it will come as no surprise that, for him, communist practice follows behind communist idea. The primacy of the idea is unmistakable in Badiou, not least because it appears in majuscule: “Idea,” rather than “idea.” Glossing his own title early on, he insists that “The only possible reawakening is the popular initiative in which the power of an Idea will take root.”
Thus does The Rebirth of History use the Arab Spring and other uprisings of the last few years as empirical validation of the more abstract framework developed in The Communist Hypothesis. First the Idea, then its emergence in the world. Certainly the relationship between the history and the Idea is more complex than the description above might make it seem, since the “political truths” which form the basis for “the Idea” are produced by history in its unfolding. And yet, at the same time, as much as the Idea is the product of history it also, paradoxically, precedes it: “the Idea refers to a kind of historical projection of what the historical becoming of a politics is going to be — a becoming originally validated by the riot.” This circular temporality allows Badiou to vacillate between suggesting that the Arab Spring failed for its lack of an enduring Idea, and at the same time facilitated the reawakening of the Idea in the present period.
Between what Badiou calls the “intervallic period” of capitalist restoration beginning in the 1980s and a new revolutionary political sequence animated by the Idea lies the riot. The Rebirth of History is essentially a grammar of riot, using recent events to distinguish between those riots which produce “political truth” and those which do not. Badiou, a tireless fashioner of categories and schemata, here taxonomizes riots into three types, discussed in order of ascending political significance: the “immediate,” the “latent,” and the “historical.” Whereas the “immediate,” anticop riots of the poor like the ones that took place in the UK during the summer of 2011 or the French banlieues of 2005 are classed as reflexive outbursts of unfocused violence, “anarchic and ultimately without enduring truth,” the historical riot which we witnessed with the Arab insurrections exhibited a capacity to endure and generalize.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Badiou has the virtue at least of examining riots from a strategic rather than a moral perspective, and spying something within them other than a maddened reenactment of capitalist consumption. That is, unlike Harvey, Žižek, Ali, and Bauman, he takes the riot as something more than a manifestation of “culture,” more than an expression of an underlying social truth which it cannot help but affirm, for all its burned cars and looted shops. The questions which Badiou hears uttered by the Sphinx of riot are the correct ones: How do we generalize and extend the offensive capacity of the riot? How and why do riots spread and become open insurrection?
Though we hesitate at Badiou’s distinction between immediate and historical riot, it’s worth commending the way in which he measures the extension of the riot in terms of spread in physical space and across social categories. Whereas, in Badiou’s account, the immediate riot extends from the banlieues of Paris to those of Marseille, or from London to Manchester council estates, it does so via the medium of a single social category: young proletarian men. The historical riot, however, exhibits a categorical extension, spreading among men and women, the young and the old. Badiou is mistaken when he asserts that “immediate” riots are composed entirely of young men – the arrest records from the British riots say otherwise, and numerous riots so-defined in the past decade have significantly involved women, the elderly and kids, though perhaps not in proportional numbers. Still, it is absolutely essential to understand how riots and insurrections come to involve (or remain limited to) different social groups. One thing that decisively distinguishes the Egyptian insurrection from, say, the UK riots is that, largely as a result of the Tahrir encampment, there were numerous ways to participate in the uprising that did not involve direct combat with the police and their proxies. This contributed not only to the expansion of the insurrection but its durability. Nonetheless, it is not enough for an insurrection to be composed of people other than young men if the relationship between social groups continues to follow the established division of labor in capitalist society – with men fighting the police and women doing the work of caretaking, for instance, or proletarians fighting and middle class people attending assemblies and making important decisions. We have to examine not only how an uprising spreads among different social groups but how it undoes (or perpetuates) the violence of such categories.
Moreover, Badiou’s very distinction — between immediate riots that rise and die as if in a single shout, and historical riots that take root in the soil of time — excludes dramatic events with which any serious study of riot must reckon. Thus, for example, the broken parade of riots that have rocked Thessaloniki and Athens go entirely unmentioned. It is a scandalous omission. These riots are, it must be admitted, hard to schematize. Are these, according to Badiou’s taxonomy, only an unconnected sequence of immediate riots? Perhaps each instance is immediate: episodes rarely last as long as, say, the Los Angeles riot that greeted the Rodney King verdict in 1992 (also unmentioned). Certainly, in the Greek case, the triggering event was, as is characteristic of Badiou’s immediate riot, the police murder of a young man. But it is impossible to speak of “the Exarcheia riot of 2008” except in the way one speaks of Book One of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War: it was inarguably a beginning, and thus an element of a larger unity. The Greek riot has kept unfolding, unevenly but continuously as months turn into years, addressing itself now to the cops, now the banks; now the supermarkets, now the parliament. Its protagonists, for better or worse, are often young male anarchists and/or students. At the same time it has leapt beyond this demographic, filling Syntagma Square with broad swaths of the polis, often getting their first taste of tear gas.
This is scarcely Badiou’s only omission, but it is a telling one. Just as the matter of its duration eludes Badiou’s taxonomy, the Greek riot cannot seem to disclose whether it possesses or lacks the Idea. What has provisioned its serrated persistence, its half-expressed capacity for generalization which, for all its tidal shifts and incomplete nature, is not a trivial fact? If the situation has a constant, it is not to be found in the realm of concept; surely it is the violence of austerity policies, traversing social categories. Or to tilt back toward the register of theory, it will turn out that all riots happen in history, subject to material forces. Rather than insisting, Glinda-like, on asking, “are you a good riot or a bad riot?” we might take the opportunity to understand the ways that the Greek situation is tellingly distinct from that of Egypt or the U.K. — and particularly how they find themselves in different places in the structure of global crisis, commingled each with divergent trajectories of local political management.
That said, we must grapple with what Badiou has written, not with what he has not. Salutary in his account is the direct disavowal of the political party and its conjunction with the state, now definitively obsolete as a mechanism for a revolutionary project: “The party-form has had its day, exhausted in a brief century by its state avatars.” This has been the philosopher’s (non-)party line for some time, and surely he means to provide an opening to grasp what might be provisionally new about the political volatility of the present. But it is on this point that Badiou and the book founder absolutely. For, still in thrall to the guiding Idea, he continues to assume and demand of us the very activity most closely identified with the party-form: organization: “Anyway, it remains the case,” he writes, “that, by formalizing the constitutive features of the event, organization makes it possible for its authority to be preserved….Organization transforms into political law the dictatorship of the true from which the reality of the historical riot derived its universal prestige.”
So: for Badiou, the Idea has in some sense replaced the party. Or, there is a triangle of riot/party/Idea, and it must now be the Idea rather than the party that shepherds the riot from immediate to historical, to communism. However, being itself immaterial, the Idea will require some manner of practical activity to realize itself down here — and that activity looks a lot like what the party once did. “I maintain that the time of organization,” he writes in a summary chapter, “the time of construction of an empirical duration of the Idea in its post-riot phase, is crucial.” Behold the Dictatorship of the Idea.
The exhortation to organize has been often heard in the dissolution of the various Occupy encampments here in the US, from left thinkers as various as Noam Chomsky, Doug Henwood, and Jodi Dean. And “organize” must in some regard be the right thing to do, in so far as it is a term both common-sensical and capacious in its lack of specificity. It risks being what Fredric Jameson calls a “pseudoconcept”: the imperative to “organize” comes down to, do that thing that causes you to be more rather than less effective. But lacking any further tactical clarity, the word inevitably backslides into the meaning it offered the last time around, redolent of sad-faced activists trying to sell you copies of Socialist Worker. In the face of this vast and mercurial irruption which Badiou’s book wishes to register, the call to “organize” serves for the moment as the chorus to a paradoxical song: this new politics is fantastic, but it seems to have reached its limits; we need…the old politics!
Badiou’s communism thus drives itself straightaway into the ditch separating new from the old: “at a distance from the state,” but still fundamentally oriented toward hoary ideas about the state’s withering away. Though “organization” no longer means a party capable of seizing state power and directing its military and bureaucratic power toward particular programmatic ends, it does mean that “[y]ou decide what the state must do and find the means of forcing it to, while always keeping your distance from the state…” And yet this orientation toward the state – regardless of its reliance on telekinesis rather than direct contact – reproduces the primary weakness of the riots and uprisings of the present, the very thing it seeks to overcome. Whether or not they feature explicit demands, these riots are always heard by the state and powers-that-be as practical calls for reform: “Mubarak must go!” and “No more austerity!” are how the uprisings of Egypt and Greece sound in paraphrase. This has less to do with the ideas actually held by participants, who may indeed have anticapitalist and antistate aspirations, than it does with their particular strategic and tactical choices: massing in the square defensively, for instance, or attacking the parliament building on the eve of an austerity vote. Even the supposedly “meaningless” violence of the London riots gets heard as a call for reform, for amelioration of poverty, social exclusion, and the racist harassment of the police.
It is unclear, then, what solution Badiou’s call for “organization” might provide to the limits of the historical riot, which he rightly notes “does not by itself offer an alternative to the power it intends to overthrow.” The dubious case of “Latin American socialism” and the sloganizing of the antiglobalization movement notwithstanding, no such alternative has yet emerged in the 21st century. We might wonder, instead, if the very concept of an alternative belongs to the now-outmoded politics of party, state and program. In the 20th century, “alternative” always meant an alternate form of modernization and industrialization – modernization under socialist (or fascist) conditions of political control and distribution. Past revolutionary ideas of the future depended on a conception of an alternate course of development. But such futures are gone. There are no creditable images of the century to come that are not formed of nightmare and ruin, however much the Shanghai skyline tries to tell us otherwise. Everyone dreads the future. Which means that we might need to revise our very conception of what “revolution” and “alternative” mean.
Perhaps, then, the very immediacy of the immediate riot might have more to teach us than it appears. Badiou approaches for a moment the truth of immediacy when he refers to “the thrilling sense of an abrupt alteration in the relation between the possible and the impossible” which will be familiar to any partisan of the riot. But, as one might by now expect, he retreats instantly into political abstraction, musing on the “de-statification of the issue of what is possible.” Here he leaps over the actual experience of riot, and in so doing, what might be learned from it: first there is the realization that there are too many of you for the police to control, and then the immediate leap to suspecting that you might also be free from the discipline of the market, the wage and commodity, and the world organized by these alien powers. Rather than a form of extreme, high-risk consumerism, the looting of stores during a riot is perhaps one of the clearest examples we have in the present moment of communist practice, without which the communist Idea can mean nothing. Indeed, we would aver that communism can mean at this point only the elaboration of practices that remove the things we need and want, the things we make, from behind the cordon of property — a cordon in defense of which millions are daily condemned to starvation, disease, imprisonment and a thousand forms of suffering besides.
Though it should go without saying, let’s remember that consumerism depends on paying for things, with money earned by working. Looting a pair of shoes depends upon hatred of the commodity form and its relationship to social class, not enthrallment to it. This is why, during riots, commodities are as often wantonly destroyed as they are seized for consumption. As Guy Debord wrote of the immediate riot of Watts in 1965:
once the vaunted abundance is taken at face value and directly seized…real desires begin to be expressed in festive celebration, in playful self-assertion, in the potlatch of destruction. People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities … Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and alteration.
This is the “enduring truth” that survives beyond the immediate riot.
Rather than moralizing in the face of some acts of antisocial violence which, while deplorable, occur during times of riot as well as times of social peace, we might examine the immediate riot from a strategic perspective: How can such acts of expropriation and free taking be extended and deepened, and what other practices might go along with and help the extension of these expropriations? How do more and more people become involved in the unfolding of the riot, and what measures will be necessary in order to defend against the consequent violence of the state? Organization, in this sense, means something very different than Badiou intends. Rather than a mechanism for the reproduction of the Idea, it becomes a means for the elaboration, diffusion, and coordination of practices which contain ideas within them, and from which other as-yet-unknown ideas will blossom. It is notable that Badiou has nothing to say about the establishment of kitchens and street clinics, improvised cell phone charging stations and displays of art in places like Tahrir Square. These are indeed the kinds of organization – forms of mutual aid and free giving – which might help extend the free taking of the riot, and enable the passage from riot to open insurrection. This in turn might give us cause to rethink the kernel of the Occupy movement now that it has reached its first anniversary: not the insertion of new terms into the national discourse, not the call for a less-poisoned political apparatus, not even the registration of the current catastrophe’s dimensions, but the tentative and partial and still-powerful experiments with self-organized care, defense, and provision.
At stake in the foregoing critique are not just ideas about how social change emerges, but ideas about the role of ideas, and the various intellectuals who might shepherd them, within emergent struggles. Standing on its head Marx’s statement that “Mankind only sets itself such tasks as it is able to solve,” Badiou writes that “History does not contain within itself a solution to the problems it places on the agenda.” The solution he imagines emerges from beyond history, from the rational process of the Idea and its faithful adherents, who translate the truth of present struggles into winning organizational structures and disciplines. Though we find good reasons to balk at Marx’s optimism, we nonetheless cannot see any place from which the solutions might emerge if not from the practices of the riots and uprisings and struggles of today. Rather than seeing theory as a lesson we must teach to the participants of today’s uprising, we might see it as something immanent within what they do. We might adopt a listening posture with regard to the world we live in. The answer to the riddle of the Sphinx is always another question.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Thursday, 25 August 2011 21:17
- Written by Scott Nappalos
A theoretical question which is clearly important but has so far not been broached on this site is that of political organization. Here too, old forms seem clearly insufficient, while new configurations have yet to be born. How to approach this question, given our present circumstances, is the subject of the following essay, republished in slightly revised form from Miami Autonomy & Solidarity.
As it appears here, this essay combines two of what Nappalos describes as a series of four interconneted essays addressing questions of revolutionary organization and organizational theories in use today. Published so far have been Parts I, II, and III of Towards Theory of Political organization for Our Time. What appears below is an edited amalgamation of Parts I and III.
Towards a Theory of Political Organization for Our Time: trajectories of struggle, the nature of our period, and the intermediate level
The Nature of Our Period: looking to an autonomous working class alternative
The end of the twentieth century was a time of transition. The regime of low-intensity warfare, the dismantling of the welfare state, and neo-liberal privatization schemes ultimately was running its course. The final defeats were to be dolled out across the world in the eventual collapse of finance bubbles, widespread resistance to austerity, and the implosive of the economies of Latin America. Before this was all but said and done, there was the gradual and later meteoric rise and fall of social movements against neo-liberal reforms and the militarism leading to the afghan and Iraq wars. Revolutionaries played an active and disproportionate role in mobilizing the social actors in what would become the largest mobilizations of their kind.
Time has passed, and the limitations and deflation of the early 2000s anti-globalization and anti-war movements are becoming clearer to many revolutionaries. Though massive mobilizations occurred, little lasting organization was built.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Wednesday, 22 August 2012 12:32
- Written by Badiou
This essay by Alain Badiou is one of the earlier places where he has spoken directly on political issues. (This was before his recent new book on the Arab Spring and Occupy-like events,The Rebirth of History — Times of Riots and Uprisings.)
* * * * * * * * *
Badiou acerca de Negri y la singularidad del acontecimiento
Fuente: Kasama Traducción: Martín López
En este ensayo Alain Badiou habla directamente sobre cuestiones políticas. Publicamos esto para promover la exploración y el debate. Kasama incluye una discusión previa acerca del trabajo de Badiou.
Se incluyen también aquí los comentarios de Badiou acerca de Imperio, de Toni Negri – sobre la cuestión de si el cambio revolucionario emerge de la evolución de conflictos estructurales de larga data o de la erupción de acontecimientos coyunturales.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Friday, 13 July 2012 09:07
- Written by Theodoros Patsatzis
This article by Theodoros Patsatzis was published on the website of DEA (i.e., Internationalist Worker's Left) on 11 July 2012. DEA is one of the smaller constituents of SYRIZA. In this article, Patsatzis provides a concise overview of the common minimum programme of the pro-Troika coalition government that emerged from the June general election in Greece, which is primarily characterized by an orthodox neoliberal policy of privatization. Translation courtesy of Azad.
The history of privatization demonstrates that consumers and workers are harmed. Everyone loses, except the new owners, who fill their pockets
In parliamentary discussions, privatization has been identified as the central and most immediate goal of the pro-austerity coalition government. The three coalition partners appear set to fully implement the medium term requirements and the second Memorandum, which had been passed by the previous pro-austerity governments. What they may not remember, and should be reminded of, is that such goals led to major struggles by workers and the fall of previous governments.
Privatizations: In reality, Samaras and his coalition partners announced massive privatizations. These include privatization of energy and electricity (DEH), water (EYDAP and EYAF), the post office (ELTA), the Agricultural Bank and its subsidiaries (SEKAP, Dodoni, Sugar Industrials), Hellenic Petroleum (ELPA), natural gas (DEPA and DESFA) and National Rail (OSE). This neoliberal programme was anticipated by the "medium term requirements" and the second Memorandum. Only the timing has changed. The medium term requirements anticipated privatizations generating revenue of 50 billion euro until 2015 while the second Memorandum reduced expected revenues to 30 billion euro. Of these, 4.5 billion were expected in 2012, 7.5 billion by the end of 2013 and the remainder by 2015. Privatisation is a long-term goal of capitalists. Its leading exponents are supporters of neoliberal politics. Samaras, Venizelos and Kouvelis are the personalities currently embracing such a politcs . They insist that revenue from privatization will be apportioned for the "leaking barrel of debt." Or, at least, this is specified in the Memorandum. Resorting to extortion in order to force the consent of the people, they have raised the question: "privatization or slashing of wages and pensions." Moreover, they remind us of the poor conduct and operations of public agencies.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Saturday, 26 May 2012 09:44
- Written by Alain Badiou
Countries are different -- and reaction takes different faces. In the U.S., anti-Islamic bigotry often takes the form of Christian xenophobia. In France, where rationalism is much more the social norm, racism often takes the form of a secular intolerance and a familiar European assumption of cultural superiority.
He targets the rise of a militant fascistic right in many places across Europe -- starting with the growing vote for the rightwinger Marine Le Pen in France. Exploiting the desperations of an intense crisis, fanning the endemic flames of racism and fear, similar forces have cropped up -- from the mass murder of Norway to the Golden Dawn growth in Greece.
Countries are different, of course, as we said above. And yet there is much here, in this essay, worth considering as the crisis here too in the U.S. drives millions to desperation and produces radicalizations both the left and the right.
The Racism of Intellectuals
By Alain Badiou
The extent of the vote for Marianne Le Pen is surprising and overwhelming; we look for explanations–The political class comes out with a handy sociology: the France of the lower classes, the misled provincials, the workers, the under-educated, frightened by globalization, the decline in purchasing power, the disintegration of their districts, and foreign strangers present at their doors, wants to retreat into nationalism and xenophobia.
Besides, these are already those French “stragglers” who were accused of having voted “No” in the referendum on the draft European Constitution– One opposes them to the educated, urban modern middle classes who are the social salt of our well-tempered democracy.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Thursday, 03 May 2012 16:41
- Written by Mike Ely
"I often imagine in my mind, a one year old child pulling herself up on chubby unsure legs, waddling a few steps and falling again. And then hearing some tired voice say: 'See, walking failed. There she is, on her belly again. All that effort came to nothing. Nothing else is possible. She should just get used to crawling.'"
By Mike Ely When I spoke at the recent Platypus conference in Chicago, I included the following as the heart of my remarks: not that it is impossible.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Sunday, 18 March 2012 10:59
- Written by Mike Ely
"Politics is symbolic as well as analytical....
"The audiences we need are gathered by cultural and social means, not just won over by words.
"As Lenin once noted the oppressed and awakening were demanding to know how to live and how to die (and not just what to believe).
"People need living inter-human expressions of world view and morality that are more than tracts on worldview and morality. Successful radical politics need words that are evocative and penetrating -- not just precise."
by Mike Ely:
I have always been frustrated by the assumption that we can draw people toward revolutionary politics mainly by "explaining" everything -- as if people become conscious, militant, and determined in the fight for a new society largely by being told a series of exposures backed by elaborate structures of analysis. I have called this problem "the fetish of the word." Its more formal name (if we need another label) could be rationalism.
And meanwhile we can see both in society and politics all around us, suggestions that "explanations," however detailed and correct, are not enough -- and people are often attracted to politics that are quite anti-rational through powerful symbolic means.
We can trace the rise and fall of Louis Farrakhan's bizarre and fantastical politics that combines completely delusional mysticism with a gut level appeal for self-respect, self-advancement, pride and biting political alienation.
Or we can see large sections of people breaking into political life in during this Arab spring, being freed for from decades of repression and yet far too often grasping first for deep resonance of "Allahu Akbar!" and naive hope in the justices of Shariah law.
Where does that power come from?
Secular rationalism often assumes (sometimes with a stark singlemindedness) that "incorrect ideas" come from a mix of ignorance and the outside indoctrination by "alien" classes -- and so assumes that the antidote is simply hammer the right ideas into the uninformed-- a method I call "fire your ideas, hire mine." It has an element of truth -- we do need to be evangelical about communism. But it is often very onesided. In other words, this rationalism has views of people, ideas, culture, and change that are somewhat flat -- and its failures confirm this.
I believe in spreading revolutionary exposure and ideas. I think revolutionary theory will play a powerful role in regrouping a new revolutionary movement. I've often resented as unfair the familiar stereotype of the communist militant "just peddling newspapers at the sidelines." After all, I have written, designed, edited, sold, promoted, and nurtured radical newspapers all my life. And I think we should (now!) be develop biting, attractive, irresistible centers of news, opinion, analysis, satire, humor, and theory.
But... but... despite all that, I do think, at the same time, we should create and use our new revolutionary media without naively reproducing the assumptions and practice of previous rationalism.
Here is something that has often been missing: Politics is symbolic as well as analytical. Political attraction is also visceral and cultural. It involves a verbal "winning over." It requires us to be fearless about representing our beliefs.
But, looked at all sidedly, the audiences we need will gathered by a number of cultural and social attractions, not just "won over" by words.
As Lenin once brilliantly described the oppressed and awakening were coming, demanding to know "how to live and how to die," and not just what to believe. To be able to carry through a real process of base-building, we have to learn from our audience (i.e. "from the people") as well, not just the other way around. That is the process Mao called the mass line.
- Category: Theory
- Created on Friday, 16 March 2012 06:19
- Written by Will
The following article appeared on the Black Orchid Collective website. We repost it here as part of an important debate going on within the Occupy movement.
"The purpose of this essay has been to challenge the framework of Privilege theory. This theory fails in its ability as a theory of struggle and actual emancipation of oppressed people. In fact, it locks in people in the very categories capitalism assigns them by only focusing on their oppressed category: whether it be Black, woman, Queer, worker or student. It fails to develop actual politics, organizations and strategies of liberation, because it was never meant to do that. Privilege theory is the politics of radical sociology attempting to struggle."
Guest Post: Privilege Politics is Reformism
This piece was written by Will, a close comrade to many members of Black Orchid Collective.
Notes on Privilege Theory Introduction: White Supremacy Lives on
It is crystal clear that white supremacy exists. It seeps through every pore in our society. It infects every social relationship. It obviously affects Occupy Wall Street.
Everyone knows the wealth divide, the incarceration numbers, gentrification, the education gap and more are part of the class and racial oppression of the United States. All this is obvious. More politically contentious matters are the social interactions, which are racialized in negative ways in society and specifically in OWS. It is always painful, because at best we hope movement spaces are places where people can finally engage with one another on universal-human terms. However, it is not a surprise that even in movement spaces people experience white supremacy. Our society is saturated with it, so to expect non-racialized human relations in the movement would be utopian.
The combination of structural oppression based on race and class, the history of white supremacy and capitalism, and how that affects people’s interactions with one another, has led to a school of thought called Privilege theory. Privilege theory recognizes structural and historical oppression, but has an undue focus on individual behavior and thoughts as a major way of addressing white supremacy (and other oppressions, but I will tend to focus on white supremacy and class). Privilege theory has a set of basic principles: a) Privilege theory argues that movement spaces should be safe for all oppressed groups. One way to make such a space safe is by negotiating one anothers’ actions in non-oppressive ways. For example, this means straight white men should talk less or think about the privileges they have when discussing an action or political question. b) Privilege theory justifies that militancy and political sophistication is the domain of a privileged elite based on class, gender and racial privileges. c) Privilege theory roots political and strategic mistakes in the personal privileges that people bring into the movement. d) Privilege theory seeks to deal with these issues primarily through education, teach-ins and conversations. This piece will point out key failures in all four principles of Privilege theory. It will tentatively lay out some ways forward, while recognizing more research and, more importantly, more struggle is needed to resolve some of the outstanding problems facing the movement.