Making our languages for politics

tower of babel

Nate Hawthorne on the libertarian communist milieu and the language we use.

We live after a shipwreck at sea, the water slaps at us, strong winds rush at us, we fear sharks and rocks, and the sun bakes. Worst of all are the days of dead calm. Will we float here forever? We disagree about much – what sort of craft, how shall it be propelled, which direction to go? We get little assistance beyond conflicting platitudes which state the obvious at most, and which tell us little about how to do what we need to do. Build a ship! train new sailors! learn to fish! go north! learn to read the stars! get along with the others in other rafts! avoid the others! make war on the others! make the vessel seaworthy!

What we can agree with is that we must build ourselves a ship. We have to do so while on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. If we are to build it, we must do so plank by plank while still staying afloat in it and living together on it. The planks we use are drawn from the scraps afloat around us. We repair and rebuild from what we can salvage. Our makeshift vessels leak badly and resist our efforts to steer. Not trained builders, not traveled sailors, not schooled navigators, not strong swimmers, we take what we can, we pull aboard those we find treading water, we share what we can with others on other craft. In the process we are learning all of these things – to swim, to build, to navigate, and to do so together.

Durruti once said "We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a while. For, you must not forget, we also know how to build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and in America, and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place, and better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth, there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.”

Durruti made these inspiring statements at a high point of struggle. We have grown up politically in a period of relative defeat and decline. The working class, liberatory social movements, radical political organizations, these are largely in retreat. It’s important that we believe with Durruti that the working class can build a new world from the ashes of the old. At the same time, that belief is just a start and there’s much else we have to do. There are lessons that have been lost, there are aspects of “we also know how to build” that we need to relearn. This is what the shipwreck metaphor is meant to convey.

There have been struggles in our lifetimes, of course, even though the working class as a whole has not been on the offensive. We have some level of experience to learn from. This experience is limited but it’s what we have. We have to deal with the obstacles that impede or break the circulation of these experiences and the lessons they offer. At the same time, we should be proud of this experience - what we have learned, how we have fought, who we have built relationships with. In some respects, ours is a lonely condition, we are sort of historical latch-key kids We have very few mentors with much more experience who can guide us, and we few peers who have similar experiences and quality of experience as we have. And we have a hard time finding common vocabularies with which to compare and reflect together on our experiences.

We build ourselves what we can to the best of our abilities, in a double sense. “We build ourselves” in the sense that we make things for ourselves – organizations, institutions, networks, analyses – and in the sense that we remake ourselves – learn new skills, new ways of thinking, new relationships. We attempt both using what we can draw from past experiences directly and indirectly, largely without generational continuity or much in the way of mentorship. For now and for a long time to come what we make ourselves will have a patchwork quality. We can and should evaluate our work, but we should not take the patchwork quality as too much of a flaw. A ship not built from salvage, a vessel without seams and leaks and crooked lines will probably not be possible and probably not matter until the working class begins to recompose itself on a massive scale. We inherit these flaws. The better assessments are not “is it seamless” but “does the seam hold?” and “are we learning better how to build?” and “are we learning better how to teach each other and ourselves how to build?”


The text above is something I had intended to extend and finish. I never got around to it. I post it here in part because, well, I’d like to do something with it rather than leave it on my computer. I thought of this again after some conversations with comrades recently. I’m always a bit hesitant about big picture claims about the nature of a historical moment and what that moment means for individuals (in part because historical moments are huge and our lives are small; macroeconomic detail about what a national or global economy tell us things about things we might expect in our own lives but a lot of the details of our lives and our decisions are invisible within analysis at the level of macroeconomic details). I say this even though I’ve written some of those kinds of big picture claims… and I’m going to make another one.

I'm starting to think that one of the things that characterizes the present is a relative breakdown of shared vocabularies on the left. At least this characterizes the stuff I’ve experienced. People are cobbling together stuff from different traditions and often small/in-group traditions. (I’m thinking here largely of my experience with Italian operaismo. I have a lot of time for that material but I think it was a relatively small milieu, a fairly specialized one, and a younger/newer one compared with say the breadth and the longer history of, say, the Trotskyist tradition. Which is not to speak in favor of Trotskyism.) So people aren't sure what vocabularies to use, and within different vocabularies people often mean different things. The point of that extended shipwreck metaphor is to say that I think we're trying to simultaneously build something, craft and scavenge for tools with which to build it, teach ourselves how to use and identify those tools, and have a conversation about why we’re building the thing and what we want to do with it. And we’re having those conversations with a range of different vocabularies.

I'm not religious but I think the christian 'tower of babel' myth fits with our moment somewhat. Over time, people build a similar language and use that to collaborate on common projects (and to fight with each other, for sure). And in building something people continue to refine their common language. When those projects get big enough, those in positions of official power respond. The tower of babel got knocked down in a way that broke up the shared languages people had built. I suspect that this has happened multiple times over history, so that after the tower fell and people’s political languages splintered, over time the working class has learned to speak across its different vocabularies and to form a new vocabulary in order to start building again.

To be clear, I think any political vocabulary probably always involves conflict over the meaning of core terms, as part of conflict among people who speak that political vocabulary. (I got into a bit of this in this blog post.) My point is not that we should hope for a vocabulary where everyone agrees all the time on what all the words mean. Rather, I mean that I think that arguing about what to do and what we should think is important is made more difficult by simultaneously arguing about what terms to use to conduct the argument, and simultaneously arguing about what the terms should mean and why.

In my opinion arguing a lot for or against any given tradition in an exclusive way is like, after the tower falls, being like “speak my language!” I think instead the more pressing task is to find ways to talk across our different languages (our different political vocabularies and traditions), as part of the larger project of the working class building itself a vocabulary that is more broad and which helps us start building the tower again. That is, we should think of political traditions as like languages, so that we should be aware that recommending one tradition over another is kind of like recommending one language over another – it rarely works. I think one of the things that happens over time is that the working class and the left develops common vocabularies and traditions.

Along similar lines, fighting over language, or not fighting over language, I’ve argued with some comrades about the Occupy Wall Street vocabulary of the 99% vs the 1%. I don’t like the metaphor of the 99%, personally. At the same time, it’s a metaphor and its meaning is really open. It’s a matter of the ideas and the stories that people see their lives reflected in. I don't think that anything works along the lines of we get the ideas all worked out then the practice follows, but I do think that one of the many areas of work for radicals in relation to Occupy is in the milieu's collective intellectual life. I think this should involve not arguing *about* the metaphor – “not the 99%, not Occupy, but some other term” – so much as trying to shape the meaning of the metaphor. There's too much verbal inertia right now, the metaphor's not going away any time soon, and a lot of people are seeing their experiences reflected in that metaphor. In my opinion one goal should be to expand people's understanding of who they are and what they belong to. (I got into this in another blog post.)

I think we should also keep in mind that past struggles have taken up ambiguous terms which were messy at the time (most political terms are ambiguous and a field of conflict). This includes core historic left terms like 'working class' (much of the working class hasn't worked for wages, historically, and the working class has always included conflicts over access to wages - moves by adult men to push and keep women and children out of waged work, for instance) and 'proletariat' (the term comes from a category of roman law about census taking, military service, and citizenship; Marx called the proletariat under capitalism 'rightless' and owning nothing but this too was a metaphor - literally speaking, the proletariat does have rights and does have property, it has rights to own its wages and means of subsistence, it lacks the right to productive property). I do think that some uses of the 99% metaphor papers over different people’s experiences. I tried to get into this in another blog post. But that is a social practice that can happen in most any vocabulary. The issue to my mind is more a matter of expanding the meaning of metaphor rather than dismissing it.

As radicals who relate (or at least co-exist) with a movement of people who have given themselves a new vocabulary, I think we have a double problem here. One is to make and acquire vocabularies for our use for discussions and to organize ourselves, and in order to help us navigate within our larger moment. Another is to act effectively within the larger moment in part by how we relate to and try to shape the meaning of the terms in use in the movements around us. One key component of doing all this effectively, I think, will be cultivating a sort of cosmopolitanness about different vocabularies. That is, I think we should remain committed to the traditions and vocabularies that are important to us, but also be careful about how we relate to other vocabularies. Some of the time, often I think, when we walk into a conversation that's already happening it's more productive to try to make a similar point in whatever language people are currently speaking than to try to get the conversation to take up a new language.

Posted By

Feb 18 2012 17:20


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Joseph Kay
Feb 18 2012 18:42

I completely agree with you, up til the point you say we need to build a new ship. It was a ship that got us into this mess in the first place! Without ships, no shipwreck. What we need is a seaborne personnel vessel.

Feb 18 2012 20:31

We disagree on this but I thought your speech to that effect at the last bookfair was eloquent.

Joseph Kay
Feb 18 2012 20:47

I still don't get this boat meme. Out-group for me. Joking apart I think this...

Nate wrote:
cultivating a sort of cosmopolitanness about different vocabularies. That is, I think we should remain committed to the traditions and vocabularies that are important to us, but also be careful about how we relate to other vocabularies. Some of the time, often I think, when we walk into a conversation that's already happening it's more productive to try to make a similar point in whatever language people are currently speaking than to try to get the conversation to take up a new language. a really good way to think about it. so much 'discussion' never gets beyond a row over whose terms to use. to carry on the metaphor; all the time we're arguing whether to build a boat or a seaborne personnel vessel we're not building the damn thing or working out what defects contributed to the wreck in the first place so that we can do it better.

i think there's often literal language issues involved too. different traditions come from different times and places and there isn't always a direct unambiguous translation available. even within the same language terms change meaning with context, and once you add in losses in translation that can multiply. so e.g. reconciling the language of italian workerism with german councillism is more or less impossible, even though there were many similarities to the ideas and practices (and differences too, of course).

Feb 18 2012 21:14

Thanks for the comments. As you know, some of this comes out of our email exchange, I thought your comments on translations of different terms was itneresting, and that ties in with the language issues.

Sort of related, I have a really mixed reaction to stuff I've seen that comes out of the US insurrectionary anarchist milieu. I think a lot of people do. I think a fair bit of that stuff is as much a matter of working class literature as it is theoretical/political writing narrowly understood. Even when I don't agree, I often find something to the style or form of some of that stuff that speaks to the depth of my anger, boredom, etc with life under capitalism. I also think part of what I'm uncomfortable with that stuff about is that I don't read much literary stuff and so don't know what to do with it in the same way that I do other stuff. I tend to read and like stuff that's more about the ideas it contains and not about what it expresses.

With Recomp we've done a push for work stories, inspired in part by Phin's stuff (which is inspired in part by another friend who was trying to emulate Stan Weir and Martin Glaberman). I don't have an argument for it exactly but I think there's a way that stories about working life convey something that theoretical descriptions or summaries of working life don't convey. I think there's something similar with some insurrectionary writings, some of it is expressive as much as it's about the ideas. I think some of the situationist stuff is like that too. I think this can contribute to another sort of disconnect between people, where one person is like "I don't find the ideas in that piece clarifying" and the other is like "it resonates so much with my experiences and how I feel." People are quite rightly attached to vocabularies and expressions that are important to them, and it sucks when someone else is like "yeah it doesn't do anything for me."

Not sure how this relates, but this conversation made me think of it... I got a lot from the Italian operaismo stuff, and that's an interesting example in terms of where people got their vocabularies. Some of the key terms from that tradition involve a sort of transposing or translating - they took terms that Marx used to describe capital and remade them into terms to describe working class movements and struggles. Tronti says something like 'we should study the laws of motion of labor power/working class', Negri's 'working-class self-valorization' is from Marx's 'capital is self-valorizing value', the 'composition' stuff is from Marx's 'organic composition of capital' and 'value composition of capital', 'general intellect' was a quality of machinery used to control workers but they made it refer to the the role of workers' intellects. At the time that stuff was written I'm sure it was in part a power play in the sense that, if you have an orthodox marxist streak, having some Marx to stand on and Marx-speak to make your points then you have some more rhetorical power. Then as that stuff traveled it in turn provided vocabulary for a lot of others of us who didn't know that backstory on the terms.

Eli Makhno
Mar 15 2012 03:28

I like your reflections here on the importance of translation between different radical political traditions. This reminds me of something that I found insightful in a critique of the Invisible Committee's use of language:

... in our epoch, all the responses that can be found to the question of communization are the responses of our epoch: that is to say destined to become obsolete from the moment that the situation will be sufficiently modified so that an until then minority question is in everyone’s mouth. The communizing problematic, just like the conception that we can have of communism, is itself historic. If the point of continuity between current struggles and the revolution is indeed the question of communization, this question, already diverse at present, can only enrich itself from new significations and unforeseen developments within the evolution of a dynamic situation which will see the fall of the capitalist social relation. It is thus not only the responses to the communizing problematic, i.e. practices, which will be modified with the arrival of a revolutionary period, but also the questions posed. Every contemporary practice which would like to be communizing must therefore recognize that it responds inadequately to a badly posed question; which at the same time subtracts nothing from its value. For the question and its answer are inadequate to serve as the measure of that which the future of communism as a universal social relation could be; but they are completely adequate to give to contemporary struggles a meaning that they wouldn’t possess without them, and which can reveal itself as subsequently determinant for the possibility of producing communism.

- "Reflections on The Call" - by Léon de Mattis

The take-away point for me here is that the anti-capitalist use of language (just like any use of language) is always dependent on the historical and geographic context in which it is deployed. Whether or not a particular formulation of "communizing questions" resonates with its audience in a way that makes them subscribe to it—and respond to it in a way that builds a more powerful anti-capitalist movement—depends on a whole host of historical factors (e.g., the historical form of capitalism, the audience's life experiences and understanding, their habits and desires, etc.). I think that one big part of this context of the audience's reception of communizing questions is whether or not they subscribe to certain modes of 'picturing the world' (cf. Wittgenstein on pictures that lie behind different 'language games'). The liberal-capitalist-statist discourse is reinforced by a certain mode of picturing the world, which includes such key images of a whole, unified, coherent individual (with certain identities taken as fixed and stable - race, gender, sexuality etc.), family, community, nation-state, and globe (and with a kind of 'zoom effect' of each of these images scaled on top of the previous, as a set of mutually stabilizing containers). So, considering the importance of people's subscriptions to these modes of picturing the world as a kind of reinforcement of the hegemonic discourse, they thus act as a major limiting condition on our audience's reception of our anti-capitalist, anti-statist discourses. Thus, I think we need to take seriously the ways in which we can disrupt our audience's subscription to those images. One such mode of disruption is through deploying our own subversive images along with our political language -- images that force people to destabilize their subscriptions to the dominant modes of picturing. For example, think of the importance of images that have circulated in the Occupy movement, such as those of cops beating up occupiers in NYC, Oakland, and UC Davis (e.g., the 'casually pepper-spraying cop' image, and this video - "Oakland Policeman Throws Flash Grenade Into Crowd Trying To Help Injured Protester" - which has received over 1.4 million views).

I don't think that what I'm saying here contradicts anything you've said in your article. Rather, I'm pointing to the importance for anti-capitalists of reflecting on our communication as a wider spectrum of activity than simply language—i.e., affective, image-based, intellectual, and linguistic forms of communication intertwine with each other. Further, with changes in technology, the image-based aspects of communication have become increasingly powerful, on both sides of the class war.